Misheard and mis-sung lyrics are a staple in art and literature. These errors can be serious — when Desdemona is preparing for bed in Act IV, scene iii of “Othello,” she tragically sings the wrong words to the song of her mother’s forlorn maid. They can be comic — in “Dharma and Greg,” Greg sings “I want to rock and roll all night/ and part of every day.” In one of the “Ramona” books, Ramona suggests that her parents use a dawnzer, which gives off a lee light, and Ramona’s sister laughs and mocks her because she misheard “The Star Spangled Banner ” — the “dawn’s early light.” But these mistakes reveal much. Desdemona is worried about her husband, Greg is the sort of person who can limit his partying, and when Beezus mocks Ramona, it makes the parents aware of how Ramona feels about being youngest. You, too, can use mis-heard, and mis-sung lyrics to further the plot of a story or add color to an essay.
In my case, most of my misunderstood phrases have been in Russian. My family converted from Roman Catholicism to Eastern Orthodoxy when I was young, and when I was twelve, we started attending a Russian parish. My father was a high school English teacher and the teachers in my elementary school in Boston required us to over-articulate and forbade us to speak with a Boston accent. My brothers who went to this school and I developed a dichotomy of speech as a result — we would say “haht” but “Harvard.” Lunch at home was a “see-and-wich” but at school the same thing was a “sandwich.” Some words missed us. I was a senior at Wellesley College when David Ferry had to convince me that the word “poem” had two syllables. I actually argued with him, in part because I didn’t want to re-write the poem. But in general we learned to pronounce words the way they were written, when we had to, although crossing the Massachusetts border causes me to revert to the migratory r’s of my childhood. English, I had mastered. But in Russian, I listened for the words that I knew, and I heard them, even when those were not the words that were spoken.
The most egregious example was at our priest’s son’s wedding. Clergy are either married before they are ordained, in the Orthodox Church, or they become monks first, with a few exceptions. It was very kind of Eugene and his wife to invite the whole family. I had been to my father’s wedding to my stepmother, a year earlier, but that was an American affair, and a second wedding, small and humble. This was a fancy wedding, with both American and Russian guests. At the reception, at one point people started clanging their glasses with their spoons and yelling in Russian. It sounded to me like they were shouting for vodka. The waitresses were hustling as fast as they could to serve everyone, and I didn’t see the need to yell. I looked to our priest, thinking he would stop them, but he was clanking his glass and shouting, as well. I was truly scandalized. Then a friend translated.
It seems that the guest were yelling “Gorko!” The tradition was for everyone to yell that it is bitter — gorko — and the Slavic way of sweetening the bitter is for the bride and groom to kiss. This makes for entertainment for the guests, entertainment which the bride and groom do not really mind providing.
Later, we learned some Russian songs. Prior to this I had sung Church Slavonic sound by sound. It is a phonetic language, and once you learn the alphabet, you can sing. In fact, Russian church singers who have to sing in English are often perplexed by the notion that some letters are not pronounced when singing for clarity. How can “Lohd have muh-cy” be easier to understand than “Lorrrd have merrrcy?” And yet it is thus. I had learned a tiny amount of Russian through church school, and when I heard people sing a World War II song, “Katiusha,” I thought I knew what it meant.
The internet translation of this song is almost as bad as mine was, but only almost. In my defense, when I first heard the song in the late 1970’s apple dolls were a thing. If you haven’t actually seen one of these, it is hard to convey how creepy they are. But in the years that enveloped the Bicentennial, there was a focus on Early American and Revolutionary War era fashions and crafts. Some things, like quilting and canning and cooking outdoors, were amazing. And others were just weird.
Upscale gift shops and country stores started selling dolls whose heads were made of a peeled apple which was then cut into the shape of a face, dried on a stick, and dressed up to look like an old woman, preferably from two hundred years before. Some classes made them as a project, often with disastrous results. What could go wrong? Well, you have students, fruit, knives, sticks, and the apples are supposed to dry without rotting. Then you have to use scissors and needle and thread to make the clothing. This is not tracing your hand to make a turkey, folks.
So, when I first heard the words to the song, I thought I understood them.
Transliterated, they look like this:
Rascvetáli jábloni i grúsi
Popylí tumány nad rekój
Vyxodíla ná bereg Katjúsa
Na vysókij béreg na krugój
The apple and pear trees have bloomed
Fog banks have floated over the river
Katiusha came out onto the river bank
Onto the high and steep bank
But, what I heard was:
Raz svetali jablochki igruski.
As in, “once apple toys shined.”
Yes, I thought it was about a possessed apple head doll.
And I was kind of impressed to learn that they also had those in Russia.
But this is writing prompt Wednesday, when we ask ourselves how we can use what others have done. Accordingly:
Think about a time that you, a sibling, or a child misheard something.
One of my siblings heard a line from “Lift Every Voice and Sing” not as “Sing a song full of the faith that the dark past has taught us,” but rather, “Sing a song, full of the faith that the dark pastors taught us.” He wondered why white pastors had not taught them faith.
There is a lot to unpack in an error like that.
If you write fiction, a misheard phrase can be a turning point.
The confusion of two words — embarazada” in Spanish for “embarrassed” in English rather than “pregnant” — can make all the difference.
Words that sound terrible in one language can mean something benign in another.
Or, sometimes people just don’t hear things right.
Reflect on your own misadventures.
Is there a misunderstanding that you had that reflects who you were at the time? If I hadn’t heard “Katiusha” the same year that I saw those creepy dolls, I might have made a different mistake but I wouldn’t think that the Russian war song was about a doll carved from fruit whose eyes glowed. And perhaps I might have slept better.
Be sure to share your results with friends, if you write something, and think about submitting what you write for publication. The world needs for us all to share our stories.