"Pumpkin Blood" and Other Mondegreens

by Novi Zhukovsky | 10/10/18 2:20am

Sprawled across her sofa bed with our computers perched on our stomachs, my friend Sophia and I were tackling the study guide for our biology final. While racking my brain to remember all the processes of cellular respiration, I heard a faint humming beside me. The soft sounds grew louder and louder, and before I knew it, Sophia and I were belting out the lyrics to “Pumpin’ Blood” by NONONO. Completing the first verse, we rounded on the chorus. Sophia began to shout, “THIS IS YOUR HEART, IT’S ALIVE, IT’S PUMPKIN BLOOD!” 

I couldn’t contain myself and burst out laughing.

If you know the song, you’ll recognize that the lyric is not actually “pumpkin blood” but “pumpin’ blood” – hence the song’s title. When I pointed out this hilarious blunder to my friend, she looked at me incredulously and began to furiously google the song’s lyrics. Finally convinced that the lyric was not actually “pumpkin blood,” she announced that the whole song had been ruined for her and she could no longer call it one of her favorites. She loved “Pumpkin Blood” by NONONO. But “Pumpin’ Blood”? No way. 

Through her auditory mix-up, Sophia had unknowingly created her own — arguably more creative — version of the song and wasn’t going to concede to the inferior lyrics listed on the web.

We’ve all repeated misheard song lyrics at one time or another. Maybe it happened at a party when you belted out “Sweet Dreams” by Eurythmics and accidentally replaced “Sweet dreams are made of this” with “sweet dreams are made of cheese.” Or while delivering a heartfelt rendition of JAY-Z’s “Empire State of Mind” you blurt out, “New York, concrete jungle wet dream tomato!” instead of “concrete jungle where dreams are made of.” Or while channeling Elton John you cry, “Hold me closer, Tony Danza!” And even though you learn that the actual lyric is “tiny dancer,” you can’t help but hold onto a small feeling of tenderness toward Tony Danza. Hey, even Taylor Swift’s mom admitted that she thought “Got a long list of ex-lovers” was along the lines of “All the lonely Starbucks lovers” in her daughter’s hit song, Blank Space. In fact, this mistake was so widespread that Taylor felt the need to clarify via Twitter: “Sending my love to all the lonely Starbucks lovers out there this Valentines [sic] Day … even though that is not the correct lyric.”

Sometimes, however, the true lyrics to your favorite song may not be so easily found.  For example, for years the verses of Peter, Paul and Mary’s hit, “Puff, The Magic Dragon” was the source of much conjecture. The song tells the story of an immortal Dragon named Puff and his friend Jackie Paper, who eventually gets older and neglects his fictitious friend. That’s the PG version. Many suggest that Jackie Paper is actually not the name of a young boy, but a reference to rolling papers. They also seem to think that the dragon referenced by the famous lyric, “Puff the magic dragon lived by the sea,” was actually meant to be “draggin” as in the process of inhaling smoke. Also, people propose that “Puff” may not be the name of a magical dragon but rather a reference to puffing on a joint. These speculations led the song to be banned in both Singapore because of its alleged connection to drug use. Although the members of the band vehemently deny claims that their song refers to these illicit activities, the drug-riddled legacy of “Puff, The Magic Dragon” lives on and arguably helped make the song an even greater hit. 

These lyrical mix-ups are actually a common phenomenon, known in the dictionary as a “mondegreen.” According to Maria Konnikova of The New Yorker, mondegreen means “a misheard word or phrase that makes sense in your head, but is, in fact, entirely incorrect.” And in fact, the word Mondegreen is a Mondegreen itself: American author Sylvia Wright coined the term in tribute to a misheard line of a poem she heard as a child — confusing “and laid him on the green” for “and Lady Mondegreen.”  Scientists speculate that Mondegreens may reflect more than just an auditory blunder. According to the Cohort Theory of psycholinguistics, when we hear sounds, our brains present us with a list of various words with similar segments, which we parcel through and select based on logic. However, this process is affected by what words we may be frequently exposed to, or what we are thinking about. For example, a hungry kid may hear “chew” while a stressed-out student picks up “due.” Similarly, a tailor may be more inclined to hear “alter” while a newlywed perceives “altar.” 

While my friend Sophia is certainly not a pumpkin harvester, and I doubt that Taylor Swift’s mom feels that passionately about caffeinated beverages, maybe their gaffes reflect their own imaginations and individual senses of humor and are more than the trivial errors we perceive them to be. And perhaps these slip-ups give us the opportunity to insert small aspects of ourselves into the lyrics so that we can personalize our favorite songs. And as these mondegreens reveal our own experiences and perceptions, these mistakes allow us to express pieces of ourselves of which we may not have been consciously aware. By mishearing song lyrics, we can assign new and original meanings to the often overplayed and monotonous radio hits and arguably make them better.

So next time you’re belting out your favorite song, and someone catches you singing the wrong lyric, politely let them know that your mistake was no blunder — but an improvement. And sing on. After all, I think that “pumpkin blood” sounds a lot more interesting than “pumpin’ blood.”