Monday, 18 October 2010

The Dog That Talks To Pretty Wives

I grew up in a parched, hot town in Southern California, which may be why I love rain. As a child, I dreamed of rain. On the rare days it rained, I loved the way the sky marbled over with billowing grey clouds and the air grew heavy with moisture. Storms brought drama, fun, and breaks in the boring everyday routine. Rain always made the world a snugger, cozier, happier place.

In my mind, anti-rain words and lyrics got converted automatically into pro-rain sentiments. For me, the children's jingle Rain, rain, go away, come again some other day became Rain, rain, come and play, come again some other day. In the song 'Home on the Range', where the skies are not cloudy all day, became where the skies are all cloudy all day, because who wanted to sing the praises of a place where there was never any rain? I was puzzled by the title of the hymn Uncloudy Day, which made little sense to me. When I sang it, I automatically changed the lyrics: Oh they tell me of a home where no storm clouds rise became Oh they tell me of a home where the storm clouds rise, which sounded a lot more like a place where I wanted to live.

"Why do you always change the lyrics?" my parents used to ask. "Why are you always putting rain into songs?" This confused me: I genuinely didn't realize I was doing it.

Like all children, I tried to make sense of whatever I heard, but I frequently failed. My mother had a metal-framed laundry bag that was called a Save-your-back. When opened, this looked a little like the mangers we would see in nativity scenes. One day my mother caught me placing a doll in it. "It's baby Jesus," I told her, "lying in his Savior Bag."

When our oldest daughter was five, she used to like belting out the lyrics to songs she'd learned in nursery school. To this day, everybody in our family can sing Puff, the Magic Dragon, Here Comes Santa Claus, and My Grandfather's Clock in Japanese. We loved learning these things from her. But there were times she got things wrong too, and we liked that even better.

"I don't understand that song," I told a friend one day as our daughters walked ahead of us singing Hyakupasento Yuuki, or '100% Bravery', a song from a popular children's TV program. We didn't watch TV in Japan; we only knew our daughter's version of the song. One of the lines always threw me with its reference to poteto tamayaki, which sounded to me like 'fried potato eggs'.

My friend stared at me. "Poteto tamayaki? What does that mean?"

"I assumed you knew."

She shook her head. "I have absolutely no idea."

"Well, it's in the song!"


When I sang it for her, she burst out laughing. My daughter had gotten the lyrics addled. Oretachi no moteru kagayaki -- 'our shining zeal' -- had become oretachi no poteto tamayaki -- 'our fried potato eggs'.

Our daughters often did this with English too. When they were still toddlers, someone sent us the DVD of Disney's Pocahantas. Our girls loved 'Savages', a very effective piece in which both Powhatans and the newly arrived English question each other's humanity. The chorus is stirring with its refrain of "Savages, savages -- scarcely even human!" Our daughters would belt this out together with great spirit and feeling, but savages invariably became cabbages. "I don't get it," our oldest daughter mused one day. "Why are they singing about cabbages anyway? And cabbages aren't human!"

When our youngest daughter was ten, we heard her singing the lyrics of one of our favorite songs, the indie group Say Hi to Your Mom's 'Super'.

"Sing that again?" my husband said one day, his eyebrows raised. Our daughter obliged, and we almost fell off our chairs laughing. She had misinterpreted It's just a matter of a little time / before you have the dogs, the tots, the pretty wife as .../ before you have the dog that talks to pretty wives.

"What's so funny about the way I'm singing it?" our daughter demanded. We tried to explain that the song lampooned a self-important boor bent on acquiring a lifestyle to elevate his social status, i.e., a dog, children, and a pretty wife. She strongly felt that her interpretation of the song made sense too. "A dog that could talk to pretty wives would be a great thing for somebody like that to have," she reasoned.

To this day, we've kept her lyrics. And my skies are beautifully cloudy all the time.


Anonymous said...

What great stories! I'm particularly giggling over the inhuman cabbages, and the change from shining zeal to fried potato eggs.

May you have rain today. ;)

KLM said...

What a lovely post, even if I can't relate to the love of rain. (Rain and humidity are the enemies of my hair. Dry days = non-freakdom. Wet days = Kristen looks like someone set off an IED in her hair.)

My kids do that lyric changing thing too, and you're right, they get so incensed if you laugh at the way they garble things. We just try to keep our giggling to ourselves so they won't feel embarrassed.

Cabbages/savages. I'm going to remember that one.


Charles Gramlich said...

I love the misinterpretions kids make of song lyrics. They're both hilarious and informative about the nature of the child's mind. I've done it myself plenty of times too.

Vijaya said...

I'm laughing my socks off! It's cold here ...

I've made so many mistakes with song lyrics and my husband (and now my son) laughs over my misinterpretations. I don't understand how they manage to get the right words. But when my son was little, he'd belt out some funny words too, to the rock music my husband would listen to ... he never knew what he was singing. "She's sixteen and seventeen ..."

Kim Ayres said...

Trying to interpret some folk songs sung in Scots always has me in confusion.

There's an Old Blind Dogs song, 'Johnny O' Braidislee' where he sings, "An' he's killed them a' but ane" (and he's killed them all but one).

But up until fairly recently I was wondering why "He called them Aberdeen"

Eryl said...

I can't stop laughing about fried potato eggs. I'm going to try and make some.

You certainly came to live in the right place!

Mary Witzl said...

Emily -- We like those inhuman cabbages too, and to this day we like teasing our daughter about potato-roasted eggs.

Scotland's weather was made for me. The hard thing about living here is pretending to be miserable when it's cloudy and wet.

KLM -- Thank you for visiting and commenting.

When it rains, my hair goes freakish too, making me look like a cross between Syndrome of The Incredibles and Beethoven. But my love of rain trumps even my vanity -- I just put on extra goop and hope for the best.

Our kids have fairly tough egos now. We were easier on them when they were young, but now we laugh ourselves silly when we remember some of the crazy things they've come up with. They enjoy hearing about our false hypotheses too.

Charles -- I couldn't count the number of times I've done this in Japanese, and I still do it in English too. It wasn't all that long ago that I discovered The Beatles' 'Paperback Writer' wasn't 'Paint the Bag White Sir'. I made sure to tell my kids that.

Vijaya -- Song lyrics are hard to make out sometimes, even if they're in your own language. Anyone who has learned more than one language is bound to do this in all of them. I still blush to think of some of the stupid things I imagined people were singing about in Japanese.

Now I'm wondering what the tune is to the sixteen, seventeen song...

Kim -- When I was little, for the longest time, I thought "Deck the halls with boughs of holly" was "Deck the halls with bowels of holly". For some reason, the loopy, tubular nature of bowels made me think that it was a suitable counter for branches of holly. And when I heard the lyrics to Bonny George Campbell, I used to think that 'guid horse' meant 'guide horse'. I half imagined that Bonny George Campbell was blind and way back when they used horses instead of dogs. I'd have been right with you on calling them Aberdeen.

Eryl -- Oddly, many of my kids' misheard lyrics involve food -- cabbages and potato eggs.

Scotland is 100% my match when it comes to climate and weather. Almost every day I get the weather I want and when I don't, I know it won't be long until I get it again. It's so sad that most Scots don't have a good opinion of their weather, but I figure I have enough to spare.

kara said...

for a second, i thought the lyrics were paying homage to tater tots, but i see that they meant children. so now i like your daughter's version better.

Anonymous said...

There were some lyrics I never could decipher in the first place. Back when the world was young and the earth's crust had not yet cooled, Pat Boone's "Moody River" had a line that bore no resemblance to any known phoneme set. It wasn't until the internet came along that I learned it was "than the vainest knife."

And in the movie Singin' in the Rain--which I did not see until VHS came along, thank you very much--there's a line in "Stairway to Paradise" that I've looked up at least three times and the line's so forced I never can remember it. (I just looked it up again; it's "And up above it's so fair.")

Robert the Skeptic said...

There is a web site somewhere, probably several, of all the misinterpreted song lyrics. My favorite is Creedence Clearwater Revival's ... there's a bathroom on the right. [Bad Moon]

Mary Witzl said...

Kara -- I'd tell her you said that, but she'd be so embarrassed to know I'd shared this story, she'd never forgive me. Fortunately she hardly ever reads my blog.

AnneB -- Do you know the song 'Dancing in the Moonlight?' It starts off with the line, "We get it on most every night". For ages, I just assumed this was, "We get it almost every night."

And I'm glad Robert pointed out that somebody else thought the 'bad moon' in that Creedence Clearwater Revival song was 'bathroom'.

Robert -- I want to find that website now!

So glad I'm not the only one who heard 'bad moon' as 'bathroom'. It all makes such perfect sense after you finally figure it out.

Robert --

Anne Spollen said...

Lol, I barely swallowed the coffee when I read "lying in his savior bag" -

I used to sing Jingle Bells: "In a one horse soap and sleigh..." I thought it was one of those old fashioned terms that one of my spinster aunts would explain one day. I was like 17 before I actually saw the lyrics written down.

Funny post!

Carole said...

When my son was two he could recite John 3:16 fairly accurately. It went like this.

For God so loved the world he gave his only forgotten son that who ever believed in Him should not perish but have an ever laughing wife.

Great post. And great memories.

Mary Witzl said...

AnneS -- Well, you returned the favor with your 'one horse soap and sleigh'. That is marvelous, and it sounds so pleasantly, festively frothy. I know someone who sang, "We three kings of oleander." And the 'boughs' in 'boughs' of holly always sounded like 'bowels' to me.

Carole -- That is beautiful! I'm sure a lot of married men would agree that an ever-laughing wife sounds heavenly,

Dale said...


Peter said...

There is actually a word for mishearing a phrase, usually in song lyrics: mondegreen. Wikipedia and a bunch of websites have some well-known examples.

Carolie said...

We're SUCH kindred spirits, Mary! I adore the rain, and never understood why ANYONE would want a sky that never cloudy.

I just love the fried potato eggs and the cabbages! Wonderful!

Glad Peter remembered the name mondegreen. I could not remember the word. I think there are books of mondegreens!

Some of our family favorites --

My Uncle Bill, as a small boy, singing the school song, "Ye crystal ball, ye crystal ball..." (Episcopal, Episcopal...)

Me, age 10, in the car with my dad, singing Creedence Clearwater Revival at the top of our lungs, "There's a bathroom on the right!" ("There's a bad moon on the rise!") I guess this is a very common one!

My little brother, singing along to Bachman Turner Overdrive, "Baking carrot biscuits, EVERYDAY! Baking carrot biscuits, EVERY WAY!" ("Taking care of business...")

There is that lovely old hymn about the cross-eyed know the one, his name is Gladly! ("Gladly the cross I'd bear...) And the Jimi Hendrix lyrics "'Scuse me while I kiss this guy" ("kiss the sky") are commonly reported as well.

Then I've got a dear, dear friend who is simply the king of Malapropisms. "I just can't phantom it!" he says. "They had to take her to the hospital and have her seduced!"

debra said...

A wonderful story, Mary, beautifully written. My youngest daughter adored her English Grandmother. My mother-in-law lovingly called her,"My little chum." When my daughter was about 12, she told her Grandmother, "I wish you wouldn't call me a chump, Grandma."
All those years,she thought she was being called a chump.

Robin said...

I love all the song mistakes, but the cabbages do take the cake. (There's another non sequitur for you - and why on earth do I always want to put an "o" at the end of that damn word?)

I forget all of our song mistakes. I only remember the non musical ones, such as 5-year-old Alex looking very serious at the dinner table, advising us to eat our "fibber". (They were teaching the kids about foods that were rich in fiber.)

Mary Witzl said...

Dale -- ;o)

Peter -- I have a vague memory of that term from studying child language acquisition in psycholinguistics -- and I'm definitely going to find a couple of those misheard lyric websites. I wonder if anyone else found a dog talking to pretty wives.

Carolie -- I LOVE 'baking carrot biscuits' -- that is a classic! And 'crystal ball' for 'Episcopal' is brilliant too. It's wonderful what our brains can do, but the fact that they can naturally concoct this sort of throw-away entertainment is just the icing on the cake.

Jimi Hendrix's 'Voodoo Chile' once gave me pause when I read it on the internet: I thought it was a recipe for crazy-spicy chili.

Debra -- I love that!

One of my favorite stories is about a really elderly couple celebrating their Golden Wedding Anniversary. At the end of it, the husband told his wife she inspired him. She gave him a dirty look and said, "Yeah, well I'm a little tired of you too." Sad, but funny.

Robin -- I love 'fibber' for 'fiber'! Even now, our girls amuse us by coming up with mispronunciations of words they've only read, never heard. They're keen readers and we sometimes forget that they've spent a good chunk of time away from native English. Our eldest used the word 'inscribbled' once to mean 'inscribed' and we'll never stop teasing her for that.

Robin --

Fickle Cattle said...

I want a dog like that too.

I am Fickle Cattle.

Pat said...

'It's baby Jesus," I told her, "lying in his Savior Bag."'
That's such a sweet story:)

Mary Witzl said...

FC -- Not me. What I want is a dog who can wash dishes.

Pat -- Thank you. My mother liked that story too. It used to embarrass me to death, but the older I get -- and the more my kids still say things like that -- the more I see its charms.

Anonymous said...

i simply loved the way you wrote here. the language ability is brilliant. Rains always make me smile...and so i can relate to what u wrote. keep writing more n more.