From Chicken Noodle Soup to The Spotted Worm: Misheard Song Lyrics

I never have figured where the chicken noodle soup came from.

I was five years old, and someone had given me a record of Disney songs in French. Why in French? I don’t know. But I loved Disney, and didn’t mind at all that I didn’t understand the words.

Well, not most of them anyway. But right in the middle of “Whistle While You Work,” I was absolutely convinced that the singer said “chicken noodle soup.” It popped right out at me, in the midst of all that unintelligible (to me) French, and I belted out the one line I thought I understood with great enthusiasm!

Well, of course it wasn’t actually “chicken noodle soup.” I have no idea what it could have been, despite three years of high school French and two years of college French (the original record, alas, like so many things from childhood, has long since disappeared).

It’s a brain thing

I don’t know why this is so (any neurologists out there?), but the human brain will do its level best to make sense of something it doesn’t understand.

Doesn’t make sense? Doesn’t matter! If there’s a pattern in there the brain can get a grip on, it will…often with humorous results.

The Earl of Moray and Lady Mondegreen

You’re probably most familiar with this phenomenon from songs in your own native language.

You’d think you’d be LESS likely to mishear lyrics in a language you speak fluently, wouldn’t you? But you’d be wrong. Singers rarely articulate as well as they probably should  (I can sense my choirmaster nodding here), and the brain will gleefully seize upon the opportunity to make sense of the vague lyrics itself.

In fact, misheard song lyrics in English are so common, there are entire websites devoted to them. Perhaps you’re familiar with a few of them:

  • “José, can you see by the dawn’s early light?”
  • “Gladly, the cross-eyed bear”
  • “Don’t go out tonight, ’cause it’s bound to take your life. There’s a bathroom on the right.”
  • “He’s got the whole world in his pants.”
  • “Round John Burgen, mother and child”

There’s even a name for them, coined by Sylvia Wright in 1954. As a child, she’d misheard a line of the Scottish song “The Bonnie Earl O’ Moray” as “They have slain the Earl o’ Moray and Lady Mondegreen.”

(The actual lyrics, if you don’t already know, are “They have slain the Earl o’ Moray and layd him on the green.”)

As a result, a common name for such misheard lyrics is “mondegreens.” You can read more about them here.

Flash forward…er…a lot of years

Given my experience with “Whistle While You Work” in French, I guess I shouldn’t have been too surprised when I heard my husband one day singing the following words to a familiar tune:

“She spotted a worm, she spotted a worm, she spotted a worm on a gym machine!”

The tune was from the Altan version of Molly Na gCuach Ní Chuilleanáin. In their version, Altan riffs on the lyrics:

“Is fada liom uaim í, is fada liom uaim í, is fada liom uaim í ó d’imigh sí.”

Which translates to…

“I long for her, I long for her, I long for her since she left me.”

My husband, God love him, is a wonderful man, but he hasn’t a word of Irish. I guess I’d been playing that song a bit too often on the car stereo…long enough for his brain to try to find order in the chaos of an unfamiliar language!

From that point on, Molly Na gCuach Ní Chuilleanáin was known in our family as “The Spotted Worm Song.”

In fact, when my daughter heard the song sung in the more usual, slower, tempo, she immediately dubbed it “Elegy for a Spotted Worm.” (As I recall, they were reading Thomas Gray’s poem in her English class at the time).

She even designed a “Spotted Worm” avatar for me, which I thought was very sweet!

Spotted Worm Avatar
© Anna Nickel. Used with permission.

I even flirted briefly with the idea of opening a pub called “The Spotted Worm,” but thought better of it (who wants to eat or drink in a place with “worm” in the name…even if it does come from a misheard lyric!)

I can’t find the Altan version on-line (It’s great! You should listen to it if you get a chance!), but here’s a look at the slower version, performed very nicely by Danú

So how about you?

Do you have any amusing misheard song lyrics from an Irish song — or from any other song — to share? Let us hear about them!

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17 thoughts on “From Chicken Noodle Soup to The Spotted Worm: Misheard Song Lyrics”

  1. I’ve read that the chorus of “Gone the Rainbow,” (or “Johnny’s Gone for a Soldier”) is corrupted Gaelic rather than nonsense words. “Shule, shule, shule-a-roo, / Shule-a-rak-shak, shule-a-ba-ba-coo. / When I saw my Sally Babby Beal, / Come bibble in the boo shy Lorey.” Any thoughts? The verses are in English. Folk group Peter, Paul & Mary recorded the above version.

    1. Audrey Nickel

      I wouldn’t call it “corrupted Gaelic,” really. It’s nonsense that that only bears a slight resemblance to the actual Irish in the first phrase (yes, the chorus was originally in Irish).

      Here are the actual Irish lyrics, with a very rough guide to pronunciation and a translation:

      Siúil, siúil, siúil, a rún,
      Siúil go socair agus siúil go ciúin,
      Siúil go dóras agus éalaigh liom,
      Is go dté tú, a mhuirnín, slán.

      Pronounced:

      Shool, shool, shool, uh roon,
      Shool guh SUK-er, AH-guss shool guh kyoon,
      Shool guh DOH-rus, AH-guss AY-lee lum,
      Iss guh jay too, uh WUR-neen, slahn.

      Which means:

      Walk, walk, walk, my love,
      Walk softly and walk quietly,
      Walk to the door and escape with me,
      And may you, my darling, go safely.

      That whole “a rack-shack” stuff is pure nonsense. I love PP&M, but they don’t do Irish stuff very well at all, I’m afraid (can’t stand their version of Whiskey in the Jar either!)

      1. Thank you! I didn’t like PP&M’s take on “The Rising of the Moon,” either. Found a much prettier piano solo piece to play — in church, no less.

  2. Hey, Eoin

    We laughed a lot over the “brain words!. Teachers get examples inEnglish from time to time: sometimes the mistakes are so funny we “kill ourselves laughing…” surely the best way to go!

    The song is beautiful matched by the singer and her voice. Thanks.

    Le meas, Paula

  3. i`m no neurologist, but i have read some books by those who claim to be.Both Phenomena described above, ie:”Your brain wanting to see patterns”, and, under certain circumstances, “Your brain making shit up”, seem to be “hard wired” as the saying goes.

    The ability to see patterns, undoubtedly is a huge evolutionary advantage, only slightly off set by the occasional tendency to see them where they in fact ,don`t exist.The other phenomena of making stuff up seems to come from what you might call brain boredom.Ever heard of phantom limbs? When the part of the brain that normally receives sensory input from the limb in question, [now amputated],is starved of that input, it sometimes gets so bored, it makes up the input it thinks it should get. The person then starts to feel the missing limb ,sometimes to their great discomfort.

    In this case i would speculate there is a combination of these sometimes separate abilities/traits.The part of the brain listening to the music, desperately wants to decode it, but doesn’t have the tool [algorithm] to understand the language. Not exactly a loss of input as with the phantom limb, but certainly an input that particular part of the brain can’t recognize as speech, but because its coming in with the song, it is flooding through the “decoder” like too much water that overflows a cup or bucket under a running tap. The input keeps coming, the conscious is telling the brain it is lyric, so we have the equal of a sensory deprivation, despite an overflow of input data. This is a very uncomfortable state and the longer it goes on, perhaps the more uncomfortable we become. The more uncomfortable we are, the more desperate our decoding center will be to find ~any~ pattern at all to relieve the distress! If there is suddenly a string of sound that does sound anything like recognizable,the sudden relief of being able to let some of the “Water” out the “cup/bucket” through the proper output ,and match it up with the music is so great that there is, by this time, a powerful incentive to extend it by intentionally,[albeit subconsciously], distorting the actual input to conform with what we think the sentence should be. Hence if you could ask your 5 year old brain to exactly locate the “chicken soup” line, you might be disappointed to find perhaps only the sounds “chicka…” and perhaps “poop”, with the gap between only rhythmically resembling the rest. Alas your French schooling will possibly be more of a hindrance than a help to ever recovering the secrets ,now lost of the 5 year olds` brain.

    This same circumstance, of “different brain states” [the five year old being a different person in some important ways], i think is possibly a similar state that, {sadly in my view}, deprives many of us of the ability our ancestors had, of being able to “see the fairies”. Part of this, perhaps in an example of poetic resonance, is described by an Irishman in a theory called “the Flynn effect” , but i have typed so much by now that if anyone still is reading, they deserve the mercy of me ending, so i shall.
    may goodness be at you. is mise mehull

    1. Audrey Nickel

      Mehull…that’s useful stuff, actually! It also explains why it’s so important, in our concerts, to include at least some songs in English. People like hearing the Irish, but they get restless if they have to listen to TOO much that they can’t understand. Interspersing English songs with the Irish keeps both more interesting.

  4. I once was bed ridden with what i shall call the worst fever i can ever remember having. Up to that point, and since, i have never had an illness that prevented me from even turning over in bed. I lay there in a strangely confused state, and what i had of consciousness, was as debilitated as my ability to move.If you did`t ask me to solve complex maths problems or the like though, i fancied i would have given rational answers to all but the question ,;”are you going to die?”

    At my bed side, was one of those machines that makes a variety of noises on endless synchronized loops. You know the ones. You can choose from such as :rainforest sounds, ocean surf, rain, etc/etc. I must have chosen the ocean storm noise, while i still could reach the buttons,and it was now playing endlessly as one of the many sensory inputs my brain was experiencing.

    I began to discern what i was sure was a short few words of human speech.
    [pattern recognition in my brain] I don’t know how long i lay there trying to understand the words, but each time the loop came to the same place there they were again.I had the fancy to wonder, weather i was hearing the last sounds of some sailors now lost at sea? Did the people who recorded this know? Surely not, or they would have chosen a clear section of tape to put on the machine? I must try to understand what they are saying i thought. When my wife gets home i will tell her. Rescue is out of the question, but perhaps there is something decipherable that might be interesting or meaningful to the relatives of the lost?

    Two things to note: I was sure it was human speech,and i felt certain ,that if i listened to it enough, i would be able to understand some ,or all of it. The brains pathways are often strange, and usually so powerful that we cannot conceive of them being wrong. Some brains are so wired {about %5 of the population from memory} ,that they can achieve a state like i had without fever or drugs. Do you doubt that they can see the good folk? Some of them don’t, and perhaps it is arrogance to say they are wrong. Did i hear the ghostly resonances of souls long lost at sea? I think not, but i would not say it is impossible? There have been a lot of ship wrecks and if such things do happen,( intense happenings echoing at their source long after the`chronological occurrence),it must now be hard to find a piece of sea quiet of such.

    I lived, got well a couple of days later, and now have naught but a memory to speculate with. I have not tried again to listen for the voices on that machine. I don’t know weather i would like to find them again with enough concentration, or dismiss them as fevered fancy? Some questions truly are more fun unanswered?
    is mise mehull

  5. Dia dhuit a chara – Bonjour la louve rousse,
    I’m a bit mystified where you found ‘chicken soup’ among les paroles de ‘Sifflez en travaillant’ but help in the guise of YouTube (the place where cartoons never die) is at hand.

    Sifflez en travaillant,
    Et la balai parait léger si vous pouvez siffler
    Frotter en fredonnant
    Le temps va vite quand la musique vous aide à travailler.

    En nettoyant la chambre,
    Pensez que le balai est votre bel et tendre,
    Soudain vos pieds se mettront à danser

    Ouh ! Non, non ! Mettez-moi ça dans l’évier

    Quand l’âme est folle, le temps s’envole
    Sifflez en travaillant

    Non, non pas sous le tapis

    Sifflez en travaillant

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=UjzYKS6UQ1Q – (Disney Liberty)

  6. Phoebe Cristina

    For some reason I remember songs playing on the radio when I was a child, in languages I didn’t know; but instead of my brain trying to put English words to the lyrics, I would pick up the actual words and happily sing along–perfectly–to the songs in the language they were sung in even though I hadn’t a clue what I was singing about! Years later I studied one of the languages (German) and remembered the songs I had learned in German as a child, finally knowing what the words meant; and they were exactly as I remembered. Don’t know why, maybe my brain is just wired differently!

    1. Audrey Nickel

      Phoebe…that happened to me with “Óró sé do bheatha ‘bhaile” when I was 13. I memorized the chorus perfectly…to the point where, when I finally heard the song years later, I absolutely knew it, even though I didn’t know what it meant.

      1. Although i think most of ABBA now are very comfortable with English, in the beginning this was very much NOT the case. Listen to the difference between the stilted, hesitant,heavily accented interviews, and the perfectly flowing American of their songs?

        Oro-Se-Do-Bheatha-Bhaile is a powerful song. One of only 2 that i have at me in Irish. I was paid the great compliment by a person who knew, that when i sing it, it sounds like i am a speaker of Irish! Probably because i have so little of the language at me otherwise i learned it direct from natives themselves via the many utube videos i watched. Obviously i must have learned the words with the accent built in, as the ABBA singers did.
        is mise mehull

    2. There are a few books written by a cove named “OLIVER SACCS” if i remember correctly. One, called something like “an anthropologists` view from Mars” deals with a lot of interesting case studies to do with brain injuries. The case for music having a ~special~ place in our brain is made by several of them. One i remember was of a person profoundly disabled by a stroke. The man was a living vegetable if i remember correctly,with next to no ability to express emotion. When he sang his beloved Irish songs however, a miraculous, if temporary, change came over him. For the period of the song he appeared to have all the emotions relevant to it, and was able to render it faithfully.
      is mise mehull

  7. Dia dhuit!
    Not sure if anyone else does this but I find it much easier to remember songs, particularly the tunes, if they’re in a language other than English. It gets a little embarrassing when I’m asked to sing a song and all I can come up with is something that no one can understand!

  8. Dia duit! An interesting topic. The children experience of listening to the songs in non-native language often leads us to strange or even comical situations. For example, there is nothing about alcoholism in Beatles’ song “Baby’s in black” – as long as there is no such thing in the English phrase “What can I do” at all. But when I sang “Oh, dear, what can I do” being a kindergarten boy (just heard the song and repeated “what I heared”), my teacher was shocked – ’cause in Russian this phrase sounds exactly as “Wow, I will find vodka!” (“Ух ты, водки найду” translit. “ooch ti vodki naydoo”) *LOL* Once during a party one of my friends asked me to sing “that Irish song about sassy girl Olya (lit. ~ o nachalnoy ole)”. In fact he meant words “A chailin alainn…” from the famous Irish song ))

  9. I was listening to the song “Teangaidh na nGael (Cór Thaobh a’ Leithid)” and when my sister heard the line:”Tar chugainn ‘nar gcuideachta aniar” , she thought it said, “I believe i can fly.” She started laughing when i told her the song was not even in English!

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