Sunday, 4 January 2015

The Song Lines

Have you ever noticed how many people -- perfectly normal, intelligent, and otherwise observant people -- never bother to listen to song lyrics?  Or, if they do, consistently mishear or misremember them?  The word "mondegreen" was coined in 1954 to describe those garbled lyrics that people thought they had heard: you can read about it here.

This is something we're all prone to, and sometimes for good reasons; I've lost count of the times I've looked up the lyrics to, say, "Brown Sugar", only to wish I hadn't, only to forget them again, only to speculate once more what a "Cheshire queen" might be.  But not to care at all about song lyrics! To someone like me -- who recalls a large percentage of the lyrics to pretty much every song on every album I've ever owned, plus a huge passive corpus of songs I didn't even know I knew -- this is utterly mystifying, and at times deeply frustrating.

Do you recall the Wondermark cartoon I linked to a few posts ago?

It depends entirely for its effect on knowing the lyrics to "Winter Wonderland":
In the meadow we can build a snowman
Then pretend that he is Parson Brown
He'll say, "Are you married?"
We'll say, "No, man --
But you can do the job
When you're in town..."
It must be maddening, to produce something quite so economical, witty and off-the-wall as that cartoon, only to elicit the response, "Huh?"

So, I'm pretty sure I am not alone, though the crowd standing with me may be rather small, compared to the proportion of the population who are blind, deaf, or dumb to song lyrics (estimated at 93.6% by the OECD, 2010 figures).  And yet: there is no word to describe this condition.  Unbelievable!

So I thought I might make one up.  My first thought was mondegroid, given that the existing coinage covers at least part of the syndrome.  To be sure, until this post was posted, that word did not exist on the entire internet (at least, that part of it not lurking under rocks and invisible to Google).  But it does seem an ugly word, with some unfortunate undertones.  Also, chronically mondegroid people are a minority: the majority of sufferers have no regard for song lyrics at all.  Incredible, I know, but there it is.

Now, this is not the same thing as an indifference to music, as such.  As it happens, that does have a name, though not a very good one:  "specific musical anhedonia" (nothing to do with disliking South Pacific or Guys and Dolls).  Obviously, there is no reason why anyone indifferent to all music should care about the words of any particular song.  But, paradoxically, many sufferers of lyric indifference syndrome are genuine music enthusiasts.  They love songs, but have no more interest in understanding the lyrics or knowing who wrote them than in separating out the bassline or counting the beats between cymbal crashes.

The word dyslyrical seems already to have been coined by a few people on the Web as a synonym for "mondegreen", but I think it matches this syndrome better, and I'm tempted to appropriate it.  It does fit in nicely with the various words for tone deafness, such as dysmelodia and dysmusia.

But, it strikes me that the problem is really the other way round.  When 93.6% of the population share a tendency, the word for that is "normal".  As ever, the Normals go about their normal business undescribed; only minorities and the Eternal Other get labels stuck all over them.  There is no need for a word meaning "the inability to play the piano to concert standard", or "the ability to pronounce the letter R perfectly well".  What we do need is a word for that minority who have abnormally sticky ears for songs, whose brains reverberate with rhymes, melodies and rhythms like a busy hive of song-bees, or who stash away lyrics like song-rats or song-squirrels.

Looking far back in time, back to the days of the epic oral tradition, the ability to remember and sing large amounts of wordage was essential if your job description was "bard".  A bard who resorted to tum-ti-tum, or could only ever remember the first verse was unlikely to eat very often, though skilled improvisation was a matter for applause, and extra mead.  It may be that our 6.4% of the population (2010 figures) carry bardic genes: it was a trade that did tend to run in families, after all.  Steering away from obscure Greek words like aoidic, perhaps someone possessing that trait is not so much a songsmith as a songherd? Or, in a more modern idiom, a songpiler or perhaps even a wordhouser?

But it's not just a matter of passive memory.  Other characteristics and sub-categories quickly come into play, once you start thinking about it.  A coinage with real legs needs to reflect a worldview, to capture an attitude as well as a meaning, not just plug a semantic gap.  Above all, it must feel good to use.  Combining or twisting existing words is not the only way to do this, but is often the most effective in a world where no-one understands Latin or Greek any more.  It also helps if you can identify a concrete characteristic, or something that throws an ironic light on the subject.

For example, many LPs and CDs included a wordsheet.  The sort of person who might take the trouble to read the lyrical small print is a major subspecies of the beast we are trying to name.  Nothing would persuade me to coin a word like wordshit (though I have known a few of those), but nerdsheet and word-nerd have a ring to them, and wordsheet-wizard has definite potential. Fot the more annoying individuals, I'd propose chorus-borus, or word-wally.  Or what about credit-bard or insertovert for those who add obsessive attention to an album's personnel and production details into the mix?  For those with true total recall, perhaps lyric-savant would do?  My last throw -- for those of a truly archival tendency -- is a mashup of "lyrics" and "antiquarian", with a hint of "librarian": lyriquarian, or possibly lyriquary.

The proof of the coinage is in the usage, of course.  Let's see...

"Of course, the dyslyrical majority cannot understand why lyriquarians get annoyed when..."
"Wordsheet-wizards will agree, when I say that Led Zeppelin are leaden-footed thieves, lyrically."
"Only a mondegroid would say that.  And only a nerdsheet would spot the Steely Dan reference there."

Hmm, maybe none of the above, but that's as good as I can get it.  Let's wait and see if any of these escape into the wild.  If you have anything better to offer, of course, you know what to do.

But, on reflection, a small but significant subset of readers -- those who shared my Stevenage youth and ventured into the Undercroft Club on Friday evenings around 1970/71 -- will surely acknowledge that the best possible coinage for a person obsessed with lyrics and band personnel would be a Duncan (a true word-wally, if ever there was one).

Lyrical gold... Limited edition...
A ghost of Christmas Past


seany said...

Thank you Mike for this insight,I was always of the impression I was in the minority[as I tend to be in most things]when it comes to not remembering or taking note of song lyrics.
I think this condition became widespread with the advent of rock music as the old ballad style lyrics were easier to hear and learn.
Can't believe I'm normal, whatever that means.
ps Happy New Year Mike.

Mike C. said...

Happy New Year to you, too.

Of course, I could just be making it all up... Though those OECD figures (from "Annoying Aspects of Normality in the Developed World, tabulated by country", 2010) suggest otherwise ;)


Zouk Delors said...

Having recently finally heard the phrase "policy wonk" one too many times not to look it up, I propose "words wonk" -- but see

Looks like you've found a good practical application for your hoard rings. It's only a matter of time before someone comes up with an evil one, though.

Martyn Cornell said...

Duncan, my god, I hadn't thought of him for years. That curious habit he had of putting his hands over his mouth and sniffing, as if trying to check if he had bad breath.

Yup, I too read CD lyric sheets obsessively. My name is Martyn, and I am a wordwallyholic. I'd follow a 12-step programme for it, but there are, of course, only three steps to heaven (ooo, wa-wa ooo). I also like to look at who is playing on each track. Worst of all, every single CD I have is put away with the disc oriented north/south in the case. THAT'S nerdy.

Mike C. said...


Curious... Do you mean "north/south" as in compass orientation, or as in "up"? Suppose it depends whether you have vertical or horizontal storage...

Mind, it's true, I HATE HATE HATE finding the wrong disc in the case, and roughing up the edges of the insert / booklet on those little lugs inside the jewel case lid drives me nuts...


Dave Leeke said...

I like "lyriquarian" but that might suggest someone who knows all the words to the Musical "Hair". A "Duncan" would be worthy - I don't remember the sniffing thing though! Someone recently told me they still see him around Woolmer Green. The reports of his death certainly seem to have been greatly exaggerated. Maybe it's his ghost but I assume it would haunt the Undercroft at St George's.

I can't imagine Donald Fagen managing to sing "mondegroid" other than in the long "fool" just before Jeff Baxter's perfect solo. My all time favourite SD track.

CD's should always be left in a Zen-like state causing maximum frustration on looking for any particular one.

Happy New Year one and all.


Mike C. said...


The terrible thing is, that you probably do know the words to most of Hair, without knowing it...

My current favourite SD track is "Reelin' in the Years" -- again, the solo (Elliot Randall?)... What wouldn't you give to play like that? (Quite a lot actually -- you'd need both hands for a start).

Keep away from my CDs...

HNY back atcha,


Martyn Cornell said...

I meant the CDs are positioned so that the text is oriented parallel with the top and bottom of the case.

Some years back Jimmy Page amd Robert Plant got into a great deal of trouble when, in an interview with Mojo magazine, they said women didn't know how to look after LPs properly, and never removed them from the inner sleeves with the minimum of finger and thumb placement on the actual grooved vinyl. What their critics failed to realise was that the practice, while indeed undoubtedly something that separates men and women as clearly and distinctively as buttoning up shirts/blouses in different sides, says more about men than it does about women.

Zouk Delors said...

In case any lyriquarians are wondering what it's like to be normal, xkcd has just nailed it.