'Come on, Irene'? Why we mishear song lyrics

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By Diane Mapes

Hurricane Irene already has people fleeing their homes, stocking up on supplies -- and from the looks of it, falling victim to mondegreens, those goofy misheard song lyrics that have plagued mankind since before rock met roll.

New York Magazine's Daily Intel blog seems to have started it off with their flip "Come on, Irene!" at the end of a August 23 news story about how Hurricane Irene had the potential to become a category 4 storm. What they meant was "Come on, Eileen," a lyric (and title) taken from the 1982 platinum hit by Dexys Midnight Runners.

While the blog has since come clean about their error, others are sticking with the misheard version. So much so that we wouldn't be surprised if, any minute now, "Come on, Irene" was a trending topic on Twitter.

The Eileen/Irene confusion is understandable -- they're similar-sounding, old-fashioned names, and for some, the play on words might be intentional. But what drives us to mishear song lyrics, even to the point where we embarrass ourselves -- not just at karaoke, but in print?

According to Dr. Wei Ji Ma, assistant professor of neuroscience at Baylor College of Medicine in Houston, Tex., it's extremely hard to understand what someone is saying (or singing) unless we're looking directly at the person's face.

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"Understanding speech can be difficult, especially when it's noisy," Ma told The Body Odd in a 2009 interview regarding his research on the topic. "If you only have sound information, you will sometimes make mistakes."

Some of those mistakes can be found on websites like KissThisGuy, which gathers mangled song lyrics such as those found in Robert Palmer's Addicted to Love, or as someone once sang it: "Might as well face it, you're a dick with a glove."

Visual information helps us fill in the gaps, according to Ma. So much so that in a 2009 study he conducted, test subjects got the words right only 10 percent of the time when they relied on sound cues alone. But when they both watched and listened to videos of people saying various words, their understanding of those words went up to 60 percent.

As Ma explains it, the brain is like a police detective interviewing witnesses after a crime. Visual information is one witness; auditory information is another. But as with any criminal investigation, witnesses get mixed up. Ma says the brain basically weighs all the information it gathers, then comes up with its best guess.

Unfortunately, sometimes that guess results in laughably bad mondegreens like "wrapped up like a douche" (from Manfred Mann's "Blinded by the Light") or "Scallaboosh, Scallaboosh, will you do the banned tango?" (from Queen's Bohemian Rhapsody).

While there's still a bit of a question as to whether the Irene/Eileen swap-out is due to a mix-up or an intentional mash-up, there's no doubt that those living on the east coast will be happily bidding adieu to the storm in days to come.

Luckily, we've got the perfect song for them:  Good Night, Irene.

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