A mondegreen // is a mishearing or misinterpretation of a phrase in a way that gives it a new meaning. Mondegreens are most often created by a person listening to a poem or a song; the listener, being unable to clearly hear a lyric, substitutes words that sound similar and make some kind of sense. American writer Sylvia Wright coined the term in 1954, writing that as a girl, when her mother read to her from Percy's Reliques, she had misheard the lyric "layd him on the green" in the fourth line of the Scottish ballad "The Bonny Earl of Murray" as "Lady Mondegreen".
"Mondegreen" was included in the 2000 edition of the Random House Webster's College Dictionary, and in the Oxford English Dictionary in 2002. Merriam-Webster's Collegiate Dictionary added the word in 2008.
When I was a child, my mother used to read aloud to me from Percy's Reliques, and one of my favorite poems began, as I remember:
The correct fourth line is, "And laid him on the green". Wright explained the need for a new term:
"The point about what I shall hereafter call mondegreens, since no one else has thought up a word for them, is that they are better than the original."
People are more likely to notice what they expect than things not part of their everyday experiences; this is known as confirmation bias. Similarly, one may mistake an unfamiliar stimulus for a familiar and more plausible version. For example, to consider a well-known mondegreen in the song "Purple Haze", one would be more likely to hear Jimi Hendrix singing that he is about to kiss this guy than that he is about to kiss the sky. Similarly, if a lyric uses words or phrases that the listener is unfamiliar with, they may be misheard as using more familiar terms.
The creation of mondegreens may be driven in part by cognitive dissonance, as the listener finds it psychologically uncomfortable to listen to a song and not make out the words. Steven Connor suggests that mondegreens are the result of the brain's constant attempts to make sense of the world by making assumptions to fill in the gaps when it cannot clearly determine what it is hearing. Connor sees mondegreens as the "wrenchings of nonsense into sense".[a] This dissonance will be most acute when the lyrics are in a language the listener is fluent in.
On the other hand, Steven Pinker has observed that mondegreen mishearings tend to be less plausible than the original lyrics, and that once a listener has "locked in" to a particular misheard interpretation of a song's lyrics, it can remain unquestioned, even when that plausibility becomes strained. Pinker gives the example of a student "stubbornly" mishearing the chorus to "Venus" ("I'm your Venus") as "I'm your penis," and being surprised that the song was allowed on the radio. The phenomenon may, in some cases, be triggered by people hearing "what they want to hear", as in the case of the song "Louie Louie": parents heard obscenities in the Kingsmen recording where none existed.
James Gleick claims that the mondegreen is a distinctly modern phenomenon. Without the improved communication and language standardization brought about by radio, he believes there would have been no way to recognize and discuss this shared experience. Just as mondegreens transform songs based on experience, a folk song learned by repetition often is transformed over time when sung by people in a region where some of the song's references have become obscure. A classic example is "The Golden Vanity", which contains the line "As she sailed upon the lowland sea". British immigrants carried the song to Appalachia, where singers, not knowing what the term lowland sea refers to, transformed it over generations from "lowland" to "lonesome".[b]
Classicist and Linguist Steve Reece has collected examples of English mondegreens in song lyrics, religious creeds and liturgies, commercials and advertisements, and jokes and riddles. He has then used this collection to shed light on the process of "junctural metanalysis" during the oral transmission of the ancient Greek epics, the Iliad and Odyssey.
The national anthem of the United States is highly susceptible (especially for young grade-school students) to the creation of mondegreens, two in the first line. Francis Scott Key's "Star-Spangled Banner" begins with the line "O say can you see, by the dawn's early light." This has been accidentally and deliberately misinterpreted as "Jose, can you see," another example of the Hobson-Jobson effect, countless times. The second half of the line has been misheard as well, as "by the donzerly light," or other variants. This has led to many people believing that "donzerly" is an actual word.
Religious songs, learned by ear (and often by children), are another common source of mondegreens. The most-cited example is "Gladly, the cross-eyed bear" (from the line in the hymn "Keep Thou My Way" by Fanny Crosby and Theodore E. Perkins, "Kept by Thy tender care, gladly the cross I'll bear"). Jon Carroll and many others quote it as "Gladly the cross I'd bear"
- "There's a bathroom on the right" (the line at the end of each verse of "Bad Moon Rising" by Creedence Clearwater Revival: "There's a bad moon on the rise").
- "Scuse me while I kiss this guy" (from a lyric in the song "Purple Haze" by The Jimi Hendrix Experience: "'Scuse me while I kiss the sky").
"Blinded by the Light", a cover of a Bruce Springsteen song by Manfred Mann's Earth Band, contains what has been called "probably the most misheard lyric of all time". The phrase "revved up like a deuce", altered from Springsteen's original "cut loose like a deuce," both lyrics referring to the hot rodders slang deuce (short for deuce coupé) for a 1932 Ford coupé, is frequently misheard as "wrapped up like a douche". Springsteen himself has joked about the phenomenon, claiming that it was not until Manfred Mann rewrote the song to be about a "feminine hygiene product" that the song became popular.[c]
Another commonly-cited example of a song susceptible to mondegreens is Nirvana's "Smells Like Teen Spirit", with the line "here we are now, entertain us" variously being misinterpreted as "here we are now, in containers", and "here we are now, hot potatoes", amongst other renditions.
Rap and hip hop lyrics may be particularly susceptible to being misheard because they do not necessarily follow standard pronunciations. The delivery of rap lyrics relies heavily upon an often regional pronunciation or non-traditional accenting of words and their phonemes to adhere to the artist's stylizations and the lyrics' written structure. This issue is exemplified in controversies over alleged transcription errors in Yale University Press's 2010 Anthology of Rap.
Standardized and recorded mondegreens
Sometimes, the modified version of a lyric becomes standard, as is the case with "The Twelve Days of Christmas". The original has "four colly birds" (colly means black; cf. A Midsummer Night's Dream: "Brief as the lightning in the collied night."); sometime around the turn of the twentieth century, these became calling birds, which is the lyric used in the 1909 Frederic Austin version.[d]
A number of misheard lyrics have been recorded, turning a mondegreen into a real title. The song "Sea Lion Woman", recorded in 1939 by Christine and Katherine Shipp, was performed by Nina Simone under the title, "See Line Woman". According to the liner notes from the compilation A Treasury of Library of Congress Field Recordings, the correct title of this playground song might also be "See [the] Lyin' Woman" or "C-Line Woman". Jack Lawrence's misinterpretation of the French phrase "pauvre Jean" ("poor John") as the identically pronounced "pauvres gens" ("poor people") led to the translation of La Goualante du pauvre Jean ("The Ballad of Poor John") as "The Poor People of Paris", a hit song in 1956.
The title and plot of the short science fiction story "Come You Nigh: Kay Shuns" ("Com-mu-ni-ca-tions") by Lawrence A. Perkins, in Analog Science Fiction and Fact magazine (April 1970), deals with securing interplanetary radio communications by encoding them with mondegreens.
Olive, the Other Reindeer is a 1997 children's book by Vivian Walsh, which borrows its title from a mondegreen of the line, "all of the other reindeer" in the song "Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer". The book was adapted into an animated Christmas special in 1999.
The title of the novel The Catcher in the Rye (1951) by J. D. Salinger comes from the poem, Comin’ Through the Rye's name. Holden Caulfield, the protagonist, misinterprets a part of this poem to mean "if a body catch a body" rather than "if a body meet a body." He keeps picturing children playing in a field of rye near the edge of a cliff, and him catching them when they start to fall off.
A monologue of mondegreens appears in the 1971 film Carnal Knowledge. The camera focuses on actress Candice Bergen laughing as she recounts various phrases that fooled her as a child, including "Round John Virgin" (instead of '"Round yon virgin...") and "Gladly, the cross-eyed bear" (instead of “Gladly the cross I’d bear”).
The enigmatic title of the 2013 film Ain't Them Bodies Saints is a misheard lyric from a folk song; director David Lowery decided to use it because it evoked the "classical, regional" feel of 1970s rural Texas.
Mondegreens have been used in many television advertising campaigns, including:
- An advertisement for the 2012 Volkswagen Passat touting the car's audio system shows a number of people singing incorrect versions of the line "Burning out his fuse up here alone" from the Elton John/Bernie Taupin song "Rocket Man", until a woman listening to the song in a Passat realizes the correct words.
- A 2002 advertisement for T-Mobile shows spokeswoman Catherine Zeta-Jones helping to correct a man who has misunderstood the chorus of Def Leppard's "Pour Some Sugar On Me" as "pour some shook up ramen".
- A series of advertisements for Maxell audio cassette tapes, produced by Howell Henry Chaldecott Lury, shown in 1989 and 1990, featured misheard versions of "Israelites" (e.g., "Me ears are alight") by Desmond Dekker and "Into the Valley" by The Skids as heard by users of other brands of tape.
- A 1987 series of advertisements for Kellogg's Nut 'n Honey Crunch featured a joke in which one person asks "What's for breakfast?" and is told "Nut 'N' Honey," which is misheard as "Nothing, honey."
The traditional game Chinese whispers ("Telephone" in North America) involves mishearing a whispered sentence to produce successive mondegreens that gradually distort the original sentence as it is repeated by successive listeners.
In Dutch, mondegreens are popularly referred to as Mama appelsap ("Mommy applejuice"), from the Michael Jackson song Wanna Be Startin' Somethin' which features the lyrics Mama-se mama-sa ma-ma-coo-sa, and was once misheard as Mama say mama sa mam[a]appelsap. The Dutch radio station 3FM had a show Superrradio (originally Timur Open Radio) run by Timur Perlin and Ramon with an item in which listeners were encouraged to send in mondegreens under the name "Mama appelsap". The segment was popular for years.
In French, the phenomenon is also known as 'hallucination auditive', especially when referring to pop songs.
The title of the 1983 French novel Le Thé au harem d'Archi Ahmed ("Tea in the Harem of Archi Ahmed") by Mehdi Charef (and the 1985 movie of the same name) is based on the main character mishearing le théorème d'Archimède ("the theorem of Archimedes") in his mathematics class.
A classic example in French is similar to the "Lady Mondegreen" anecdote: in his 1962 collection of children's quotes La Foire aux cancres, the humorist Jean-Charles refers to a misunderstood lyric of "La Marseillaise" (the French national anthem): "Entendez-vous ... mugir ces féroces soldats" (Do you hear those savage soldiers roar?) is heard as "...Séféro, ce soldat" (that soldier Séféro).
Mondegreens are a well-known phenomenon in German, especially where non-German songs are concerned. They are sometimes called, after a well-known example, Agathe Bauer-songs (I got the power, a song by Snap!, transferred to a German female name). Journalist Axel Hacke published a series of books about them, beginning with Der weiße Neger Wumbaba ("The White Negro Wumbaba", after the line der weiße Nebel wunderbar from Der Mond ist aufgegangen).
It is at least an urban legend that children, when painting nativity scenes, occasionally include next to the Child, Mary, Joseph, the shepherds and so forth yet another, laughing creature: This is the Owi, who must be depicted laughing. The reason is to be found in the line Gottes Sohn! O wie lacht / Lieb' aus Deinem göttlichen Mund (God's Son! Oh, how does love laugh out of Thy divine mouth!) from Silent Night. The subject is Lieb', but it is a poetic contraction of "die Liebe", leaving away the final -e and the definite article (in German, though not in English, mandatory in such a context), so the phrase is not easily understood and it might well be a statement about a person named Owi laughing "in a loveable manner" (the adverb lieb), although the rest of the sentence still makes no sense. Owi lacht is the title of at least one book about Christmas and Christmas songs.
Ghil'ad Zuckermann cites the Hebrew example mukhrakhím liyót saméakh ("we must be happy", with a grammar mistake) instead of (the high-register) úru 'akhím belév saméakh ("wake up, brothers, with a happy heart"), from the well-known song "Háva Nagíla" ("Let's be happy").
The Israeli site dedicated to Hebrew mondegreens has coined the term "avatiach" (Hebrew for watermelon) for "mondegreen", named for a common mishearing of Shlomo Artzi's award-winning 1970 song "Ahavtia" ("I loved her", using a form uncommon in spoken Hebrew).
A paper in phonology cites memoirs of poet Antoni Słonimski, who confessed that in the recited poem Konrad Wallenrod he used to hear "zwierz Alpuhary" ("a beast of Alpujarras") rather than "z wież Alpuhary" ("from the towers of Alpujarras").
The most well-known mondegreen in Brazil is in the song "Noite do Prazer" (Night of Pleasure) by Claudio Zoli: the line "Na madrugada a vitrola rolando um blues, tocando B. B. King sem parar" (At dawn the phonograph playing blues, playing B. B. King nonstop), is often misheard as "Na madrugada a vitrola rolando um blues, trocando de biquini sem parar" (at dawn the phonograph playing blues, changing bikinis nonstop).
Russian author Fyodor Dostoyevsky, in 1875, cited a line from Fyodor Glinka's song "Troika" (1825) "колокольчик, дар Валдая" ("the bell, gift of Valday") claiming that it is usually understood as "колокольчик, дарвалдая" ("the bell darvaldaying"—supposedly an onomatopoeia of ringing).
A reverse mondegreen is the intentional production, in speech or writing, of words or phrases that seem to be gibberish but disguise meaning. A prominent example is Mairzy Doats, a 1943 novelty song by Milton Drake, Al Hoffman, and Jerry Livingston. The lyrics are a reverse mondegreen, made up of oronyms, so pronounced (and written) as to challenge the listener (or reader) to interpret them:
- Mairzy doats and dozy doats and liddle lamzy divey
- A kiddley divey too, wouldn't you?
The clue to the meaning is contained in the bridge:
This makes it clear that the last line is "A kid'll eat ivy, too; wouldn't you?"
Other examples include:
- Iron Butterfly's 1968 hit, "In-A-Gadda-Da-Vida", a reverse mondegreen of the phrase "In the Garden of Eden", which, according to liner notes, was going to be the song's title.
- Sly and the Family Stone's 1970 hit, "Thank You (Falettinme Be Mice Elf Agin)", in which the part after thank you is an obvious reverse mondegreen for "for lettin' me be myself again."
- In his Anguish Languish (English language), Howard L. Chace uses standard English words in non-standard order to create reverse mondegreens that refer to familiar things and stories; it includes the widely known story "Ladle Rat Rotten Hut" (Little Red Riding Hood).
- The title of SOPHIE's 2018 album Oil of Every Pearl's Un-Insides is a reverse mondegreen of the sentence "I love every person's insides".
Two authors have written books of supposed foreign-language poetry that are actually mondegreens of nursery rhymes in English. Luis van Rooten's pseudo-French Mots D'Heures: Gousses, Rames includes critical, historical, and interpretive apparatus, as does John Hulme's Mörder Guss Reims, attributed to a fictitious German poet. Both titles sound like the phrase "Mother Goose Rhymes". Both works can also be considered soramimi, which produces different meanings when interpreted in another language. Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart produced a similar effect in his canon "Difficile Lectu", which, though ostensibly in Latin, is actually an opportunity for scatological humor in both German and Italian.
Some performers and writers have used deliberate mondegreens to create double entendres. The phrase "if you see Kay" (F-U-C-K) has been employed many times, notably as a line from James Joyce's 1922 novel Ulysses and in many songs, including by blues pianist Memphis Slim in 1963, R. Stevie Moore in 1977, April Wine on its 1982 album Power Play, the Poster Children via their Daisy Chain Reaction in 1991, Turbonegro in 2005, Aerosmith in "Devil's Got a New Disguise" in 2006, and The Script in their 2008 song "If You See Kay". Britney Spears did the same thing with the song "If U Seek Amy". A similar effect was created in Hindi in the 2011 Bollywood movie Delhi Belly in the song "Bhaag D.K. Bose". While "D. K. Bose" appears to be a person's name, it is sung repeatedly in the chorus to form the deliberate mondegreen "bhosadi ke" (Hindi: भोसडी के), a Hindi expletive.
"Mondegreen" is a song by Yeasayer on their 2010 album, Odd Blood. The lyrics are intentionally obscure (for instance, "Everybody sugar in my bed" and "Perhaps the pollen in the air turns us into a stapler") and spoken hastily to encourage the mondegreen effect.
Related linguistic phenomena
Closely related categories are Hobson-Jobson, where a word from a foreign language is homophonically translated into one's own language, e.g. cockroach from Spanish cucaracha, and soramimi, a Japanese term for homophonic translation of song lyrics.
An unintentionally incorrect use of similar-sounding words or phrases, resulting in a changed meaning, is a malapropism. If there is a connection in meaning, it may be called an eggcorn. If a person stubbornly continues to mispronounce a word or phrase after being corrected, that person has committed a mumpsimus.
Notes and references
- "But, though mishearings may appear pleasingly or even subversively to sabotage sense, they are in fact in essence negentropic, which is to say, they push up the slope from random noise to the redundancy of voice, moving therefore from the direction of nonsense to sense, of nondirection to direction. They seem to represent the intolerance of pure phenomena. In this they are different from the misspeakings with which they are often associated. Seeing slips of the ear as simply the auditory complement of slips of the tongue mistakes their programmatic nature and function. Misspeakings are the disorderings of sense by nonsense; mishearings are the wrenchings of nonsense into sense." Steven Connor (14 February 2009). "Earslips: Of Mishearings and Mondegreens".
- Jean Ritchie recorded the ballad on her 1961 Folkways album, British Traditional Ballads in the Southern Mountains Volume 1. Jean’s version, which she learned from her mother, corresponds with Story Type A found in Tristram Potter Coffin’s The British Traditional Ballad in North America. The refrain “As she sailed upon the low, and lonesome low, She sailed upon the lonesome sea” seems to be typical of variants of the ballads recorded and collected in the Ozarks and Appalachian mountains and references The Merry Golden Tree, Weeping Willow Tree, or Green Willow Tree as the ship."The Golden Vanity / The Old Virginia Lowlands". Mainly Norfolk: English Folk and Other Good Music. Retrieved 18 Apr 2019.
- See this video of the mondegreen phenomenon in popular music."Top 10 Misheard Lyrics". Retrieved 18 Mar 2014.
- This review of the Austin arrangement appeared in The Musical Times, November 1, 1909, p. 722: "'The twelve days of Christmas' is a clever arrangement of a traditional song of the cumulative or 'House that Jack built' type. 'What my love sent to me' on the first, second, third day of Christmas, and so on down to the twelfth, reveals a constantly increasing store of affection and generosity. The first day's gift is 'a partridge in a pear-tree'; that of the twelfth comprises 'Twelve drummers drumming, eleven pipers playing, ten lords a-leaping, nine ladies dancing, eight maids a-milking, seven swans a-swimming, six geese a-laying, five gold rings, four calling birds, three French hens, two turtle-doves and a partridge in a pear-tree.' No explanation is given of any subtle significance that may underlie the lover's wayward choice of tokens of his regard. To the captivating, if elusive, tune of this song Mr. Austin has added an accompaniment that is always ingenious, especially where it suggests the air that is being played by the eleven pipers, always varied and interesting, and never out of place. The song is suitable for a medium voice.""Twelve Days of Christmas". Retrieved 2013-11-10.
- Maria Konnikova (10 Dec 2014). "EXCUSE ME WHILE I KISS THIS GUY". New Yorker.
- Carroll, Jon (September 22, 1995). "Zen and the Art Of Mondegreens". SF Gate.
- Sylvia Wright (1954). "The Death of Lady Mondegreen". Harper's Magazine. 209 (1254): 48–51. Drawings by Bernarda Bryson. Reprinted in: Sylvia Wright (1957). Get Away From Me With Those Christmas Gifts. McGraw Hill. Contains the essays "The Death of Lady Mondegreen" and "The Quest of Lady Mondegreen."
- CNN.com: Dictionary adds new batch of words. July 7, 2008.
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- Ira Hyman (8 April 2011). "A Bathroom on the Right? Misheard and Misremembered Song Lyrics". Psychology Today.
- "it turns out that listeners to popular music seem to grope in a fog of blunder, botch, and misprision, making flailing guesses at sense in the face of what seems to be a world of largely-unintelligible utterance" Steven Connor (14 February 2009). "Earslips: Of Mishearings and Mondegreens".
- Steven Pinker (1994). The Language Instinct. New York: William Morrow. pp. 182–183. ISBN 978-0-688-12141-9.
- "The Lascivious 'Louie Louie'". The Smoking Gun. Retrieved 2009-02-18.
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- Steve Reece, Homer's Winged Words: The Evolution of Early Greek Epic Diction in the Light of Oral Theory (Leiden, Brill, 2009) esp. 351–358.
- Francis Scott Key, The Star Spangled Banner (lyrics), 1814, MENC: The National Association for Music Education National Anthem Project (archived from the original Archived January 26, 2013, at the Wayback Machine. on 2013-01-26).
- "Jose Can You See - Angels In the Outfield".
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- Don Hauptman (Feb 2010). "It's Not Easy Being Mondegreen". Word Ways: The Journal of Recreational Linguistics. 43 (1): 55–56.
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- Letters, The Guardian, 26 April 2007.
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- The comedy show The Vacant Lot built an entire skit, called "Blinded by the Light," around four friends arguing about the lyrics. One version can be seen here: "The Vacant Lot - Blinded By The Light". 1993. Retrieved 25 Jan 2014.
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The title was a misreading of an old American folk song that captured the right “classical, regional” feel, he said at the Sundance premiere press conference.(in the article text, not the video)
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- Bellamy, Francis. ""Pledge of Allegiance" Funny Misheard Lyrics". Retrieved 18 July 2011. or, for instance: "...And to the republic; For which it stands; One nation underdog; With liver, tea, and justice for all."
- Lord, Bette Bao (1984). In the Year of the Boar and Jackie Robinson. New York: Harper. ISBN 978-0-06-440175-3. The main character Shirley recites, "I pledge a lesson to the frog of the United States of America, and to the wee puppet for witches’ hands. One Asian, in the vestibule, with little tea and just rice for all." Note that "under God" is missing because it was added in the 1950s, whereas the novel is set in 1947.
- "Mama Appelsap Awards: Hoor ik daar nou echt Zwolle, Almelo, Hengelo en Enschede?". RTV Oost. 4 April 2016. Retrieved 3 January 2018.
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- Steven Pinker (1994). The Language Instinct. New York: William Morrow. p. 155. ISBN 978-0-688-12141-9.
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- Montgomery, James (February 9, 2010). "Yeasayer Lead Us Through Odd Blood, Track By Track". MTV. Retrieved February 10, 2010.
- Cowan, William; Rakušan, Jaromira (1998). Source Book for Linguistics (Third revised ed.). John Benjamins. p. 179. ISBN 978-90-272-8548-5.
- "Hobson-Jobson". Merriam-Webster Dictionary. Retrieved July 28, 2014.
- Otake, Takashi (2007). "Interlingual near Homophonic Words and Phrases in L2 Listening: Evidence from Misheard Song Lyrics" (PDF). 16th International Congress of Phonetic Sciences. Saarbrücken: icphs2007.de. pp. 777–780.
But whereas ordinary Mondegreen occurs within a single language, Soramimi awaa is unique in that it occurs cross-linguistically in hearing foreign songs
- Michael Quinion (17 Mar 2001). "World Wide Words".
- Connor, Steven. Earslips: Of Mishearings and Mondegreens, 2009. Earslips: Of Mishearings and Mondegreens
- Edwards, Gavin. Scuse Me While I Kiss This Guy, 1995. ISBN 978-0-671-50128-0
- Edwards, Gavin. When a Man Loves a Walnut, 1997. ISBN 978-0-684-84567-8
- Edwards, Gavin. He's Got the Whole World in His Pants, 1996. ISBN 978-0-684-82509-0
- Edwards, Gavin. Deck The Halls With Buddy Holly, 1998. ISBN 978-0-06-095293-8
- Gwynne, Fred. Chocolate Moose for Dinner, 1988. ISBN 978-0-671-66741-2
- Norman, Philip. Your Walrus Hurt the One You Love: malapropisms, mispronunciations, and linguistic cock-ups, 1988. ISBN 978-0-333-47337-5
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