"Bohemian Rhapsody": Bismillah or… Mitch Miller?

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The Associated Press obituary for Mitch Miller includes this highly questionable tidbit:

Miller's square reputation in the post-rock era brought his name and music to unexpected places… During Queen's nonsensical camp classic, "Bohemian Rhapsody," the group chants "Mitch MILL-uh!" as if to affirm the song's absurdity.

Surely that's a mondegreen. The AP would have been well-served to consult Am I Right or Kiss This Guy, online repositories of misheard lyrics. It's not "Mitch Miller" that Queen is singing, but bismillah, the formulaic utterance in Classical Arabic that introduces each sura (chapter) of the Qur'an. (It means "In the name of God"; the full formula is bismi-llāhi r-raḥmāni r-raḥīm, "In the name of God, Most Gracious, Most Merciful.")

I've read that the bismillah in "Bohemian Rhapsody" is a nod to Freddie Mercury's upbringing in majority-Muslim Zanzibar. (Mercury himself was from Zanzibar's Parsi community, Zoroastrians hailing from India.) That would make sense, as a remembered snatch of Qur'anic Arabic mixed in with the song's other odd refrains (such as the pseudo-operatic "Scaramouche, Scaramouche, will you do the fandango?"). It's certainly a lot more plausible than Mitch Miller making an unexpected appearance. But judge for yourself:

(Hat tip to Phillip Blanchard of Testy Copy Editors, who adds, "AP reported this canard as if to affirm its own absurdity.")

[Update #1: Blanchard points out that the AP later corrected the obituary by removing the bit about "Bohemian Rhapsody."]

[Update #2: Nijma makes a pertinent point in the comments below:

Bismillah, along with the Ta’awwudh, is used to fend off supernatural beings like devils and jinn. In the song, the soloist tries to escape, "Let me go, let me go, bismillah, bismillah," while the chorus sings the part of the devil, "No I will not let you go."

]

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34 Comments »

  1. Jenno said,

    August 2, 2010 @ 11:43 pm

    Mondegreen for sure. Bohemian Rhapsody is a prime candidate for these. "Beelzebub has a devil put aside for me" is not something you're likely to figure out on your own without reading liner notes/lyrics online.

  2. Dave M said,

    August 3, 2010 @ 12:11 am

    Yes, a Mondegreen, but perhaps forgivable given that bismillah should really be accented on the third syllable, not the second.

  3. Dan E. Bloom said,

    August 3, 2010 @ 12:22 am

    Now, Ben, that's a catch! Wow. Good ear. And I guess the good ear really belongs to Mr Blanchard, very good ear, sir!

  4. Joyce Melton said,

    August 3, 2010 @ 1:11 am

    That is too funny. I think only someone from a non-rhotic accent area would make that mistake. It's quite clear that the last two syllables are "millah" and not "Miller" unless those two sound alike to you.

  5. AJD said,

    August 3, 2010 @ 1:22 am

    Joyce: Freddie Mercury himself had a non-rhotic accent.

  6. Samuel Baldwin said,

    August 3, 2010 @ 1:47 am

    I always heard it as bismillah, but that might have been because of my religious upbringing.

    A quick ad-hoc mental review makes it seem like in non-harsh sounding songs when the singer's voice is continually getting louder, the final /r/ is dropped regardless of accent. Does that make sense for anyone else, or is it just me?

  7. Mfahie said,

    August 3, 2010 @ 2:08 am

    It's very common to drop the final r when singing, because the voice doesn't resonate with the tongue in the way. Some singers will close the word with a light r and others will leave it open, but that's more stylistic than accent-based. (of course there are many exceptions as well. But not "most") :-)

    in addition, I've always sung it as bismillah, despite having no idea what it meant. But I'm a musician with a strong ear for lyrics.

  8. FlipYrWhig said,

    August 3, 2010 @ 2:30 am

    I always thought it was "Mitch Miller." And I also always heard the word "disciple" in the midst of the line that turns out to be, pace Jenno, "Beelzebub has a devil put aside for me."

  9. Q. Pheevr said,

    August 3, 2010 @ 5:33 am

    In the first bismillah, there's some non-vocal noise (percussion, I think) that kind of blends in with the /s/ but at a slightly lower frequency, which makes it sound closer to /ʃ/. (Actually, to me it sounds more like /ɬ/, but if you're listening for English phonemes, /ʃ/ might be the best match.) Add to that the fact that the piano makes it hard to tell exactly how sonorous the initial /b/ is supposed to be, and I can see how someone could hear it as /mɪʧmɪlə/ instead of /bismilla/. The second and third times the word is sung, the /s/ seems a lot clearer to me.

  10. Alan Palmer said,

    August 3, 2010 @ 6:18 am

    It had never occurred to me before that the word could be anything other than bismillah, but I did already know the word. I suppose that if it was unfamiliar it would be much more difficult.

    Interestingly, I see fromWikipedia that Iran allowed the song to be released there because it included bismillah in the lyrics.

  11. Aaron Toivo said,

    August 3, 2010 @ 7:16 am

    It's certainly not the only Arabic to appear in a Queen song, FWIW. Their song Mustapha consists of little else but what I must assume are snippets of Quranic Arabic. link

  12. James said,

    August 3, 2010 @ 8:08 am

    I heard it as a child and thought then that it was "Ms. Miller". I think (but this could be a confabulated memory) I learned the word 'bismillah' (at maybe age 30) and it suddenly struck me that that's what Freddy was chanting and that that's what I'd been hearing all along.

  13. Mark Liberman said,

    August 3, 2010 @ 8:17 am

    OK, a trivia question: What other mondegreens have been used in a printed obituary? Are there any?

  14. language hat said,

    August 3, 2010 @ 9:34 am

    pace Jenno

    I wonder what percentage of English speakers now use pace X in this sense, "as X says" rather than the traditional "despite what X says."

  15. Ben said,

    August 3, 2010 @ 10:54 am

    "No, no, no, no, no, no, no!"
    He's clearly saying "bris mila"–Ashkenazic Hebrew for "circumcision."

    Not really.

    Apparently, Freddie Mercury spoke Gujarati with his parents and learned Hindi at school (he actually spent a large part of his childhood in India).

    I knew some Indonesian Queen fans who couldn't be persuaded that Freddie Mercury wasn't a Muslim.

  16. Rodger C said,

    August 3, 2010 @ 11:53 am

    He was in fact a Zoroastrian, I believe.

    [(bgz) As noted in the post.]

  17. Boris said,

    August 3, 2010 @ 12:14 pm

    There is a lot it that song that I have never even tried to understand including the "bismillah" part, but "Beelzebub has a devil put aside for me" was always clear to me (except I wasn't sure about "put", I think I hear an "r" in that word somewhere, but that's from memory. I haven't listened to it now)

  18. Nijma said,

    August 3, 2010 @ 12:29 pm

    The Wiki article leaves out the most important detail. Bismillah, along with the Ta’awwudh, is used to fend off supernatural beings like devils and jinn. In the song, the chorus sings the part of the devil, "No I will not let you go," while the soloist tries to escape, "Let me go, let me go, bismillah, bismillah."

  19. Nijma said,

    August 3, 2010 @ 12:30 pm

    The Wiki article leaves out the most important detail. Bismillah, along with the Ta’awwudh, is used to fend off supernatural beings like devils and jinn. In the song, the soloist tries to escape, "Let me go, let me go, bismillah, bismillah," while the chorus sings the part of the devil, "No I will not let you go."

  20. Rodger C said,

    August 3, 2010 @ 1:42 pm

    @bgz: Duh. Seven minutes to noon is too early for me.

  21. Val1986 said,

    August 3, 2010 @ 2:04 pm

    When I was little I always thought they sang Mitch Miller too. I'm sure it's because my favorite holiday album back then was sing-a-long with Mitch Miller. Of course a five year old can be excused for thinking this but it's pretty sad when AP makes that kind of mistake.

  22. Geoff Nunberg said,

    August 3, 2010 @ 2:21 pm

    I'm sorry to hear it. "Mitch Miller" would have given the song a much more textured reading.

  23. Rubrick said,

    August 3, 2010 @ 4:55 pm

    Topic-veering trivia question: To go along with Rhapsody's Beelzebub, can you name a hit song whose lyrics include "Mephistopheles"?

  24. Lane Greene said,

    August 3, 2010 @ 5:02 pm

    That is so great. I knew that they sang "bismillah" from learning to play Bohemian Rhapsody on the guitar or bass from a magazine in high school, and I had no idea what it meant. Thought it was a name or something. It took me fifteen years later, and studying Arabic, when the song came on the radio and I thought "ah, bismillah, duh!"

    And thanks to Nijmah for making it make sense in context.

  25. groki said,

    August 3, 2010 @ 6:12 pm

    I always thought it was a "miss miller" ("s" not "z," and "r" missing in the often-unpronounced-when-sung sense) that the singer was calling to.

    I couldn't work out whether she was (a) a convenient bystander whose help he wanted in order to escape the "we" in "we will not let you go", or (b) the leader of the "we" with whom he was pleading for mercy. (and this confusion was just one of a kaleidoscopic multitude of oddities in the lyrics.)

    what I mainly remember–and really liked–about the song back then was how long it seemed. unlike most of the 3-ish minute pop songs on my radio at the time, this one "just went on, like, almost forever!"

    bonus miller connection: on youtube can be found "Rick Miller perform[ing] Queen's Bohemian Rhapsody by 25 of the most annoying voices in the music industry" in serial fashion. I enjoyed it, but sadly I didn't hear the bismillah line.

  26. Jim said,

    August 3, 2010 @ 7:53 pm

    Yeah, I'll go for "Miss Miller" (miz mill-uh!) to. And "Beelzebub has a a devil for a sidekick".

  27. Nijma said,

    August 3, 2010 @ 11:11 pm

    Thanks to whoever found and restored my original comment. By pure guesswork, I got it to post by removing the URL, but now that the original comment is up, the second one (as well as this one) is superfluous.

  28. cosmicfroggy said,

    August 3, 2010 @ 11:56 pm

    @Rubrick: "Wrapped Around Your Finger", by The Police, has the line

    "Mephistopheles is not your name/But I know what you're up to, just the same"

    The second line mentions Scylla and Charybdis. I remember teenaged me being very proud that I could spell that.

  29. bill. said,

    August 4, 2010 @ 4:00 pm

    @Rubric & @cosmicfroggy,

    and the band Mephiskapheles is best known for their cover of the "Bumblebee Tuna" song.

  30. un malpaso said,

    August 4, 2010 @ 8:38 pm

    @bill, was that (Bumblebee Tuna) really a cover? I always thought it was their original song. Was it an actual commercial jingle?

    It was always one of my favorite silly ska songs… but I just learned something :)

  31. Dan T. said,

    August 5, 2010 @ 10:50 am

    As far as I can recall, I've always known the correct words for that song, even though I was a teen when it came out, and despite not actually knowing what many of them mean. (Isn't Figaro the cat in Pinocchio?)

  32. Dan T. said,

    August 5, 2010 @ 10:51 am

    And I was just in Prague recently, and I understand that was part of what was once known as Bohemia, but I don't think the song actually has anything to do with it.

  33. JanglerNPL said,

    August 7, 2010 @ 10:41 pm

    Rubrick: Isn't that also a Ben Folds song?

    "You go ahead, you can laugh all you want/I got Mephistopheles…"

  34. Lizzz said,

    August 29, 2010 @ 8:08 pm

    In reverse order

    1. Bohemians was also used for gypsies and 19th Century poor artists, sort of proto-hippies (e.g. Puccini's La Boheme).
    2. Thanks for the Mephiskaphelis mention–the original jingle (yes there is one) must be the most insipid, gagorific pseudo-folk music Platonically possible–the vocal performance on the original is all of a piece too.

    3. I always heard it as Bismillah, but assumed it was Yiddish! Nijma, thanks for the great insight–I will never hear it the same way again.

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