There is, I believe, in every disposition a tendency to some particular evil—a natural defect, which not even the best education can overcome.”
“And your defect is to hate everybody.”
“And yours,” he replied with a smile, “is willfully to misunderstand them.”—Jane Austen, Pride and Prejudice
The Tendency to Misunderstand
I touched on this subject previously when I talked about mishearing and misunderstanding song lyrics (and arguably improving upon them) in a previous blog post. The resulting phrase based on the misunderstood words is called a mondegreen. Incidentally, the etymology behind this word is interesting and just goes to show one more great thing about being a writer: you get to make up words.
It’s no secret that misunderstandings are at the heart of some of the best stories. If you don’t believe me, watch any random episode of Three’s Company.
However, classic TV shows aside, the story that I actually had in mind is J.D. Salinger’s classic tale of teenage angst. In The Catcher in the Rye, protagonist Holden Caulfield misunderstands and misquotes a line from “Comin’ Thro’ the Rye,” a poem by the Scottish poet Robert Burns. His misunderstanding (though not technically a mondegreen) provides the novel’s title, as well as one of its most poignant scenes, which occurs late in the story when Holden explains his life’s ambition to his little sister Phoebe in what could be termed his “I Am Song” moment.
It’s “If a Body Meet a Body”
A Few Points to Take Home
1. Writers get to make up words (It could happen, I’m not saying it will, but the word mondegreen was coined by a writer in an essay. Now it’s in Webster’s).
2. If you spend your entire childhood reading the Little House books, it may benefit you in unexpected ways.
3. A Jane Austen quote is always pertinent.
4. Don’t be frustrated by misunderstandings; learn to laugh at them. Unless you’ve built a pipe dream around one and it’s been mercilessly shattered and your very next stop will likely be a nice long stay undergoing psychoanalysis in an institution. In that case, it’s not at all funny, but rather…sad…
(this post was modified on 10/30/2015)