Misunderstandings Are the Spice of Life

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.

Holden’s Mistake

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.

 “I thought it was ‘If a body catch a body,'” I said. “Anyway, I keep picturing all these little kids playing some game in this big field of rye and all. Thousands of little kids, and nobody’s around–nobody big, I mean–except me. And I’m standing on the edge of some crazy cliff. What I have to do, I have to catch everybody if they start to go over the cliff–I mean if they’re running and they don’t look where they’re going I have to come out from somewhere and catch them. That’s all I’d do all day. I’d just be the catcher in the rye and all. I know it’s crazy, but that’s the only thing I’d really like to be. I know it’s crazy.” (The Catcher in the Rye by J.D. Salinger)
It’s “If a Body Meet a Body”
When I first read The Catcher in the Rye, I recognized Holden’s mistake—that is to say, I recognized the line as a song Laura and Pa used to sing in the Little House books, specifically in By the Shores of Silver Lake. This was a particularly gratifying moment for me, because it meant that I’d gained something far greater than learning how to churn butter (in theory) and how to theoretically deal with a locust plague from all those years I’d spent reading as a kid. It was like my reading was paying off. I love it when knowledge comes full circle.
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)

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