science of us

The Joy of Misreading Things

Photo: Chevanon Wonganuchitmetha/EyeEm/Getty Images

One of the most reliable sources of humor in my life these days comes from misreading things. Like when I misread the coffee-machine label at my local coffee shop as “grindmother” rather than “grindmaster.” Or when I thought that a story titled, “Why is it such a turnoff when someone truly, really, actually wants to date me?” said instead, “Why is it such a turnoff when someone truly, really, actually wants to die?” Or: “Win a Pile of Very Cool Cookbooks” as “What a Pile of Very Cool Cookbooks.”

I think of these misreadings as related to “mondegreens,” or poetic and funny misheard lyrics, which Maria Konnikova wrote about in The New Yorker in 2014. The term “mondegreen” comes from a mishearing that the author Sylvia Wright described in 1954: She’d thought that a line in a poem her mother often read aloud ended with “… and Lady Mondegreen,” only to eventually learn that the line was “and laid him on the green.” In Konnikova’s explanation, “Mondegreens occur when, somewhere between the sound and the meaning, communication breaks down. You hear the same acoustic information as everyone else, but your brain doesn’t interpret it the same way.” She lists common mondegreen causes — like hearing a new language, or not knowing where the “spaces” go in a string of word-sounds — as well as some of the best examples (like “excuse me while I kiss this guy”). “Our brains are exceptional creators of logical meaning,” she writes, “even when it’s not quite the intended one.” Maybe the same holds true for mis-seen words on the page. Hastily read sentences allow the brain to propose stranger interpretations. Maybe I can give them a name, too. Maybe grindmothers?

Unlike mondegreens, which often require an outsider to point out their existence (“Ah, it’s actually ‘kiss the sky’”), misread phrases can provide immediate solitary amusement. For me, the best part is that misreadings often happen when I’m in a bad mood or feeling sorry for myself, so it’s as if I have some kind of subconscious jester: “Get over yourself. Goofiness abounds.” The misreadings are so unexpected sometimes that they can feel like external gifts, almost like waking dreams.

It’s tempting to think of misreadings (of grindmothers??) as diagnostic somehow, like we misread things based on how we’re really feeling, or what we really think, sort of related to a theory I read recently about earworms: that the songs that get into our heads are somehow based on things we’re thinking but don’t feel we can say out loud, so we sing them instead. (I reject that theory!) Ultimately I think the misreadings are pure absurdity, pure nonsense — or, pure beauty in nonsense. Something like a tiny surrender of control, a representation of the pleasure of surrender. The world and all its problems are very complicated, but every so often it’s nice to be reminded that life can also be very simple, and that we are just animals trying to make sense of things.

The Joy of Misreading Things