Misinterpretation and Human Nature

As the old adage supposedly goes, “Music soothes the savage beast”.   Everyone knows it because everyone misquotes it.  And NO, for the fifty-seventh time, it wasn’t written by William Shakespeare.  Even Bugs Bunny, that wascally wabbit himself, misquoted the actual misquote when he looked at our childhood selves through the magic of television and proclaimed that “Music calms the savage beast”.

Originally penned by William Congreve in 1697 for his play “The Mourning Bride” the real quote goes “Music has charms to soothe the savage breast”.  So why is it that throughout time not only have we misquoted the original saying but even misattributed the person who wrote or was saying it?  Is it human laziness that leaves us unwilling to try and discover the truth behind what we hear and see as being correct?  Was it censorship of a North American culture that couldn’t handle the word breast in a quotable saying?  Or is it our trust that the quote was always written that way and we just accept it as the truth?

In my opinion I feel that part of it is our own desire to own the words that we say.  We adapt something to suit our current emotional or physical needs at any given moment, be it to impress someone we are attracted to, to intimidate someone or to make us sound like we’re smarter than we really are.   An example of this is the game “Telephone” (or “Chinese Whispers” as it once was known) that begins with one person whispering a message to the person standing next to them.  As the game progresses the message is whispered from person to person around the circle until it gets back to the original whisperer.   There is no winner to the game except to see how distorted the message is by the time it circles the entire group.  We want to own the words we speak and make them ours; so we try to embellish what we say or censor a word we are too prudish to repeat.  Sometimes we just aren’t paying attention to the words that are being spoken and instead are paying attention to another part of the whisperer’s anatomy.  Like the curvy bits.  We all like the curvy bits.  This brings us into the next reason we tend to misinterpret the things we hear or read: distortion and distraction.

Imagine this.  We are standing in a crowded room.  All around us music is playing and the background noise is roaring all around us.  That’s when somewhere nearby we hear a snippet of a conversation that we suddenly find interesting.  It strikes a chord with us.  Maybe it had something to do with those curvy bits we’ve been hearing about.  Only we didn’t catch the entire phrase because something had distracted us.  Either we were half-drunk, busy dancing or even ignoring that person until after an hour of them droning on they finally said that one lone thing that caught our attention.  So what happens next?  Easy, our minds fill in the blanks to the best of our ability.  We’ve all seen those Facebook posts sent to us from the best friend of your sister’s roommate’s cousin that show us how we miraculously put together sentences with missing words in our heads.  You know this because you scored a 9 out of 10 on it last week and are secretly proud of that achievement.  Congratulations “Music has charms to soothe the savage breast” has just become “Music soothes the savage beast!” and we’ve come full circle.

To put that into a context we can easily identify with we’ll look at how the lyrics to our favourite songs tend to be the first casualties of misquotation, especially when we’re not paying attention.  Listen to Creedence Clearwater Revival’s song Bad Moon Rising.  Hear it playing in the background and practice some impromptu juggling while it plays.  Odds are that by the time you’ve finally gotten to the chorus you’ve had to restart your juggling attempt at least twice and somehow managed to knock over your nearby coffee mug.  So while you are mopping liquid off the floor chances are that in the background the chorus will start to sing to you that “There’s a bathroom on the right!” and you will believe them.  That is a prime example of our minds trying to fill in the blanks in what we think we hear when the message gets distorted.

This example applies to everything we see or hear in life and is the main reason that we should take the extra time to make sure that our messages are clear and concise.  Not just in music or literature but in everything you say.  Fights have been started in crowded bars for less and we all know that the most general miscommunication in the office occurs when you use the wrong enunciation or emotional emphasis on a word or sentence.  That “breast” might become “beast” and then chances are you’re going to get hit for it (or charged).  Although to be honest, chances are you were going to get hit, sued or charged anyway for saying it.  It is after all, human nature and could be the difference between solicitation and bestiality.  So just practice what you preach and if you are worried that what you say might be misinterpreted you can always  grab some friends and Telephone it around the circle for safety.


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