That means WHAT? Misinterpretations of common turns of phrase

August 8, 2012

I’m listening to Gillian Flynn’s book Gone Girl right now (which is awesome). Early on, there is a scene where a husband recalls, fondly, how his wife misheard some song lyrics. Instead of hearing Phil Collins sing "She seems to have an invisible touch, yeah,” Amy hears "She takes my hat and puts it on the top shelf."  This reminds me of my friend Liz, who has delighted me over the years with her misreading of song lyrics. Once, we were were at a bar and the Police’s “So Lonely” was on and Liz was singing along. “Um, exactly what are you singing there?” I asked her. “Simone-y,” she replied. Also, she once thought “How can we be lovers if we can’t be friends?” was actually “How can we be lovers if we can’t be Ed McMahon.”

How endearing, how charming. I would never do anything like that, of course.

Until, of course, I realized recently that while it wasn’t song lyrics, I had been misinterpreting a common turn of phrase my entire life.

I was listening to a podcast recently, where the host and guest discussing the difference between shoegazing and navel-gazing. I had heard of shoegazing before: It’s a type of music where the musicians stare gloomily at their feet, refusing to interact much with the audience. But it had never occurred to me before that navel-gazing actually involves staring at one’s own navel.

For some reason, my entire life, when I had heard the phrase “navel-gazing,” I always thought it meant looking at somebody else’s navel, and to make this more embarrassing, I assumed it meant from a particularly, um, shall we say vulnerable vantage point? I am talking about a sex act here, basically, because I guess my mind is in the gutter.

I always suspected that I didn’t really understand the true definition of “navel-gazing” because whenever I heard it used, it didn’t quite fit the context I heard it in, but the funny thing is that I assumed it wasn’t me — it was just a dumb imprecise phrase that people pulled out when they didn’t have the right descriptor on-hand. Plus, I will defend myself here: actual, physical navel-gazing seems quite uncomfortable and impractical. Navel-gazing, of course, means to be overly self-absorbed, but I guess in my mind if you were to physicalize the act of being self-involved, it would take the shape of someone closing his or her eyes in a satisfied manner and smiling smugly (sort of like the President/this dog), not bending over to look at your tummy.

Apparently this is just me, however. “How did you think it meant that?” my husband asked, when I confessed that not only did I not know what “navel-gazing” meant, I had assumed it meant something rather dirty. Then he laughed at me, for a long time.

So please help me out here — if not with song lyrics, are there any common phrases that you completely misinterpreted, and if so, what did you think they really meant? Maybe your interpretation is actually superior to the original.