Sharpening Old Saws


In the previous issue of the Scholar, I called for updating old saws. More than one of you noted how obsolete “dial” is in phone-related expressions. I like the suggestion to replace “please hang up and dial again” with “please disconnect and reconnect at a later time,” a winner of this contest.

Like rotary phones, pens came up, in traditional sayings based on that writing implement. One reader proposed replacing “the pen is mightier than the sword” with “the blog is mightier than the suicide bomb,” another winner. (Two readers suggested that we replace “pen pal” with “pixel pal,” a good suggestion, but a term that’s already in use.)

Because tapping screens is more common than knocking on wood these days, the proposal that we “tap on polymer” to ensure good luck wins the proposer a tote bag.

I got a kick out of “refusing a drug test in midstream” as an update of “changing horses in midstream,” but the activity itself is more clear than its allegorical meaning. Although it didn’t fit the parameters of the contest, one foresighted reader has raised an intriguing question: Once self-driven cars become the norm, will “in the driver’s seat” refer to a powerless figurehead?


I’ve recently seen references in print to “brass tax,” “Mutton Jeff,” and “profit of God.” Technically speaking, such misheard words illustrate unwitting paranomasia (the latter term referring to punnish word play). Modern linguists call phonetically misspelled words mondegreens, so-called because “laid him on the green” in the Scottish ballad “The Bonny Earl o’ Moray” was misheard by essayist Sylvia Wright as “Lady Mondegreen.”

Song lyrics are especially susceptible to being mondegreenized (if you’ll forgive my verbizing). A Pennsylvania school superintendent once told me that as a child he thought the “one-horse open sleigh” in “Jingle Bells” was actually “one horse soap and sleigh.” Other Christmas carol mondegreens include “Olive the Other Reindeer” and “Round John Virgin.” The opening of our national anthem is easily mangled into “José, can you see?” and “O Canada” into “Air Canada,” as my nephew in Nova Scotia used to sing in grade school.

It once was easy to assume that such childish mishearings would be corrected by adult literacy. But as reading gives way to skimming, and spellchecking replaces learning to spell, the prevalence of mondegreens proceeds apace. Some recent examples I’ve noticed emerge from the pen, or should I say keyboard, of adults include tow the line, Foe Humility Award, ex-patriots, the Florida Straights, text’s bad boy, undo controversy, make due, and not to the manner born.

What mondegreens have you seen recently, or perpetrated yourself? The three most compelling examples will each win a Scholar tote bag.

Submit your contenders here.

Permission required for reprinting, reproducing, or other uses.

Ralph Keyes is the author, most recently, of The Hidden History of Coined Words, which has just been published.


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