Yield Right Away


The biggest category of mondegreens (phonetically misspelled words) submitted for Back Talk’s final contest came from song lyrics. Several readers recalled hearing “Gladly the cross I’d bear” as “Gladly the cross-eyed bear” when they were children. One misheard the phrase “totally unprepared” in The Sound of Music’s “Sixteen Going on Seventeen” as “Toto the unprepared.” The daughter of poet Maxine Kumin wrote that when singing “Home on the Range,” her sister used to sing, “Where the deer and the ant look both ways.”

Rock ‘n’ roll elicited “There’s a bathroom on the right” in lieu of “There’s a bad moon on the rise” in Creedence Clearwater Revival’s “Bad Moon Rising.” One reader thought “the girl with kaleidoscope eyes” in “Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds” was actually “The girl with colitis goes by.” Another Beatles lyric–“We all live in a yellow submarine”–was misheard as “We all live and are jealous of Marie” (a winning entry).

During Madonna’s heyday, two readers thought that “prima donnas” were actually “pre-Madonnas.” One considered “grade A ideas” to be “gray day ideas.” Another thought “holistic,” was actually “holy stick” (as in “a holy stick approach”). A different type of holiness was recalled by a reader who thought the holy trinity consisted of “The Father, the Son, and In the Hole You Go” (a second winning entry). Another reader remembered a family home with “four stair” heating. For those who lived in such a house it was important to get their “ducts in a row,” or so one reader thought. A home with constant plumbing problems prompted the young daughter of another reader to mishear Macbeth’s witches chanting “Boil and bubble, toilet trouble” (the final winner).

School-based mondegreens included “If at first you suck a seed, try try [again],” which is what one reader recalled a teacher advising students. On the other side of the desk, a college professor reported having a first-year student who, in a possible Freudian slip, wrote about a “learning curb.” A colleague once read an evaluation of faculty member who the student thought deserved to be a “Ten-Year Professor.”

In the world of medicine, a family doctor probably spoke for many colleagues when reporting how often patients asked about their “prostrate exam.” The patient of another physician inquired about the status of her “very close veins.”

Then there was the young fan who wondered why announcers talked so often about the ball being “out of bounce” during basketball games, and another fan who misheard references to a “full cord press” in the midst of such games.

The best of the rest included:

air on the side of caution
for all intensive purposes
failure to yield right away 
only a hare’s breath between them
all swill that ends swill

My new online column—“Wise to the Words”—will appear here bimonthly. I’m excited about this move, which will give the column more latitude in its size, scope, and timeliness, as well as greater opportunity for reader input. In the process it will evolve from a contest to a conversation. We’ll be able to put our heads together here about the quirks and caprices of modern language. Its model will be William Safire’s late, lamented “On Language” feature in The New York Times. Like Safire’s column, “Wise to the Words” will range widely, covering not just etymology but current usage, catchphrases, clichés, idioms, aphorisms, euphemisms, Britishisms, and other –isms, as well as quotations familiar and unfamiliar.

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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