Some Issues Deserve a Good Hearing

Rob Kyff on

Remember Emily Litella, the befuddled TV editorialist played by Gilda Radner on "Saturday Night Live" during the late 1970s?

Each week Emily would launch into a passionate diatribe based on her misunderstanding of a single word. "What was all the fuss," she would wonder, "about violins on TV? ... I thought the Leonard Bernstein concerts were just lovely."

Other tirades hinged on her mishearing "legal rights" as "eagle rights" ("The next thing you know we'll be giving them to pigeons"), and "busing school children" as "busting school children" ("Mean policemen are arresting little children.").

When informed of her mistake, she would always reply. "Oh. I'm sorry. Never mind."

Such slips of the ear can bring laughs in real life too.

True story No. 1: A guitarist and flautist I know occasionally team up to play classical music at small parties and receptions. So, when a friend asked them to perform for a meeting of the Audubon Society, they envisioned a polite gathering of sedate bird watchers.

When the duo arrived at the hall to begin playing, however, they noticed that the audience was decidedly UN-orthinological. In fact, the crowd was male, jocular and robust. When guys began shouting requests for them to play boisterous songs like "New York, New York," they knew something was wrong.

Only when the business portion of the meeting began did the bewildered musicians realize they had misheard the original request. This was a meeting of the Auto Body Society.


True story No. 2: When a new building was completed in 1972 at the school where I teach, the distinguished anthropologist Margaret Mead spoke at the dedication ceremony. During the question-and-answer session following her address, a student on stage would repeat each question for her, sometimes rephrasing it for clarity.

"Dr. Mead, what do you think of euthanasia?" an audience member asked. The student on stage, who knew Mead had once studied adolescents in the South Pacific and had written a book titled "Coming of Age in Samoa," relayed the question as "What do you think about the young people in Asia?"

True story No. 3: A few years ago, one of my teaching colleagues reminded his history students to purchase a copy of "A People's History of the United States" by Howard Zinn. "Don't forget to buy Howard Zinn!" he said.

The next day, one of his students arrived with a copy of E. M. Forster's novel "Howard's End." You see, "Howard Zinn" sounds like... Oh, never mind.


Rob Kyff, a teacher and writer in West Hartford, Connecticut, invites your language sightings. His book, "Mark My Words," is available for $9.99 on Send your reports of misuse and abuse, as well as examples of good writing, via email to or by regular mail to Rob Kyff, Creators Syndicate, 737 3rd Street, Hermosa Beach, California, 90254.

Copyright 2023 Creators Syndicate Inc.




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