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May I have a word: These mangled metaphors really break the cake

Phrases that are so close to being right — and yet so far.

One reader has been stockpiling what she calls "syntactic/linguistic blends and other funny utterances” since 1982.Dina Photo Stories/Adobe

Last time, I invited you to send me mixed metaphors and similar “ludicrous tangles of figurative language,” such as “He’s not the sharpest cookie in the jar.” The responses I got surprised me in a few ways.

For one thing, there were especially many of them — so many that I had to contrive an excuse to reject worthy submissions. I decided to back-burner anything that its sender might have simply dreamt up and also malapropisms (think Yogi Berra: “It’s déjà vu all over again”), which I’ve squirreled away for future use. To stay in the game, an entry had to somehow let me know that the sender had said it or heard it or read it.


For another thing, few readers who admitted that they or their loved ones have mangled the language expressed any embarrassment.

Ariane Belkadi, of Belmont, wrote: “When my sons were young and I was trying to teach them table manners, I made the error once of telling the youngest ‘Don’t chew with your mouth full.’ To this day, they still mock me about it.”

Dave O’Connor, of Bourne, reported: “I once said ‘That train has sailed.’ I liked it so much that I occasionally drop it into a conversation to see if people are paying attention.”

Dale Tweedly, of Seekonk, told me that his brother used to say “If we play our cards right, we can kill two stones with the same bush.” Mark Nardone wrote: “My loving wife of 37 years has a particular talent for mixing metaphors. My favorite: ‘The squeaky worm gets the oil.’”

Of course, readers also told tales about people other than themselves and their family members.

Tom Price, of Nahant, “knew a lawyer who during high-pressure discussions would retort: ‘We’ll burn that bridge when we get to it.’” When David Nugent, of Nashua, N.H., was in school, he had a hockey coach who was known to say “You’ve buttered your bed — now sleep in it.”


Naomi Angoff Chedd, of Brookline, wrote: “I have heard these words spoken, I swear: ‘You’ve baked your cake. Now lie in it’ and ‘Don’t let the beans out of the bag.’ A librarian said that!”

And John Lane, of East Falmouth, observed: “Sports interviews are a gold mine for this sort of thing. I swear I once heard someone say ‘It’s game seven, but we’re at home, so we’re in the driver’s seat with our backs to the wall.’”

Yet another thing that surprised was that some readers had whole lists of linguistic manglings at the ready to send me.

Lisa Guertin, of Osterville, reported: “For years and years at work, I kept the ‘Wall of Shame.’ If anyone butchered a metaphor or idiom, we would immediately stop the meeting and call them out. Some memorable ones: ‘Let’s go for the low-hanging soup,’ ‘That really broke the camel’s straw,’ and ‘She has a craw in her bonnet.’ By the time I retired last March, the list had grown to three pages.”

Stephanie Oddleifson explained that she’s been collecting “syntactic/linguistic blends and other funny utterances” since 1982 and sent me 20 pages of them. A few choice ones were “a bold-faced lie,” “chew the breeze,” “They’re as different as black and night,” “It was only a scratch on the iceberg,” “I got up this morning at the crack of the birds,” “We have a lot of projects in the fire,” and “He threw the ball back into my ballpark.”


Those 20 pages win Stephanie the cake: I hereby award her bragging rights. Then again, if I were to anoint a single mixaphor as top dog, it would be Mark Nardone’s wife’s “The squeaky worm gets the oil,” so, Mark, I award you and your wife bragging rights too.

Now on to the new challenge. Joel Angiolillo, of Weston, told me that when a situation calls for tact rather than a straightforward expression of opinion, “The code word around our house is interesting, as in ‘The meatballs were very interesting.’”

Which got me thinking about family code words. In my house, we’ve employed swordfish in various ways. For a time, my partner and I used it to signal to each other that we were ready to leave a party or other event — though ultimately we scrapped it because swordfish is quite difficult to work into general conversation.

What code words do you use, and when? Send them to me by noon on Friday, March 3, at Barbara.Wallraff@globe.com, and kindly include where you live.

Barbara Wallraff is a writer and editor who lives in Cambridge.