Literal-Minded

Linguistic commentary from a guy who takes things too literally

She Caught My Eye, and I Put It Back

Posted by Neal on January 17, 2005

I took Doug to a birthday party at a roller-skating rink yesterday. It was his first time skating, and after five minutes on the floor he was crying, saying he wanted to go home, that he hated skating, that it was too hard, and his thighs hurt too much from all the splits he’d done. But finally, he agreed to try again, and by the end of the party he was having enough fun that he said he wanted his birthday party there, too.

Today his thighs are still sore, and my whole upper torso is sore from skating beside him in (what else?) skater’s position and heaving him upright when he started to fall. But at least he’s looking forward to going again sometime. In fact, we have to, because I left my skates there.

Anyway, while I was skating my mind naturally turned to Jim Croce’s “Roller Derby Queen.” And as always, I found myself dwelling on this line:

Well, I was just gettin’ ready to get my hat,
When she caught my eye, and I put it back

Man, don’t you hate when that happens?

But seriously, when I first heard that song, I listened to it two or three times before I finally resolved the bizarre anaphora, and realized that the it did not refer back to the most recently mentioned noun phrase–my eye–but to the one before that: my hat. Until then, I thought Jim Croce must have been making a joke about the idiom to catch someone’s eye. He’d been writing the song, trying to fill in the line after caught my eye, and thought to himself, “If to catch someone’s eye means to get their attention, then when they regain their composure, get back to whatever they were doing, that must be putting their eye back, ha ha.” Not a very funny joke, but that was the most sense I could make out of the line.

Now if Croce had said instead,

Well, I was just gettin’ ready to get my hat,
When she showed up, and I put it back

that would be no problem at all, since the only eligible antecedent for it here is my hat.

I’m sure there are people who have heard the song and immediately gotten both readings of the line, and quickly settled upon my hat as the intended antecedent for it. But what I wonder is whether there are people who heard the song and never once, even for a second, considered my eye as a possible antecedent–not because it just didn’t make sense, but because as part of an idiomatic phrase, it can’t be referred to anaphorically? If there are such people, I would hypothesize that for them, the following sentence would be ungrammatical, since it has the idiomatic meaning of caught my eye, and it referring back to my eye:

She caught my eye; yessir, she caught it as soon as she walked into the room.

Is there anyone out there for who (1) has heard this song before, (2) was never thrown off in the slightest by the hat/eye problem? If this is you, what’s your judgment on the example above?

P.S. There are a lot more literal visual interpretations of idioms where I got the eye-catching one, here.

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3 Responses to “She Caught My Eye, and I Put It Back”

  1. Anonymous said

    I think your confusion is augmented by the actual lyrics; the late Mr. Croce was just getting ready to get his hat. As he hadn’t gotten it yet, how could he replace it? Kinda leaves only his eye to be replaced, no?

  2. Neal said

    Y’know, that’s a good point. Would it be OK if someone just said, “I was getting ready to get my hat, but I put it back when…” Hmmm. I’d probably accommodate the actual picking up of the hat between the two clauses in order to get the anaphora.

  3. [...] said “Literally,” I got the same kind of mental image I did when Jim Croce sang, “She caught my eye, and I put it back.” But then Kowalski finished with “He’s only got the one eye,” and I realized that [...]

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