Punctuation matters.

The famously scant “Itsy Bitsy Teenie Weenie Yellow Polkadot Bikini” — to use the punctuation and spelling on both the record’s label and picture sleeve — of Bryan Hyland’s #1 hit from 1960 is embarrassingly skimpy when it comes to those itsy-bitsy commas and hyphens.

I know 1960 is a little outside my main era of musical expertise. I wasn’t yet buying records or diagramming sentences, but I was at least alive when the song came out. Barely.

With a song title that long — it was the longest-titled #1 hit until “(Hey Won’t You Play) Another Somebody Done Somebody Wrong Song” topped the charts in 1975 — you need some guideposts.

For starters, “itsy-bitsy” is spelled with a hyphen, according to Merriam-Webster, as is “teeny-weeny” (and it’s spelled with ys not ies). And since the two hyphenated terms are interchangeable, meaning basically the same thing, they should have a comma between them. “Polka-dot” is also hyphenated when used as an adjective, or is written as two words when a noun…so, either way, it’s wrong here (but not as wrong as “polk-a-dot,” which I found somewhere).

But that’s nuttin’. The real question is, are the polka dots yellow or is the bikini yellow with some other color dots? (For that matter, is the bikini itsy-bitsy and teeny-weeny or are the dots?) My take on it is that the bikini is very small and has yellow dots, but without some punctuational help, there’s really no way to know for sure since we didn’t have music videos back then.

(I wonder if my infant brain was already forming these questions of dots and bikinis when this song would come wafting over my bassinet from the radio in my parents’ Fall River tenement half a century ago?)

The sheet music doesn’t help. A Google images search returns a split decision, but leans toward the bikini being yellow. As I see it, for this bikini to be yellow, you’d want to have a comma after “yellow.”

For the bikini and not the dots to be really small, you’d ideally want to see a comma after “weeny.” But then, we all know from the context of the song that it’s the bikini that’s embarrassingly small. I mean, really, who gets embarrassed over the size of dots?

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