Tag Archives: language

The Grammar of Song

grammar-someecardsFor Melburnians who love cabaret, the dear old Butterfly Club may have been turfed out of its old home in South Melbourne, but it now has new digs in the city. The shiny new Carson Place venue is tucked down an alleyway, as all the best Melbourne venues and bars are.

I was one of many, many people who helped to fund the Butterfly Club’s move through a Pozible crowd-funding exercise, I’m proud to say. To celebrate the successful fundraising and the imminent launch of the new venue, the Club held a gala evening at the Melbourne Town Hall on 8 February.

One of my favourite acts (and there were many splendid acts at the Gala) was Gillian Cosgriff, who sang a song made of up texts from an ex-beau who didn’t know why she’d dumped him. (Hint: The texts had somethink to do with how fustrated he was that for all intensive purposes he didn’t know definately what had gone wrong.)

I howled with laughter from start to finish, evil grammar nazi that I am. I wouldn’t have lasted a single date before bludgeoning the poor man to death with a Macquarie Dictionary, no matter how pretty he was.

Ms Cosgriff’s song reminded me, however, of the fine tradition of songs about spelling and grammar, as well as the many, many songs that contain painfully incorrect grammar.

There are the famous spelling songs like D-I-V-O-R-C-E by Tammy Wynette and of course Aretha Franklin’s R-E-S-P-E-C-T. I’m also a fan of the linguistic creativity that brought us Take the L out of Lover and It’s Over by The Motels. There’s an important lesson in that one for all of us, I’m sure, even if it’s just that heartbreak can help you learn about ways of placing words on a Scrabble board.

I keep a soft spot in my heart for Bob Marley’s song of the definition of ‘exodus’ (movement of the people, in case you were wondering). Not many people take the time to teach you new vocabulary in a song.

The fabulous satirist Tom Lehrer actually wrote two songs that deliberately taught grammar – LY, which taught listeners how to made an adverb, and N Apostrophe T.

Of course, there are the songs whose primary purpose is to remind you of a grammar rule mainly because the songwriter got the grammar so very, very wrong.

I’m fond of you, Bob Dylan, but you should never have written the lyric ‘lay, lady, lay’. I always think she’s going to lay a big mutant egg across your big brass bed. Did nobody ever teach you the difference between ‘to lie’ and ‘to lay’? Do you not know that you can you can lie on a bed, but you have to lay your head on a pillow; that you can lie on a bean bag, but you have to lay a book on the coffee table? Well. Obviously not.

(By the way, if you don’t know the difference and would like to, if only to avoid my snobbish scorn, check out Grammar Girl’s Quick and Dirty Tips on the subject.)

A lot of other songs containing bad grammar do so by ignoring perfectly good adverbs in favour of grammatically incorrect adjectives. Simple Plan, I do like you, but when in Jet Lag you sing ‘I miss you so bad’, I’m forever mouthing a silent ‘ly’ so that I feel better about singing along.

Here’s a website listing a lot of bad grammar in songs. The songs may be good musically, but beating the language to death with a treble clef is still murder, wouldn’t you say? Offenders include Fergie, Gwen Stefani, Eric Clapton, The Police and Freddie Mercury. Sigh.

Of course, writers can deliberately twist grammar and punctuation to make it technically wrong for artistic effect. I’m all for that. Well, I have to be, because I do it myself.  I maintain, however, that you have to know what the rules are so that when you break them for effect, you actually know the effect you’re trying to achieve.

I guess music remains in a category of its own in this regard, though, because songs and lyrics are not just about pretty and perfect English. They convey personality, emotional states, natural dialect and use of slang, knowing and deliberate use of onomatopoeic and shorthand spelling, and all kinds of linguistic and artistic devices to tell their very short musical stories. They also have to scan and sometimes even rhyme. Many daft things are done in the name of a rhyming couplet, and we must forgive them, especially if the melody is a corker.

Still. Don’t get me started on Alanis Morissette and all the sad or inconvenient but otherwise not actually ironic things occurring in her song Ironic.

So, good people of the interwebs, tell me: what grammatical sins in music really tick you off?

Everything old is new again

xmas  carol

My father recently gave me a charming anthology called The Family Book of Best Loved Short Stories, a Doubleday edition from 1954, edited by Leland W Lawrence. He said he’d seized upon it long ago because it had Rudyard Kipling’s The Man Who Would Be King in its contents.

I took it with me on my recent reading holiday because it contained a lot of stories I’d heard of but never read, including the Kipling piece.

While some of the stories in the book didn’t work so well for me – I’m still not sure of the point of Mark Twain’s The Celebrated Jumping Frog of Calaveras County – it was delightful to be reminded, once more, of the joys of reading stories from earlier eras: especially if  they are stories that you think you know well.

It’s tempting to steer clear of 19th century writing, for example, as the writing style is so much more complex and circumlocutery than contemporary fiction. Perhaps there’s a tendency to think of writing from the era as stodgy and earnest and lacking in humour. But you’d be wrong.

There’s a rakish delight in Thomas Bailey Aldrich’s epistolery Marjorie Daw as two friends exchange letters, and I had to read sections aloud to my other half because they were too funny not to share. I was surprised by the ending (and found a definitely more modern homoerotic subtext that may not have originally been intended). Bret Harte’s The Outcasts of Poker Flat had its devilish moments too, and reminded me of Eric Frank Russell’s later story, Somewhere A Voice.

The greatest treat of the collection, however, was Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol. It’s a story we know well – or think we do – due to countless rehashings in Christmas films, holiday specials and the like. The Blackadder Christmas Special is one of my favourite send-ups of the tale!

But on receiving this book, I realised I’d never read the original. And what a revelation it was!

The story has a flow and elegance, and a distinct rhythm to the language. While the language can be archaic, there’s real music in it, not to mention wit, and some truly splendid imagery. The description of roasted chestnuts piled in ‘apoplectic opulence’ captures beautifully the picture of glossy brown nuts bursting open. The reference to a household full of exuberant children – ‘they were not forty children conducting themselves like one, but every child was conducting itself like forty’ – reminded me happily of my childhood, where my four brothers and I conducted ourselves in this manner most holidays.

There’s even the quite adorable description of Scrooge’s small house tucked into the back streets as though ‘it must have run there when it was a young house, playing at hide-and-seek with other houses, and forgotten the way out again’. Not only is it a wonderfully playful, whimsical description, it gives the reader some hope that, miserable as Scrooge is, maybe there was something innocent about him once and, like the house, perhaps he just got lost and forgot the way out again.

It turns out that returning to the source of a well-worn story can lead you to rediscovering gems, and learning why these writers are considered to be Great Writers in the first place. Dickens has more eloquence and humour than I’d realised; O Henry’s Gift of the Magi isn’t anything like as maudlin and sappy as the story is annually portrayed.

I resist making New Year’s Resolutions, but I think this year I’ll make an attempt to read more of the classics and rediscover for myself what all the fuss is about.

Words are Shapely

While watching a show about design a few months ago, I learned that the use of mixed upper and lower cases on road signs was a deliberate choice. Research showed that people could read the signs from a distance more easily because people could recognise the shape of the word before they could really even read the word.

(For the font nerds, the signs and Transport Medium font were designed by Jock Kinneir and Margaret Calvert. You can download the font here or here )

Certainly, I find sentence case easier to read than ALLCAPS, though the word, sentence or whole paragraph in that format has its place.

The realisation reminded me that there is more to appreciating the English language than simply vocabulary, punctuation and grammar. Sometimes there’s a real pleasure in just the look of a whole word, as though it has artistic resonance and visual meaning beyond the collection of letters and the meaning of the word.

I love how the word awkward looks… well, awkward. I love how the word ‘Melbourne’ jumps out at me from a map even when I’m not wearing my glasses. That word has the shape of home in it. I love how the word ‘parallel’ has its own mnemonic in it, the double ‘l’ which is also a set of parallel lines.

Some languages have alphabets that naturally give of themselves to artistic forms. Arabic’s beautiful flowing script is often used artistically. I have an applique street scene I bought in Cairo in the 1990s, in which the buildings spell out ‘in the name of the compassionate and the merciful’ and the moon is a beautiful crescent-shaped Allah.

I only ever learned a little Arabic during my time in Egypt, though I learned to speak and hear more than I could read or write. Still, I can recognise the words for Allah and halal on sight still. Their distsinctive shapes are reminders of a fascinating period of my life, and a fascinting culture.

Recognising words by their shape and appreciating the art of the shape of language are all lines on the spectrum. It’s all part of loving the written word.

(And then there are the glories of the spoken word and onomatopoeia, but that’s the subject for another post.)

Lessons in Language: All above board and ship shape!

I once wrote a feisty rant about the phrase changing tack (meaning to change one’s approach) and how some folks mistakenly write that as change tact, despite the term’s surely obvious nautical origins. It shouldn’t make me foam at the mouth, and yet it does. Okay. So I’m not necessarily a reasonable human being.

The thing is, knowing the origins of a word can tell us a lot about how to spell the word as well as its meaning. (I go on and on and on about it, I know, I know. The day I stop being passionate about etymology will probably be three weeks after I’m dead.)

Some etymology of words and phrases is steeped in mystery. I wrote about the phrase toe the line a while back to, and recently found that some people claim the phrase’s origins, like changing tack, reside in the language of seafarers. My investigations into nautical-inspired English suggest the term comes from sailors having to line up with a seam in the deck planks. Some sailors were made to stand at the line at attention as punishment, hence the meaning of toe the line meaning to accept authority and obey the rules. Having said that, I’m not yet certain that anyone has been able to definitively lay claim on the phrase.

However, the sea and sailors have clearly given English many words and phrases that are not used in an obviously oceanic sense any more. Take, for shining example, the following words and expressions.

Above board: if everything is above board, it means that everything can be clearly seen and nothing hidden or underhanded is going on. It refers to having all one’s cargo and crew visible on deck. As opposed to hiding half your crew belowdecks with their cutlasses so they can sneak up on you and board your ship once you get into jumping distance. A tactic for blackguards the Dread Pirate Roberts.

To strike; to stop work: apparently, if a lunatic captain tried to put out to sea when it was dangerous, some brave sailors might lower, or strike, the ship’s sails in order to prevent mass suicide.

Three sheets to the wind: sheets, in this case, refers to the ropes which hold sails in place, rather than the sails themselves. If at least three of these ropes fail to be fastened, the sails are all over the place and the ship will, likewise, stagger all over the sea like a drunken bogan on race day.

By and large; generally speaking: by and large actually refer to types of wind. Who knew? Well, sailors, obviously. A large wind is one that is blowing in same direction you’re trying to sail. If the wind is by, it’s… not. Okay, so I’m not a sailor, but the upshot is that a wind can be in your direction, or it can be less favourable, but with the clever use of the right kinds of sails, a ship can travel both by and large. I’m sure I had a point at the start there. Oh look. A bird.

Skylarking: that’s a good word, isn’t it? Full of verve and joie de vivre.  Mucking about like a lark in the sky, and hopefully not crashing to earth, because we know it’s all fun and games until someone loses an eye. Or falls off the rigging, because the term originates in from wantonly playing about in the rigging. I like the use of ‘wantonly’ there. It has pep.

So on that note, I’m off to skylark around with the new novel, and if I fail to get traction with it, I’ll nip down to the pub, end up three sheets to the wind, go on strike from the damned thing and, by and large, wish I’d taken up knitting instead. Don’t worry. It’s all above board.