the square __ the hypotenuse

One of the choirs I sing in started practicing the chorus of the Major-General’s song from Gilbert and Sullivan’s The Pirates of Penzance, very slowly, starting with 

with many cheerful facts about the square of the hypotenuse.

Hang on, shouldn’t that be on the hypotenuse?  At least, that’s what I’ve always thought it was.

Apparently not. The two books on Gilbert and Sullivan’s operas I have both give of, and the video I linked above has it. But, in general, of and on seem to be interchangeable, with a recent preference for of

There doesn’t seem to be an original Greek form of the theorem, whether formulated by Pythagoras or someone else. If there is a difference, it’s that the square on the hypotenuse is an actual square on an actual side of an actual triangle, and the square of the hypotenuse is a mathematical function of the length of that side. To the ancient Greeks, γεωμετρία (geometria) was literally about measuring the earth.

If you are a singer, use what you conductor provides or tells you. If you are a maths teacher, use what’s in your textbook. If you are anyone else, choose one and don’t worry about it.


Five and a little bit over

Gilbert and Sullivan’s The Pirates of Penzance revolves around the fact that Frederick the pirate apprentice is indentured to serve till his ‘one and twentieth’ birthday. Unfortunately, he was born on leap day, which means “That birthday will not be reached by you till nineteen-forty” and he is only “five and a little bit over”. (Actually, the text only says that he was born in “leap year”, but it’s clear that he was born on leap day.)

There has been some discussion as to whether Gilbert didn’t know, forgot or didn’t care that 1900 was not going to be a leap year, in which case the story takes place in 1877, or he knew and cared, in which case it’s 1873. The musical premiered in 1879, but the Major-General boasts about being able to “whistle all the airs from that infernal nonsense, Pinafore“, referring to G&S’s previous musical HMS Pinafore. That premiered in 1878, Gilbert started writing the text in late 1877 and Sullivan wrote the music in early 1878, which makes it very unlikely that someone would know “all the airs” in 1877, but absolutely impossible in 1873. (Issac Asimov wrote a short story to this effect.)

The other problem with time in this musical is that the Major-General’s daughter’s plan to take off their shoes and stockings and paddle in the ocean … on 1 March … in Cornwall.

‘The way I are’

I recently stumbled on a song with the questionable grammar ‘the way I are’. (Any resemblance to ‘the way we were’ in my last post is purely coincidental.) If this is part of any recognised variety of English, I haven’t encountered it before. In searching for more information, I found another song with the same grammar, and those two appear to be the only occurrences on the internet, so I must conclude that it’s not part of any recognised variety of English which has ever been posted on the internet. The first few pages of search results were references to one or other of these songs, then came ‘about 897,000,000′ results of one, two, three or all of those words in some combination or order.

One writer wrote ”Cause I like you just the way you are … Can you handle me the way I are?’, the other ‘Don’t matter who you are, just love me the way I are’. This is not a ‘mistake’, because both writers chose to do it, and I’m sure they’re aware that it’s ‘wrong’. For every other verb in English than be, you and I are followed the same verb form: ”Cause I like you just the way you eat … Can you handle me the way I eat?’ or ‘Don’t matter who you eat, just love me the way I eat‘. (Sorry, I’ve still got eating pizzas on my mind from two posts ago. (There are increasingly risqué and indeed outright rude alternative verbs.))

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pilot v pirate

r0_86_1689_1036_w1200_h678_fmaxphoto: Mudgee Guardian

Earlier this week, the Australian rock singer/songwriter Jon English died following post-operative complications. He was a versatile performer, probably best known as Judas in the original Australian production of Jesus Christ Superstar, as a former convict in Australia’s early colonial period in the mini-series Against the wind, and as the Pirate King in The pirates of Penzance (above).

I will leave it to bigger fans to write extended tributes, but it leads me into discussing a factlet about Pirates which I stumbled across while aimlessly browsing the internet last week. The back-story, as explained by the hero Frederic’s  former nurserymaid now a kind of piratical maid-of-all-work Ruth, is that his father wanted to apprentice him as a (maritime) pilot, but she had (‘through being hard of hearing’) taken him to a pirate. The factlet was that at no point does Gilbert rhyme pilot and pirate.

That may or may be true in the whole work, but is certainly true in Ruth’s song When Frederic was a little lad. Gilbert rhymes pilot with my lot, high lot, vile lot* and shy lot and pirate with gyrate. Both pilot and pirate are naturally pronounced with a reduced second syllable: /paɪlət/ and /paɪrət/. In order for the rhymes to work, the singer must sing full vowels in each: /paɪlɒt/ and /paɪreɪt/.

* I had always thought that the ‘vile lot’ Ruth refers to was the pirate crew, which she later calls a ‘shy lot’. It’s not – the ‘vile lot’ is the pirate’s ‘lot in life’.

I have a song to sing, O

Many children’s poems and songs are cumulative – that is, each verse gets progressively longer, usually in a formulaic way: ‘Old McDonald had a farm’, ‘There was an old lady who swallowed a fly’, ‘This is the house that Jack built’, ‘The twelve days of Christmas’, and more seriously, ‘Green grow the rushes, O’. Some theoretically have no ending (‘Old McDonald’), some have an agreed and perhaps rather arbitrary ending ‘The house that Jack built’, ‘The twelve days’ and ‘Green grow’, and some come to a sudden and absurd halt: ‘There was an old lady’ and Rolf Harris’s ‘The court of King Caractacus’.

Even more seriously, Edgar Allen Poe’s ‘The Bells’ has progressively longer lines and progressively longer verses, which made setting it to music quite a challenge. For my setting, I created three- and four- and five-note melodic motifs which I could repeat as necessary.

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