Dah dah Dah

Two weekends ago our niece treated us to lunch at a Korean restaurant, for a combination of Australian Mother’s’ Day and Korean Parents’ Day (even though we’re not actually a mother and parents). We were sitting within sight and sound of a medium-sized screen playing K-pop girl groups. I got thinking, not for the first time (for example, the previous time we went to that restaurant) how indistinguishable most of the singers, groups and songs are. At least to me, but that might be because I’m a non-Korean man my age and my general unfamiliarity with K-pop girl groups. I could probably say the same about most current-day US/UK/Australian pop music. No doubt they become more distinguishable with exposure and practice. 

A few days later I was listening a video of songs of the 1960s, 70s and 80s. One song started which I didn’t recognise but could tell that the singer was Neil Diamond. (Don’t judge me!) A moment later …

Sweet Caroline (Dah dah Dah …)

Oh, that one!

But I have no idea how the chorus goes after that, not even the melody and certainly not the words. 

Anyone’s ability to distinguish any music or performers depends on exposure and active, repeated listening. (I tend to listen to music while I’m working, though many classical music videos come with scrolling scores, which I tend to pay more attention to when I’m not working.) Not surprisingly, I’m better at classical music and 1970s US/UK/Australian pop. Two years ago my wife and I were driving in the Blue Mountains. She turned on the radio and I recognised the voice of the presenter (who I know) of Australia’s leading classical music interview/discussion show. He interviewed the author of a book about Beethoven and his milieu and finished with a piece of loud and grand orchestral music. My wife asked me if I knew what it was and I told her Beethoven’s 9th symphony. She said “Are you sure?”. I said “… Yes”.

(A few minutes later) I’ve just listened to Sweet Caroline and realised that I knew the introduction/interlude and vaguely the rest of the chorus, but the verse is still a complete non-memory. I also remembered four chords and originally wrote (da Dah dah Dah).

Related to this is that list videos of No 1/greatest/favourite songs tend to play just the most recognisable part, which is usually the chorus. 


“Some dance to remember”

One day when I was at high school, some representatives of the school newspaper asked random students what our favourite song was. When the next issue of the paper came out, there was The Eagles’ Hotel California, with … one vote. 

I don’t know why some songs remain in the individual or collective mind and others don’t. Some super-famous songs basically disappear almost without a trace, while others which were mildly popular at the time become classics. Hotel California was no 1 on the US Billboard Hot 100 singles chart for one week in May 1977. I can’t find any record of its chart performance in Australia. It certainly wasn’t no 1 or one of the top 25 singles that year.

It’s sometimes hard to say how much of my memory of a particular song is from the actual time, and how much is from encountering them on compilation cassettes, CDs or Youtube videos. Some songs were and are extensively featured on compilations and some aren’t. It was easy to spot, by their absence, the singers and groups (or their production companies) which didn’t licence their songs. 

Continue reading

Ceiling wax

One song I remember from my childhood is Puff, the magic dragon, sung by Peter, Paul and Mary and written by Peter Yarrow and Leonard Lipton. For some time I wondered what

ceiling wax

is. I don’t know how I found out that it is, in fact

sealing wax.

I obviously knew about ceilings before I knew about sealings.

Ceiling is a strange word. It ends with -ing, but it’s not related to a verb; we don’t usually ceil ceilings like we build buildings. (Someone has flippantly suggested that we should call them builts.) In fact we do, or buildingers do, whether they call it that or not. Dictionary.com records the verb ceil, meaning

1. to overlay (the ceiling of a building or room) with wood, plaster, etc.
2. to provide with a ceiling 

dating from 1400–50, from late Middle English celen to cover, to panel, followed by a rather vague < ? 

Seal is ultimately from Latin signum and is related to sign. The animal seal is from Old English with cognates in Old Norse and Old High German. There is a story that one holder of the British government office of Lord Privy Seal objected to being addressed as such because he wasn’t a lord, a privy or a seal.  

While I was researching for this post, I found a blog called of ceiling wax, which is about “reading YA, graphic novels and the spaces in between”. Its not-immediately-named author quotes Lewis Carroll’s The walrus and the carpenter (text, Wikipedia), which I’m not as familiar with and didn’t think of. She/he also originally mistook this for ceiling wax.

“The time has come,” the Walrus said,
“To talk of many things:
Of shoes–and ships–and sealing-wax–
Of cabbages–and kings–
And why the sea is boiling hot–
And whether pigs have wings.” 

Some of Carroll’s poems are direct parodies of the poems Alice Liddell would have been familiar with, but this seems to be totally original. 

PS 3 Oct: information about the poems Carroll parodied.

A prescriptivist’s playlist

I’ve been listening to a lot of pop song compilations recently. With my tongue planted firmly in my cheek:

All shaken up
Another somebody did somebody wrong song
Bobby McGee and I
Doesn’t it make my brown eyes blue?
I can’t get any satisfaction or I can get no satisfaction
I have you, babe or I’ve got you, babe 
Lie, lady, lie
Lo que será, será
Love me tenderly
Mrs Jones and I
There isn’t any mountain high enough or There’s no mountain high enough
Two fewer lonely people in the world
You haven’t seen anything yet or You’ve seen nothing yet

1) One of these definitely doesn’t belong here, because the original is unquestionably correct (or at least is questionable in another way). A free lifetime subscription to this blog to anyone who can point out which.

2) I stuck with titles, being easier to search for. I’m sure there are many more titles and many, many more lyrics. You can search for ‘pop music grammar errors’ to find more examples of ‘errors’, including within song lyrics. Some of these ‘errors’ actually are, but most of the lists fail to take into account that …

3) Informal spoken (or sung) English exists. I can (in some cases only just) accept each of the originals here as common informal spoken (or sung) English. That doesn’t mean that I say or write them, or would accept them without question in an ESL class. I said many times “Many people say X, but ‘correct, exam English’ is Y”.

[PS It’s possible that Two less lonely people in the world is prescriptively correct, too, if it is interpreted as Two + less lonely + people. But it’s hardly romantic to say “Before I met you, I was lonely. Now I am … less lonely.”]

A new unit of hearing loss – the Jagger

In my last post, I mentioned that a colleague had mentioned the Rolling Stones song 2000 light years from home. I’m not a Stones fan and didn’t know it, so I searched for it and found the video and lyrics, started the video and … couldn’t hear any lyrics. Maybe it was an instrumental piece, or an instrumental version of a song, but the video said “Official”. I finally thought to flip my headphones, and there was Mick. 

I have been significantly deaf in one ear since contracting measles at an early age. I wasn’t sure if I’d mentioned that here; a quick search doesn’t show that I have. I’ve had some problems with headphones before, but this was just another level. 

That evening, I realised that despite several listens, I had no clear memory of what the song actually sounded like, except that it had a prominent keyboard part. The next morning I listened again and … could’t hear any keyboard. It seems that the vocal is entirely on one track, the keyboard (Brian Jones) is on another and the the guitars and drums are on both. When I flipped the headphones again, I could just sense … something in that ear, but wouldn’t have known that it was a voice, or Mick, or what the words actually are. The only way I can get the full effect is to to listen without headphones. But with one or two people in the house all day, I use the headphones. 

My mother told me that I had moderate hearing loss in one ear. Later, I realised that she was probably understating that. On the scale of mild, moderate, moderate-severe, severe and profound hearing loss, I am at least severe – the audiogram I found shows me going off the bottom end of the scale at 80 dB. In one ear. Fortunately, I have normal enough hearing in my other ear. Some years ago, I asked my father what he knew, and he said very little; my mother had taken me to audiologists all those years ago. 

This hasn’t stopped me studying classical music (specifically piano) and singing in choirs, but has had a number of other consequences, especially easily becoming overwhelmed in enclosed, noisy spaces. Also, if I can’t hear Mick directly in my bad ear, it makes me wonder what else I’ve missed out on along the way. The fact that I am now working as a legal editor, either in a mostly-quiet office or at home, isn’t coincidental. 

Meanwhile, how far is 2000 light years? This page gives the approximate thickness of the plane of the Milky Way galaxy at the Sun’s location as 1500 light years, and the distance to Deneb as 3200 light years, if that helps. Certainly, we’e talking on a galactic scale. But the song mentions Aldebaran between mentioning 1000 light years and 2000 light years. But Aldebaran is (only) 65 million light years away.

Trail mix tape

Several years ago I posted about the distance 10,000 miles, which occurs in several songs. I suggested that it’s the archetypal long distance because it is the furthest away (in nautical miles) one can travel on Earth. (Presumably it came into use after long-distance sailing became common.) I mentioned that A space oddity has the distance 100,000 miles, which is less than half-way to the moon.

This morning a colleague mentioned that today is Trail Mix Day. I said in a group email that I was going to make a selection of songs and call it a trail mix tape (not an original joke), and suggested These boots are made for walking, Over hill, over dale, Climb every mountain, I’m gonna be (500 miles), 500 miles away from home and 10,000 miles. I pondered what longer distances are mentioned in songs. After I sent that email, I also thought about Fly me to the moon and The final countdown (“We’re heading for Venus”). Then a colleague replied with 2000 light years from home, which I topped with Across the universe, Stairway to heaven and Highway to hell (though those don’t mention actual distances). 

Apropos the last two, there are several cartoons with two men wearing a Led Zeppelin and AC/DC t-shirt respectively. One version has the Led Zep fan saying “We split ways here”.

between you and I

Several weeks ago at the gym I heard a song which begins:

There’s a thousand miles between you and I. 

Two years ago (to the day, coincidentally), I posted about the usage of the equivalent of you and I/me as subject, direct object and object of a preposition, so I wasn’t going to post just about that. (I seem to remember that the next song correctly had you and me after a verb or preposition.)

Yesterday I posted about the song Yesterday, and Batchman, who has been my number 1 commenter recently, said, among other things:

In general, using pop songs to illustrate grammar treads on risky ground. Think about all the songs with some variant of “for you and I” in them.

Continue reading

Yesterday, now – grammar in pop songs

Yesterday all my troubles seemed so far away

Yesterday is a good word to prompt for past simple tense: Every day I ____ pizza, Yesterday I ____ pizza, Every day this week I ____ ____ pizza.

Most past simple verbs are regular and made by adding -ed to the base form (seem, seemed), but about 100 of the most frequently used and important are irregular and change in other ways (eat, ate, eaten) or not at all (put, put, put).

Now it looks as though they’re here to stay

Now is not a good time to demonstrate present simple. For action verbs, now usually uses present simple: Now I am eating pizza, not *Now I eat pizza. Compare now meaning ‘nowadays’: When I was young I didn’t eat pizza and Now I eat pizza. But looks here is a state verb, which rarely uses present simple: Now it looks as though they’re here to stay v ?Now it is looking as though they’re here to stay. Compare something which is more changeable: An hour ago the sky was clear. Now it looks/it’s looking as though it is going to rain/like it will rain/like rain. (A better prompt for present simple is ‘every day’.)

Continue reading


On 29 May 1913, one of the biggest bangs in classical music history took place in the Théâtre des Champs-Élysées in Paris, being the premiere of The Rite of Spring, a ballet by Igor Stravinsky. A combination of the music, stage design, costumes, story and choreography led to a near-riot (or an actual one, depending on whose account you read. In an interview some time later, Stravinsky referred to Vaslav Nijinsky‘s “knocked-kneed and long-braided Lolitas”. There is very little information about the interview, but it is obviously some time later because 1) it was filmed and is now viewable on Youtube, 2) Stravinsky looks considerably advanced in years and 3) he uses the name Lolita in that way, placing the interview after the publication of Vladimir Nabokov’s novel in 1955 (when Stravinsky was 73). (Indeed, the poster of the video suggests the early 1960s.)

A lolita (more often lower-case, but Pages for Mac just upper-cased it), is now an alluring (at least to a certain kind of man) older girl or young teenager. (Nabokov’s narrator specifies the age range nine to 14; he also calls them demoniac, placing the blame on them rather than himself.) Even though The Rite of Spring is about a pagan fertility ritual, it is questionable as to how alluring the dancers were or are, or were or are meant to be.

But the name Lolita goes back further than Nabokov’s novel. Dolores is a good Spanish name (Maria Dolores, Saint Mary of the Sorrows), which became Lola, which became Lolita. 

Continue reading

Every cloud possesses a silver lining

Writing about David Essex yesterday reminded me that I’ve been wanting to write about another song of his, “Hold me close“.

Twice, he sings:

Every cloud’s got a silver lining

But the final time, he sings:

Every cloud has a silver lining

I was going to write at length about ‘ve/’s got v have/has (note that very few people say/write have/has got in full), but I got very confused very quickly and don’t want to confuse you. I thought more about I’ve got and I have because we talk more about I than we do about every cloud. As well as I’ve got and I have, there’s also I got and I’ve gotten, as well as have as a main verb and have as the auxiliary of the perfect. I’ve got a is slightly more associated with British English, but even there I have a is by far the most common.

But I got thinking: do people say or write Every cloud’s got a silver lining or Every cloud has a silver lining? Google Ngrams shows absolutely no results for Every cloud’s got a silver lining, which means that its dataset does not include 1970s English pop songs. A general Google search shows about 1,050,000 results for “every cloud has a silver lining” (in quotation marks, for an exact match) and about 1,040 for “every cloud’s got a silver lining”, most of which are references to this song. Worryingly, Google suggests every clouds got a silver lining, for which there are 935 results, most of which are references to this song. I’m not surprised that people who create websites of song lyrics don’t how to use apostrophes, but I’m worried that Google doesn’t. 

Many proverbs circulate in slightly different forms, but this one is remarkably stable (and also Every dog has its day, which sprang to mind).

(I thought I’d written a previous post about I’ve got and I have in pop songs, but I can’t find it.)