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Why Jagger's double negative does not mar my Satisfaction

Do the standards of English in pop music matter? The answer, my friend, is whifflin' in the wind ?

There is unfinished business from last week. What do ostrobogulous and those other obscure words, plucked from a book called The Wonder of Whiffling, actually mean? But first, I must deal with an issue that has troubled me since I suggested that an unwritten rule of pop music was that its lyrics should routinely ignore basic principles of English and make no sense if read on the page instead of heard on a record.

Some readers responded with the reasonable point: "Does it matter? It's only pop music after all." They are right. So are others who argue that there are countless honourable exceptions to my rule in any case. Closer scrutiny of pop does reveal plenty of literacy; a song may have intelligible lyrics and still succeed. It is not even necessary for songwriters to avoid slang and informal language. The Rolling Stones' hit, known in short as Satisfaction, would sound absurd if Keith Richards had obeyed grammarians, avoided the double negative of "I can't get no satisfaction" and persuaded Mick Jagger to sing: "I am unable to obtain any satisfaction."

The Stones retain much of their energy and creative power, but it is not for the lyrics that I enjoy their music. Bob Dylan, in the earlier work with which I am most familiar, is different, a poetic genius, and I have not heard a better opening line than this, from Positively 4th Street: "You've got a lot of nerve, to say you are my friend." I expect an argument on that proposition, too. Recently, I treated myself to the remastered edition of Carole King's classic 1970 album Tapestry. The songs sounded as fresh as they did 40 years ago, but I also believe her lyrics are among the most compelling in pop music. No song known to me captures the wretchedness of teenage romantic disappointment better than Will You Still Love Me Tomorrow?

Folk songs are another source of great wordcraft. I remember hearing June Tabor, an accomplished English singer, explain what drew her to Annachie Gordon, a ballad on the common theme of the daughter who disobeys parental instructions on her choice of marital partner. It is a long song, but she feels not a single word is wasted. Leon Rosselson, a fiercely anti-Zionist London Jew, writes with eloquence and wit on many subjects. His lyrics describing what being Jewish meant to his father, and on injustices committed in the religion's name, are magnificent, and even a neoconservative, provided he possessed an open mind, could admire his story of an ageing political rebel, Song of the Old Communist.

Lest anyone should suspect I am going soft, I should add that pop music has also committed many crimes against the English language. It would take a long leap from applauding the lyrical excellence of a few to feel forgiveness towards the 1980s British band Black Lace for Agadoo. Sensitive readers should avert their eyes now: "Agadoo-doo-doo, push pineapple, shake the tree. Agadoo-doo-doo, push pineapple, grind coffee."

If you find those lines bizarre, you may wish to apply the word ostrobogulous to them. It is one of the old English words assembled by Adam Jacot de Boinod, whose surname I inadvertently abbreviated last week to Jacot, for his book on whiffling which, in case you did not know, is the act of moving or thinking erratically. As for the other examples quoted last week, which had been selected from the book for a column on words in December's edition of the magazine Reader's Digest, accidie means apathy, to cachinnate is to laugh loudly, you fornale if you spend money before earning it and a smidsy is a motorcycle accident formed by the acronym of "sorry, mate, I didn't see you".

That leaves one, godwottery, the pretentious use of old language. I will try to ensure no further instances of this practice occur in My Word. Colin Randall is contributing editor to The National and may be contacted at crandall@thenational.ae

Updated: January 30, 2010 04:00 AM

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