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Wednesday, 22 June 2011

Ain't Nothing Like a Dame

To return to the subject of song lyrics, I must admit that I am fascinated by the way the use of the double negative always sounds so much rockier, so much cooler and - dare I say it? - younger than the 'correct' English. Picture if you will Tina Tuner in her tiny leather mini-skirt and patent high heels singing about how there isn't any mountain high enough to keep her from her beloved. Or Mick Jagger telling us how he can't get any satisfaction. It just won't do.
Perhaps it's something to do with the fact that the word 'any', which would make the statement grammatically correct, has two syllables and would ruin the scansion or rhythm of the line. 'We don't need any education' for example, simply wouldn't fit the music, even though the poor grammar does suggest that a bit of education wouldn't go amiss!
The double negative is the screenwriter's way of telling us that somebody is working class, a villain (I ain't done nothing, honest!) or ill-educated. It places the speaker in society straight away: an immediate pointer to their background. Unless of course they write pop songs, in which case Public schoolboys and University graduates take to it naturally, for reasons of their own.

Wednesday, 15 June 2011

Oh, Mr Porter!

This afternoon, by a lucky chance, I happened to switch on the radio in time to hear Ella Fitzgerald's glorious voice singing We'll Take Manhattan. Nobody sings it like her. Nobody sings anything like her - and I write this as a fan of the Foo Fighters and others. I always used to think that this song, like so many of Cole Porter's other songs, was a light, delicate bubble of romance; straight-faced and conventional, if one can use such a drab word about such a masterpiece.
Yet in recent years, I attended more closely to the lyrics and found it wry, witty, sarcastic and yet still utterly romantic. Those immaculate lines 'And tell me what street, compares with Mott Street in July?' can perhaps be best appreciated when you have struggled to find a table for dim sum in  the centre of New York's Chinatown in the sweltering summer heat. But once you get the joke, you never hear the song in the same way. You probably knew all this already - pardon me for being a late developer in some matters. If you didn't know, I beseech you to call up Ella singing Porter on Spotify or wherever you can and listen out for the humour. It's there not only in the words but in the way they are put together. Now that's really style!

Monday, 6 June 2011

Cliche - use it or lose it?

A good friend, whose first language is not English, recently asked me what was the difference between a cliche and an idiom. What a good question. After a lot of thought, I came to the conclusion that an idiom is a phrase whose meaning is not evident in its words. Kicking the bucket, buying the farm, peg out, pop one's clogs etc; all of them mean to die, but unless you knew that, you wouldn't know that.
A cliche, on the other hand, is a well-worn phrase that comes pre-packaged like a frozen meal. It has its uses, it's quick and convenient, but nobody is going to be bowled over by its style or originality. Over the moon, high as a kite, singing from the same hymn-sheet; these are all well-worn, familiar phrases. If you are writing to impress, leave them in the deep-freeze, and create something tasty out of fresh ingredients.