February 08, 2007

"Smite them hip and thigh"

Dan Everett wasn't one of the 573 people who commented on Dick Cavett's It's only language essay, but he definitely has an opinion, which he sent me by email.

It is time to take a stand. So I will, however low the platform I am standing upon.

I love Dick Cavett. He deserves our love and respect if for no other reason than he had John Lennon on on September 08, 1971 to discuss, for the first time on US live tv, the breakup of the Beatles and again on May 05, 1972 to play 'Woman is the nigger of the world', which no other show or network wanted to broadcast. It was extremely controversial. And his wit and criticisms (however subtle) were up there with the Smothers Brothers in providing moral support to those of us males still trying to avoid going to Vietnam (either because we were afraid of getting killed or because we didn't think there was any particular reason to kill Vietnamese).

So he now says that people might profit from thinking more about the words they use. As a linguist I know that it is naive and silly to tell people that. Their words will take on whatever meanings they want them to and our job is just to watch and observe. But I am considering therapy from all the times I hear 'VERB you and I' (which is why I cannot bear to hear Sting's stupid song about kissing his woman in some old barley fields).

Not as a linguist, but as a private citizen, I applaud Cavett and say 'Smite them hip and thigh'.

Tell it, brother!

[John Cowan sent email to point out that Sting's barley-fields song, "Fields of Gold", doesn't actually have any instances of "you and I" in it, in any grammatical position. After some consultation with friends and relations, Dan suggests that he probably have meant "Rock Steady", which does have the couplet

Saw an ad in the newspaper that caught my eye
I said to my baby this sounds like the ticket for you and I

(Dan didn't say so, but he might have some other stylistic reasons for disliking the words to "Fields of Gold", and therefore associated the song emotionally with his bad feelings about "you and I" in object position.)

In any case, all this worry about the actual song lyrics is contrary to essential spirit of Dan's reaction. As Stephen Colbert explained, back on October 17, 2006:

And that brings us to tonight's word: truthiness.

Now I'm sure some of the Word Police, the wordanistas over at Webster's, are gonna say, "Hey, that's not a word." Well, anybody who knows me knows that I'm no fan of dictionaries or reference books. They're elitist. Constantly telling us what is or isn't true, or what did or didn't happen. Who's Britannica to tell me the Panama Canal was finished in 1914? If I wanna say it happened in 1941, that's my right. I don't trust books. They're all fact, no heart.

So Dan, stand up to the lyrics police! In your role as a linguist, we know that you care about who actually said what when. But when you react in your role as private citizen, who's John Cowan to tell you that Sting didn't use "you and I" in object position in "Field of Gold"? There's the facts, and then there's the truth. ]

[Update #2 -- Ben Zimmer suggests that the offending song might have been Sting's "I was brought to my senses":

For then without rhyme or reason
The two birds did rise up to fly
And where the two birds were flying
I swear I saw you and I
I swear I saw you and I

And Sim Aberson suggests the Doors' "Touch me":

Now, I'm gonna love you
Till the heavens stop the rain
I'm gonna love you
Till the stars fall from the sky
For you and I


Posted by Mark Liberman at February 8, 2007 09:09 AM