It traditionally means a scolding, bossy, old, unpleasant woman, possibly with origins from the 17th century and related to the verb to harry, or hassle, and has a certain comical quality, but where does it come up in song lyrics?
Rarely used in modern language, but a rather elevated form of insult, it has cropped up in literature, including in William Makepeace Thackeray’s Vanity Fair: “Why is that tattling old harridan, Peggy O'Dowd, to make free with my name at her supper-table, and advertise my engagement over the three kingdoms?” , and “Husbands only deserve harridans,” wrote William J Locke in The Joyous Adventures of Aristide Pujol. A harridan is also that standard, familiar type of shrew, battle axe, dragon or witch mother-in-law character in plays since the 17th century. Somewhat outmoded and sexist, it could nevertheless be an accurate description of anyone of a bossy nature.
The word itself describes what the person does - harries – but is it used much in lyrics? Here are a couple of examples. From his 1980 album, Growing Up In Public Lou Reed address psycho-sexual issues in How Do You Speak To An Angel?, and theorises that a harridan mother can cause sexual confusion in a shy young man:
A son who is cursed with a harridan mother
Or a weak simpering father at best
Is raised to play out the timeless classical motives
Of filial love and incest.
How does he speak to the prettiest girl
How does he talk to her?
What does he say for an opening line
What does he say if he's shy?
What do you do with your pragmatic passions
With your classically neurotic style
How do you deal with your vague self-comprehensions
What do you do when you lie?
Meanwhile in the early prog-glam era rock of Queen from their second album in 1974, in which mythical references run rife, the band channel fairy characters from Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream, and in what is perhaps an early gay reference from Freddie Mercury, in The Fairy Feller’s Master-Stroke.
Oberon and Titania watched by a harridan
Mab is the queen and there's a good apothecary man
Come to say hello
Fairy dandy tickling the fancy
Of his lady friend
The nymph in yellow
What a queer fellow
The ostler stares with hands on his knees
Come on mister feller
Crack it open of you please.
With a rare live version from the former Rainbow Theatre in Finsbury Park, London.
Are there any other harridans making their opinions known in other songs you might care to mention? If so please share your examples, fictional, factual, nonsense or otherwise, or in comments below would be most welcome, or other unusual words or contexts. Does this song make you think of something else? Then feel free to comment below, on the contact page, or on social media: Song Bar Twitter, Song Bar Facebook. Song Bar YouTube. Please subscribe, follow and share.
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