By The Landlord
“You ain’t nothing but a hedgehog, foraging all the time … you never pricked a predator you ain’t no porcupine." - John Cooper Clarke
Welcome to the Song Bar, where we hope what you will find will be music to your ears, and yet, if you’re going for a song, or are facing the music, such phrases could be about any number of things, but oddly not, for the most part, about either music or songs. That’s a peculiarity and beauty of language – just like musical notes, when words rub together, they can act like chemicals, sparking off each other to create an entirely new sound, a new entity, substance, experience.
So this week, where indeed is the rub (Hamlet) with this week’s topic? An idiom is defined is a group of words established by common usage, but crucially, having a meaning not necessarily linked or decipherable from those of the individual words. Idioms can be literal, but they are often more figurative. So for an idiom, the whole is greater, or at least different from its component parts.
If this sounds slightly familiar, then previously one of our esteemed regulars, attwilightlarks, curated a topic that was centred around songs that used proverbs. Idioms were mentioned in the title, but playlists ended up being essentially focused on and comprised mainly indeed of proverbs - sayings that express a general truth or piece of advice. This week’s topic is different, broader, more varied - common phrases and expressions cropping up in song lyrics, and ideally used in interesting, refreshing or entertaining ways.
How does an idiom come into existence? It’s estimated that there are 25,000 in the English language, and more are constantly being created, while others may gradually be forgotten and melt into the dusty shelves of historical darkness. Many come from literature particularly Shakespeare (e.g. wild goose chase, seen better days, cruel to be kind, heart of gold, and you can have too much of a good thing) but also evolve into everyday usage. Some have circulated from different media - perhaps news headlines, or indeed film or song titles by major artists, such as the Beatles or Elvis, and gradually enter the language. But usually it takes many appearances for a common phrase to be aired and eventually take root into common usage.
Idioms and other expressions are formed perhaps because the words work well together, because they are pleasing to the ear, musical, or capture something in our existence and experience. But in the world of song lyrics, using an idiom is often a frame on which to hang a lyrical picture. It could be in title or in a line, but jumps out at you because of its familiarity, but ideally refreshes it, reclaims that cliché to make it into something new.
Let’s start with music-based idioms. Pretty much all the most familiar ones don’t have anything do with music - they combine metaphorically into other contexts. So let’s play this by ear. Does this strike a chord? Well, if not, then you’ve changed your tune. Did you hear it on the grapevine? Di you think out loud? Maybe it’s time to take a bow. But does that mean you’re on the fiddle, or fit as a fiddle? What if you blow your own trumpet or toot your own horn? Or march to the beat of your own drum? Will that mean you hit the right note? If you play it by ear, does that mean you’ll also bang your head? Now you’re like a broken record! Beat it! With bells on! But you can’t unring a bell, even it you’re now clean as a whistle. Maybe it’s time to take it to the bridge. Is there now water under the bridge, and all that jazz? Does that leave us between a rock and a hard place, or is it time to show your metal?
Whether we’re rocking or rolling, on a rock or hard place, song lyrics are hardly likely to pertain to the origin of that phrase, Homer’s Odyssey, in which the hero has to choose whether to sail close to the monster Scylla or the whirlpool Charybdis. But the best ones use common phrases creatively, and truthfully, not, as George Orwell put it using “exhausted idioms, like a cuttlefish squirting out ink”. Incidentally, the same author was guilt of employing common idioms himself, but did so to create a strange hybrid. In his essay, Politics and the English Language, he optimistically announced: “The fascist octopus has sung his swan song.”
So phrases are even more fun when people get them mixed up or combine two in odd, or amusing ways. Here are a few that have variously appeared in common mistaken usage, either by accident or on purpose.
“Throw your ring into a hat.”
"We'll burn that bridge when we get to it."
"We're just two ships that go bump in the night."
"It's not rocket surgery, mate!”
“He smokes like a fish and drinks like a chimney.”
"Necessity is the mother of strange bedfellows."
“You say potato, no one says potaarto.”
“Take it for granite.”
“He’s not the sharpest cookie in the jar.”
“I’m happy as Larry the Clam.”
“All roads lead to Rome weren't built it a day.”
“Getting a head of steam for the gravy train.”
“He kicked the bucket with popped clogs.”
“Up a tree without a paddle.”
So, does Morrissey's hand in glove have a grip in reality? Does the chicken that crosses the road make a clean breast of it? Let’s enjoy some more from the world of film and TV. The 1980s British TV comedy series, Yes Minister, which then became Yes Prime Minister, was a brilliantly written and performed personification of the absurdities of government, game-playing and linguistic gymnastics, as the well-meaning minister, Jim Hacker, is constantly guided and manipulated by his civil servant colleagues.
Jim Hacker: If I can pull this off, it will be a feather in my cap.
Bernard: If you pull it off, it won't be in your cap any more.
Sir Desmond: If you spill the beans, you open up a whole can of worms. How can you let sleeping dogs lie, if you let the cat out of the bag? Bring in a new broom, and if you're not careful, you'll find you've thrown the baby out with the bath water. If you change horses in the middle of the stream, next thing you know you're up the creek without a paddle.
Jim Hacker: And then the balloon goes up.
Sir Desmond: Obviously.
Then, in creator of The Simpsons, Matt Groening’s later work, Futurama. the absurd self-aggrandising Captain Kirk-type space ship commander, Captain Zapp Brannigan utters: “If we hit that bullseye, the rest of the dominoes should fall like a house of cards. Checkmate.”
Let’s now delve into playful, inventively idiotic uses of idioms in films. In an early animation classic,
Disney's Pinocchio, we hear Jiminy Cricket say “You buttered your bread. Now sleep in it!"
"I guess the foot's on the other hand now!” comes that classic line in Airplane! Or from The Naked Gun 2: "Well, it looks like the cows have come home to roost!” Or from Austin Powers: International Man of Mystery (1997): "But unfortunately for yours truly, that train had sailed."
Then there’s this surefire retort by the Dude from the Coen brothers’ The Big Lebowski
Jackie Treehorn: Refill?
The Dude: Does the pope shit in the woods?
Yet while all of these examples are brilliantly scripted surely the best examples of the mixed-up idioms come from the mouths of sports stars and commentators on the spur of the moment. Many absurd Colemanballs-type utterances (named about the BBC commentator David Coleman) are well known, such as “if that had gone in it would have been a goal”, but these are examples where idioms come out all wrong:
“I'm absolutely over the world!” – Bobby Moore after winning the 1966 World Cup final
“United will break caution to the wind.” – Glenn Hoddle
“I can see the carrot at the end of the tunnel.” – Stuart Pearce
"Michael Owen – he's got the legs of a salmon.” – Craig Brown
“Gary Neville is the club captain but has been injured for the best part of a year now and Giggsy's taken on the mantlepiece.” – Rio Ferdinand
“Fabio Capello needs to nail his Hammers to the mast.” – Andy Townsend
“I’d love to be a mole on the wall in the dressing room.” – Kevin Keegan
Do they think it’s all over? No, we’ve only just begun. I hope this has hit the right note, but if not, perhaps it’s time to do this:
But that’s enough nonsense from me and the rest of our Song Bar guests. Now it’s over to you, learned readers, to put forward your examples of lyrics that use idioms and other sorts of common phrases in song, ideally in clever, strange, original or interesting ways. Our very fine Fellow of the Song Bar Department of Phraseology is this week’s guest guru, the scholarly and superb ShivSidecar. Deadline? This Monday at 11pm UK time, for playlists published on Wednesday. We will all sing from the same songsheet? No, but I’m sure everyone will be on song.
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