07 December 2006

more linguistics fun from Alanis

I notice that piloklok still gets visitors through search-engine queries on the use of the word ironic, especially with respect to the scenarios outlined in the 1996 Alanis Morissette single of the same name. Ms. Morissette, if anything, gave us an opportunity to discuss the intricacies of the semantics of irony. So from a pedagogical point of view, it was a chance to illustrate a few things linguistic, like how the truth of a statement can hinge on the interpretation of a word within it (e.g., the crash of a jetliner carrying a passenger with a fear of flying may be considered ironic, depending on your interpretation of irony, which has a lot to do with the degree of expectation of the outcome).

Morissette has another song from the same record, "Head over Feet", that provides a few more tidbits for those interested in using pop culture to illustrate linguistic points. (Though I'm afraid it's more like pop culture history than pop culture by now).

First, as a tongue-in-cheek teaser, we have the structural ambiguity found in the lyric your my best friend with benefits. Is this guy the best of all the narrator's friends with benefits, or is he the narrator's best friend, who happens to come with benefits?

Second, and worth more text, we have the lyric you held your breath, and the door for me. This at the very least is a talking point for constituency tests and syntactic structure. I can think of two parses here: held [[your breath] and [the door for me]] or held [[your breath] and [the door]] for me; in the latter case me is a beneficiary of both verbs. Probably you would balk at the notion of [the door for me] being a constituent, although the meter of the song (with a half-measure pause before and) suggests just such a structure.

Regardless, both parses look like what's been called a wtf construction, a label I draw from Language Log posts by Mark Liberman and Eric Bakovic. Neal at Literal Minded has devoted special attention to tracking funny coordinations, especially the special case of FLoPs - newest theories available here.

In a wtf construction, a conjunction appears in which the two conjuncts aren't of the same syntactic category. A FLoP conjunction is one in which some element necessarily is structurally parsed as a complemement inside one conjunct, but thematically is a complement of both. The eponymous case is also a song lyric: the whiskey drowns and the beer chases my blues away. Structurally, the element my blues can only parse within the second conjunct, as a complement of chase X away, yet thematically is also interpreted as a complement of drowns.

Here's what's curious about Morissette's wtf lyric: it combines an idiomatic use of hold with a literal one. That is, simply structurally it's not a wtf construction: [your breath] and [the door] are both noun phrases. But held your breath here is idiomatic (I presume), referring to showing patience, and so its meaning is not compositional. As a result, one conjunct, [your breath], contributes no meaning by itself, while the other, [the door], contributes meaning compositionally. It's equivalent to saying "you kicked the bucket and a field goal today".

For fans of symmetry, it could be that this is an inverse of the FLoP: canonical FLoPs restrict a constituent structurally but not thematically, while this one restricts a constituent thematically but not structurally.

I would even go so far as to say this is still a wtf construction even if the fella involved was literally holding his breath - simply because the holding in this case is a different type of action. In this case a parallel would be you held a party and the door for me. Likewise, if holding the door is itself also idiomatic (plausibly it may have been), it's still an odd coordination, since both complements still go with different holdings. For comparison, imagine you wrote your own destiny and a check your ass can't cash, or you let the cat out of the bag, your hair down, the wind out of my sails, and bygones be bygones. Head scratchers all around.

You can argue all day about whether these issues, along with Morissette's broad interpretation of irony, illustrate flexibility and innovativeness of language or haste and sloppiness of lyrical composition. I'm not interested in either praise or criticism of her work, though I would be curious about a theory of what precipitates wtf constructions.

6 Comments:

At Sat Dec 16, 03:57:00 PM 2006, Blogger Neal said...

I never caught this ambiguity between [best [friend with benefits]] and [[best friend] [with benefits]], and I think the reason is that friends with benefits was not in common usage in 1995, when this song was playing on the radio. I remember being amused by the clever extension of with benefits to mean "non-Platonic relationship", and only almost a decade later did I start hearing the people talk about "friends with benefits" along with "hooking up", etc. Furthermore, Alanis primes us for the [[bf][wb]] by saying in the previous line, "You're my best friend," before amending it to "best friend with benefits". I've wondered, though: Is this song the origin of the term friend with benefits, or has it been antedated? Nothing appears on the ADS archives on the matter.

 
At Sat Dec 16, 04:45:00 PM 2006, Blogger Bob Kennedy said...

For fun I just checked LexisNexis, which I expect would have some lag compared to spoken usage. I figured a pre-1995 citation would confirm the phrase to be older than the song, but otherwise we'd have no firm conclusion.

The earliest appearance of those three words together (in newspapers) is 1998: Sports Page; ATHLETE'S SPOTLIGHT, The Atlanta Journal and Constitution, October 24, 1998. It's a profile of a high school volleyball player, and it's not clear that she is using the phrase as it is now used:

Favorite star: Daniel Day Lewis
Favorite musical group: The Cranberries
Idea of a dream date: "To be with a guy who is like a best friend with benefits. I hate weird situations."
Favorite TV show: "Dawson's Creek"


The earliest actual usage is a piece on teenage slang: High school sociology, Christian Science Monitor (Boston, MA), April 24 2000.

I will search desperately for older usage so we can attribute it to someone else. Despite my defense of her grasp of irony, I don't want to give her credit for anything she's not due. Maybe usenet would be a good place to look.

 
At Sat Dec 16, 05:26:00 PM 2006, Blogger Bob Kennedy said...

And just to follow up - I used Google Groups to search Usenet, and the earliest appearance of "friends with benefits" there is from Dec 6 1996, on alt.romance. It also directly quotes Morissette:

The way I always envisioned a boyfriend-girlfriend relationship, as quoted from Alanis Morrissette, is 'best friends with benefits'.

I ran the search again with friend singular, and it gets quite a few hits that just quote the lyrics. The earliest non-quotation is from April 1996, from a post on alt.personals.

So over to Wikipedia, which notes the connection: The phrase "friends with benefits" was popularized in the mid-1990s by the Alanis Morissette song Head Over Feet. I guess it's fair to say the song helped diffuse the phrase, but I still wonder if she heard it from some other relatively clever wag.

 
At Sun Jan 14, 03:33:00 AM 2007, Blogger John Potts said...

Could I add the point that some of these pairings eg (held your breath and the door) are examples of zeugma?

An instance from Cuddon (A Dictionary of Literary Terms, 1976) from Pope's The Rape of the Lock, with examples in the third and fifth lines:

Whether the Nymph shall break Diana’s Law,
Or some frail China Jar receive a Flaw,
Or stain her Honour, or her new Brocade,
Forget her Pray’rs, or miss a Masquerade,
Or lose her Heart, or Necklace, at a Ball....

 
At Sun Jan 14, 04:33:00 PM 2007, Blogger Bob Kennedy said...

Indeed, zeugma is an appropriate term for this kind of coordination ... syllepsis as well, if what I read on the Wikipedia entry for zeugma is correct. I had not included either as terminology simply because the structure of coordinations is not my specialty, but thanks for the tip.

 
At Sat Aug 04, 12:49:00 AM 2007, Blogger Anton Sherwood said...

The song Have Some Madeira, M'Dear by Flanders & Swann indulges in such constructions as: "she made no reply, up her mind, and a dash for the door."

 

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