Word & Song by Anthony Esolen
Word of the Week


Word of the Week

“Now then,” says Saint Peter, as he looks up from his desk, scanning a folder full of papers describing your life, and you expect him to ask you to explain this or justify that. But you are not ready for his question. “My good man, what songs do you know?”

“Songs?” you ask, repeating our Word of the Week. “Yes,” says Peter. “You know, those melodious flights of fancy, employing that most expressive of musical instruments, the human voice, to give wings to our passion — chansons, canzoni, Lieder, arias, that sort of thing. Songs.

“Well,” you stammer, as your mind hits upon “Ninety-nine Bottles of Beer on the Wall,” but you think that probably won’t do, and then something vague out of childhood, with a kookaburra sitting in a yum-yum tree, but then Peter smiles sadly, and says, “Not to worry, old man. Typical of your time. You’ll have to spend a few years in the singing school. Preparatory, you see. Can’t very well rejoice if you don’t sing, after all. You’ll enjoy it. That’s what all the graduates say — they come out as if they were born that very morning. I mean, if the sparrows can do it, it’s the least we can expect from saints and angels. Next.”

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Fancy meeting somebody who says, “Dear me, what a burden I have on my mind! I know too many songs. Why, I can’t get through a single day without three or four songs occurring to me. Sometimes I’ll find myself humming one while I’m in the car, or whistling in the hallway at work — as if I were a kid again. Drat those songs! Irish ballads, Christmas carols, Christian hymns, love songs from the crooners, sea chanties — if only I could drive the songs out of my head and put something else into it, something useful, like cardboard or those plastic bubbles you pack things with. If I don’t do something about it, the next thing you know I’ll be joining a choir. Gives me the shivers just to think of it. A choir — with people!

“The Music Lesson,” Ferdinand de Braekeleer. Public Domain.

”It’s absurd, you’ll agree. But then, why don’t we “moderns” know more songs? Why don’t we do what ordinary people in villages and towns everywhere used to do, get together and have a Community Sing? Or we might put the question the other way around, and ask whether you have a real community if there’s nothing that you can conceivably sing all together. It’s as if song were a trivial thing, as when Shakespeare’s Clown in All’s Well That Ends Well says he knew a man “that had the trick of melancholy [who] sold a goodly manor for a song.” The Clown means it literally, though: the melancholy fellow thought so much of a certain song, he sold a manor in exchange for it. People did sell ballads, you know — sheets with the words and the music in two or three parts. The merry rogue Autolycus in The Winter’s Tale sells songs, and sings them to show them off, too, while he picks pockets. He’s got to learn better, and I think he does — and his singing is a mark in his favor. You won’t catch the likes of Macbeth singing.

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I like the word song because it’s got that old Germanic umlaut in it: an umlaut is a change in the vowel, usually in the middle of a word, to denote a change in meaning. Children pick up on it right away, though I imagine it must play the devil with people outside of the German corral who are trying to learn English as a second language. But it is fun, especially when you can get three forms of the word in a short sentence, as you can with this one: “The singer sang a song,” and “The drunk drank his drink,” and “The teller told his tale,” and so forth. We used to have more of these than we have now, but things that are a little bit unusual in a language often get smoothed away as the centuries go on. Otherwise the singing and comedy duo from the 60’s would have been called The Smothers Brether — and I guess that wouldn’t work, would it?

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Word & Song by Anthony Esolen is an online magazine devoted to reclaiming the good, the beautiful, and the true. We publish six essays each week, on words, classic hymns, poems, films, and popular songs, as well a weekly podcast for paid subscribers, alternately Poetry Aloud or Anthony Esolen Speaks. Paid subscribers also receive audio-enhanced posts and on-demand access to our full archive, and may add their comments to our posts and discussions. To support this project, please join us as a free or paid subscriber. We value all of our subscribers, and we thank you for reading Word and Song!

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Word & Song by Anthony Esolen
Word of the Week
Stop by on Mondays to hear Tony discuss the word of the week, with etymologies, ad libs .. and pizzazz.
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