Commas in the News.

Alison Flood writes for the Grauniad about the latest commatic contretemps (actually, commatic doesn’t mean ‘relating to commas,’ it means ‘having short clauses or sentences; brief; concise,’ but I couldn’t resist):

Three million coins bearing the slogan “Peace, prosperity and friendship with all nations” are due to enter circulation from 31 January, with Sajid Javid, chancellor of the exchequer, expressing his hope that the commemorative coin will mark “the beginning of this new chapter” as the UK leaves the European Union.

However, early responses include His Dark Materials novelist Philip Pullman’s criticism of its punctuation. “The ‘Brexit’ 50p coin is missing an Oxford comma, and should be boycotted by all literate people,” wrote the novelist on Twitter, while Times Literary Supplement editor Stig Abell wrote that, while it was “not perhaps the only objection” to the Brexit-celebrating coin, “the lack of a comma after ‘prosperity’ is killing me”.

The hyper-pedantic reactions are of course absurd — it doesn’t matter a damn whether there’s a comma there or not, it really doesn’t — but the piece is worth it for the other problematic coins it cites:

The criticism of the new coins follows the Bank of England’s decision to use a quote on its Jane Austen bank note about the joys of reading – apparently unaware that the character who utters the words has no interest in reading. Ireland’s Central Bank, meanwhile, misquoted Ulysses on a commemorative coin intended to honour James Joyce.

Vet those proposed inscriptions, ye bureaucrats! (Thanks, Trevor.)

Comments

  1. David Eddyshaw says:

    Presumably Jordan College insists on the comma. It is, after all, the oldest and richest college, and has therefore probably been in a position to influence Oxford’s misguided policy on this issue.

  2. I have a suggestion. Oxford-comma fanatics can buy themselves a bit of soldering and add those commas they so crave. It would be fun to observe, in a couple of years, how many coins receive this addition. Alternatively, they can scratch in the commas.

  3. John Cowan says:

    What are people who adhere to the Oxford comma, SUCH AS MYSELF, to call themselves? Both Oxonian and Oxfordian are already taken.

    Originally, of course, the “,” was the mark setting off commata, but then the word came to be applied to the mark. In the early 20C, we find Will Strunk speaking of marks of parenthesis, meaning that parenthesis was the inserted elemen titself.

  4. I suggest “commatics.” Or “commaticals,” as more resounding. (I myself prefer the Oxford comma, but have no desire to press it on others.)

  5. I imagine if they *did* use an Oxford comma there’d be whining from the other camp about the intrusion of a supposed Americanism on a British coin, so it really is a damned if you do, damned if you don’t situation. Of course, as with most puerile games, the only way to win is to not play.

  6. Am I wrong to assume that at least part of the indignation is an attempt to embarrass the self-declared defenders of all things British in the new government, who can’t even get the commas right? A similar game is being played in Germany, where each German language mistake made by politicians of the nationalist AfD is mercilessly pointed out by satirists (“You style yourself defenders of Germanness and German culture and don’t even know how to speak correct German.”)

  7. Stu Clayton says:

    I too noticed that, for all that I never read newspapers and only occasionally look at headlines. As an honorary member of the Leitkultur, even I salivate at the ring of spelling mistakes and failure to use the genitive where required. I suppose resentful barking is only to be expected when the chow bowl nevertheless remains empty.

  8. Christopher Culver says:

    “Am I wrong to assume that at least part of the indignation is an attempt to embarrass the self-declared defenders of all things British in the new government, who can’t even get the commas right?”

    Isn’t the Oxford comma not actually the norm in Britain, but rather a rule that in fact harkens to North American style? (Similar to how Oxford spelling is closer to North American spelling in -ize, -ization words than mainstream UK English spelling). UK publications often lack the Oxford comma, and as a translator when I have written the Oxford commas in texts for UK clients, I have occasionally been chided for them and such punctuation was seen as a sign that I was not as good a hire as a real native UK English translator.

  9. I hoped Pullman was being tongue-in-cheek, but apparently not. In follow-up tweets, he goes on about clarity and orthography and writes: “It’s a matter of observing the useful conventions of written language.” John E. McIntyre has written a welcome rejoinder.

  10. Athel Cornish-Bowden says:

    70 years ago, when I was first taught about writing in English, I was taught not to put a comma in, for example, “Tom, Dick and Harry”, and I’ve followed that style ever since, though when I’ve been published by OUP they’ve inserted commas without my noticing. I think it’s a silly thing to get worked up about.

  11. Jen in Edinburgh says:

    ‘Useful convention’ seems like a perfectly accurate description of the Oxford comma – it is a convention, and it disambiguates phrases of the ‘my parents, Ayn Rand and God’ type, which is useful.

  12. David Marjanović says:

    A similar game is being played in Germany, where each German language mistake made by politicians of the nationalist AfD is mercilessly pointed out by satirists

    There was that glorious time when an FPÖ ad had anbacken instead of anpacken.

    they’ve inserted commas without my noticing

    Much better than the opposite: I’ve received proofs of my writing where every comma that happened to precede and was deleted. Few if any of those were Oxford commas, and they were all greatly helpful in parsing my already long sentences.

  13. Stu Clayton says:

    There was that glorious time when an FPÖ ad had anbacken instead of anpacken.

    You’ve almost motivated me to read newspapers again. If only there were more of that, instead of the other. I’m going to look into the cost of one of those excerpting services that trawl the media for certain things the customer is interested in. I think I’ll start with FPÖ funnies and stories about rescued dogs.

  14. Central Bank of Ireland said, “while the error is regretted, it should be noted that the coin is an artistic representation of the author and text and not intended as a literal representation”. I guess the PR department couldn’t decide between doubling down and folding and decided to try both.

  15. David Marjanović says:

    Few if any of those were Oxford commas, and they were all greatly helpful in parsing my already long sentences.

    Heh, I just saw what I did there. :-þ

    I guess the PR department couldn’t decide between doubling down and folding and decided to try both.

    A common strategy.

    “He never did it, and he totally did it but it’s not impeachable”…

    “Global warming isn’t happening, and it’s happening but actually good, and it’s happening and bad but we can’t do anything about it, and the things we can do would probably hurt the economy, and look, it’s not happening”…

  16. AJP Crown says:

    “Peace, prosperity, and friendship with all nations” is a governmental platitude, with or without commas. Better to stick to the point of coinage, something like Merry Christmas! Don’t spend it all at once. I like the writing the UK £2 coins have around the edge, partly because they’re next to impossible to photograph. I have an old bronze medallion like this and when someone wanted a pic, I ended up wheeling it on edge along the glass top of a scanner at the same speed as the moving light underneath. It worked, the long strip of an image was just a bit wiggly.

  17. John E. McIntyre has written a welcome rejoinder.

    God bless John McIntyre; you can always count on him for a sensible and well-informed response to any linguistic foofaraw.

  18. In Australia I wasn’t taught the Oxford comma at school. The rule was that the comma before ‘and’ was omitted.

    I was introduced to the Oxford comma by a professor at university, a crusty old lady who has long since passed away. She certainly wasn’t a great fan of American usage in language. I gingerly took up the Oxford comma at her suggestion.

    I’m a little confused when people suggest it’s American vs British. That doesn’t seem quite right, although, if what I was taught at school is a guide, then the Oxford comma might seem automatically un-Australian to some… To be honest, I don’t know how many people give much thought to it.

  19. I’m a little confused when people suggest it’s American vs British. That doesn’t seem quite right

    It’s not, but people will seize any opportunity for a nationalist showdown.

  20. Stu Clayton says:

    I use commas in my prose wherever I think it will improve readability, rules be damned. 19C commas always went down well with me.

    I have of course also been influenced by German comma practice – although I certainly don’t put them where Germans do in English, since that is always wrong. A comma before the “and” at the end of a list is in principle superfluous, except in special cases like “my parents, Ayn Rand and God’.

  21. There are probably people who do think their parents are Ayn Rand & God. It’s good to have some latitude (with your commas).

    The German & Norwegian system: find some place, where no sentence could possibly need a comma and put one there.

  22. Athel Cornish-Bowden says:

    I see that the Royal Mint

    https://www.royalmint.com/help/coinage-faqs/standing-on-the-shoulders-of-giants/

    attributes the quotation to Newton, as most people do. However, it is much older. According to MacGarry (1955: The Metalogicon of John Salisbury, University of California Press, Berkeley) John of Salisbury wrote as follows in 1159:

    Bernard of Chartres used to compare us to dwarfs perched on the shoulders of giants. He pointed out that we see more and farther than our predecessors, not because we have keener vision or greater height, but because we are lifted up and borne aloft on their gigantic stature.

  23. Athel Cornish-Bowden says:

    So far as Ayn Rand is concerned, we could also avoid the ambiguity by putting the names as “God, Ayn Rand and my parents”. If you believe in God then surely He should come first.

  24. However, it is much older. According to MacGarry

    The hell with MacGarry, anyone with any interest in the quote needs to read Robert K. Merton.

  25. Leibnitz said it first, that’s what I heard.

  26. Stu Clayton says:

    # Leibniz was a man of medium height with a stoop, broad-shouldered but bandy-legged, as capable of thinking for several days sitting in the same chair as of travelling the roads of Europe summer and winter. #

    So he must have had the stamina to climb the shoulders of giants, and sit there thinking for several days. The saying glosses over crucial details of those standing on giants – what to do when you need to pee ? L prudentially had a pot built into his chair, I suppose.

  27. I can understand having a preference, but seems to me like practicality of making the meaning clear should come first, before preference.

    Me, my preference is to use it or not depending on if there’d be a pause in speech. Thus, I’d use a comma in “peace, prosperity, and friendship with all nations”, because I’d pause there saying it. But since it’s not ambiguous either way, so what if someone else leaves it out.

  28. Damn. Now I’m going to have to drive to town and try to find something Norwegian resembling a Leibniz chocolate biscuit.

    But since it’s not ambiguous either way, so what if someone else leaves it out.
    Because “prosperity with all nations.” Hence the comma. There’s more to writing than the avoidance of ambiguity. I might want two or three alternative meanings; I’m not a lawyer.

  29. PlasticPaddy says:

    I second Crown. Without the comma, “Jesus, Mary, and Joseph!” could be mistaken for an exclamation of joyful (or less joyful) surprise at meeting two friends instead of as the exclamation of generalised disgust and frustration intended by the humble writer☺

  30. ‘my parents, Ayn Rand and God’

    I’m a proponent of the Oxford comma, but I’ve never liked this example to argue for it. If it were “my mother, Ayn Rand, and God” then the Oxford comma would be causing the ambiguity.

    I don’t think of the serial comma as an American thing. The divide in the US seems to be mostly between Chicago style (books), which use it, and AP style (newspapers and magazines), which don’t.

  31. If it were “my mother, Ayn Rand, and God” then the Oxford comma would be causing the ambiguity.

    Huh? You’re calling for “my mother, Ayn Rand and God”?

  32. George Grady says:

    I like to use the Oxford comma just because I like commas.
    In fact, I like the word, “comma”. It’s fun to say, much more fun than “period”, or worse, “full stop”.
    Comma, comma, comma, comma.
    Comma.
    ,,,,,

  33. You can be Grady, George.

  34. Huh? You’re calling for “my mother, Ayn Rand and God”?

    I would probably rewrite it, but serial comma opponents would say it solved the problem.

    Comma, comma, comma, comma, com-comma, comma. Yeah, yeah, yeah.

    or

    Comma, comma, comma, comma, comma chameleon.

  35. serial comma opponents would say it solved the problem.

    I’m pretty sure they wouldn’t. Reread it. (Unless you’re claiming that “Ayn Rand and God” is the mother’s name.)

  36. J.W. Brewer says:

    MacGarry and Merton may have done their research too soon to address the interesting (because of an unexpected use of the singular) variant “Standing on the Shoulder of Giants,” the title of an Oasis album released back around when PM Blair’s “Cool Britannia” campaign was becoming increasingly implausible. The story goes that Noel Gallagher was looking at the edge of the new two-quid coin whilst drinking down the pub, found the quote inspirational, thought he’d better write it down on the side of a pack of cigarettes for future reference, and discovered in the cold and sober light of dawn that he’d slightly mistranscribed it but decided to go with the variant nonetheless. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Standing_on_the_Shoulder_of_Giants

  37. I’m pretty sure they wouldn’t. Reread it. (Unless you’re claiming that “Ayn Rand and God” is the mother’s name.)

    I don’t think that’s a possible reading, at least for them (any more than “Ayn Rand” can be the parents in “my parents, Ayn Rand, and God”), but if there are any here maybe they’ll chime in.

  38. J.W. Brewer says:

    One problem is that whether or not there’s an ambiguity that an extra comma will prevent typically requires consideration of the entire sentence, not simply the “A, B[,] and C” list considered in isolation. So “my parents, Ayn Rand and God” is theoretically ambiguous if it occurs as a compound object at the end of the sentence, as in the canonical “I’d like to thank …” etc. But if the very same sequence occurs sentence-initially it’s likely that the presence or absence of a comma after “God” will perform all the disambiguation necessary, rendering the absence of a comma after “Rand” irrelevant.

    Here, of course, the sequence is not a full sentence, and I suppose intuitions might vary as to what “implicit” sentence is meant, or exists in Deep Structure before application of a DELETE transformative rule. “Huzzah for peace, prosperity and friendship with all nations”? Or “We hope no one will go on a twitter rampage opposing peace, prosperity, and friendship with all nations”?

  39. AJP Crown says:

    He should have claimed the £2 coin was an ad for their new album.

    The next coin should say
    Money, That’s What I Want

    How about this. It’s fairly clear without an Oxford:
    I’d like to thank my parents, Ayn Rand for typing the manuscript and God.

  40. Stu Clayton says:

    The German & Norwegian system: find some place, where no sentence could possibly need a comma and put one there.

    The international popularity of this system is growing. I encountered two such commas within 5 minutes just now, as I was reading in the Spanish WiPe about Mérida [capital of Yucatán] and Nayarit [Pacific state just above Jalisco] in Mexico. I’ve marked each peccant comma with “<==” immediately following it.

    # En 2011, la ONG Comité Internacional de la Bandera de la Paz otorgó el reconocimiento de “Ciudad de la Paz” a Mérida, debido a su destacable seguridad social 12​13​, además de ser el mismo año, <== sede de la II Cumbre de la Alianza del Pacífico. #

    # Dicho territorio fue administrado por el gobierno federal hasta 1917, fecha en la que el territorio, <== se constituyó como estado soberano. #

  41. Jen in Edinburgh says:

    ‘A Watch from, your friends in the Watch.’

    (Ayn Rand typed God?)

  42. I’ve changed from “(a) don’t use the Oxford comma unless (a1) it suggests a misreading” in my college days to “(b) use the Oxford comma unless (b1) it suggests a misreading” today.

    To my mind “my mother, Ayn Rand[,] and God” falls under (a) and (b1), just as “my parents, Ayn Rand[,] and God” falls under (b) and (a1). It seems to have become the canonical counter to the canonical example, so I don’t see what surprises hat about it. I tried rereading it, but no luck.

  43. OK, I guess I can see it, but my Oxfordian commatic eyes don’t like it.

  44. AJP Crown says:

    (Ayn Rand typed God?)

    The alternative was God typing the manuscript, which makes the author sound like a lunatic.

  45. David Marjanović says:

    What we really need is the Chinese/Japanese inverted comma for lists.

    my parents、Ayn Rand、God – intended
    my parents, Ayn Rand、God – oops

    This is painfully obvious. It’s really too bad it’s buried so deep in Unicode (it’s U+3001, and that’s hexadecimal).

    The German & Norwegian system: find some place, where no sentence could possibly need a comma, and put one there.

    FIFY. where no sentence could possibly need a comma is an insertion into the sentence and therefore needs to be flanked by commas on both sides. English makes an exception for relative clauses with wh- words.

    Russian has copied the German practice… and extended it to participial constructions that would translate as relative clauses in German.

  46. Only Chinese distinguishes between〝 ,〞(for syntactic breaks, etc.) and 〝、〞(for lists).

    Japanese uses 〝 、〞 as a general comma.

    The Chinese use is logical but a bit artificial and even Chinese get it wrong.

  47. commatic contretemps (actually, commatic doesn’t mean ‘relating to commas, ’ …

    The adjective/neologism you want is surely ‘commatose’. That’s how the whole topic leaves me.

  48. And what does a comma do, a comma does nothing but make easy a thing that if you like it enough is easy enough without the comma. A long complicated sentence should force itself upon you, make you know yourself knowing it and the comma, well at the most a comma is a poor period that lets you stop and take a breath but if you want to take a breath you ought to know yourself that you want to take a breath. It is not like stopping altogether has something to do with going on, but taking a breath well you are always taking a breath and why emphasize one breath rather than another breath. Anyway that is the way I felt about it and I felt that about it very very strongly. And so I almost never used a comma. The longer, the more complicated the sentence the greater the number of the same kinds of words I had following one after another, the more the very more I had of them the more I felt the passionate need of their taking care of themselves by themselves and not helping them, and thereby enfeebling them by putting in a comma.
    So that is the way I felt about punctuation in prose, in poetry it is a little different but more so …

    — Gertrude Stein
    from Lectures in America

  49. AJP Crown says:

    David: an insertion into the sentence and therefore needs to be flanked by commas on both sides

    Is that all there is to it? I was thinking every clause required comma boundaries.

    English makes an exception for relative clauses with wh- words.
    Interesting. I usually (not always) put commas on either side of insertions[,] regardless of wh-[,] but your rule may well work better (I’m fairly hopeless also with English commas).

  50. @Stu: Spanish writers put commas between subject and predicate a lot. I think it’s encouraged by Spanish being a pro-drop language.

  51. John Cowan says:

    chameleon

    Or as the Handy Man (not to be confused with the Candyman) puts it: “Comma comma comma comma come on yeah yeah yeah, they’ll come running to me.”

    That’s how the whole topic leaves me.

    James Thurber told Harold Ross that the 20C in the New Yorker was the Century of the Comma Man, and also referred to the magazine as being in a commatose condition. To be mistaken for Thurber is the highest of praise.

  52. I have a friend with this shirt. Not being a Boy George fan, I confess I didn’t get the joke until he explained it to me.

  53. I’m not at all a Boy George fan, but if you were around and sentient in the early ’80s you couldn’t escape that song. Fortunately I like it, so I don’t mind its getting stuck in my head once in a while, but I couldn’t have told you it was Boy George.

  54. January First-of-May says:

    Not being a Boy George fan, I confess I didn’t get the joke until he explained it to me.

    I personally would have read the picture on that shirt as “Leon”, in the rebus tradition.
    (…Wait, is the same system used in non-Russian rebuses? I don’t know much about them.)

    Incidentally, I had to google “Boy George”. Can’t recall having ever heard of either him or his band before. But then I wasn’t born until the ’90s.

  55. Culture Club is the band name for “Karma Chameleon”, Boy George being the lead singer of the band.

    When I first saw a comma/karma pun graphic like on that shirt, I didn’t get it. Because I had never noticed the non-rhotic pronunciation of “karma” listening to the song. (Still haven’t, actually, since I haven’t gone back and listened to it.) I’m familiar enough with non-rhotic English to get the pun, after it was pointed out. (Plus, in addition to that, I’m not familiar enough with chameleons to think chameleon instead of lizard.)

  56. As for the Jane Austen quote, isn’t it exactly that kind of irony that people like about Jane Austen’s writing?

    In Swedish we used to have many more commas. There were rules about it, but I forgot what they were based on. I’m not sure if they included the Oxford comma, though. Could someone explain what ambiguity it is supposed to clear up in the prosperity sentence?

  57. David Eddyshaw says:

    When I first saw a comma/karma pun graphic like on that shirt, I didn’t get it. Because I had never noticed the non-rhotic pronunciation of “karma” listening to the song

    Boy George was of course using the Pali form.

  58. David: an insertion into the sentence and therefore needs to be flanked by commas on both sides

    Is that all there is to it? I was thinking every clause required comma boundaries.
    German uses commas to flank insertions, to delimit dependent clauses, and to separate elements of lists, except if they are separated by und. And that’s it. All very simple. To a German, the English habits of placing commas look like “sprinkle commas randomly, except almost never put them where German rules would put them”. 🙂

  59. Boy George was of course using the Pali form.

    Heh.

  60. Handy Man

    Yes, that’s what I meant by the bit above the “chameleon” bit.

  61. Stu Clayton says:

    @Rodger C: Spanish writers put commas between subject and predicate a lot. I think it’s encouraged by Spanish being a pro-drop language.

    Huh. I had to look up the expression “pro-drop”. As a matter of fact, I don’t take Spanish that way when i listen to it. I just understand what is being said, or not. I have no sense that a pronoun is missing when none is needed. That other way of thinking is the preserve of linguists, who will postulate voids in order to fill them.

  62. David Eddyshaw says:

    “Pro-drop” is quite handy as a way to refer to languages that don’t require you to include a separate word for a subject in typical statements and questions. The only real problem with it is that it’s stupid: nothing is “dropped.” It was never there in the first place except in the perfervid imagination of primitive Chomskyans persistently thinking in English.

    (Arthur Anderson gets quite heated on this subject in the introduction to his Nahuatl grammar. But then he gets in a lather about a lot of things. Annoyingly, he’s usually right.)

  63. AJP Crown says:

    People who’ve never heard of Boy George and Culture Club. Fuck me, the world’s gone mad. I read somewhere – not here – that he had a bit of a drug problem for years but he survived, as did his royalties apparently, because he lives in an enormous house in Hampstead that my daughter passes when she walks her dog on the Heath, i.e. every day.

  64. David Marjanović says:

    Only Chinese distinguishes

    Oh. Not surprising, though.

    And what does a comma do

    It’s a way to write intonation. Generally, you can hear where the commas go. And no, commas don’t necessarily indicate pauses, they indicate rising pitch (basically).

    Where there’s variation is where the orthographies of different languages standardize in different ways.

    …Wait, is the same system used in non-Russian rebuses?

    Are Russian rebuses subtractive instead of additive?

    Could someone explain what ambiguity it is supposed to clear up in the prosperity sentence?

    In that particular case (and many, many others) there’s hardly any. I suppose it’s possible in principle to parse it as “peace, namely, {prosperity and friendship with all nations}”, or to insist it looks like part of a longer list (“peace, {prosperity and friendship with all nations}, and…”) that has been cut off.

  65. David Marjanović says:

    People who’ve never heard of Boy George and Culture Club.

    *raises hand*

    I plead the mercy of late birth.

  66. Rules for comma usage in modern Chinese are different from everyone else’s. Chinese has a lot of run-on sentences where English would use full stops. Of course, it makes sense in Chinese because subordinate clauses seem less common and the phenomenon of pro-drop helps “cement” these run-on sentences together. Chinese also at times places a comma between subject and predicate.

    Aside: Is punctuation part of the morphosyntactic structure of language? Or does it just reflect it? And how does semantics tie in?

  67. January First-of-May says:

    Are Russian rebuses subtractive instead of additive?

    No, they’re additive (as far as I understand it), but there’s a long-established convention that N commas (apostrophes? not sure) next to a picture correspond to deleting N letters from the appropriate side of the word.

    In this case, there are 5 commas, so 5 letters are deleted from the left side of “chameleon”, producing “leon”. (Or еон, i.e. “eon”, in Russian, I suppose, because the “ch” part is one letter.)

    I plead the mercy of late birth.

    My case is probably a combination of this and (aftereffects of) the Iron Curtain.

  68. I certainly knew the song, but seeing that shirt, I didn’t make the connection between the comma symbols and “karma” for two reasons. First, I basically do not ever read that punctuation mark as the phonetic word “comma” in my head.

    Second, I sort of automatically “correct” British and other non-rhotic pronunciations to rhotic versions when I hear to them. Indeed, until it was explicitly pointed out to me, it never occurred to me that pairs like “comma” and “karma” were homophonous in Received Pronunciation. So, in spite of his accent, back when the song was popular, I never thought of Boy George pronouncing a word that sounded like “comma.”

    (I also, frankly, never quite figured out what was supposed to be going on in that song—in particular with the colors “red, gold, and green.” The video clearly takes place in the Mississippi Delta, and it can’t be a coincidence that the colors of New Orleans—and New Orleans’ Mardi Gras, in particular—are purple, gold, and green. But why the red-purple alternation? And what does that have to do with the rest of the lyrics?)

    I also remember that Boy George, in the 1980s, did get a lot of negative press for his heroin problems (at a time when cocaine was by the far the biggest hard drug being used in the entertainment industry). There was a particular incident where somebody died of an overdose at a party at Boy George’s mansion, after which I think his career took a meaningful hit.

  69. it never occurred to me that pairs like “comma” and “karma” were homophonous in Received Pronunciation

    They aren’t. But the way the song is sung, it sounds a bit like ‘comma’, partly because there is no ‘r’ in there, partly because Boy George pronounces ‘karma’ very short in a staccato fashion.

    In fact, I wonder whether ‘comma comma comma comma chameleon’ might not have come from Americans, to whom Boy George’s pronunciation of ‘karma’ might sound like ‘comma’.

  70. People who’ve never heard of Boy George and Culture Club.

    I trust you’re not referring to me; I’ve heard of them both (and heard of them a lot in the ’80s), I just couldn’t have told you who sang that song, any more than I could tell you who sang, say, “Delta Dawn” (to pick another song that was inescapable in its day).

    I also, frankly, never quite figured out what was supposed to be going on in that song

    I literally know nothing of that song except the “Comma/Karma chameleon” line; I don’t know if it ever occurred to me that anything might be going on in it. For someone who’s built his life around words, I have surprisingly little interest in the lyrics to songs.

    In fact, I wonder whether ‘comma comma comma comma chameleon’ might not have come from Americans, to whom Boy George’s pronunciation of ‘karma’ might sound like ‘comma’.

    I’m pretty sure that’s the case.

  71. J.W. Brewer says:

    To Brett’s puzzlement, the obvious (I should think) answer is that red, gold and green (often specified in that exact order) are the colors of the Ethiopian flag and were thus (because Rastafari) referenced in reggae lyrics. And reggae was the go-to source of exoticism for most UK musicians of Boy George’s generational cohort who weren’t playing in metal bands. Culture Club may not sound all that much like e.g. Burning Spear (who had a song on their 1st or 2nd album titled “Red, Gold and Green”), but the guys in Culture Club all inevitably hung out with people who had copies of that album even if they didn’t personally own a copy.

  72. I should really get a CD of Garvey’s Ghost — I used to play the vinyl album obsessively.

  73. J.W. Brewer says:

    Turns out some helpful person out there has put up on youtube a clip combining the original “Red Gold and Green” (from the Marcus Garvey LP) with the dub version thereof (titled “Workshop”) from the Garvey’s Ghost LP. The transition occurs around three minutes and ten seconds in. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9BHwT5HAGC8

  74. What a wonderful world.

  75. AJP Crown says:

    An old fart writes: I just read in the Guardian “Weezer frontman Rivers Cuomo” – to me just a row of words but to others apparently a description.

    I’ve heard of them both (and heard of them a lot in the ’80s), I just couldn’t have told you who sang that song

    This is about Stage 5 of the Seven Ages of Man. It happens all the time to me too.

    I’m pretty sure my daughter hadn’t heard of Boy George before she moved to Hampstead so the younger Hatters are excused and I’m no longer bewildered.

    Wasn’t “Boy” a first name or a nickname possibly for girls? There are fairly well known examples perhaps from the 1920s or thereabouts (Bloomsbury?), but I can’t think of any and I’m not sure quite how to google it. JC would know.

  76. I agree that “pro-drop” is a linguistic remnant of a former science, like “sanguine” and “jovial.”

  77. PlasticPaddy says:

    @ajp
    https://fr.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Gar%C3%A7onne_(mode)
    Were flappers called “boy” in England? The hairstyle is Bubikopf in German = boy head.

  78. I didn’t find anything directly relevant in Green’s Dictionary of Slang, but I can’t resist sharing this, from boy n.2:

    2. champagne [allegedly f. Edward VII’s habit of merely saying ‘Boy!’ to an attendant page who automatically brought him a glass of that wine; note Binstead, A Pink ’Un and a Pelican (1898) (the context is 1879): ‘The young bucks of the present day, by the way, generally allude to a bottle of champagne erroneously as “the Boy,” in evident ignorance of the origin of the term, which is as follows: At a shooting party of His Royal Highness’s, the guns were followed at a distance by a lad who wheeled a barrow-load of champagne, packed in ice. The weather was intensely close and muggy, and whenever anybody felt inclined for a drink he called out “Boy!” to the youth in attendance; the frequency with which this happened leading to the adoption of the term. It does not follow, however, that everybody who uses the word nowadays was out shooting that day with the Prince.’].

  79. @PlasticPaddy: The flapper hairstyle (cut even all around) is a bob in English. It was a twentieth-century development of a much older sense referring to cutting horse’s tail short (as in Stephen Foster’s “bob-tailed nag”).

    Interestingly, there was previously a different women’s hairstyle known as a bob: “a knot or bunch of hair such as that in which women sometimes do up their back hair; also, a short bunch or tassel-like curl,” according to the OED. The citations for this sense extend up through the late nineteenth century.

  80. Some American fundamentalist sects that forbid their women to cut their hair still use the phrase “bobbed hair” to mean any cut hair at all.

  81. @David Thanks for the explanation!

  82. AJP Crown says:

    Like the idea of being followed by a lad with a wheelbarrow of champagne packed in ice when I go for a walk with Jack the dog.

    Plastic: The hairstyle is Bubikopf in German = boy head

    Is that what Franz Biberkopf ought to remind me of in Berlin Alexanderplatz? I haven’t read the Alfred Döblin but I did see the Fassbinder version in about a hundred episodes in 1985ish. You hardly ever hear of Fassbinder’s films now. I wonder why.

    I found a character called Boy Dugdale in a Nancy Mitford novel, I think it was Love In A Cold Climate, and that’s exactly the sort of place these ‘Boy’ people turn up. Sometimes they get killed in WW1. I wonder if it was short for Boyd, or with any luck something a bit longer.

  83. You hardly ever hear of Fassbinder’s films now. I wonder why.

    You rarely hear of any of the Old Masters any more, even the ones who are still alive, like Godard. Pisses me off, but there you go. The new generation has its own idols.

  84. David Marjanović says:

    The hairstyle is Bubikopf in German

    Yeah, but only if women wear it.

    Biberkopf

    I don’t think that’s supposed to remind you of anything; it’s “beaver head” without the unfortunate connotations that beaver has developped in some Englishes.

  85. AJP Crown says:

    The new generation has its own idols.
    And in that they mimic the old generations. My daughter’s seen Godard, I think it was through school, and Vertov (via me, unimpressed), but I doubt she’s heard of Rainer Werner Fassbinder only the other one, Michael.

  86. I doubt she’s heard of Rainer Werner Fassbinder

    Well, ask her. Now I want to kno.

  87. I’ll send a text message.

  88. “Oh no I haven’t
    I’ll check him out”

  89. She’s got a treat coming!

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