Vampire Weekend, Lil Jon, the Dalai Lama, & the Oxford Comma: a fuller consideration


You have probably by now heard all about this week’s dust-up, kerfuffle, brouhaha, call it what you will, about the Oxford Comma:

By Associated Press, Published: June 30

LONDON — A report that Oxford University had changed its comma rule left some punctuation obsessives alarmed, annoyed, and distraught. Passions subsided as the university said the news was imprecise, incomplete and misleading.Catch the difference between the two previous sentences? An “Oxford comma” was used before “and” in the first sentence, but is absent in the second, in accordance with the style used by The Associated Press.
Guides to correct style differ and the issue became heated on Twitter after reports of the Oxford comma’s demise.
But have no fear, comma-philes: the Oxford comma lives.
Oxford University Press, birthplace of the Oxford comma, said Thursday that there has been no change in its century-old style, and jumped into the Twittersphere to confirm that it still follows the standard set out in “New Hart’s Rules.”…
The kerfuffle at least answered the musical question posed by indie band Vampire Weekend: “Who gives a —- about an Oxford comma?”

This must have been one of those occasions where a million people at once (myself among them) thought it would be at least mildly clever and apt to reference the Vampire Weekend song (“Oxford Comma”).  I wonder if it shot to the top of the iTunes download charts this week.

I had never paid close attention to the lyrics to the song.  First of all, although by some standards I could probably count as a “punctuation obsessive,” as this A.P. piece rudely puts it (I prefer “comma-phile”), I’ll admit didn’t precisely know the definition of an Oxford comma.  But I took the concept to stand for snobby/fussy/elite punctiliousness among the educated/preppy classes… a perfect objective correlative for Vampire Weekend, as they style themselves as auto-ethnographers of that world.

Here are the full lyrics:

Who gives a fuck about an Oxford comma?/ I’ve seen those English dramas too/ They’re cruel/ So if there’s any other way/ To spell the word/ It’s fine with me, with me

Why would you speak to me that way/ Especially when I always said that I/ Haven’t got the words for you/ All your diction dripping with disdain/ Through the pain/ I always tell the truth

Who gives a fuck about an Oxford climber?/ I climbed to Dharamsala too/ I met the highest lama/ His accent sounded fine/ To me, to me

Check your handbook/It’s no trick/ Take the chapstick/ Put it on your lips/ Crack a smile/ Adjust my tie/ Know your boyfriend, unlike other guys

Why would you lie about how much coal you have?/ Why would you lie about something dumb like that?/ Why would you lie about anything at all?/ First the window, then it’s to the wall/ Lil’ Jon, he always tells the truth

First the window, then it’s through the wall/ Why would you tape my conversations?/ Show your paintings/ At the United Nations/ Lil’ Jon, he always tells the truth

“Oxford comma” turns into “Oxford climber;” punctiliousness about obscure grammar rules associated with social climbing and Anglophile snobbishness.

Wiki tells us that:

on January 28, 2008, Michael Hogan of Vanity Fair interviewed Ezra Koenig regarding the title of the song and its relevance to the song’s meaning. Koenig said he first encountered the Oxford comma (an optional comma before conjunctions at the end of a list) after learning of a Columbia University Facebook group called Students for the Preservation of the Oxford Comma. The idea for the song came several months later while Koenig was sitting at a piano in his parents’ house. He began “writing the song and the first thing that came out was ‘Who gives a fuck about an Oxford comma?'” He stated that the song “is more about not giving a fuck than about Oxford commas.”

Someone here explicates the line “Why would you lie about how much coal you have?:

Lying about how much coal you have can easily be done through the omission of an oxford comma.

An oxford comma is the comma right before the and in a series.

I have 100 pounds of iron, 50 pounds of steel, and coal.
I have 100 pounds of iron, 50 pounds of steel and coal.

In the first example, the amount of coal is not specified, while in the second example there are clearly 50 pounds of coal. By omitting the oxford comma, you can let people think that you have 50 pounds of coal, even if you do not, as the oxford comma is often viewed as optional.

But why would you lie about how much coal you have? why would you lie about something dumb like that?

What worries me a bit about this analysis, however, is that when I Googled “Oxford comma, steel, coal” in a few variants, I kept getting references to Vampire Weekend and none to the steel/coal sentence as a classic one used to explain the grammar rule in Britain.  Perhaps I needed to go further down the Google pages, though.

Reading through old comments on the song’s entry on songmeanings.net, one oft-debated crux relates to the references to “Lil Jon” (the rapper) — or is it the former Australian Prime Minister?

The Australian Prime Minister, John Howard, was know as both Honest John and Little John. He very vocally supported Bush’s War On Terror, even going so far as to make a speech at the United Nations.

Possibly there could be an allusion there, but probably not, because “First the window, then it’s to the wall/ Lil Jon, he always tells the truth” is a citation of these Lil Jon lyrics from his huge (but crude, NSFW, sorry) hit, “Get Low:”

Get low, Get low, Get Low, Get Low
To the window, to the wall,
To the sweat drip down my balls

To all skeet skeet skeet skeet goddamn
To all skeet skeet skeet skeet goddamn [? or something]

So as someone commented (sorry I’ve lost this reference already), the line “To the window, to the wall, to the sweat drip down my balls” does not need an Oxford comma because “Lil’ Jon, he always tells the truth,” that is, unpretentious, crude American speech conveys its meaning very effectively.  It doesn’t really matter whether or not there is a comma after “to the walls” (although I actually am not sure what “meaning” that line conveys, but perhaps that’s the point, that meaning per se often matters less than rhythm, rhyme, and feeling).

Another crux relates to “I climbed to Dharamsala too/I met the highest lama/ His accent sounded fine/ To me, to me.”  Liddiloop explains that “Dharamsala is a village in Northern India which has been, since the early 1960s, the capital-in-exile for Tibetan refugees fleeing persecution in Chinese-occupied Tibet, and yes, the Dalai Lama lives there, and is the ‘highest Lama’ referred to in the song. He is known for his idiosyncratic english which is far from fluent, but loved by many – so i reckon the singer is pointing out that you don’t need to be word perfect in order to get meaning across…”

So the speaker links Dalai Lama and Lil Jon as speakers of improper, non-standard “weird English” that is preferable to the fussily grammar-obsessed language of the snotty interlocutor, presumably the singer’s English (or maybe Anglophile, just back from a year abroad?) girlfriend whose “diction drip[s] with disdain.”

Other cruxes: the “coal” — is this simply a reference to the sentence about steel and coal commonly used to illustrate the Oxford comma, or (also) a figure for wealth, possibly diamonds?  The chapstick: suggesting that the girlfriend is almost OCD in her fussy obsessiveness and concern with appearances?

Thinking about this has given me a fuller appreciation for the wit, density, and allusiveness of Vampire Weekend’s lyrics, and of the complexity and cleverness of their self-positioning in reference to prestige codes.  Also codes and implications of nationality and foreign travel, e.g. Oxbridge vs. Nepal vs the United Nations, different kinds of cosmopolitanism and the knowledge or wisdom it can but will not necessarily bring.  (One subtext: Vampire Weekend are often criticized or mocked for being too Ivy League, too “white,” pretentiously cosmopolitan in the way they draw on Afropop, etc.  So you can see why they might want to ally themselves with Lil Jon here — but as ever, they are smart and self-aware about that desire to achieve authenticity, too.)

Skeet skeet skeet goddamn! (Or is that skeet, skeet, skeet goddamn?)

Antidisestablishmentarianism, you prick

A friend and Moonraking reader asked my advice about the nuances of British Victorian Antidisestablishmentarianism (that is, the “conservative” position of those who opposed the drive to disestablish the Church of England, e.g. to render it no longer the official state Church).  I didn’t have a very precise answer, but when I checked Wikipedia I was amused by these examples from popular song:

The word is often referenced in English-speaking popular culture on account of its unusual length of 28 letters and 11 syllables. It is one of the longest words in the Oxford English Dictionary.[2] It is commonly believed to be the one of the longest words in English, excluding coined and technical terms not found in major dictionaries.[2] A slightly longer but less commonly accepted variant of the word can be found in the Duke Ellington song “You’re Just an Old Antidisestablishmentarianismist”. Also, in an Eminem song “Almost Famous”, he raps “get off my antidisestablishmentarianism, you prick.[3]

I would not have guessed Eminem had a particular interest in Victorian theology, but it never pays to underestimate him.

Beeswax/ Mumblecore

Watched — in pieces, on my laptop via Netflix, starting with a misbegotten attempt to watch on the Airtran flight — Andrew Bujalski’s Beeswax.  This is my favorite of the probably three movies of his I’ve seen.  He’s the standardbearer for the so-called Mumblecore movement.  I read an interview where he genially complained about the label, which he aptly compared to “shoegazer” (these were British bands influenced by American indie and My Bloody Valentine like Ride, Lush, Chapterhouse, Pale Saints, Slowdive) as an unwanted tag:

I certainly have no love for the label. I think it’s a real problem with trying to get people out to this film. It’s just a nasty term, like “shoegazer.” It’s the kind of thing where some of that music might be horrible, and some of it might be great, but if you just see the word “shoegazer,” it doesn’t exactly make you want to listen to it. It’s just an absurd concept. I’d like to think it won’t be with me for the rest of my days, but we’ll see.

Bad luck for Bujalski to get saddled with such a stupid but catchy label.  (It comes out of a now-diminished meme of spinning out increasingly absurd subgenres of hardcore punk, e.g. homocore, metalcore, grindcore.)

The other mumblecore films I’ve seen were appealing in their slice-of-life realism, focus on the trivial everyday, and naturalism — shades of Mike Leigh, Eric Rohmer — but are were a bit irritating too in their somewhat too-comfortable match with 20-something slacker Brooklyn/Somerville lifestyle… a bit too unambitious and navel-gazing… Beeswax is a more interesting movie and actually does remind me of Rohmer, it could in fact be a Moral Tale like that series of his, with the “moral” or ethical topic in question that of, perhaps, getting involved with others’ business, as in “mind/none of your your beeswax.”  (With a suggestion of the stickiness of other peoples’ business?– is that the etymology?*)  Part of what makes it more appealing is a fuller sense of grown-up lives and real things at stake; the twin sister protagonists seem to be about 30 and the plot, such as it, revolves around the Austin thrift/vintage store one of them owns and a fight she’s having with her business partner, who may be planning to sue her for breach of contract.  There’s still an interest in dating/sex/romance but it forms more of a backdrop to career/vocational problems and concerns; jobs are not just the places people go to worry about their love life.  Thus the title, I suppose: beeswax = business = what matters to you or concerns you personally; for Tilly, literally her business or store.

One striking thing about the movie is its representation of disability.  The twin who owns the store, played by Tilly Hatcher, is in a wheelchair and can’t use her legs.  What’s so unusual is that this never really comes up as a explicit topic or issue.  There’s a scene where she’s kind of stuck and has to flag down a pedestrian to help her get her wheelchair out of the trunk of her car; I briefly thought, as if this were a thriller, “oh gee, is this guy going to attack her?” — it effectively raised the topic of the everyday problems, risks, and vulnerabilities Tilly has to face, but in a very casual way.

A sex scene was even more surprising — it’s not at all explicit, but does show what needs to happen for a sexual encounter and the adjustments that need to be made to the usual routine with two non-disabled people.  I was almost wincing, I guess out of anxiety that the guy would react in a bad or shaming way (although he’s actually her ex, so knows what to expect); she’s also, although not unattractive, very far from a typical ingenue in a sex scene, with powerful arms and shoulders from wheeling herself around.

It made me miss Austin a bit.  Tilly’s store is an actual Austin boutique I remember, Storyville.  The movie is saturated with that bright Texas light.

*”none of your beeswax”: Eric Partridge apparently reports that

It seems that none of your beeswax, meaning none of your business, was originally a line spoken by the character Nanette in the musical No, No, Nanette (Youmans, Harbuch and Mandel, 1925). This catchphrase enjoyed a brief vogue in the later 1920’s. It is cited as children’s slang in a couple of later references mentioned by Partridge. There are no suprises as to its origin; beeswax is simply an obvious pun on the word business.

Oll Korrect! Know Yuse! Oll Wright!

Iris asked me what O.K. stands for.  Sarah seemed (initially) to be mildly impressed that I came up with an answer: it’s some kind of 19th-century railway slang derived from Swedish-accented “oll korrect” e.g. All Correct.  As I said it, it sounded it a bit dubious, so I turned to Wikipedia.

Fascinating!  This is a great Wikipedia entry.  It turns out that I was sort of/partly right; the origins of “OK” are hotly debated.  To sum up:

Various etymologies have been proposed for okay, but none have been unanimously agreed upon. Most are generally regarded to be unlikely or anachronistic.

There are five proposed etymologies which have received material academic support since the 1960s. They are:

  1. Greek words “Ola Kala” (όλα καλά) meaning “everything’s good” or “all good”; used by Greek railroad workers in the United States. It is also said that “O.K.” was written on the ships or other places to show that the ships are ready.
  2. Initials of the “comically misspelled” Oll Korrect
  3. Initials of “Old Kinderhook” a nickname for President Martin Van Buren which was a reference to Van Buren’s birthplace Kinderhook, NY.
  4. Choctaw word okeh
  5. Wolof and Bantu word waw-kay or the Mande (aka “Mandinke” or “Mandingo”) phrase o ke

I was especially taken by the discussion of the 1830s “comical misspellings” dialect fad in the U.S.:

A key observation is that, at the time of its first appearance in print, a broader fad existed in the United States of “comical misspellings” and of forming and employing acronyms and initialisms. These were apparently based on direct phonetic representation of (some) people’s colloquial speech patterns. Examples at the time included K.Y. for “know yuse” and N.C. for “’nuff ced.” This fad falls within the historical context, before universal “free” public education in America, where the poorly educated lower-classes of society were often easy entertainment for those who found fun in their non-universal language, epitomized by colloquial words and home-taught or self-deduced phonetic spellings….

“The abbreviation fad began in Boston in the summer of 1838 … OFM, “our first men,” and used expressions like NG, “no go,” GT, “gone to Texas,” and SP, “small potatoes.” Many of the abbreviated expressions were exaggerated misspellings, a stock in trade of the humorists of the day. One predecessor of okay was OW, “oll wright,” and there was also KY, “know yuse,” KG, “know go,” and NS, “nuff said.”

The general fad may have existed in spoken or informal written U.S. English for a decade or more before its appearance in newspapers. OK’s original presentation as “all correct” was later varied with spellings such as “Oll Korrect” or even “Ole Kurreck.” Deliberate word play was associated with the acronym fad and was a yet broader contemporary American fad.

I read quite a bit of this out loud at the breakfast table while my family’s attention slowly drifted away and Iris tried to pretend that she had not asked me the question.

Goal for the summer: to re-introduce S.P., K.Y., K.G., and N.C. to their rightful place in American parlance along with O.K.

Nuff Ced!