Thursday, 4 November 2010

I cite the songs?

Not about books, but I suppose linguistic/musical: various newspapers yesterday (such as the Independent's's Marksman 'put song titles in Mark Saunders evidence') covered the rather peculiar story about allegations that a police marksman referred to as 'AZ8' inserted song titles into his testimony at the inquest over the shooting of a barrister.

If true, it would be a matter of contempt of court, and the exact details are presumably sub judice, but this hasn't stopped newspapers trying to brain it out themselves. For instance, in the Independent:

Possible song titles in the officer's evidence?

Quiet Moments, Chris de Burgh
Q: "Can you help us please with what you remember seeing?
A: "... it's not something I think about all the time, but in quiet moments I think about how we could have done it different."

Line of Fire, Journey
Q: "Did you know that anyone placing those lights would be exposed to danger unnecessarily?"
A: "To quote a recent programme about this, sometimes we have to put ourselves in the line of fire."

No More Tears (Enough is Enough), Donna Summer and Barbra Streisand
Q: "Action beats reaction means what exactly in simple words?"
A: "I thought: no, enough's enough."

Point of No Return, Duran Duran
Q: "What was it the second time that...made you decide it was absolutely necessary for you to fire?"
A: "It just got past the point of no return."

Faith, George Michael
Q: "Were you aware that there were other armed officers in Bywater Street?"
A: "... you have got to have faith that they are going to be covering the threat as well."

I'm Kicking Myself, As Tall as Lions
(Same question)
A: "I mean, like I said, I've seen the film and I'm sort of kicking myself because I now feel I left it too late..."

Chain of Command, XTC
Q: "Who ordered you to put the lights in?"
A: "Sergeant SE...There is a chain of command and you don't question your superiors."

Daylight, Coldplay
Q: "Can you give us an idea of what time you got there?"
A: It was daylight."

Get a Bloomin' Move On (The Self Preservation Society), Theme from 'The Italian Job'
Q: "Were you actually concentrating or paying any attention to what AZ9 was doing or were you focused on your own job?"
A: No, you know, self preservation."

This analysis strikes me as deeply silly. Song titles frequently use commonplace words and idiom (and even coin idioms that get into the language), and with such a large data space to choose from,  I think the language of most speakers will contain words and phrases that match song titles. If there turns out to be evidence of intent, that's another matter; but without a control experiment - similarly analysing other texts to see if they produce a similar density of matches - the newspapers' speculations on this topic can hardly be treated as confirmation of the theory.

Update, 9th November:  I'm pleased to see Language Log is on the case, so to speak: see The charge: cliché use under oath and Buried song titles everywhere. So far I haven't seen any such critical analysis in mainstream print newspapers, which are continuing to add to the story, such as this fatuous analysis from The Sun story Song title 'gags' by two more gun cops has especially fatuous examples:

Transcripts show two others may have used up to 14 song titles.

One marksman, codenamed AZ12, described himself as "the barrier between the public and the bad man". Bad Man is a song by The Coral.

He also mentions "chasing car", similar to Snow Patrol hit Chasing Cars.

Colleague AZ14's evidence included calling the siege's end "a cacophony of noise". Cacophony is a Simple Minds hit. He also mentions "night and day", a Cole Porter song.

The only rational critique I've seen anywhere near mainstream is David Allen Green's piece A killing joke? in the New Statesman blog. It actually links to the transcript of AZ8's testimony, raising the particular point that the newspapers are making stuff up.  One memorable and distinctive phrase cited wasn't even said.

- Ray

1 comment:

  1. Interesting.

    RG: ...(and even coin idioms that
    RG: get into the language)...

    That direction particularly so.

    I'm aware that song titles and lyrics (and lines from fiction or poems, too) echo (entirely without conscious intent) in my day to day speech ... and even more so in my "peerformed speech" – when, for example, I lecture. I suspect that giving evidence in court might well fall into the latter category.

    One level up, I find myself consciously quoting but without "intent aforethought", so to speak.

    On Wednesday of this week, faced with a challenging question from a student (which I suppose is vaguely analogous to cross examination), I answered without thought or intent "and what have they done to the rain?". Everybody present was too young to recognise it, as I did even as I said it, as a Malvina Reynolds song refrain.

    I do deliberately quote, very often, in "performed" speech and writing; I suppose that makes me more apt to do unconsciously that a police officer who doesn't spend so much of her/his time in deliberate performance as a lecturer and writer ... but, still, "it's just a matter of time" (Carol King: Lover's Cross!) before something close to her/his heart comes out under pressure. Perhaps, even, someone not used to "performing" is even more likely to unintentionally borrow the performed words of others?

    I find this side avenue interesting, so I've meandered on about it, but the main point of course is the one you were making: the high statistical probability that, in any large body of speech, complete or close partial matches will occur for any chosen large corpus of public words such as song titles.