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Mark Steyn

Seasons of Steyn

The Language of Love

Happy Valentine's Day, a day on which we anglophones struggle under one of the worst burdens in a world which has otherwise blessed us: the word "love." The French for "love" is amour, which rhymes with dozens of other useful words - toujours (always), jour (day), carrefour (crossroads), tambour (drum)... So the romantically inclined Québécois lyricist can slough off a love ballad in minutes:

Darling, you're my amour
Not just today but toujours
I know from that very first jour
When I saw you at the carrefour
And my heart beat like a tambour...

Truly, French is the language of love. By contrast, the romantically inclined Manitoban lyricist is stymied at every turn. English has just four and a half rhymes for "love," approximately three-quarters of which offer highly limited possibilities: "above," "dove," "glove," "shove," and (the half-rhyme) "of," pronounced "uv." The last is the reason why, in English songs, "love" is a thing you spend a lot of time "dreaming uv." "Shove" is of limited application, except in ballads for spousal abusers. "Glove" is annoyingly singular. In Irving Berlin's "I've Got My Love To Keep Me Warm," the romantic swain finds himself, as many northerly canoodlers do on this day, in sub-zero temperatures but set aflame by his passion:

Off with my overcoat
Off with my glove
I need no overcoat
I'm burning with love...

- and you find yourself thinking: why's the guy only wearing one glove? The most artful deployment of the "love/glove" rhyme is a magnificently dismissive anti-romantic sentiment in Professor Henry Higgins' mysogynist masterpiece, "Let A Woman In Your Life" from My Fair Lady:

You want to talk of Keats or Milton
She only wants to talk of love
You go to see a play or ballet
And spend it searching for her glove...

We should also give an honorable mention to Leonard Cohen, who set himself the challenge of finding something fresh to say for three-and-a-half of the four-and-a-half rhymes and managed to give a rare erotic frisson to the singular finger-warmer:

Touch me with your naked hand or touch me with your glove
Dance Me To The End Of Love...

As for "dove", that's the reason why so many fragrant Victorian parlor ballads spend so much time swooning over "my turtle dove". Rock'n'roll, of course, was supposed to put an end to such coy formulations, but even the quaintest prove surprisingly resilient. For over a decade, a terrible biotuner about Buddy Holly wowed theatre audiences in London with all the usual clichés of the genre. Buddy and the Crickets try and get their records played on the local stations in Texas, but they're told that this new kind of music is too wild, too raw, too dangerous. Buddy defiantly refuses to compromise. "I gotta play my music my way," he tells the skeptics. Then he sings the wild, raw, dangerous "That'll Be The Day" and you'd think you were listening to a backporch spooner circa 1902:

You give me all your lovin'
And your turtle-dovin'...

So that pretty much leaves "above." What's "above"? Some cracked plaster and a dangling light bulb. Okay, what's above that? The moon and the stars. Hence:

Each night I ask the stars up above
Why must I be A Teenager In Love?

- and a hundred thousand other examples.

In Portuguese, it's different. Coração (heart) rhymes with violão (guitar) and canção (song), which is why there are a zillion Brazilian bossa novas about giving you my heart while I play you a song on my guitar. The constraints of language help define our notion of romance, and in English we're more constrained than most. The prevalence of the "dreaming of/stars above" approach makes love, almost by definition, dreamy, starry-eyed, other-worldly, unreal. The speech-pathologist Wendell Johnson called this the "IFD disease": I for "Idealization (the making of impossible and ideal demands)" leading to F for "Frustration (as the results of the demands not being met)" leading to D for "Demoralization" and a descent "into a symbolic world... The psychiatric profession classifies this retreat as schizophrenia."

Expanding on the theme in the 1950s, the semanticist S I Hayakawa attacked love songs for their promotion of "an enormous amount of unrealistic idealization - the creation in one's mind, as the object of love's search, of a dream girl (or dream boy) the fleshly counterpart of which never existed on Earth." Professor Hayakawa deplored the way these irresponsible songwriters give no indication "that, having found the dream-girl or dream-man, one's problems are just beginning." "Disenchantment" and "self-pity" are bound to set in. In the case study he cites, the boy winds up on Skid Row and the girl in a mental institution, all because they believed the love songs they heard on the radio.

But who cares about S I Hayakawa? That kind of clever stuff's easy to write. It's trying to say something simple that's really difficult. Johnny Mercer, the lyricist of "Moon River" and "One For My Baby," put it this way: "Writing music takes more talent, but writing lyrics takes more courage." He worked with some of the most talented composers of the last hundred years - Jerome Kern, Harold Arlen, Hoagy Carmichael - but what he meant was that, as wistful and beguiling as any of their tunes might be, there comes a moment when the other half of the writing team has to sit down and put on top of those notes the umpteenth variation on "I love you." By "courage", he was thinking of writers like his friend Dorothy Fields, who could be as flashy a rhymester as Noel Coward but was also capable of:

I'm In The Mood For Love
Simply because you're near me
Funny, but when you're near me
I'm In The Mood For Love...

It'll look like nothing in the Collected Lyrics, but, set to that tune, it's bewitching. It fulfills the highest objective of lyric-writing: It says those notes; it takes the vague emotional tone of the music and makes it specific. Most of us start out aspiring to the kind of romance worthy of a great love song. But a songwriter has the trickiest task of all: He has to put it into words for all of us, and that does take guts. Look at the abuse heaped on Dan Hill's Canadian Content classic:

Sometimes When We Touch
The honesty's too much...

In Dan's case, the honesty is too much. But give the poor chump a break: He deserves credit for having the courage to write it out that straightforwardly, from the (so to speak) bottom of his heart.

As for Wendell Johnson, S I Hayakawa and the other nay-sayers, it was Johnny Mercer who said it best:

Fools Rush In
Where wise men never go
But wise men never fall in love
So how are they to know?

from Seasons of Steyn, February 14, 2016

 

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