Oh boy, that'll be the day to rave on and not fade away

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Today's the 50th anniversary of the plane crash that killed Buddy Holly, and I've commemorated the event in a Word Routes column on the Visual Thesaurus by considering lyrics from four of his most famous songs. As you might have guessed, the four songs are "Oh Boy," "That'll Be the Day," "Rave On," and "Not Fade Away." You can check out the column here. As a postscript, one of those four song titles has an extra syntactic wrinkle that's worth mulling over.

"Not Fade Away" consists of the adverb of negation not plus the verb-particle construction fade away, and as such it is an example of a non-constituent title of the type documented by Geoff Pullum here and here. Geoff focused mainly on book titles that are not syntactic constituents, like A Scanner Darkly or Sometimes a Great Notion. Those are few and far between, but he noted that "things are freer, and there is more experimentation, in pop music song titles."

Even when a song title is not a constituent, we still expect the string of words to appear somewhere in the song itself as part of a syntactically well-formed lyrical sequence. Take, for example, the Justin Timberlake song "SexyBack" (discussed by Semantic Compositions here), which uses as its title the last two words of the line, "I'm bringin' sexy back." (Of course, to appreciate that as a well-formed sequence requires a construal of sexy as a noun.) The case of "Not Fade Away," however, is significantly more complex.

Transcripts vary quite a bit, but here is how I would render the first stanza of the original Buddy Holly recording (you can hear it on this YouTube clip while watching a spinning 78):

I'm a-gonna tell you how it's gonna be
You're gonna give your love to me

I wanna love you night and day
You know my love (ah!) not fade away
Well you know my love (ah!) not fade away.

The introduction of the words "not fade away" at the end of the first stanza is complicated by Holly's signature hiccup, which I've indicated with (ah!). By inserting an extra syllable, the hiccup has allowed some listeners to interpret the line more grammatically as "You know my love will not fade away" — or at least the reduced version "…my love'll not fade away." Others hear it as "You know my lovin' not fade away," which still lacks the expected future auxiliary will or 'll. But based on the rest of the song, I feel confident in my hiccup interpretation. Just listen to the very next line, which has another complicating hiccup: "My love (ah!) bigger than a Cadillac." Again, the hiccup seems to elide a syntactically expected element, in this case the copula is.

The words "not fade away" are repeated later in the song, but never in an obviously well-formed context (e.g., following a form of the verb do or a modal auxiliary like will, can, or must). The second stanza ends "Love for real, not fade away," and the third stanza (a variation of the first) ends "Love is love and not fade away." Or perhaps that's "Love is love (ah!) not fade away." (Others, predictably, hear "Love is lovin' not fade away.") In any case, it's clear that "not fade away" ends up functioning in the song like a slogan or mantra, rather than fitting neatly into a syntactic slot. Thus it works just fine as a song title, regardless of its non-constituency.

In his essay collection Back to a Shadow in the Night, music critic Jonathan Cott identifies both the hiccuping vocal motif and the peculiar syntax as part of the "playfully ironic, childlike quality that defines and gives the key to Buddy Holly's style." A fine observation, but then he goes on to describe the line "You know my love not fade away" as "telegraphing its message like a Chinese ideogram." A "Chinese ideogram"? Really? How is that "telegraphic," exactly? My guess is he's got a stereotypical image of Chinese immigrants speaking a syntactically simplified pidgin English (of the "no tickee, no shirtee" variety) and is somehow mapping that back onto Chinese native-language use (their ideograms, even!). Sheesh.

I won't let Cott off the hook for that description, but I certainly have no problem granting Buddy Holly poetic license to bend syntax to his will. R.I.P., Buddy, not fade away.


  1. Skullturf Q. Beavispants said,

    February 3, 2009 @ 3:38 pm

    Rage Against The Machine has a song called "Killing In The Name Of".

    As a bonus, the name of the band is ambiguous. Is it a noun phrase, or an imperative sentence? (Is "rage" a noun or a verb?)

  2. Rachel Cotterill said,

    February 3, 2009 @ 4:45 pm

    Is a more charitable explanation for Cott's comment that he may have simply confused the words 'ideogram' and 'idiom'? Chinese idioms have a tendency to be very short (4 characters) but very dense in meaning (or inferred meaning, anyhow).

  3. marie-lucie said,

    February 3, 2009 @ 4:48 pm

    Reading your column, I was surprised to see that you considered "Oh boy" to be a form of address to a male. I am not a native English speaker, but having heard this exclamation many times in several decades of living in North America I have always had the impression that it was something like an equivalent of "Gee!" or a similar exclamation, especially since it can be reinforced as "Boy oh boy!" or shortened as "Boy!" without seeming to actually address a person (the intonation in calling someone: "Boy!" or "Hey boy!" would be different from the purely exclamative one). So to me there is no dissonance in using "Oh boy" in a song addressed to a girl – the song is addressed to her, but the "Oh boy" seems to be just emphatic and does not address her. If "Oh boy" was (or had remained, assuming it must have started that way) a true address form, one could expect "Oh girl" to have developed as a parallel address form for a girl, and as far as I know this is not the case (compare with "Hey boy!" and "Hey man!", which are both forms of address to males of different ages, and with "Attagirl!" parallel to "Attaboy!"). What do native speakers say about it?

  4. Benjamin Zimmer said,

    February 3, 2009 @ 4:59 pm

    @marie-lucie: I wrote in the column: "This demonstrates how boy, like man, has transformed from a male term of address (or 'vocative') into an exclamation that can be used regardless of the addressee's gender." So I'm agreeing with you: it's an exclamation here, not a term of address. I muddied the waters a bit by saying "the song is notable for its prominent use of '(Oh) boy' in addressing someone of the opposite sex," but as I clarified in the comment section I just meant that the song itself has a (presumed) opposite-sex addressee, who the exclamatory "oh boy" is not addressing in a vocative fashion.

  5. Neal Whitman said,

    February 3, 2009 @ 5:00 pm

    And of course there's also "Down on the Farm", a title that does appear in this form in the song, and which could be a constituent in other contexts but isn't in this one. Moving from nonconstituent song titles to nonconstituent band names, a check of Nathan Vaillette's syntactic classification of band names page gives us Faith No More, and Me and My.

  6. marie-lucie said,

    February 3, 2009 @ 5:22 pm

    Ben, thank you for the clarification. It had not occurred to me that there were comments below the article. It seems that we all agree!

  7. Mark Liberman said,

    February 3, 2009 @ 5:32 pm

    Ben's VT column: …boy, like man, has transformed from a male term of address (or "vocative") into an exclamation that can be used regardless of the addressee's gender…

    Somewhat later, but more self-consciously gender-bending, is Roger Miller's 1964 hit "Atta boy girl".

  8. Bobbie said,

    February 3, 2009 @ 6:21 pm

    What interests me is the severely restricted non-verbal behavior on several of the performance clips. While Buddy Holly is singing Rave On, there are three of four (older?) adults sitting in the front row of the audience who do not move a muscle for most or the song. (One person's head begins to nod in time to the music, every so slightly.) Meanwhile the bass player is moving all over the stage and ends up about 6 feet from his mike; when it is time for the musical bridge, he scurries back into position.
    On another clip, Kathryn Murray introduces the group and chides the audience that adults have to pay attention to teenagers' choices of music. Then Buddy Holly comes out to sing "Peggy Sue." In the background are girls in formal gowns who stand absolutely still with their feet elegantly placed one in front of the other.
    What a far cry from the screaming fans that were at most live performances of rock & roll groups in that same era….

  9. Kenny Easwaran said,

    February 3, 2009 @ 6:56 pm

    Of course, it's possible to interpret "sexy back" as a constituent, in the sentence "I'm bringing sexy back", but that's clearly not the intended reading. On this reading "back" would be a mass noun and "sexy" an adjective. But of course, somehow it's obvious that "back" is part of "bring … back" and "sexy" is functioning more unusually as a noun rather than an adjective.

  10. kyle gorman said,

    February 3, 2009 @ 7:09 pm

    there are some interesting phonetic analyses in music criticism as well. just today the excellent matthew perpetua discussed the title:

    "The Greatest Man That Ever Lived"

    by Rivers Cuomo, which runs afoul a prescriptive rule (i'm told. i never learned the ones about relatives, despite Microsoft's attempts to the contrary). perpetua notes that Cuomo, in an interview, said he likes the "incorrect" title better because it sounds better. the scansion is the same, as perpetua notes, but he writes that he prefers the "slightly percussive" sound of "that" (i guess he's referring to the two constrictions).

  11. JT said,

    February 3, 2009 @ 8:09 pm

    I listened to two versions of the song on YouTube, and based on either one (and both) I'd render as: "You know my lovin' don('t) fade away" or "You know my love—it don('t) fade away" where "don't" is pronounced "dun" or "dohn." (I guess that "t" did fade away, heh.) Now, that doesn't match the name of the song, but it's what I'd sing along to the radio with.

  12. dr pepper said,

    February 4, 2009 @ 1:59 am

    Hmm, i haven't heard it in years but i thought i heard "Love me, love me, don't fade away". Guess i'd better go listen again.

  13. DW said,

    February 4, 2009 @ 8:29 am

    "Fade away" or "fading away" is a whole complicated motif in a lot of different lyrics.

  14. James D said,

    February 4, 2009 @ 8:59 am

    (Ah!) Do not want! ;-)

  15. Matthew said,

    February 4, 2009 @ 9:13 am

    Actually, under any syntactic analysis I know of, 'not fade away' would form a constituent… Which analysis did the author have in mind?

  16. JimG said,

    February 4, 2009 @ 9:55 am

    The slide of "man" from a vocative or term of address to a male and into a universal term of address, as Ben Zimmer noted in his Word Routes column, is paralleled by the recent universal usage of "dude". This has spread to other languages. In Madrid in 2003, I was intrigued to hear a Spanish woman address another woman as "Hombre", followed by the usual two air kisses and (in Spanish) "How ARE you?" and "What have you been up to?"

  17. Aviatrix said,

    February 4, 2009 @ 11:12 am

    And of course there's also "Down on the Farm", a title that does appear in this form in the song.

    Wait, what? It's in a different form in the song. "Down on the farm" despite the double preposition just means "at the farm" but in the song itself the line is "country boys and girls getting down on the farm." There down is part of "getting down" and "on the farm" is the location.

  18. Chad Nilep said,

    February 4, 2009 @ 11:29 am

    "My love (ah!) bigger than a Cadillac," seems to elide the copula 'is'. Of course, zero-copula is not unusual in English (though I don't know whether Buddy Holly used it in spoken, as opposed to sung, English). 'Be' can be realized as a full form (e.g. 'is'), a contracted from (as in 'he's') or zero ('He crazy').

    Similarly, 'be going to' can be realized as contracted forms ranging from '[he]'s gonna' to a lone syllabic nasal. (Speaking of song lyrics: I always heard Michael McDonald's "Ya Mo B There" as "I'm (going to) be there," with 'going to' reduced to a nasal.)

    If the hiccup was 'gonna' we would expect, "You know my love not (ah!) fade away." On the other hand, if the 'gonna' is reduced all the way to zero, the hiccup is not syntactic/lexical but merely rhythmic, maintaining the scansion.

  19. Ken Brown said,

    February 5, 2009 @ 1:52 pm

    "The slide of 'man' sounds like somewhere in the Irish Sea.

    In the 1970s I was living near Durham in the north-east of England. There was a teenage boy living nearby who addressed his female puppy as "Man".

    (And why did I write "female" instead of "bitch"?)

  20. Jonathan said,

    February 6, 2009 @ 5:46 pm

    Since non-constituent song titles have come up, it ought to be mentioned that opera arias are generally referred to by their first words, how many words to include being decided more by the musical setting than the syntax. The canonical example is "Or sai chi l'onore" from Mozart's Don Giovanni, which means something like "Now you know who the honour", but there are many others.

  21. Adam said,

    March 3, 2009 @ 3:59 am

    There is a band called "The Boy Least Likely To." And the first track of Love's Forever Changes is "Alone Again Or."

    I keep thinking that 'Of Montreal' is not a constituent. But it is, right?

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