Life’s twists and turns

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Swiss Life, the insurance company, has a series of advertisements (see them here) in which the punchline is always “For all life’s twists and turns: flexible financial plans”, and the main text, in large print to catch your attention, is a non-sentence with weird structure. For example:

I love my house now belongs to my ex-wife.
I never want children are great.
I’m not interested in getting married in church is more romantic.
She’s my everything went wrong.
I like working with you is impossible.
You are the only woman I love a man now.

A reader named Shreevatsa wrote to ask me what kind of structure these lines have. Well, no structure that English syntax permits. But I’ve seen this kind of thing before, and I’ll tell you where.

There’s a beautifully sentimental country song called “Honey come back”, written by one of the best songwriters of the 20th century, Jimmy Webb, and recorded by Glenn Campbell. (They did some incredible work together. If you find no tears come to your eyes when you listen to “Galveston”, seek professional help.) The unusual syntactic idea that Webb exploits is to take two sentences, one of the form XY and the other of the form YZ (where X, Y and Z are sequences of words or syllables, not necessarily full phrases) and telescope them together to make a string of the form XYZ, in defiance of the syntax. Here’s the chorus of “Honey come back”:

Honey, come back I just can’t stand
Each lonely day’s a little bit longer
Than the last time I held you
Seems like a hundred years ago
Back to his arms and never know
The joy of love that used to taste like
Honey, come back where you belong to only me.

As I see it, the complete form of the thoughts expressed would run like this:

Honey, come back I just can’t stand each lonely day.
Each lonely day’s a little bit longer than the last.
The last time I held you seems like a hundred years ago.
Go back to his arms and never know the joy of love that used to taste like honey . . .
Honey, come back where you belong.
You belong to only me.

If you run those together and ignore punctuation and line breaks, you get a thoroughly ungrammatical string of words; but the feeling remains, and the lyrics (except for the line breaks) are recoverable from it simply by deleting adjacent identical substrings:

Honey, come back I just can’t stand each lonely day[ each lonely day]‘s a little bit longer than the last [the last] time I held you seems like a hundred years ago [go] back to his arms and never know the joy of love that used to taste like honey [honey] come back where you belong [you belong] to only me.

The result is a beautiful depiction of the mind of a rejected lover, half deranged by life’s twists and turns, churning obsessively from thought to thought, the last few syllables of each clause suggesting the start of the next. An ingenious prose poem about an obsessed ex-lover’s mental agony (yes, prose: notice the complete absence of rhyme and meter).

Something similar is going on in the Swiss Life ads. They paint miniature word pictures of the sudden and surprising turnarounds that life and love can spring on you, radical changes of mind or circumstances that can have big financial implications. And they use exactly the same telescoping technique as Glenn Campbell used:

I love my house[. My house] now belongs to my ex-wife.
I never want children[. Children] are great.
I’m not interested in getting married in church[. Getting married in church] is more romantic.
She’s my everything[. Everything] went wrong.
I like working with you[. Working with you] is impossible.
You are the only woman I love[. I love] a man now.

I particularly like She’s my everything went wrong. There’s a song title if I ever heard one. Someone (Jimmy?) has to write that song.

[When I thought about opening comments are closed.]



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