Strictly what?

« previous post | next post »

For some time now I have been in syntactic pain over what appeared to be a TV show in the UK with a completely ungrammatical title. It's a competitive ballroom dancing show on BBC TV, compered by the octogenarian Bruce Forsyth (who after what must be half a century on TV is still using his catchphrase greeting "Nice to see you, to see you, nice" every single time he confronts a camera). The name of the show is Strictly Come Dancing.

I was baffled by it. It doesn't seem to have a parse at all. You simply can't use a manner adverb like strictly to modify an invitation like "Come dancing". What on earth was going on? It was many months before I realized that almost certainly Wikipedia would reveal all for me, if I just swallowed my foolish pride and looked the show up. Wikipedia — always great on showbiz topics — did not let me down. And I could have kicked myself.

It is so simple. There was once a ballroom dancing show on BBC TV called Come Dancing (I knew that). And in 1992 there was an Australian romantic comedy film called Strictly Ballroom (I'm sure I had heard of it). The makers of the new program just glued bits of the two titles together to make a blend that alluded to both.

I'm probably one of the only people in the English-speaking world who didn't get it. Which is a bit embarrassing, what with me being a Language Log senior writer and purportedly a big language maven and all. My job is probably on the line here. Just promise not to spread it around that I didn't spot the allusion, OK? I don't want to look more stupid than absolutely necessary. Probably hardly anyone but you will have read this post through to the end. It'll just be our little secret.

Added later:
Sridhar Ramesh writes to me to point out that "were it not for Wikipedia, many
of us would have difficulty appreciating even the title "Strictly Ballroom" as strictly grammatical." It is an excellent point. Why is strictly here allowed as (apparently) a pre-head modifier of a noun, ballroom? Because it really means strictly ballroom dancing, i.e., falling within the strict definition of the special kinds of dancing known as ballroom dancing. The adverb modifies an attributive modifier (ballroom) of a noun (dancing, derived from a gerund-participle of a verb) that has been omitted. This is indeed a difficult phrase to analyse. Maybe I'm not so dumb to have had trouble with it.

And Ian Preston points out to me that Bruce Forsyth and co-host Tess Daly, while typically using the phrase "Keep dancing" to end the show, at one point took to replacing it with the catchphrase "Keep strictly". I don't know what to say about this. But note that the present post is categorized under "Language play".

Comments are closed.