The charge: cliché use under oath

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A rather extraordinary language story broke in the UK yesterday when a police officer was put on suspension for allegedly peppering his testimony at an inquest with phrases taken from song titles, as a prank. One of the fuller news stories is the one in the tabloid newspaper The Sun (read it here). The question is not, of course, about whether it would be professionally improper to play jokes on a coroner by finding excuses to insert song titles into sworn testimony at an inquest involving the shooting of a civilian by a police marksman; it would be grossly offensive. The question is how an offense of this sort could ever be proved given that song titles are, as everyone must surely know, so frequently taken from everyday phrases and clichés that are extremely frequent in everyone's speech.

The inquest was on the death of Mark Saunders, a young and fairly wealthy high-court trial lawyer who for unknown reasons got roaring drunk (he was an alcoholic) and spent some five hours occasionally firing a shotgun at random from a window of his $3 million house in Chelsea (a wealthy area of London). Police were called in (he took a few shots at them) and one of them, a sniper known in the inquest transcript as Alpha Zulu 8 (or AZ8), killed Saunders with a rifle shot. British police very seldom use guns, so this is a big deal, and the circumstances surrounding this inquest are very tense. Relatives of the dead man believe the police were over-zealous and trigger-happy, but an internal inquiry found their actions justifiable.

The police have not supplied a list of the song titles that AZ8 allegedly slipped into his testimony, but since the testimony is published, journalists have been working overtime finding pop song allusions in it. Here is a list of all the phrases I have so far seen cited in the press, with the raw number of Google hits for each phrase and the song and artist alleged to have been the source for AZ8's use of the phrase:

blinding light 1.7 million Blinding Light, August Burns Red
crossed my line 249,000 Cross My Line, Aaron Waters
drop the gun 67,000 Drop The Gun, Kings of the Sun
enough is enough 1.7 million Enough Is Enough, Donna Summer; Stick To Your Guns; No More Tears: Enough Is Enough, Barbra Streisand
first time 178 million First Time, Robin Beck
fuck my old boots 26,000 Fuck My Old Boots, The Membranes
(I am) kicking myself 2.2 million Kicking Myself, As Tall As Lions
I believe 95 million I Believe, Katherine Jenkins
is there any other way 30 million Is There Any Other Way, Celine Dion; Backstreet Boys
line of fire 7 million Line Of Fire, Journey
point of no return 1.4 million Point Of No Return, Buzzcocks, Duran Duran
quiet moments

2 million Quiet Moments, Chris de Burgh
self preservation 1 million Self Preservation Society, from the film The Italian Job
sorry about that 9 million Sorry About That, Alkaline Trio
too late 52 million Too Late, James Blunt

I am well aware that a raw count of Google hits is an extremely rough measure: it counts pages, not occurrences; the counts are guesstimated when large, and known to be inaccurate; many pages are duplicates; and so on. But as a very rough gauge of frequency, the above figures will surely do as a basis for my question: How on earth is anyone ever going to prove, to a sufficient standard for a police inquiry, that phrases as trite and familiar as these were deliberate song-title echoes? Even fuck my old boots (with not many Google hits) is a familiar British vernacular expression of surprise. And some of the others are so familiar that I am not sure whether I have used them today or not.

It may surprise you that in part I blame George Orwell. As I have remarked elsewhere, the ridiculous idea that people should always avoid phrases that they are familiar with is one that cannot be complied with, but I think people are retrospectively expected AZ8 to prove that he lived up to it.

I have no idea whether AZ8 was playing the clever boy by seeing how many song titles he could get into one boring day of inquest testimony, as he was probed and prodded and cross-questioned in an effort to find him culpable. No doubt he felt the questioning was an insult to his professional dignity and his dangerous job. But whatever the facts about what he did, I know I would not like to be subjected to a penetrating audit to see if during a long day of unrehearsed speech I had uttered perhaps a dozen short frequent phrases that happen to occur in some of my favorite pop songs.


  1. John Cowan said,

    November 4, 2010 @ 1:32 pm

    There is much viewing-with-alarm and talk of fining him and even terminating him. Absurd. Nobody even reprimanded Judge Kosinski.

  2. a George said,

    November 4, 2010 @ 1:36 pm

    what an apparently remarkable memory for song lines this sniper must have! Or what drivel they contain. In the old days, one might have expected this behaviour concerning hymns (at least in those countries where in primary school you were given a hymn a week to learn by heart). Had the sniper of your news story quoted hymns I would have believed it, because that would be outstanding.

  3. Mark Mandel said,

    November 4, 2010 @ 1:48 pm

    "But as a very rough gauge of frequency, the above figures will surely do as a basis for my question: How on earth is anyone ever going to prove, to a sufficient standard for a police inquiry, that phrases as trite and familiar as these were deliberate song-title echoes?"

    If one were to wish to go about it, it seems to me that one could apply the same form of analysis to comparable texts: say, police officers' testimony at the current inquest at London's Westminster Coroner's Court with the testimony of officers at other inquests.

  4. Pflaumbaum said,

    November 4, 2010 @ 1:48 pm

    It should also be pointed out that several of those expressions seem particularly likely to come up in a discussion about a marksman shooting a gunman. In particular

    crossed my line
    drop the gun
    line of fire

    and to a lesser extent

    self preservation
    point of no return

    If he'd said I shot the sheriff, it might be another matter. But line of fire?

    Also, crossed my line is not quite the song title. Charging him with near misses doesn't seem like straight shooting.

  5. BobH said,

    November 4, 2010 @ 2:10 pm

    I think what we lack here is a point of comparison. We could devise an experiment by selecting randomly chosen police testimony in other trials and counting how many pop song phrases occur. Are British trial transcripts readily available to the public?

  6. Ben C said,

    November 4, 2010 @ 2:27 pm

    Agreed with Pflaumbaum—I wonder if some media expert could be called on to provide an opinion as to whether one person would be reasonably expected to be familiar with all those songs at once. Forensic pop culture analysis, friends. It's the future.

  7. Chandra said,

    November 4, 2010 @ 2:29 pm

    Well, it is interesting though that according to the article the lawyer "sent a pal a text quoting Doors song The End" before he died. I could see this sort of (tasteless, to be sure) practical joke arising in response to that.

    Also, some of his wording does seem suspicious:
    "It just got past that Point Of No Return (Duran Duran) and I Am Kicking Myself (As Tall As Lions) because I feel I left it Too Late (James Blunt)."

    He left what too late? Shooting the lawyer? Would shooting him earlier have made a difference? I guess I'd have to see the whole transcript to know exactly what he's referring to, though.

  8. Acilius said,

    November 4, 2010 @ 2:46 pm

    Pflaumbaum and BobH make the key points, but I can't resist fulminating a bit. "I believe" is on the list of suspicious phrases? How many witnesses can testify at any length without saying "I believe"? "First time"- he's supposed to produce a detailed description of a sequence of events- try to do that without using "first time." And "sorry about that"- he's being asked about an incident in which he shot someone to death, and it's suspicious that he says "sorry about that"?

  9. Sid Smith said,

    November 4, 2010 @ 2:48 pm

    Yes, but there's a precedent. Most Brits (including, presumably, these police officers) know that the England football team pulled the same trick in media interviews during the 1998 World Cup:

    Extra points for the presenter's use of "mischieviously".

  10. J. W. Brewer said,

    November 4, 2010 @ 3:03 pm

    It might have been more suspicious if he'd said "Point of Know Return" (Kansas). How do we know if the transcript was accurate in giving "no" rather than "know"?

    I'm struck by the fact that with the possible exception of the Membranes song title (as to which I will defer to GKP for other BrE usage), exactly none of the 15 alleged song titles cited is a string of words even minimally noteworthy for being a song title. So, if one googled the phrase "Hungry Like the Wolf," one might expect some significant percentage of the hits to reference the Duran Duran song or be colorable allusions, even if only second-hand, thereto. But presumably the percentage of all uses of the phrase "point of no return" that allude to the Duran Duran song is trivial. (And how well known are some of these songs qua songs? If you asked a bunch of Brits to start naming as many Duran Duran song titles as they can think of in whatever order they come to mind, how often, and how early in the sequence, is "Point of No Return" going to come up?)

    I'm not sure exactly how to quantify what percentage of song titles would be notable-as-such (in the sense that a significant percenage of uses of that string of words do refer or allude to the song), but eyeballing, for example a list of #1 hits in the U.K. in the '90's (when, let us assume, the sniper's pop-music sensibility was being formed) suggests to me it ought to be significantly more than 1 in 15:

  11. Ray Girvan said,

    November 4, 2010 @ 3:16 pm

    Aha: I hoped LL would get to this one too. The expression "Fuck my old boots" sounds regional; I'm a native UK English speaker, and I've never heard it before, though my brother-in-law, who lived in London, knew the variant "Bugger my old boots".

  12. Chandra said,

    November 4, 2010 @ 3:22 pm

    Saying that the story would be more plausible if he used titles like "Hungry Like the Wolf" or "I Shot the Sherriff" misses the point entirely, I think. Presumably he is smart enough to know that if he's going to try to pull such a prank without getting caught, he has to avoid such obvious titles and stick to the cliché ones instead.

    As others have mentioned, finding some way to measure the number of song-title clichés he used in comparison with other speech produced under similar circumstances would be the best way of determining if this allegation is legitimate or not.

  13. Mr Fnortner said,

    November 4, 2010 @ 3:35 pm

    I agree that it is difficult from this perspective to know how anyone found the game out. It's not as if he used song titles like "Hotel California", "Over the Rainbow", or "The Ballad of Davy Crockett" that would be hard to work into testimony without sounding peculiar. Did he give a sly wink, snicker or giggle, bite his lip to keep from laughing? Or perhaps the judge or senior police officials are as current on pop song titles as the officer, in which case I would wonder whether the problem is all in the mind of the observer.

  14. Rachel said,

    November 4, 2010 @ 3:36 pm

    I really doubt he would actually be familiar with all that music at once. Having knowledge of most of those artists wouldn't be impossible, but knowledge extensive enough to pull titles from the catalogues of Celine Dion AND American metalcore for preteens (August Burns Red) AND a mediocre early 2000s alt rock band (As Tall As Lions)? I'm not buying it.

    Maybe if the genres were the same, or they were famous songs, it'd be a little more possible. Not to mention the difficulties of inserting the titles into natural-sounding speech…seems like an awful lot of work for someone undoubtedly a little stressed about shooting a rich party boy recently.

    Not that he couldn't have looked them up on the internet, of course. But imagine looking something like that up. Where would you even start doing something like this with such a random assortment of artists, and titles that sound like normal, natural idioms anyway?

  15. Sid Smith said,

    November 4, 2010 @ 4:07 pm

    We mustn't assume that it was the transcript that aroused suspicion — more likely to be in-house gossip, I think.

    [Yes, there are reports in the press of fellow police officers passing the story around with much mirth. That's how the authorities got to hear about it, I think. —GKP]

  16. SimonMH said,

    November 4, 2010 @ 4:59 pm

    'ello, 'ello, 'ello. My experience of the er limited vocabulary of many officers of the law leads me to suspect that it would be hard to find a sample of their speech that WASN'T cliché-ridden.

  17. Jackbishop said,

    November 4, 2010 @ 6:14 pm

    A more deep search analysis might be as to how often the phrase appears alongside the band names, compared to otherwise; e.g. +"blinding light" gets 1.8M, but +"blinding light" +"august burns red" gets 54.8K, so I'd say the "song-relevancy factor" would be 3%.

    For instance "Cross my line" has 1.8%, "Drop the gun" 2.4%, "Enough is Enough" gets 2.7% for Donna Summer (and less for Streisand), "First Time" a miniscule 0.03%, "Fuck My Old Boots" gets 4.8%.

    I didn't continue, but it seems like these phrases all occur disproportionately not in connection with the bands they're ostensibly associated with. For a control, I tried the above-mentioned "Hungry Like The Wolf" and got 68%; for a common phrase which is also the title of a well-known song than most of those on the above list I tried Buffalo Springfield's "For What It's Worth" and got 0.3%; I tried an obscure song and obscure phrase (but not unthinkable to utter) with Erik Sumo's "Friday in France" and got 22%. Also, as a foil to the choice of "Blinding Light", I tried the phrase (a much more apt one for surreptitious insertion of song titles if you're alread talking about dazzling light) "Blinded by the Light" and got a song-relevancy of 19% for Manfred Mann, 12% for Bruce Springsteen.

    It seems like authentically artificial phrases would show up as having high song-relevancy.

  18. Sid Smith said,

    November 4, 2010 @ 6:35 pm

    "Yes, there are reports in the press of fellow police officers passing the story around with much mirth. That's how the authorities got to hear about it, I think. —GKP"

    Thank you, Geoffrey. So disciplinary hearings won't need to rely on whether the officer's words are unambiguously song titles. A neat way to ruin your career: the kind of misjudgement that critics of the police blame on "canteen culture".

  19. Jerry Friedman said,

    November 4, 2010 @ 7:40 pm

    The Sun article says, "Before he died Mark sent a pal a text quoting Doors song The End."

    Am I suffering from a recency illusion, or are anarthrous nominal premodifiers for inanimate nouns mostly a product of the last ten years? I notice GKP, though he sometimes goes anarthrous when identifying people, stayed arthrous here: "One of the fuller news stories is the one in the tabloid newspaper The Sun."

    I hope to see a discussion at renowned linguablog Language Log.

  20. Kapitano said,

    November 4, 2010 @ 8:23 pm

    There's nothing in that list to suggest the man went out of his way to insert song title into his testimony. If he'd mentioned "Rivers of Babylon", "In the Navy", "My Old Piano", "Heartbreak Hotel", "The Great Commandment", "Mister Tamborine Man", "Ma Ma Ma Belle" and "Holiday in Cambodia"…there might be reason to suppose he did.

  21. Randall said,

    November 4, 2010 @ 8:50 pm


    Is using phrases that are in any way deictic a sign that he was intentionally using clichés? I've never given testimony under oath, but I feel as if I don't normally speak with every reference to any ambiguous word I've used constantly repeated.

  22. ignoramus said,

    November 4, 2010 @ 9:17 pm

    No mention of a Beetle song .
    "Not guilty" entered by most defense Queens Counsel
    OED: :
    e. Phr. enough is enough, one must be satisfied with what has been achieved, etc.
    1546 J. HEYWOOD Prov. II. xi, Here is enough, I am satisfied (saide he) Sens enough is enough (saide I)..For folke saie, enough is as good as a feast.

  23. Acilius said,

    November 4, 2010 @ 9:19 pm

    "Yes, there are reports in the press of fellow police officers passing the story around with much mirth. That's how the authorities got to hear about it, I think. —GKP"- So other police officers had formed the idea that he was doing this. It's awfully strange to base a charge of police misconduct on the fact that a bunch of police officers thought they knew what someone was thinking.

  24. Joshua said,

    November 4, 2010 @ 9:51 pm

    John Cowan: I suspect that Judge Kozinski was able to get away with, and actually was praised for, his opinion filled with movie titles because of the kind of case it was (an antitrust case in which the government unsuccessfully sued a chain of movie theaters). By contrast, if a judge tried that sort of thing in dealing with a sexual assault case, it would probably be received extremely negatively.

  25. Chandra said,

    November 4, 2010 @ 11:20 pm

    @Randall: You misunderstood me. The part that seemed odd to me was not that he used a deictic phrase, but that he seemed to be saying he acted too late ("Too Late" being the potential song title in question, and the part he would have had to work in somehow).

  26. newname said,

    November 5, 2010 @ 3:09 am

    Intentional prank or not, what puzzles me is how anyone could have contrived to insert the phrase 'fuck my old boots' into testimony during an inquest.

    Was it a quote or something? Can anyone provide the context? And/or an explanation?

    @Ray Girvan, I'm a native UK English speaker and I'm familiar with the phrase. It smacks of brummie to me, but I lived all over and I'm not sure where I might have heard it.

  27. outeast said,

    November 5, 2010 @ 5:07 am

    It might be relevant that a cult TV show some years back featured two lawyers getting in trouble for a game where they worked 'challenge words' into courtroom speeches. It does seem to be a prank with a pedigree, at least in popular culture (perhaps urban legend, too).

    For what it's worth I don't think the concern is only over the tastlessness of the prank (though it would suggest a worrying lack of seriousness to be pranking in this context). At least as major a concern is about the effect it might have had on the testimony itself. Chandra (above) highlighted the oddity of the quoted statement 'I feel I left it too late', for example; if that sentiment is one the officer would not have expressed if he had not been engaged in this alleged prank, then his testimony was directly affected. That's a really major concern – as is the implication that his entire testimony would have had to have been carefully scripted in advance.

    @Newname: "I switched the light on, he turned towards me and I thought: 'Fuck my old boots, I've got a gun trained on me." It sounds very odd to me (another Brit, lived in many parts of the UK but not the midlands) but then I've never had a gun trained on me. :)

  28. newname said,

    November 5, 2010 @ 7:30 am

    @Outeast — thanks for that.

    Regarding provenance, this urban dictionary entry mentions South Yorkshire, but I've never spent any time there so that's not where I would have heard it.

  29. ?! said,

    November 5, 2010 @ 7:57 am

    Outeast, that's what I was thinking too- whether someone doing this might be perjuring himself.

  30. Brett said,

    November 5, 2010 @ 9:54 am

    The last comment reminded me of the oddity of the verb "perjure." It is the only verb in my vocabulary that seems to require a reflexive construction. One can say:

    He perjured himself at the inquest.

    but not:

    *He perjured at the inquest.

    Nor can it take any other kind of object:

    *He perjured the court.
    *He perjured the defendant.
    *He perjured his testimony.

    The last of those three sounds quite wrong, but not as wrong as the first two. In fact, a sentence like:

    The affidavit relied on perjured testimony.

    sounds perfectly acceptable to me. It's odd.

  31. Coby Lubliner said,

    November 5, 2010 @ 5:14 pm

    It's a funny coincidence that just a short while ago I thought of asking Geoff Pullum, probably the world's preeminent rock-musician-cum-linguist, to explain to me the significance of the parentheses that are embedded in so many song titles, and that he happened to include (I am) kicking myself in his list. Can Geoff, or anyone out there, explain what the parentheses mean?

  32. slobone said,

    November 5, 2010 @ 8:42 pm

    Must be a Brit thing. Graham Norton played the same game on his show with Shirley Bassey, seeing how many of her song titles he could work into a phone conversation with one of her fans.

  33. groki said,

    November 5, 2010 @ 11:24 pm

    @Coby Lubliner

    the parens are to include words which are not in the song's official title (under which the song is copyrighted, royalties are paid, etc.) but that people who are looking for the song might think are in the title–because those words are part of a catchy refrain, say.

    on, see also: Why do they put parentheses in song titles?

  34. Coby Lubliner said,

    November 6, 2010 @ 1:08 am

    groki: thanks for the explanation, though the example given in the post, Simon & Garfunkel – Feeling Groovy (59th St Bridge Song), gives an alternative title rather than parentheses embedded in the title.

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