Buried song titles everywhere

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Ian Preston, a London economist, did a bit of research of his own into the issue of the police officer who has been accused of having a little passive-aggressive fun by peppering his inquest evidence with song titles. "It seems to me," Ian remarks in a classically British understated way, "that the evidence cited on this in newspaper discussion is a little underwhelming."

It sure is. Ian not only found yet more song titles in the same police testimony; he then undertook the experiment of checking another random text for comparison, and found song titles there too. What's more, the second text he took was an email on an entirely non-song-related topic from a professional grammarian. What's more, the professional grammarian was me.

I quote in extenso from Ian's email (with his permission):

I looked at four news reports on the subject – the Telegraph, the Guardian, the Evening Standard, and the BBC

The songs which they cite are: Point of no return — credited to Duran Duran (BBC), Phantom of the Opera (ES, Telegraph), Buzzcocks (Guardian); Enough is enough — Barbara Streisand (BBC), Alice Cooper (ES), Donna Summer (Guardian), Jamie Lidell (Telegraph); Line of fire — The Journey (BBC, ES, Guardian); First time — Robin Beck (BBC); Self Preservation — from The Italian Job (ES, Telegraph) Blinding Light — August Burns Red (ES, Telegraph) Fuck My Old Boots — The Membranes (ES, Guardian, Telegraph) I'm Kicking Myself — As Tall As Lions (ES, Guardian, Telegraph) Quiet Moments — Chris de Burgh (ES, Guardian, Telegraph) Any Other Way — Backstreet Boys (ES, Telegraph) People Talking — Jay Z (ES).

More or less all of these are common and, in the context, appropriate short phrases. In one instance the four reports find four different singers for one title (and in another three), showing just how common the phrase is. (There are also other uncited versions of "Any Other Way" for instance – eg Celine Dion, William Bell – and "First Time" – eg U2, Styx, Lighthouse, . . .) In one case the phrase is not even a proper song title, just a phrase used in a song in a well-known film. The only phrase that strikes me as slightly unusual is "Fuck My Old Boots" but here the song cited is hardly well known and the phrase plainly predates the song (and are we meant to believe the same officer is an aficionado of both The Membranes and Chris de Burgh?). (To be honest, the fact that a police officer finds this an appropriate way to express himself at an inquest into someone he is alleged to have killed shocks me more than the thought he might have played a game with song titles in his evidence.)

Looking at the quotes from the testimony in the Guardian I found at least five other song titles by idle Googling: "Play It Back" (Lonnie Smith), "In My Mind" (Heather Headley, Antiloop), "Towards Me" (Sam Brown), "On the Trigger" (Bidwell), "Turn My Back" (Sick of it All). I wouldn't be surprised if there are more but what does it prove?

Just for a comparative example, as I thought of emailing you about it, I also checked the text of your brief email to me from this June.

I remember that email. It was about an observation of his concerning the problem of getting used to in plain form constructions — a topic that Mark Liberman coincidentally addressed just the other day in "Didn't use(d) to be". What I wrote to Ian was this:

Spot on. You have noticed a strange little feature of English that I think is quite revealing. "Used" is MORPHOLOGICALLY a preterite; but for "Didn't he ___ to be rubbish?" we need a plain form to fill the blank. "Used" normally only appears in its apparently preterite form. If you try to force it to act as a plain form, you get unquestionably ungrammatical strings:

*In order to be eligible you must used to be in the RAF.

*I enjoy going to the weddings of my old girlfriends; it gives me a thrill to used to have sex with the bride.

Surely nobody would write those. And yet if we can't have "use(d)" after auxiliary "do", we have no interrogative corresponding to "He used to be rubbish"! So people often bite the bullet and say either "didn't he use to" or "didn't he used to".

What hardly anyone can bear to conclude from all this is what I think is actually correct: there is NO ANSWER to what is correct here. The language is not well designed enough to provide an answer. There is an embarrassing inconsistency in the syntactic regulations, very much like an embarrassing inconsistency in a legal or regulatory system. And we just sort of vamp. Nobody knows what to do; everybody improvises with what we've got.

Of course, I'm anthropomorphising: this is nearly always unconscious. But in rare cases there are people like you who notice it explicitly.


Well, here is Ian's account of his experiment on my innocent prose (where I would have said you didn't have a snowflake's chance in hell of finding any buried song titles):

I fairly quickly found what appear to be five song titles: "Fill the Blank" (Dang Show), "Old Girlfriends" (John Wesley Harding), "Bite the Bullet" (Motorhead, Roadstar, Gillan, Machine Head, …), "No Answer" (Falco, Juliana Hatfield, Watermarks), "Nobody Knows" (Pink, Nik Kershaw, Tony Rich) Most of these are quite obscure but then some of the songs cited for AZ8 are also obscure. I don't suppose that you were making any effort to insert song titles into your reply but then perhaps the incidence and obscurity of these examples doesn't match those in his testimony.

I guess that this is difficult to check systematically. Can ordinary language corpora be cross-referenced against song catalogues? Maybe he has admitted it or boasted about it to colleagues but, if not, is there any way of assembling evidence that speaks to whether or not some of the reporting is or is not excessively credulous?

I think it is clear what the answer to this must be, don't you? It seems almost certain that the newspapers have been excessively credulous. There is but a snowflake's chance in hell of establishing that the presence of the allegedly song-derived phrases could not be due to chance. Unless the officer known as AZ8 boasted in front of more than one witness that he had mocked the inquest process by sticking song titles into his testimony, they cannot possibly substantiate the charge against him. If Language Log writers (or for that matter linguistically interested diligent economists) are called as expert witnesses, they are going to have to testify for the case of the defense.


  1. groki said,

    November 8, 2010 @ 12:32 pm

    "Excessively Credulous" would itself make a good song title.

    (a quick goog gives a couple related tunes: a punk song "Credulous! Credulous!" by a band named BATS, and Suffocation's death-metal "Epitaph of the Credulous.")

  2. Jason Stokes said,

    November 8, 2010 @ 1:13 pm

    While most of the evidence cited seems underwhelming to me too, the alleged passage:

    As it came down again, it crossed my line and I let off the first round. I thought that enough is enough. It just got past that point of no return. I have seen the film, and I am kicking myself because I left it too late.

    Seems sufficiently contrived in pure cliches per sentence terms to justify suspicion. Or perhaps our Mr AZ8 simply naturally expresses himself in fixed expressions? A forensic examination of AZ8's testimony versus his normal speech (or, even better, his other court testimony, should it exist?)

  3. mollymooly said,

    November 8, 2010 @ 2:14 pm

    "In one instance the four reports find four different singers for one title (and in another three), showing just how common the phrase is."

    That depends on whether it was four different songs with the same title, or four different recordings of the same song.

  4. Spell Me Jeff said,

    November 8, 2010 @ 2:14 pm

    To flip the issue, I'm imagining retrograde song-titles lifted from Geoff's discourse, much as titles are often lifted from poems and such. Eventually we will remember hits like the following:

    "Another Random Text"
    "Ungrammatical Strings" (instrumental)
    and of course
    "It Gives Me a Thrill to Used to Have Sex with the Bride."

  5. Acilius said,

    November 8, 2010 @ 2:24 pm

    @Jason Stokes: "Or perhaps our Mr AZ8 simply naturally expresses himself in fixed expressions?" Maybe we need to consult a psychologist who has studied people in Mr AZ8's situation. I imagine that if I had shot someone to death and the authorities were questioning me about it, I would become quite nervous. When I become nervous, I tend to jabber and use far more cliches than I do at other times. Maybe there are a lot of people like me, and Mr AZ8 is one of them.

  6. Acilius said,

    November 8, 2010 @ 2:26 pm

    @Spell Me Jeff: I can see it now, "It Gives Me a Thrill to Used to Have Sex With the Bride," track four from Another Random Text by the Ungrammatical Strings.

  7. Spell Me Jeff said,

    November 8, 2010 @ 2:38 pm

    @Acilius: that's so bloody brilliant I'll be surprised if it doesn't come to pass. I may even change my career to force the issue.

  8. Joe said,

    November 8, 2010 @ 2:43 pm

    I always assumed the officer in questioned must have circulated a piece of paper with some song titles underlined around a squad room (or maybe told people what he was going to do beforehand) and then the alleged number of song titles just snowballed as more and more people looked at it. So I imagine that, if he is indeed guilty, the number of song titles he actually slipped in is really quite small in comparison to the numbers now be circulated.

  9. Stephen Nicholson said,

    November 8, 2010 @ 3:27 pm

    I would be more impressed if he had dropped "Baby, Baby, Baby" (TLC), "Another One Bites the Dust" (Queen), or "I'm in Love with my Car" (Queen).

  10. John Cowan said,

    November 8, 2010 @ 3:52 pm

    I've now read and re-read and the transcript, and completed typing it in plain ASCII format. I only typed what AZ8 said, not the questions asked of him.

    What I have determined so far is that most of the phrases don't appear in the transcript. In particular, the highly distinctive "fuck my old boots" is not present in the transcript. What AZ8 said was "So, yes, I switched the light on, he turned towards me, I saw the gun for the first time, give it out, my old boots type sketch, you know, he has a gun trained on me." I don't pretend to be able to interpret this remark, but what words the transcript does and doesn't contain are clear enough.

    As for "blinding light", there isn't anything remotely like it. Most of the other phrases do appear, but the context for them doesn't seem forced at all. This story looks like disinformation to me.

  11. J. W. Brewer said,

    November 8, 2010 @ 4:18 pm

    Note that these analyses seem to assume an unspoken minor premise that a "song title" must be at least two words, despite the fact that there are plenty of single-word song titles. But apparently even the British media do not take any usage of the word "barracuda" as an allusion to the Heart song or any usage of the word "renegade" as an allusion to the Styx song or any usage of the word "if" as an allusion to the Bread song (or "heartbreaker" . . . or "yesterday" . . . or "wheels" . . . examples are easy to multiply). Presumably, the longer the string of words the less likely ceteris paribus the usage is to be coincidence, unless of course the string in question is well-established as a fixed phrase separate and apart from the song title. That both gkp and the sniper seem very heavy on two-word song titles (or three-word titles where one of the words is "the" or something equally insubstantial) seems a meaningful strike against the couldn't-be-coincidence theory.

  12. J. W. Brewer said,

    November 8, 2010 @ 4:23 pm

    And thanks to John Cowan for the transcript. Did none of the Sherlocks of Fleet Street notice the significant closing words "Thank You"? I mean, duh, Led Zeppelin. If they can't connect the dots on that one . . .

  13. Nick Lamb said,

    November 8, 2010 @ 4:25 pm

    This seems like the exercise where someone debunking the Bible Code nonsense takes a copy of a nice big work of fiction (I believe it was Moby Dick) and finds lots of equally dubious predictions of events past, famous people's names, and so on by performing the same types of data gymnastics as are routine in Bible Code theories.

    Sadly it won't convince anyone who doesn't want to be convinced. Of course if there actually is a piece of paper somewhere pre-dating the testimony with a list of song lyrics, that puts a whole other face on things, just as it would if we found tablets from 200BC with a neatly carved list of editors of Playboy, winners of the Kentucky Derby and Vice Presidents of the USA.

  14. richard said,

    November 8, 2010 @ 5:20 pm

    And of course now I'm wondering about my regular use of Google to check on the originality of student work. As the corpus continues to grow, so does the likelihood of repetitive phrasing on the same subjects. Hmm. Not enough to shift me onto Turnitin, but colour me slightly more anxious than I was before reading this really interesting post.

  15. Mark Etherton said,

    November 8, 2010 @ 6:13 pm

    @ Nick Lamb

    Or Ronald Knox using Baconian cyphers to prove that Queen Victoria wrote 'In Memoriam'.

  16. mollymooly said,

    November 8, 2010 @ 6:35 pm

    The transcript John Cowan links to is not the written statement alleged to contain the song lyrics; it is a transcript of the coroner's oral questioning of the sniper about the written statement he had previously submitted.

  17. Graeme said,

    November 8, 2010 @ 7:01 pm

    Ah, you social scientists looking for compelling statistical evidence. He'll be hung on whether the investigators believe the rumour that he boasted about such a prank.

  18. Kylopod said,

    November 8, 2010 @ 8:31 pm

    I am truly shocked this idea would fly.

    I am truly shocked this idea would fly.

  19. Daniel said,

    November 8, 2010 @ 9:26 pm

    I think that's completely wrong; every news story seems to reference his oral testimony, and it contains most of the quotes I've seen in the stories (other than the ones John notes it doesn't). Can you tell me where you read that it is a written statement that's controversial?

    @John Cowan
    I read the transcript you posted, but can you tell me where you found it? No news stories seem to post the whole thing; they just pick out the most incriminating bits.

    In the context of his entire testimony, every statement he made seems to fit. He doesn't seem to have forced any of those song titles in, and was only answering the questions directly. Plus, he seems to be taking it very seriously and seems to feel the weight of the situation.

  20. ignoramus said,

    November 8, 2010 @ 10:10 pm

    Every day some judge sings
    "Guilty" is a popular song published in 1931


    every day some Defense counsel utters
    "Not Guilty" by ………….

    George Harrison.

  21. John Cowan said,

    November 9, 2010 @ 12:26 am

    Daniel: It was linked to by the Independent, but it seems that it was irrelevant.

  22. John F said,

    November 9, 2010 @ 4:37 am

    I appreciate a bit of Duran Duran, but I would credit "Point of No Return" to London Elektricity (AKA Tony Colman)

  23. Ian Preston said,

    November 9, 2010 @ 4:53 am

    The phrase "blinding light" is present but it's in the questions posed by Mr Gibbs on p.36 and not in AZ8's responses.

    Reading through the transcript I don't get any sense of the individual painted in media reports as treating his evidence flippantly. Where is the man "immediately reprimanded" and "referred to Scotland Yard’s occupational health department" for his "foul language"? All I can pick up is one "buggered." Of course, you get little feel for the tone of delivery but the words come across to me as compellingly genuine and respectful of the gravity of the issues.

    By the way, J. W. Brewer, I see that the journalist behind the Daily Mail article I just linked to does seem to think they might have identified a single word as a song title – "Faith" by George Michael.

  24. Jesse Weinstein said,

    November 9, 2010 @ 5:38 am

    Sorry if this is slightly off topic, but what I found most puzzling about this whole affair is the use of code names by the police officers. On what basis are they not identified? Is this typical? What is the legal or customary basis for it? After quite a bit of searching, I was unable to locate any discussion of this. Any pointers would be greatly appreciated.

  25. Leo said,

    November 9, 2010 @ 6:02 am

    Kylopod – on grounds of taste, I should have preferred "Fly" by Nick Drake. Well done for embedding a title within a title though – "I" is by Aphex Twin.

  26. Ray Girvan said,

    November 9, 2010 @ 9:01 am

    Especially fatuous new analysis from the Sun: Song title 'gags' by two more gun cops.

    TWO more gun-siege cops may have planted song titles into evidence during the inquest into the death of lawyer Mark Saunders, it emerged yesterday.

    The allegations come days after an officer was suspended for apparently peppering his statement with 20 music references.

    Transcripts show two others may have used up to 14 song titles.

    One marksman, codenamed AZ12, described himself as "the barrier between the public and the bad man". Bad Man is a song by The Coral.

    He also mentions "chasing car", similar to Snow Patrol hit Chasing Cars.

    Colleague AZ14's evidence included calling the siege's end "a cacophony of noise". Cacophony is a Simple Minds hit. He also mentions "night and day", a Cole Porter song.

  27. Barbara Phillips Long said,

    November 9, 2010 @ 9:49 am

    What I find dubious about this whole allegation concerning the police officer is that it isn't focused on lyrics. When the songs are played on radio in the U.S., for instance, often people hear the lyrics but no song title is announced. Sometimes the performer or band name is given. So listeners hear the lyrics repeatedly but may have to do research to find out what the song title is.

    I know of a couple of younger people on Facebook who frequently quote song lyrics. They don't seem to use song titles at all.

    Maybe British pop radio is different and the song titles are drummed into people's brains, but music in stores, elevators and so on doesn't come with announcers. Even if the music is on an iPod, the listener hears the lyrics but doesn't have to read or hear the song title.

    Another test would be to see if song titles from different eras or genres could be found in the same testimony — jazz, Big Band titles or music from the 1920s or 1950s, for instance. I don't see "Beat me, daddy, eight to the bar," but maybe there's something else lurking there. Of course, those earlier song titles will reflect a different corpus of cliches and catch phrases, so there may be fewer song title coincidences.

  28. Peter G. Howland said,

    November 9, 2010 @ 3:32 pm

    Disregarding the intricacies of debate over whether this was an intentional prank, I believe (as Jason Stokes suggested) that the cause of AZ-8’s style of expression in his testimony is simply a reflection of his normal speech and that of his cultural peers, and that this is especially common (as Acilius observed) when one is under stress.

    But further, I also think the so-called Song Title Coincidences are the other way around. Those steeped in one’s common culture naturally express themselves in the popular parlance of their times. And it is because of this movable feast of phrases that creative consultants in the business of entertaining the masses monitor the way people are currently talking in order to create song titles, movie titles, book titles, etc., that will best connect with a designated consumer demographic.

    Our era-specific corpus of clichés and fixed expressions and catch phrases comes first; The song titles, etc., then follow in order to snag a particular cohort of listeners, viewers and readers. The fact that AZ-8’s testimony is peppered with such phrases merely confirms that the folks in the entertainment business are paying attention to how we talk.

    (Whoo-hoo! I can hardly wait for the next album of excessively credulous mood music from the Ungrammatical Strings! You guys are really on it!)

  29. Nicholas Waller said,

    November 10, 2010 @ 7:34 am

    @ Jesse Weinstein re anonymous police officers… very often policemen who have shot people are allowed anonymity. See this recent article, related to this case, that I googled up from the Daily Mail: Police have shot dead 33 people since 1995 – only two marksmen have ever been named. (Of course, it may be considered a luxury in some countries for the police, whoever they are, to have shot so few people).

    @ Barbara Phillips Long – BBC Radios 1 and 2, the main national popular music stations, I think mostly if not always tell us the name of the track and the band/artist, and as far as I know most commercial stations do as well. I am just doing a test listen to Radio 2 – Bruce Springsteen's Because The Night followed by Girls Aloud's I Can't Speak French, though in the latter case only the band name was mentioned. And now a James Blunt track from featured album Some Kind of Trouble…track No Tears named too. As it is a digital radio, the info is also on the little screen as well.

  30. jessebeller said,

    November 12, 2010 @ 12:14 am

    Is it normal for a linguist to describe his projection of agency or intent onto an unconscious act of a user of language as "anthropomorphizing"? It's such a funny wording choice that I kinda hope it's insider jargon.

  31. ENKI-][ said,

    November 16, 2010 @ 4:41 pm

    Well, I suppose this blog has its work cut out for it: the followup post must consist entirely of song titles, linked to the songs from which they are taken.

  32. abby said,

    November 18, 2010 @ 12:26 am

    There's Nothing Wrong with Picking up the Pieces of Silly Love Songs On the Radio. Even if it was purposeful, (So They Say) maybe it was just One of Those Days. One Way or Another, you're going to have to use phrases other people have used before. Put Your Records On and listen to the phrases. Will they ever stop trying to make mountains out of molehills? I guess I'm just Waiting on the World to Change And All That Jazz. If that was his greatest attempt to slip song titles in, that's sad. With a Little Help From my Friends I could make a much better song filled inquest.
    A group of suspected arsonists may say Something like this in their testimony, "We didn't start the fire"
    I think that this alone Proves My Hypothesis.

  33. Just another Peter said,

    November 30, 2010 @ 10:53 pm

    The suspected arsonists aren't playing the game properly unless they also fit in "Beds are Burning" and "The Roof is on Fire"

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