December 2010

Before we get to the subject at hand, let's enjoy a unique Christmas song originally recorded by Dwight Yoakum. I've been patiently waiting for someone to post this on Youtube for years, at least this year I got a cover of it for Christmas. Santa Can't Stay is about how ordinary people celebrate the holidays, without the O Henry endings that permeate holiday special features appearing on television in December. If anyone ever wants to make a Christmas movie out of this song, let me know, I want to invest in it!

Santa Can't Stay by Dwight Yoakum

Cold tears fall from his eyes
As he turns into the night and walks away
Lucille runs outside
Just to see if there might be a sleigh
Little Bobby stares down
At the plate where cookies still lay
And tries to understand
Why momma said Santa can't stay

Momma said Santa can't stay
Said she told him that twice yesterday
Then a car just like Dad's
Peeled out and drove away
After momma said Santa couldn't stay

They both heard him coming
Saw Mom run down the hall and holler wait
Doug you're drunk don't come inside
I'm not joking I've had all this I can take
He threw a present really hard
That almost hit Mom's new boyfriend Ray
And yelled ho-ho lucky for you she's here
And said that Santa can't stay

... He might just beat the crap out of Ray

Today's column will deal with idioms, metaphors and similes. Engineers are a very literal bunch, creative in one field, but often with no mastery of nuances that are possible in language; they are downright boring. If you suggest that this Thursday is "Pirate Day". they can participate by saying "arrggghh" a few times, but if you suggest that next Monday is "Metaphor Monday", you will get only blank stares. Let's get the ball rolling by defining a few terms, then see if you can spot the hidden message, Slylock Fox!

(Our apologies to our thousands of Engish-is-a-second-language readers, some of this might go over your heads!)

Idiom: a saying that might be nonsensical, that has a message that is literally hidden. I left my job, because it sucks con queso, is an example. Now I'm a real gone cat! When P-Diddy told the waiter to shave this bitch, referring to an expensive white truffle, perhaps he created a new idiom that President Obama can use when he refers to the 2012 defense budget!

Simile: easy to spot, because it involved the words "as" or "like". Like a Rock was a great Bob Seeger song, until he sold it to General Motors to misrepresent their breakdown-prone pickup trucks.

Metaphor: the highest calling in the language, because it disguises the meaning. When Kelis says, her "milkshake brings all the boys to the yard", she is not actually offering the boys a cool, high-calorie refreshment. Neither was Sir Mix-a-Lot referring to an actual reptile when he mentioned his "anaconda", looking for something that would rhyme with Honda. When the Beatles said "she's got a ticket to ride", they were not talking about a train ticket. It was her meal ticket that she "don't care" about. If your coworker gets an big award based on your idea and leadership tells you that "a rising tide floats all boats", someone's probably "yanking your chain"!

>Here's some further metaphor practice... I was out with the ball and chain last night at the watering hole. We cut a rug. Wild horses couldn't drag me away.

Metaphors, similes, and idioms can be found throughout music. And of course, you can create your own metaphors by taking the song out of context. Consider that most love songs could actually contain religious messages, if you switch out the love interest with the flying spaghetti monster, for example.

You could take a song like "She's Gone Gone Gone" and play it during your last week of employment, and it takes on new meaning. Funny how Lefty Frizzell plays the guitar right-handed! He should have taken lessons from Paul McCartney, who often appeared on the left.

She's Gone Gone Gone by Lefty Frizzell

In the video below, "Streets of Bakersfield" could be replaced with an unnamed top ten defense contractor, and Buck and Dwight could be singing about how someone might move 1000 miles during a merger, then come to find out it's a dysfunctional business unit, and people judge you without even knowing you. Hey, I don't want to be nobody, I just want a chance to occasionally design MMICs. You don't know me if you don't like me!

Streets of Bakersfield by Buck Owens, with Dwight Yoakum

She's not there by the Zombies is a mystery to most listeners. By "there" the Zombies are not talking about geographic location of the song's protagonist. It could be that even though someone is "here", they are quietly considering other options.

She's Not There by the Zombies

The Radiohead song Creep provides a perfect image of when someone does not belong. Mustard is a homeless guy from New York area, pulled in to a radio studio in a 2009 talent contest, and no one makes Creep work like Mustard. Warning, contains the F-word! "You float like a feather, you dress like an angel", pure simile. Funny thing about Creep, you can move the first person from the stalker to stalkee in some of the verses, and it makes perfect sense. No creep ever asked for a perfect body, or soul, capisce? I know I never did, but I sometimes provide a five dollar bill to a homeless guy playing guitar. I want you to notice, when I'm not around...

Creep, by Radiohead, sung by Mustard

Many singer/songwriters of the 1960s were masters of metaphor. Around the Bend by CCR is a worthy example. "Leave the sinking ship behind" might mean your place of employment. Say what you will about the 1960s, people weren't full of themselves back then and you knew were everybody stood, but that was well before "don't ask, don't tell." "Where the neon turns to wood" might refer to a career change that drops 30 dB down the defense food chain, taking a pay cut to work in an SBIR company in a Hub Zone. Love the one you're with!

Around the Bend by Credence Clearwater Revival

Music had tons of social commentary buried in metaphors back in the 1960s, otherwise it wouldn't have made the radio. How else could anti-war songs get air play when the stations were owned by General Electric? Stevie Wonder had a hit in 1966 when he was just 16 years old, wise well beyond his young years. It must be tough for a kid, blind since birth, to grok the idea about skin color and discrimination. A Place in the Sun says it all (particularly to someone easing into a new place of employment).

There's a Place in the Sun by Steve Wonder

Did you just feel something blowing in the wind?

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