A Song Needs Words

    On What a Song Is

    It seems like I’m increasingly often hearing people — especially, but not exclusively, Americans — referring to things as ‘songs’ that are not, in fact, songs. {.has-dropcap}

    For example, Doctor Who does not have a theme song. Nor does Eastenders — though long ago a song using the Eastenders theme music made a dent in the UK charts.

    Red Dwarf and Firefly, to take two more science-fictional examples, do have theme songs.

    Because here’s the truth of it: it’s not a song if it doesn’t have words. One or more human voices singing (because the verb sing goes with the noun song, obviously) is what is needed to make a piece of music into a song.

    Those first examples above? Those are theme tunes. It’s not hard to understand the difference. For the Eastenders-based hit, somebody wrote words to go with the music; somebody sang it.

    I’ve been thinking of this as a recent thing, people referring as ‘songs’ to pieces of music without words. But I recalled why Eastenders came to mind. Long ago in the distant past (the 80s) I had a housemate who had an American girlfriend. That programme came on the telly, and she said, ‘Oh, I love this song.’

    Much more recently, on the Accidental Tech Podcast (ATP), John Siracusa was trying to locate a beeping sound that something in his basement was making.1 It was a series of electronic tones, played in a melodic fashion. a little tune, in other words. But he repeatedly referred to it as a ‘song’. Which it very definitely was not.

    Other Takes

    I’m not saying there are no grey areas here. What about the voice used as an instrument, where it only makes wordless tones; mouth-music, as we used to call it? Or pieces that are largely instrumental, but have one vocal piece thrown in, like Glenn Miller’s ‘Pennsylvania 65000’, where the band stop playing at a couple of points and shout the title? {.has-dropcap}

    Or Mendelssohn has a series of pieces entitled ‘Songs Without Words’. What are those, then?

    Birdsong, or whale songs? The clue there is in the adjectives, of course: just as nut milk is a milk-like drink made from the relevant nut (or similarly, oats, soya, etc), so birdsong is a song-like thing made by a bird.

    Since I’m seeing this as mainly an American thing, let’s consult America’s favourite dictionary, Merriam-Webster:

    Definition of song (noun)

    1. the act or art of singing
    2. poetical composition
    3. a) a short musical composition of words and music
      b) a collection of such compositions
    4. a distinctive or characteristic sound or series of sounds (as of a bird, insect, or whale)
    5. a) a melody for a lyric poem or ballad
      b) a poem easily set to music
    6. a) a habitual or characteristic manner
      b) a violent, abusive, or noisy reaction (put up quite a song)
    7. a small amount (sold for a song)

    3a is the key one in my argument, clearly. 5a moves disturbingly in the opposite direction, since it refers to ‘a melody’. But since the melody is specifically ‘for a lyric poem or ballad’, the fundamental need for words still stands.

    In the end, if it hasn’t got words, it’s not worth a song.

    1. Spoiler: it was the freezer. ↩︎

    The Kickstarter Corporate Communication Conundrum

    Today I chanced to see an email in which a manager was asking his staff to work for extra hours. Well, ‘asking’ is putting it generously, to be honest. There didn’t seem to be much that was optional about it.

    The Kickstarter connection, though: you’ll be familiar with the idea of ‘stretch goals.’ If not, the idea is that the basic target is to make X amount of money, but if we make X + 10%, or whatever, we’ll be able to do these other things. Develop additional features, make the item in more colours, or whatever. My guess is that the term originally comes from sports.

    So this email included in the subject the phrase ‘stretch targets.’ Meaning we want you to do more this week/month/whatever, than we originally planned. It was clearly written by someone who thinks that the way to develop software faster is to work your staff to the bone. When in fact that’s much more likely to result in people taking shortcuts and making mistakes.

    In this team they’re already working weekends, and now they’re being ‘stretched’ even more. It bodes ill. But perhaps co-opting the language of positive things for something so negative is worse.

    Nuts to Dough

    Just thought I should mention, en passant, that when I referred to misspelled donuts the other day, I was talking about the ones that can’t spell “crispy” or “cream”,1 not the spelling of “donut” itself. I was brought up with it as “doughnut,” but I guess I’ve come round to the other, presumably American, spelling.

    1. And that don’t taste at all like proper do[ugh]nuts. ↩︎

    So, Entitled

    In a recent article in the Guardian, this appeared:

    It is no one’s “destiny” to be a published author. That implies a path laid out for us, an unshakeable future that is planned and unchangeable. And it is entitled.

    That is a perfectly normal use of the modern sense of the word “entitled,” and it still slightly bothers me, as it has lo! these several years.

    Because what it really means is that the person isn’t actually entitled to the thing in question. The older sense of “entitle” is to have the right to something — literally to have the title.

    The modern meaning — the “He’s so entitled” formulation — really means “He’s behaving as if he were entitled to…” gives the definition of entitle as:

    to give (a person or thing) a title, right, or claim to something; furnish with grounds for laying claim

    Merriam-Webster is similar;

    1: to give a title to : designate
    2: to furnish with proper grounds for seeking or claiming something this ticket entitles the bearer to free admission

    And neither has the modern meaning at all.

    But I’m slightly horrified to find that the built-in dictionary in MacOS only has the modern meaning:

    believing oneself to be inherently deserving of privileges or special treatment: kids who feel so entitled and think the world will revolve around them

    It’s interesting, though, that its definition of entitle is similar to the two web-based ones. And Cambridge has both. It seems the difference is whether you use the verb or the adjective. The latter is the only one with the modern meaning.

    Language changes, and that’s fine. But I wish that people who use it in the modern fashion understood what it is they’re saying, and what it can sound like they’re saying. I suspect they mostly don’t.

    They’re behaving like they’re entitled to make words mean whatever they want.

    Little, Feat...

    Many songs these days involve one or more other artists guesting with the main one. Rappers adding a part to a singer’s track, for example. Nowadays such guests are always credited. Quite rightly: we’ve come a long way from the days when Billy Preston played keyboards on some Beatles songs uncredited (though visible in the famous Apple Records rooftop performance).

    As featured artists, such guests are nearly always credited using the abbreviation “feat.” “The Beatles feat Billy Preston,” to give an example that was never used.

    But “feat” is a word on it’s own, of course, as well as an abbreviation. Which I think may be why I always find the formation slightly amusing. And there used to be a band called Little Feat, if I’m not very much mistaken (I’ve never knowingly heard them).

    So I’ve been wondering how the modern crediting style would have worked if they had ever been guests, or had featured guests, on any of their songs. “Little Feat feat Joe Feet.” “Legs & Co feat Little Feat.”1

    Alas, it was not the way back then. Though their Wikipedia article suggests they’re still around, so it could happen.

    More surprisingly it tells us that they changed “Feet” to “Feat” as a “homage to the Beatles.”2 I had no inkling of that connection when I mentioned the Beatles above.

    1. Yes, I know Legs & Co were dancers. I’m just trying to make up mildly amusing names. I invented Joe Feet. ↩︎

    2. I’m assuming that refers to the story of the Beatles naming that involved them wanting an insect name like Buddy Holly & the Crickets, but changing the spelling so it read as beat music. ↩︎

    Pivoting Around Words

    I should start a new category here, for word-use. In fact, having written that, I just have: language (hopefully that link will work once I publish this).

    Today I want to talk about the word “pivot.” As you know, pivot has come, over the last few years, to mean change direction, especially in a political context. A recent example from the New Yorker: Don’t Be Fooled. Donald Trump Didn’t Pivot.

    It sort of makes sense, but like many knew usages, I can’t help but wonder why it has come into this use.

    And for this one I also can’t help but wonder to what extent Friends is responsible.

    You’ll know the episode I’m thinking of, if you’ve seen it: Ross is moving in to a new apartment, and being too cheap to pay the delivery charge, ropes Rachel in to help him move a sofa. Inevitably they get stuck on the stairs, and he keeps shouting at her, “Pivot! Pivot!” to try to get her to turn the sofa in an unspecified direction.

    Of course, he might have been using it quite precisely: the sofa probably needed to rotate about a fixed point, which is what “pivot” originally meant.

    What it has come to mean, in politics, is a change of direction less than a U-turn (or flip-flop); but still quite a substantial one. I suppose it has a sense of turning without moving forward at the same time. Though I may be overthinking it there. It’s quite descriptive, but it seems like it has becoming ubiquitous incredibly quickly; and is already practically a cliche.

    Of course that’s just my view of the optics of the thing.

    “Ping” Pong

    When the original Unix designers (or, as it turns out, Mike Muuss) chose ping as the name for the command for checking the status of a network host, it was a moment of inspired genius. The word is almost onomatopoeic in its appropriateness.

    But nowadays people are pinging each other all over the place: emails, IMs, even phone calls are “pinged” at each other. “I’ll ping you an email,” they say.

    The purist in me cringes a little each time I hear it. But it shouldn’t. The word that was so apposite for those early savants is just as suitable today: it communicates a needed concept. And English, of course, is a living, thriving language. So let people get on with it

    Just don’t expect me to use it myself.


    The word “optics” used to mean the science of light. It still does, of course, but it now also refers to “how things look,” in terms of public image and so on.

    And from what I can tell it has only come into this use in the last year or so. I first heard it on tech podcasts, but it was recently in a front-page headline (though the second story) in The Guardian. And I heard it on the telly. I think it was in Agents of SHIELD, wherein they included an explanation of what it means.

    I can see how it can be used in its new meaning, but how did it come to be used that way?

    And it seems that I’m right that it’s relatively new: Wikipedia, googling: both only turn up definitions like “the branch of physics to do with light.”

    Now Urban Dictionary’s top definition is exactly what I’m talking about:

    What something will look like to the outside world; the perception a public relations person would have on something. First seen (at least by me) in article by Equity Private on finance blog dealbreaker

    Economists repurposing words from real science to dismal? Sounds entirely plausible.

    Criticality Escalation

    Part of any kind of bug or problem reporting system is triage: the act of deciding how severe each report is and placing it into the appropriate category.

    Common categories in software development are things like “Critical,” “High,” “Medium” and “Low,” for example. They would usually be given associated numeric values: probably 1-4, in this case.

    I realise that I mentioned “triage,” which of course means dividing things into three; and then I’ve introduced four levels. That would be quadage, maybe? Tesserage? Anyway, three levels wasn’t enough for people: at some point “High,” “Medium” and “Low” just couldn’t cut it.

    But even the terminology is breaking down now. This snippet below is based on values from an actual document written by an actual company, for reporting problems during user acceptance testing (UAT).

    Severity Description
    1 – Extremely critical Critical problem that completely stops testing…
    2 – Very critical Critical problem that prevents some testing…
    3 – Critical Non-critical problem…
    4 – Less critical Minor bug…

    Imagine if they used that in hospitals: “The patient’s critical.” “Oh, not too bad, then.”

    And I love how the definition of “Critical” is “Non-critical problem…”

    On the Pronunciation of "X"

    Now that the new version of Apple’s PC operating system has launched, some thoughts on something that’s been bugging me for a while.

    Apple’s OS was called “OS X” from about 2000 or so. At one time it was “Mac OS X,” then at some point they dropped the “Mac” part. Now, of course, they’re dropping the “X,” (and the capital “M”) and going over to calling it “macOS.”

    In the old version, I knew that the “X” was the Roman numeral for 10. It was release 10 of their operating system, so that was fine. But I always pronounced it as the letter “X” in my mind. Not least because, as the version numbers incremented, they were presented like this: 10.2, 10.3, and so on. Or more fully, “Mac OS X 10.2.”

    So how were we meant to say that? “Mac Oh Ess ten ten point two”? Surely not. You can see why my internal monologue pronounced it “Oh Ess Ex ten point two”.

    And so it was and so I left it. I knew the “X” had originally meant “ten,” but I couldn’t imagine that anyone would still pronounce it that way. Until I started listening to podcasts.

    Wherein erudite, knowledgable Apple users such as John Gruber, or the hosts of the Accidental Tech Podcast were clearly heard to talk about “Oh Ess ten.” Though they mostly avoided saying the full, convoluted, Roman and Arabic mix of numbers. I think I did once hear David Sparks on Mac Power Users saying “Oh Ess ten ten point eight” (or whatever minor release number it might have been).

    Still, I didn’t let it bother me. It wasn’t doing any harm, after all.

    But then people started talking about relative sizes. I think I first noticed it when retina screens were being discussed. If you’re going to provide graphical resources to support both retina and non-retina screens, you have to provide versions of the image files at different resolutions. These are referred to in writing as “1x” and “2x” versions.

    Now, it is obvious to me that that isn’t a letter “x” there (even thought that’s what I typed), but a multiplication symbol. More properly rendered as “×”.1 The idea being that you have the original file, and one at twice the resolution. The multiplication symbol is said as “times.” So we have “one times” and “two times.” Right?

    But those pesky podcasts.

    Soon they were filled with “one ex” and “two ex.” It was the OS X problem all over again — but this time in reverse!

    But I gradually realised I might be wrong in my assessment. Graphics files are complicated beasts, after all. A file suitable for a retina screen doesn’t have twice the pixels needed for an older screen, for example: it has four times as many. There are twice as many on the x-axis and twice as many on the y-axis.

    And that’s when I realised that the “x” might refer to the x-axis. Saying a file was “2x” could be shorthand for saying that it had twice as many pixels on both its x- and y-axes.

    In which case pronouncing it “two ex” would be right after all. Perhaps the terminology came from developers and designers referring to size of the files.

    Except… I have subsequently heard people say other numbers followed by “ex,” when what they clearly meant was a multiplier. Specifically, I heard CGP Grey saying “ten ex” when talking about a tenfold increase in something like YouTube subscribers. And he used to be a maths teacher, so he should really know better.

    Can we ever escape from this insidious invasion of “ex” into spaces where “times” belongs? Probably not. But it’s disturbing when otherwise-smart people make themselves sound so ignorant.

    (And don’t get me started on the full-stop or period character that splits up those version numbers. Hint: it’s “point”, not “dot.”)

    1. That may or may not look any different from the letter, depending on the typeface you are seeing it in, but it’s a different unicode character. ↩︎

    Andy's unpunctuated ambiguity

    Andy Murray finally reveals views on Scottish independence“, says the headline in the Telegraph. It goes on to say he “appeared to declare his support for Scottish independence”. That “appeared” is key, because the lack of punctuation and capitalisation in Andy’s tweet actually allows at least a couple of interpretations:

    Huge day for Scotland today! no campaign negativity last few days totally swayed my view on it. excited to see the outcome. lets do this!

    The Telegraph is clearly reading that as “‘No’-Campaign negativity…” The negativity from the “No” campaign, in other words.

    But you could read it simply as “[there has been] no campaign negativity…” In other words, the absence of negativity in the campaigning (by either side or both) has left him with a positive view of the referendum.

    I’d guess that the Telegraph‘s opinion is correct. But it just goes to show… if he could place a quote character like he can place a tennis ball, it would all be perfectly clear.

    Here's Tae Us

    I just heard John Bell of the Iona Community on 'Thought for the Day'. He was talking, since it's St Andrew's day, about the old Scottish saying, or toast, "Here's tae us, wha's like us? Damn few, and they're a' deid." That's, "Here's to us, who's like us? Damn few, and they're all dead," in case you have trouble with Scots.

    Thing is, Bell was bemoaning the attitude he thinks it represents. He thinks it means, “The only people we can emulate are dead.” He thinks it epitomises a ‘national inferiority complex.’

    That’s not how I ever understood it.

    Rather than looking back wistfully on past glories, to me it was triumphal, celebratory, even arrogant, if you need a negative adjective. It said – it says – “We’re here, and we’re great; there’s no-one like us.”

    So happy St Andrew’s day: we rock.