An Interview with Louis Alexander

Interviewed by Martin Eayrs for the Buenos Aires Herald, 1998

Louis (L.G.) Alexander has recently been in Argentina on a lecture trip and the Herald spoke to him at his hotel.

Louis Alexander interviewed by Martin Eayrs for the Buenos Aires Herald, 1998. Photo Pilar Bustelo.

Louis Alexander recognises that he has been somewhat out of the public eye since he wrote his last book in 1979, but he’s now back on the road involved in what he calls “profile raising”, (nine countries so far this year). He fears that many people may have been wondering what happened to him; whether he has died, retired or just disappeared at the height of his career – the truth is that he’s been working on a new book, the ‘Longman English Grammar’, originally scheduled to take two years but in fact requiring seven, and he has only recently been “let out”.

He sees his new book as plugging a necessary gap, as there has been no new EFL (English as a Foreign language) grammar since 1960. It is aimed at anyone, teacher or student, native-speaker or otherwise, who needs an EFL reference grammar; our language has so far, he says, been abominably served in this respect. Having finally finished this he now sees his main priority as producing accompanying exercises for the grammar which will be “different to anything on the market”, and which will be based on inductive learning techniques that will require the reader to work out the rules for himself rather than being spoon fed with them. These new exercises will be “self-standing”, and thus not necessarily linked to the grammar, but will cross-reference back to it for the “whole story”.

He’s visited Rosario, Cordoba and Buenos Aires on his lecture tour this time round, and observes that the general level of ELT (English Language Teaching) remains as high as on his last visit here in 1972, and that the enormous enthusiasm for learning English continues unabated. A lot of very young people come to his lectures – mainly students who are going to be teachers – and it is from these, he says, that we can tell that the level and enthusiasm are still high. (He admits to a certain satisfaction at finding that many of these have learned from his books).

Outside his professional interests here, however, he finds that Argentina is suffering a “general lack of self confidence”, a “pervasive gloom”, which he did not notice on his previous visit, and this disturbs him.

Asked about his first textbooks (‘First Things First’, ‘Practice and Progress’, ‘Developing Skills’, etc.) and their continuing usefulness today, he stresses that the principal reason for changing textbooks is boredom, more from the point of view of the teacher than the student, but considers that old courses, if they were good in the first place, don’t “die” as much as “fade away”, and is pleased to point out that his first book, ‘Sixty Steps to Precis’ (1962), is still in print. In fact he was particularly gratified when told by a teacher in Rosario that she still hadn’t found a better system for teaching composition than that used in his earliest books, and for that reason she still used them.

He feels that textbooks in general carry the stamp of the individual who produces them, and that this personal quality cannot be replaced by “mere analysis” in books produced by committees. Course books are today becoming glossier, and this implies enormous investment on the parts of the author (seven years for his latest book) and the publisher, who may put “all their shirts” on a flagship course. For this reason, as well as the lack of research facilities and resources in general, local materials cannot usually compete with imported publications, having as they do that “homemade look”.

The EFL market has been dominated recently by British-produced materials, and he feels that this is because North America has been over-involved in the enormous problems caused by immigrant populations within its own boundaries. This he feels may well be changing and North American publishers are now beginning to look beyond their own shores. He does note however that in the past British publishers have been more prepared to make concessions as a means of establishing a foothold than their North American counterparts; (“in 1956 we were going into Egypt when everyone else was coming out”).

No, he does not consider that the market for EFL material is saturated. Perhaps this may be true in the case of Primary and Secondary course books, but he feels there are still “a dozen gaps” waiting to be filled, such as for example the Grammar he has just finished, or perhaps an updated approach to the teaching of composition to satisfy the teacher in Rosario.

Asked whether structured readers like those he has written offer an advantage over ungraded, “authentic” material, he points out that learners quickly become discouraged unless they can read with ease and confidence, and that his readers have been novels, which do not lend themselves so readily to reading for gist (general meaning). In any case, he considers that “authentic” materials culled from the fields of, say, advertising, immediately become unauthentic when incorporated into an EFL package, and that, unfortunately, many teachers insist on analysing every nuance of such texts, thus often invalidating an exercise which in essence consists of getting the general idea only.

He regrets the high cost of English Language teaching materials in this country, and as a teacher sympathises with students who resort to photocopying books or parts of books they simply cannot afford to buy. He is, however, “chagrined” as an author, deeply involved as he is in the right to copyright, and he takes the view that if we go on eroding copyright we erode creativity. People may be forced out of business, he continues, if what they create is copied, and he suggests that even token payment may be better than none, as long as the principle of copyright is observed. (He does however concede that he would prefer his books to be photocopied than another author’s).

He has nothing but contempt for those “teachers” who reject course books in favour of something chosen at random on the way into work. He considers that what these people are actually doing is to create a “totally unedited, unfiltered textbook, without the benefit of any thinking, planning, organisation”. This only occurs in his opinion with a certain class of native-speaker teacher who is “too clever by half”. He makes this point with warmth and evident conviction.

And his spirit continues to rise as he talks about teaching methodology (or methodologies). He himself approves of no teacher or method which preaches one methodology at the expense of others, disapproving strongly of what he refers to as “linguistic evangelism”. He values an approach which is “open-minded and catholic in its view, and which recognises the enormous variety of methods”. His voice rises in time with his temper as he remonstrates: “many of these linguistic evangelists have never exposed themselves to the fiery furnace of the classroom to see whether their marvellous ideas will stand up for five minutes”.  A nerve has clearly been touched here.

One quickly gets the impression that he is a pragmatist – “no ideal method … we must look at circumstances and avoid blanket views … learning a language is very hard … different people have different ceilings, just as some people drive (cars) better than others”.

He applies the same practical point of view to the commercial aspects of his work – “Competition between publishers must be good”. A firm believer in market forces and the survival of the fittest, he sees it as not the fault of the publishers if the consumer is faced with a bewildering plethora of ELT material. It is up to the consumer to filter the material. In this respect he suggests the need for some independent consumer association, like the British Which magazine, which could provide an objective description and evaluation to the consumer; he finds that some very good material unfortunately has a very short “shelf life”.

He favours an international approach to English Language Teaching, considering that the cultural aspects are more suitable to specialised, advanced courses. The language that enables a Japanese tourist to converse with a shopkeeper in Buenos Aires should, he says, be divorced from any one culture, and he feels that in Argentina general English language teaching should on the one hand enable Argentines to communicate with visitors (regardless of where they are from), and on the other enable Argentines who may travel abroad to do the same. What he is very anxious to avoid is any charge of “linguistic imperialism” – we should at all times respect local methods and local learning traditions.

He was, finally, very patient with this interviewer, and he and his wife Julie were charming and most cooperative throughout a long interview in what has been a tight schedule.

His only complaint – he does wish that people here could try to be “a little more cheerful”.


The name of L.G. Alexander will be familiar to anyone who has been in any way connected with the teaching or learning of English during the last twenty-five years. Many readers of the Herald must have come into contact with one of his course books , which include ‘New Concept English’ (First ‘Things First’ , ‘Practice and Progress’, etc), ‘Look Listen and Learn’ , ‘Target’ , ‘Mainline’ , ‘Follow Me’, and most recently ‘Plain English’. His graded readers still continue to delight and his language practice books are used by literally millions of people all over the world.

Yet there is more to the man than just writing text books for classroom use. His expertise is based on lengthy teaching experience in Greece and Germany, after which he was included in the Council of Europe’s Modern Language Teaching Committee and he was in fact one of the authors of The Threshold Level and Waystage, publications which lay down guidelines for the coherent and consistent teaching of modern languages in Europe today and also provide the rationale for many modern “communicative” language courses. Currently he is adviser to the University of Cambridge Local Examinations Syndicate for the Cambridge Certificate in English for International Communication.


An interview with Randolph Quirk

23 July 1991, by Martin Eayrs for the Buenos Aires Herald

Professor Sir Randolph Quirk was in Buenos Aires last week as part of the increasing activity surrounding the British Council’s reinitiation of activities in Argentina. The Herald  spoke to him at his hotel.

ME       Perhaps I can start by combining two questions. Have you been to Argentina before, and what is the purpose of your present visit?

RQ      This is my first visit to Argentina and I’m extremely happy to be here. I am a member of the board of the British Council and I’ve been very keen to reopen in Argentina. We opened only in May of this year so I’m in on the ground floor, as it were. Another member of the board, the novelist Baroness James  (better known perhaps as P. D. James) was here some weeks ago and I wanted to see the British Council activity for myself. I knew Harold Fish [Buenos Aires representative of the British Council – ME] in Germany and this morning I went over and had a look at the building. I’m well pleased with what the Council is doing here and I’m very impressed by the warmth that Argentina is showing to the British Council.

ME       There are a great many ‘varieties’ of English in use in the world today, some of them differing considerably from the Standard English used in Britain and the United States. In some cases what passes for ‘English’ in some parts of the world is practically unintelligible to speakers of ‘English’ in others. Do you think this divergence might eventually lead to a splintering away, to the formation of separate languages?

RQ      I think we are talking about two different kinds of language variation here. There is the variation between British, American, Australian and South African English, and these are really like dialectal variations within one language  From that point of view the variation between one region or one nation’s English and another’s is no different from the relation between Iberian Spanish and other forms of Spanish in Mexico, Argentina, Chile, etc. Just as an Englishman can make a fair guess at identifying an Australian, a Scotsman, a Welshman or an American, some of us are a bit cleverer and can recognise not only an American but also a ‘New Englander’ or a ‘Southerner’. This is certainly true for Spanish too – in Spain a Spaniard can identify a Mexican or an Argentinian, for example, – those two stand out. But in addition to that kind of variation there is a fundamentally different kind of variation – exemplified by so called Indian English or Nigerian English, Bangla Desh English, etc. Although the use of English in India or Nigeria is different to the use of English in the Soviet Union or Germany it varies from native English for the same reason, because of the interference of whatever the mother language is. I regard these varieties as inherently unstable. You and I can usually tell if a foreigner speaking to us is a Swede, a Spaniard, etc. They’ve got not merely a foreign accent but a foreign accent we associate with a particular linguistic community. They’re inherently unstable because the better learned the language is, the more that accent disappears. So by a kind of irony the person who speaks Indian English most recognisably is the person who by common sense standards speaks it worst. And they’re inherently unstable from another more fundamental point of view. Most of the native varieties of English have not been institutionalised – only two have been, British and American English – but it would be perfectly possible to institutionalise Australian English and New Zealand English.

ME       Why has this not happened?

RQ      Why hasn’t Argentinian Spanish been institutionalised? When some people talk of ‘argentino’ in the same way as some people say ‘he’s speaking Australian’ this is not exactly a joke. Sometimes it’s a political assertion. In the media the differences between Iberian and Argentinian Spanish melt away except for some pronunciation features. Some lexical items have to be used because they describe cultural features that obtain here and not in the Iberian Peninsula. It’s interesting that although Argentina and Mexico have been established a very long time the folk wisdom – whether in government, in power in the church or the media or just the folk downstairs – there is, even if they don’t like to give it verbal expression, some kind of pride in speaking a world language. They don’t want to hive off. We are not stargazers and anything can happen. We know that a single language has in the past split up into different languages, but in the past the starting point was different. In the case of Romance languages developed from Latin, the countries of France, Romania, Portugal and Spain were not settled after the withdrawal of the Roman legions by a solid mass of standard Latin-speaking peoples. There were little bits and pieces of Latin impinging on the Celtic of France, etc. Nowadays we have a worldwide communications system which keeps together those languages which are together already and we can’t afford not to. My prediction is that English will not split off into separate languages. It shows no signs of doing so, and the last 100 years has seen a confluence rather than a centrifugal development in these languages. I’m far more interested in the fact that Spanish hasn’t split – it has had the diaspora far longer than English.

ME       Do you think this could be because Spanish has a Royal Academy whereas English doesn’t?

RQ      You could say Spanish has stuck together over 450 years of diaspora   because it has the Real Academia and English will split up because after 350 years of diaspora  there is no Academy. But Academies do not hold languages together. Nobody has ever measured the influence of Academies, but compared with the centripetal influence of government, the church and the media, neither the institutionalisational influence nor the stabilising influence of a Royal Academy is worth a fig in my view. It seems to me that the answer to your previous question is “Well, look at Spanish – if Spanish can stick together then so can English”. And because of the far more numerous roles that English has had imposed upon it the demands of keeping world-wide standards of English are much stronger that in the case of Spanish.

ME       You made a binary cut between native English and non-native English; that of India and Nigeria on the one hand and Germany and the Soviet Union on the other.

RQ      Yes. People in the British Council are used to making a distinction between ESL (English as a Second Language) and EFL (English as a Foreign Language). This is a distinction I have recently repudiated in my own work because I can no longer make the distinction with confidence. It seems to me that there’s an ethno-political bias in this very concept. It’s always been clear to me that every single ESL country that you can name is ex-Commonwealth. And, if there’s any EFL country on earth that is prototypical, then it’s Israel. There’s a lot of internal use of English but there’s no way I can tell an Israeli by his accent because each Israeli speaks English with the influence of his or her own background and Israeli Hebrew has not yet become so universal in Israel that it will become the native language and will start making an impact on others. But English is more important in Germany or Holland than in these other countries. If I were to stick my neck out I might say that I see English as playing a declining role in the ex-imperial countries. In India the Hindi belt is now such that they can afford to snap their fingers at the Tamil speaking minority who use English. It is true that Rajiv Gandhi was speaking English in a Tamil area on the day he was assassinated, but English plays a relatively minor role in India today and I believe it will eventually decline, as it will in Nigeria where it’s much more widespread than in India. The varieties of English that are worth taking a long and serious look at are the English of America and Britain, in that order.

ME       Indira Gandhi once complained that she could not understand the English spoken by certain members of her own Parliament. Would you say they were ‘speaking the same language’ or that the communication breakdown indicates that there were two ‘Englishes’ operating in this instance, one based on “Standard English” and one local variety?

RQ      I would say that the story of Indira and her MP was simply that she was well aware that her English was considerably better. We could have said precisely the same thing about Douglas Hurd going to an EC meeting in Brussels and complaining about one of the British Civil Servants not speaking French well enough. For Indira and her son, if English was a foreign language at all, it was a foreign language very well acquired. That’s a generation that’s going.

ME       In another sense, it has been suggested that there are in fact two kinds of ‘standard English’ – one ‘complete version’ spoken by educated native speakers who use it as their first language, and a second, stripped-down and hence impoverished version, spoken by highly fluent speakers of English as a second language, and used as a world lingua franca in commerce, aviation, diplomacy, etc.   Do you consider this a fair description, and if so, would you expect the two ‘versions’ to diverge, coalesce or maintain the same relation between them as at present?

RQ      The short answer to this is no. But yes, in so much as there are several stripped-down versions. There is the Standard English of course, and the remarkable thing is that if you take a book by Patrick White or Antonia Byatt, you can read many pages before you decide that this must be a British, Australian or American writer. This Standard English is worldwide and has a continuity which most of us find reassuring. About thirteen years ago I floated the idea of a system of English called ‘Nuclear English’ in which we would have one stripped down version of English which was well designed and had a core vocab of about 2000 words in which you could say anything you wanted to say provided you didn’t want to be too poetic or too subtle. In this Nuclear English you could communicate everything using a grammar system which avoided all the modal auxiliaries which give our students so much difficulty – for example replacing ‘you may be right’ with ‘it is possible you are right’. It would give up the tag questions, using instead an ‘isn’t that so’ construction as in so many other languages. It would not deviate from standard English but by choosing with great care you could have a language that was much easier to learn, that was recognisable and usable all over the world and which would cost the poorer countries in this world which are pouring so much money into English language acquisition a great deal less in terms of national resources. I was also worried about the danger of the institutionalisation of Indian English and Nigerian English and felt that if that came about there would be a spiralling downwards because, without that native base, what is accepted in 1974 as ‘good English’ is passed on to the next generation only superficially – we can never teach all that we know ourselves. This was just a vague idea, but a couple of years after that with the aid of Robert Maxwell we floated something called ‘Seaspeak’. We had a reasonably effective system for Air navigation and the people who had the greatest difficulty learning this were the natives because they have to constrain themselves downwards rather than acquire new habits as the foreign learner does. The shipping companies were losing enormous amounts of money through accidents and additionally the level of education of the people involved in running ships is generally lower than in aviation. So a different cut down version was a definite necessity which Seaspeak was designed to fulfil.

ME       How has English language teaching in the United Kingdom been affected by the development of an increasingly multiracial society? One would imagine that there might be a growing call for familiarity with EFL/ESL techniques within the British educational system.

RQ      I wouldn’t want to give this too much emphasis. It is a very small sector of the English school population, but it may be eight to ten per cent or higher in some inner cities. Although local authorities have differed in the enthusiasm and professionalism with which they have taken this up, most London or Bradford schools, to give two examples, do have especially trained teachers who are aware that some of their children come from non-English speaking backgrounds . It particularly affects people from Moslem homes where the mothers have very little opportunity to socialise and therefore the language that they hand on to their children is Urdu or something similar. But I still hope that this is a passing phase and that increasingly the mothers will become the girls who went to schools here. It has been worrying and it continues to be so, and it’s an issue that’s become politicised in certain areas where manipulation of ‘consciousness raising’ is prevalent in immigrant communities.

ME       You have in the past used the term ‘liberation linguistics’, presumably by analogy to ‘liberation theology’. Do you consider that language policies are inevitably subject to political and ideological considerations? And did you coin the phrase?

RQ      Yes, in fact I did coin the phrase. Just as the liberation theologians wanted to dance a naughty tango with the Church of Rome and have the best of both worlds by playing a double game, I know that some of the people I have dubbed ‘liberation linguists’ have, to quote Pope, only a very little learning and that they have used it very dangerously. Language policies are inevitably subject to political and ideological considerations. It is unfortunate that the latter aspects of this have become (in my view) overly dominant, to the detriment of education. The way in which my wife and I have tried to put it in our book “English in Use” is that it is the job of education to make people into fit citizens and that means the wider the horizon the better the citizenship. Anything which raises boundaries between party and party or language community and language community is something that education is fundamentally concerned with destroying.

ME       In a country like Argentina, where a great many people are actively involved in the teaching and learning of English as a Foreign language, do you consider that exposure to a single ‘standard’ (perhaps Standard British or Standard American) or to different ‘varieties’ (e.g. UK regional, would be the best strategy?

 RQ     In Argentina it is interesting how relatively little overt influence American English seems to be having, although some of the personnel in hotels are perhaps an exception. Despite being a long way from the UK or any UK based standard, the resistance to American English seems to still be quite strong. This afternoon I was at a seminar of 22 people where only one person spoke as if she had studied in the United States. My answer to this is that you can only really teach the English you know and fortunately the differences between British and American English, the two main standards, are, accent aside, sufficiently small that you don’t have to worry about it too much. In Argentina there is obviously a British standard and an American standard.

ME       There is currently a debate about the relative merits of professionally trained local EFL teachers and ‘imported’ native speaker teachers. Do you have any strong feelings with regard to one being more suitable than the other in different teaching situations?

RQ      I was talking about this at this afternoon’s seminar. I was really rather horrified to find that (in Argentina), unlike in Santiago and Valparaiso, there is very little native-English speaker input at university or teacher training level. The British system (although we are awful at learning languages) and the German Lektor system give this possibility. However if I had to choose between the two I would prefer the non-native teacher. The teacher with the same language background as the pupils doesn’t speak English as well but he has a much better grasp of pupil’s problems than the native-English teacher does and therefore can grade the learning. Native-speaker teachers have to be much more disciplined and much better trained than the non-native speaker in order to teach English as a foreign language . Ideally a group of half a dozen Argentinian non-native teachers ought to have a native Lektor that can take conversation classes, and so on.


Professor Sir Randolph Quirk  was born in 1920 in the Isle of Man. He has been a lecturer in English at University College, London,  Reader  and Professor  of English Language at Durham University, Quain Professor of English Language and Literature at UCL, Vice-Chancellor of the University of London and President of the British Academy. In 1959 he founded the Survey of English Usage, continuing as its Director until 1981. His publications include ‘An Old English Grammar’ (1955), ‘The Use of English’ (1962/68), ‘A Grammar of Contemporary English’ (1972), ‘The Linguist and the English Language’ (1974), ‘A Comprehensive Grammar of the English Language’ (1985), ‘Words at Work: Lectures on Textual Structure’ (1986), ‘English in Use’ (1990) and  ‘A Student’s Grammar of the English Language’ (1990). He maintains an active interest in  Old English, Old Icelandic texts, the language of Dickens and Shakespeare, the teaching of English, English as an International Language and research and publications on English grammar. He is married  to Gabriele Stein, Professor of Linguistics at the University of Heidelburg.

What happened to Ramon of ‘Ramon Writes’?


For many years the Buenos Aires Herald ran an irregular column written by Basil Thomson (aka B.T.) called Ramon Writes. Ramon (always without accent) had a less than perfect control of English but was a master of Spanglish. Ramon’s last communication with BT was on July 13 1977. The last readers heard of him he was working aboard a liner, then …

Recently, in a periodic cleanup, the following letter turned at the Herald offices. It seems to have arrived in about 1995 and to have been swept up with some other papers. It does at least explain Ramon’s initial long silence, if not the second one ..

Southampton Docks,

Dear B.T.

How much it makes that I don’t make reach you my notices. The truth it is that I have had the disgrace to be encarcelated during the latest eighteen years. The blame was not mine, but intend to explain was to the divine button. There is not the worse deaf that he who doesn’t want to hear.

You will remind yourself I was working of waiter aboard of a transatlantic and it touched me a companion of the bed of alternating current, Rosanna, also a waiter of table but of the side opposite, and there armed itself a bundle of the great seven.

Of not to be able to go down of the bark in Genoa I had to support that one and what bronc it gave me until that we found ourselves in London and he asked me the chief of machines to go of shopping with him like interpreter. It results that the chief of machines knew not a potato of the English and as I dominate it (after all the years I have of perfecting it) desired that I accompanied him in order that he buys gifts for his woman and creatures.

So that we find ourselves with the chief of machines making buys in the England’s capital. I am diverting myself in great, saluting all the people and practising the English, and everything it is going us well but is always raining and with the cold it makes I become aphonic and can’t more with the interpretation, but the chief of machines he says not to preoccupy myself as in every case I can anote on a sheet or if not point it with the finger.

I am of agree, and there is where begins all the problem. On small sheets I anote the words ‘How much costs this one?’, ‘I carry myself three’, ‘Put me it all in this bag’, etc., thinking so I can demonstrate them to the employed of the stores. And very well walks the system – I deliver the bag and the message and the employed she very well understands me.

But the latest day pass me the following. The chief of machines he charges me of finding a pistol for his older son that lets free sparks and makes the great noise, during he occupies him by passing for the consulate and other diligences of the latest moment. And when I arrive to buy the pistol I think why not buy me one also. I think on menacing Rosanna, the pistol it is very realistic, so that Rosanna leaves to molest me more. So that I buy me another pistol more and I guard me it in the pocket of the jacket where I guard the money and the documents.

But before to return to the bark I have to pass for the house of change for to change me the pounds that stay me. You will remind you that I am aphonic so the bag of shopping I put it on the shelf and I take out the sheet where are anoted the words ‘Please change me these pounds to dollars’ but disgracefully I mistake myself and I deliver to the employes of the house of change the note where says ‘Put me it all in this bag’.

During so much I am trying to take out the wallet where I guard the document of the pocket, but it doesn’t want to go out because of the pistol I bought to shock Rosanna so I am obliged to myself to take out the pistol and then there arms itself a bundle bigger that a house and I find myself on the back and then come the agents of the police and they carry me to the station of the police.

Well, I intend to explain that happened, that I am waiter of table on transatlantic, of Rosanna, of the chief of machine’s creatures, etc., but there isn’t case, and they carry me to the tribunal which calls itself Old Bailey, and the judge he dictates me the sentence that I must pass eighteen years at her majesty’s delight. Of those years better I don’t speak. Like those years my friend I don’t want to pass another.

So it resulted, and recently now I make the preparations to voyage of return to Buenos Aires. You can calculate me to be of return soon, and if for there there is an entry in your diary for a colaborator or traducer you can count with me to be disposable. (It goes without to say that now my domination of the English is complete). And if there doesn’t present itself an entry for me of immediate in your diary, for there you are vinculated with persons or amisties of confidence of whom you can ask an attention.

In all case, I compromise myself to put me in contact or there or from the exterior for a letter as this one. There faults little for that we take a cup with you, and until then receive salutes from your friend,



Task Force

Written during BRAZTESOL Conference, Goâiña, Brazil, 1996

Comment, order, modify,
Classify and justify,
Infer, predict, identify …
All day long the teacher’s cry . . .

Off we go then, up the stairs.
Move the chairs and get in pairs,
Stand up, sit down,
Hands on heads, now turn around,
Head and shoulders, arms and knees,
Delete, complete, continue please,
What to do with kids like these …?

Alter, argue, group discuss,
Left your homework on the bus?
Here’s the question, where’s the answer,
Silent reading, info transfer,
First, last, compare, contrast,
Future, perfect, present, past,
Correct, deduce, select, produce,
Read the bit on language use

Find, fill.. replace, remove,
Make an effort, must improve,
True, false, right, wrong, no and yes,
Guess, success, don’t make a mess
Describe, expand, insert, corrupt,
Explain again, don’t interrupt,
Read the fable, make a label,
Leave your homework on the table,
Write a story, if you’re able

Transform, translate,
Commentate and demonstrate,
Wait, narrate and don’t be late,
Recall, remove, rank, match, tell,
Wait for the bell, Oh, very well …

Another slice of American Pie

This article was written in 1999 and published in the Educational Supplement of the Buenos Aires Herald. It’s a rambling, derivative and introspective reflection on a song that was seemed to be full of meaning when I first heard it. Later, when I was able to attempt a partial deconstruction, it hardly seemed worth the effort. I only put it up here at the request of a friend. But if you’re into 60s nostalgia, read on ...

It is now some twenty five years since Don McLean’s song “American Pie” hit the charts and yet it is one of those songs that has never quite gone away. I was fascinated with the song when it came out – I was at University at the time – and, listening to it again recently with some of my language students, I have once again come under its spell.

The song is irritatingly enigmatic and has been the source of much student debate over the years. Having to focus once again on the lyrics in an attempt to provide some essential background to my 1997 students (a ‘generation used to space’) I found myself needing to reevaluate some of the muddled thinking of the intervening years. However, the song certainly allows for multiple readings. Mine are no better or worse than anyone else’s and readers are invited to come back with their comments.

Throughout what follows extracts from Don McLean’s lyrics appear in italic script, with commentary in plain text.

The Song

Most people accept that the song was conceived as some sort of tribute to Buddy Holly and there are countless references to Holly’s life and sudden death in an aircrash in 1959. Further, it seems to lament the change in direction of rock and roll since Holly’s death – with the implication that if Holly had lived music and culture would have gone in a very different direction.

But I think McLean takes it further. On a broader scale, it describes the loss of innocence in a changing America through the iconography of popular songs and figures. Think if you like of the world of ‘American Pie’ as the traditional apple pie that Granny used to make – that kind of Technicolor, white picket fence, high school hop image recreated so well by David Lynch at the beginning of his film Blue Velvet.

Within the iconography (and, tantalisingly, outside it too), McLean would furthermore seem to be lamenting the lack of “danceable” music in rock and roll (remember this was recorded back in 1971) and perhaps relating that to the death of a line Buddy Holly would have followed (and been followed in).

In other words Holly’s death cut off the promise of what Leibnitz would term a ‘possible world’ in which the development of music and concomitant lifestyle would have been different, more in keeping with what the conservative, Catholic McLean would have preferred.

Verse 1

A long, long time ago…

American Pie was released twelve years after Holly’s death and probably written a couple of years earlier.

I can still remember how /That music used to make me smile./ And I knew if I had my chance/ That I could make those people dance,/ And maybe they’d be happy for a while.

The social event of McLean’s youth would probably have been the high school hop, and the function of early rock and roll music was to provide suitable music for dancing at such events. McLean, like any other high school boy, must have often dreamed of being up there on the stage with his guitar and bringing happiness (albeit temporarily) to his fellow students.

But February made me shiver,

February is a cold month in New York at the best of times. But it was in February , on February 3, 1959, to be precise, that Buddy Holly died. His plane crashed in a snowstorm in Iowa, killing him and the other occupants.

With every paper I’d deliver,

Don McLean, like so many young boys, was a paperboy in his hometown of New Rochelle, New York …

Bad news on the doorstep/ I couldn’t take one more step.

.. and, like so many Americans, he first learned about Holly’s death through the morning newspaper . The irony of his delivering the paper is a subtle touch.

 I can’t remember if I cried/ When I read about his widowed bride

Holly had only just married and his young bride was pregnant when he died. Shortly afterwards she suffered a miscarriage (1).

But something touched me deep inside/ The day the music died.

In the plane with Buddy Holly were two other big name singers: Richie Valens of La Bambafame and a Texan disk jockey known as the Big Bopper (real name J.P. Richardson), whose only hit was Chantilly Lace. ‘The Day The Music Died’ can only refer to February 3, when they all perished together (2).



Bye bye Miss American Pie,

‘American Pie’ is alleged to have been the name of the plane that crashed but I have not been able to corroborate this. However, the name clearly implies good, respectable, American values. The end of the sixties had seen such a sea change is US society, with the summer of love (1966) being replaced by hard drugs, hard line politics and hard times. When Dylan tells us (in the early sixties) that “The times they are a-changing” he is heralding the end of the American Dream. Perhaps most importantly, JFK ‘s assassination (suggested several times in the song) marked the end of the age of innocence: like grandma’s apple pie JFK was to become a memory of another, supposedly better age and his death, like Holly’s, cut off another line of development.

Drove my Chevy to the levee but the levee was dry

Consciously or not, this line echoes a scene in the movie Mississippi Burning, showing three civil rights workers, who had been killed and left at the levee. But a levee could be a place for a party too – the point here being that the levee (like the music) has dried up. The Chevy is of course the all American car, symbol of the American dream, and the levee symbolises man’s conquest of the River. But things are no longer the same ….

Them good ol’ boys were drinkin whiskey and rye

A drink common in the South, otherwise known as a ‘Whiskey sour’ and the ‘good old boys’ the traditional, conservative, perhaps red-neck kind.

Singing “This’ll be the day that I die, This’ll be the day that I die.”

One of Buddy Holly’s best known hits was “That’ll be the Day”. It had a chorus containing the repeated line “That’ll be the day.. when I die”, clearly echoed by McLean here..

Verse 2

Did you write the book of love ?

“The Book of Love” is the title of a song recorded by the Monotones which was a big hit in 1958. Buddy Holly is not credited as having written it, but then again there may have been contractual reasons for omitting the credit.

And do you have faith in God above ? / If the Bible tells you so ?

“The Bible Tells Me So” is the name of a song recorded in 1955 by Don Cornell. The lines also echo an old Sunday School song that goes: “Jesus loves me this I know, for the Bible tells me so”. Another instance of conservative religion, perhaps, later to be contrasted with the disintegration and degeneration of society and the satanic references to Mick Jagger and the Rolling Stones.

Now do you believe in rock ‘n roll?/Can music save your mortal soul?/And can you teach me how to dance real slow?

Belief is of course about things that matter. Back at the hop the slow dance was a legitimate opportunity to get close to your partner, and was an important part of the youth culture of the time. The innocence of this time was slowly replaced by the violence, sexual and psychedelic revolution of the 60s and young people lost the ability (and desire) for dancing of that kind..

Well I know you’re in love with him / Cause I saw you dancing in the gym

Those were more innocent times, and times of greater commitment. Who you danced with was really important and was something sorted out long before the event. Young people usually came together, danced together and left together. The liberation and promiscuity of the 60s saw an end to that level of commitment.

You both kicked off your shoes

Dances took place in the gym, and the floor was a wooden basket ball court which had to be protected. (These events were sometimes referred to as “sock hops”).

Man, I dig those rhythm ‘n’ blues

Young whites began listening to black music in the fifties. By the mid 50s white singers were covering black rhythm and blues songs, and some black artists (e.g. Little Richard, Fats Domino) got into the national pop charts. In 1956 The Sun record label in particular fused black rhythm and blues with white country and western and this mix was essential to Buddy Holly’s new kind of rock and roll.)

I was a lonely teenage bronkin’ buck/ With a pink carnation and a pickup truck

“A White Sport Coat (And a Pink Carnation)” is the title of a hit recorded in 1957 by Marty Robbins and was typical male dress for the big night out. Even today the pickup is seen as a symbol of male sexual independence and potency. The ‘bronco’ is a common image from cattle country.

But I knew that I was out of luck /The day the music died/ I started singing…


Verse 3

Now for ten years we’ve been on our own

I don’t know exactly when McLean wrote this song (it was released twelve years after Holly’s death) but it must have been about ten years since the aircrash which left the young people ‘on their own’.

And moss grows fat on a rolling stone

The main reference is probably to Bob Dylan whose “Like a Rolling Stone” (1965) was his first major hit. Dylan had been the seminal spokesman for a whole new generation and had turned his back on his rebel past and sat at home (i.e. stopped touring for eight years) . Perhaps the reference is more general, referring to the whole industry which was becoming increasingly capitalistic. At about this time the Rolling Stones took the hitherto unprecedented step of living a year outside the United Kingdom to save paying income tax, then at an excessively high rate. Given the invocation of the Rolling Stones later on the phrase is hardly fortuitous.

But that’s not how it used to be/When the jester sang for the King and Queen

This is undoubtedly a reference to Bob Dylan (the ‘jester’). The ‘King’ could well be Elvis Presley and the Queen very possibly ‘Connie Francis’. Some have Joan Baez, but I see no evidence for it. But Dylan did perform at a civil rights rally in Washington DC, not only in front of Martin Luther King but more importantly for John and Jackie Kennedy, commonly known in the media of the time as the king and queen of “Camelot” – the new age that was supposed (erroneously, as it happened) to be coming in.

Dylan also played a command performance for the Queen of England, and the ‘jester’ may be a reference to his refusal to dress ‘correctly’ for the occasion. Of course it might also refer to his characteristic tousled appearance and pixieish demeanour caught in so many photographs of that time, perhaps most spectacularly on the cover of the LP “Blonde on Blonde”.

In a coat he borrowed from James Dean

Each time James Dean put on his red coat in the movie “Rebel Without a Cause” he was symbolising his up-front, in-your-face attitude to the world. Within a week of the film’s release you couldn’t buy a remotely similar red jacket in the whole of the United States. Dean and Dylan were both icons for the youth of their time. On Dean’s death Dylan assumed his ‘coat’ in more senses than one – if you look at the cover of his album “The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan”, Dylan is wearing Dean’s red jacket and the street scene is reconstructed around a famous James Dean Publicity shot..

And a voice that came from you and me

Bob Dylan came out of Hibbing, Minnesota, and was at first totally plugged into the American folk tradition. He hung out at the Gaslight in New York where he met all the contemporary folk singers – in particular Pete Seeger and the dying Woody Guthrie. Insofar as folk music is people’s music, then his song “…came from you and me”. But Dylan spoke for his generation in another sense, in a way that had never been possible before. With the advantage of a more permissive media, with greater reach, he said what had previously been unsayable. Songs like ‘Blowing in the wind’ and ‘The times they are a’changing’ may seem tame today but they shook the foundations of the establishment at the time. Dylan spoke for his whole generation, and his influence has been seminal, to an extent perhaps not always fully remembered today.

Oh, and while the King was looking down /The jester stole his thorny crown

Elvis may have looked down from the pinnacle of his fame but he was also on the way down, sinking into a life style that would end in obesity, obscenity and overdose. Dylan was a fast mover, ever an opportunist, on the way up. Why the crown (of the new ‘king’) should be ‘thorny’ is unclear, beyond the biblical allusion. (3)

The courtroom was adjourned, /No verdict was returned.

The only contemporary reference to a real court trial I could find was the trial of the Chicago Seven which seems too remote. It seems more likely that McLean is referring to the court of public opinion regarding what was happening to music (in this case symbolising values) and that the lack of a ‘verdict’ is a metaphor for general apathy and indifference.

And while Lennon read a book on Marx,

Perhaps this refers to the introduction of radical politics into the music of the Beatles (a metaphor once again for society as a whole). The conceit is of course based on the phonetic similarity of John Lennon and Vladimir Ilich Ulyanov (Lenin). Certainly the 60s saw a general growth and interest in communism (and a strong US reaction against it).

The quartet practiced in the park

Consistency and chronology would indicate that this refers to the Beatles playing in Shea Stadium, but why ‘practicing’ ? And why would Lennon be elsewhere ? A quartet could of course be any conventional rock band, or could refer to any other group of four individuals. I’ll take a rain check on this one.

And we sang dirges in the dark

When JFK died Network televison went off the air for 4 four days while the whole country mourned. The US was plunged into another kind of dark too – the dark of doubt, despair and uncertainty. The new order – new Camelot – was not to be.

The day the music died.

The death of the music this time seems more tied down to JFK’s assassination in Dallas, once again the death of an American dream as JFK exchanged hopes of a new Camelot for the Avalon of the west coast.

We were singing…


Verse 4

Helter Skelter in a summer swelter

“Helter Skelter” is one of the Beatles song which inspired Charles Manson to order the savage butchering to death of  Sharon Tate and others in the hot California summer of 1969. ‘Helter Skelter’ in Manson’s world was to be the day in which the Blacks, at Manson’s instigation, finally rose against the white population in Los Angeles and slaughtered them all. Manson would then lead his dune buggy tribe out of the Hole in Death Valley and be welcomed as the new Messiah. Heavy stuff, mixed up with Satanism and drug dealing and rip-offs, certainly symbolising the end of traditional American family values..

The birds flew off with the fallout shelter

Fallout shelters were very much part of the cultural baggage of the Cold War era. There may be an additional play of words here with ‘falling out’ and ‘dropping out’. The birds (the pop group the Byrds) would also have ‘flown’ in the sense of their known drug use.

Eight miles high and falling fast

“Eight Miles High” was a hit for The Byrds in 1966. The song was banned, on the (undeniable) grounds that it was about drugs.. Both “Helter Skelter” (“When I get to the bottom I go back to the top”) and “Eight miles High” refer to the feeling of ‘flying’ or being ‘high’ on dope and the former can also be seen as a drug-induced description of rhythmic sexual activity. Songs didn’t used to be about things like this.

It landed foul on the grass

‘Landing’ is coming down or finishing a trip and ‘grass’ is marijuana. The Byrds, like so many rock musicians, fell foul of the law in this respect. The line also introduces a new strand, the metaphor of the football game.

The players tried for a forward pass

The metaphor is from football, but beyond that seems unclear. Depending on the game in question a ‘forward pass’ may or may not be illegal. The players may be musicians or sportsman. McLean is trying here to sustain a triple metaphor – the threads of music, sport and political repression – and I think he loses it. The reference is presumably there for those who can see it, but I can’t.

With the jester on the sidelines in a cast

On July 29, 1966, Dylan had a serious motor cycle accident in Woodstock, New York State. He was ‘out of action’ (and enormously silent) for nearly a year. ‘Sidelines’ neatly ties in the sporting metaphor with the marginalisation of Dylan, holed up in the Big Pink recording the Basement tapes, and ‘cast’ continues the double word play – it can be a ‘plaster cast’ or the ‘cast’ of a play in the sense that we all have roles to play in life and this was Dylan’s at that time. McLean thrives on this layering of ambiguity .

Now the half-time air was sweet perfume / While sergeants played a marching tune

‘Half-time’ continues the sporting metaphor but could also refer to a half-way stage of political change. The second line feeds in a new metaphor. “Sweet perfume” is probably a cynical allusion to tear gas and the ‘sergeants’ the Police and National Guard who marched protesters out of so many public gatherings (e. g. the excessive repression at Ohio State University).. At another level, given the multiple references to the Beatles, it obviously refers too to the “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band” album.

We all got up to dance / Oh, but we never got the chance

In 1966 The Beatles gave a concert in Candlestick Park but as it became impossible to control the crowds the performance only lasted 35 minutes. Another interpretation here that ties in with the song’s running thread would be that the ‘sergeants’ (the Beatles) played a ‘marching tune’ (i.e. music you couldn’t dance to), rather than the ‘dancing music’ Buddy Holly would have developed if he had not died so young. Or perhaps the ‘sergeants’ simply represent authorities that prevented young people from ‘dancing’ (read having a good time) in public.

‘Cause the players tried to take the field, / The marching band refused to yield.

The multiple reference continues throughout all this verse . Politically, the reference is to protesters at Kent State where the ‘players’ (students), tried to take control of the ‘field’ (campus), the ‘marching band’ being the Ohio National Guard. In terms of the rock and roll thread (and the song is after all a potted history of pop music) I think the reference is to a failed attempt by the Beach Boys who in 1966 attempted (with their brilliant, underrated album “Pet Sounds”) to supplant the Beatles hold on the industry. The Beatles of course, like the Ohio National Guard, stood firm.

Do you recall what was revealed, / The day the music died?

What was revealed ? I sincerely have no idea. Maybe this is enigma for enigma’s sake. Or McLean is again being a little too esoteric ? Answers on a postcard please ..

We started singing


Verse 5

And there we were all in one place

This just has to be Woodstock, 1969, the Festival. You just had to have been there !!. We all were. If you missed it, rent the movie – it’s a historical document. Nuff said.

A generation lost in space

Spaced out’ was a common 60s euphemism for the effects of drugs. Hippies also tended to be seriously alienated from their parents, and thus a ‘spaced out’ hippie could be doubly lost. ‘Lost in Space’ was also the name of a pretty naff TV series in US in the late 60s but I somehow can’t see McLean alluding to that.

With no time left to start again

Too much drugs ? Grown up too quickly ? The American dream irrevocably lost ? JFK and his new Camelot gone. The music that could never go back to where Buddy Holly might have taken it ? All those lost opportunities, lost chances, the what if’s have no future chance.

So come on Jack be nimble Jack be quick/Jack Flash sat on a candlestick/’Cause fire is the devil’s only friend

The Rolling Stones first hit was called “Come on”. Another major hit, “Jumpin’ Jack Flash”, was released in May, 1968 and the Stones’ presumably would have sung it at their Candlestick park concert. ‘Sympathy for the Devil ‘was another Stones song of that time and the Grateful Dead had a song called “Friend of the Devil”). “Jack be nimble Jack be quick/Jack Flash sat on a candlestick” is a children’s nursery rhyme which makes the allusion even more dramatic.

Jack is also the first name of John Fitzgerald Kennedy, and  McLean picks up on the earlier reference to fallout shelters here, with the candlestick representing an ICBM armed with a nuclear warhead. In Kubricks’s 60’s film “Dr Strangelove” Slim Pickens plays a Texan Air Commander who sits astride such an atomic device when the bomb release won’t unlock and rides it to his death and the destruction of the known world.

Such hell and brimstone (fire) are the province of the devil, which leads us neatly back to the Rolling Stones …

And as I watched him on the stage My hands were clenched in fists of rage No angel born in hell Could break that Satan’s spell

.. who played a gig at the Altamont Speedway in 1968. They were perhaps naive, but on the advice of the Grateful Dead they put Hell’s Angels bikers in charge of their concert security. In the confusion of the night a certain Meredith Hunter was beaten and stabbed to death by the Angels to the background of the Stones playing ‘Under my Thumb’ (4). The Stones also had an earlier album (of appallingly naff psychedelic trash) called “Their Satanic Majesties’ Request” and it would seem that McLean is not altogether happy with this aspect of the Stones’ artistic career.

And as the flames climbed high into the night /To light the sacrificial rite

Still in Altamont, Jagger prancing around on the stage while bonfires (common at rock concerts in those days) provide the background for the sacrificial murder of Meredith Hunter .

I saw Satan laughing with delight

The only conclusion can be that Satan here is Mick Jagger. Don McLean is said to have had a strict Catholic upbringing – if he really wanted a return to traditional American apple pie and Sunday School values then he may be vehemently laying the responsibility for the tragic death of Meredith Hunter at Jagger’s door. More likely the Altamont incident is a convenient peg that serves McLean as a metaphor for the malaise of the age, and Jagger is the vehicle, a conduit, rather than the devil incarnate..

The day the music died / He was singing…


Verse 6

I met a girl who sang the blues

Would you believe Janis Joplin…..?

And I asked her for some happy news /But she just smiled and turned away

… who OD’d on heroin on October 4, 1970. Yet another music myth whose potential was cut short. Actually, Joplin was already past it – her Woodstock performance demonstrates the fact quite clearly – despite the smile, her lifestyle of drugs and alcohol had little happy news, and like Elvis, there was no way to go but down. And out.

I went down to the sacred store/ Where I’d heard the music years before

The “sacred store” could be that Mecca of the Sixties, Bill Graham’s Fillmore West, one of the great rock and roll venues of all time. But it could also be the local record store – ‘sacred’ because it is a repository of the old music – which in the good old days often used to let kids listen to records in the store without buying them.

But the man there said the music wouldn’t play

There’s no demand for the old music, perhaps. Or kids have to pay to hear it now. Or things just don’t work any more. Whatever. The point is, it’s all over.

And in the streets the children screamed/ The lovers cried and the poets dreamed

‘Children’ here refers in part to the ‘flower children’ of the sixties, (free) loving and dreaming their way through the end of the decade and crying in pain and anger as they avoid the batons of police and National Guard troops. There seems to be an echo here too of one of the most horrific images of the Vietnam War – the much published photograph of children running down a village street, on fire, after a napalm attack on their village.

But not a word was spoken/ The church bells all were broken

Everyone saw what was happening, no one was prepared to condemn it. Just as the broken bells can no longer produce music neither can the dead (i.e. silent) musicians. And broken church bells imply a neglected church, in which the old religion (music) is no longer observed.

And the three men I admire most /The Father Son and Holy Ghost

Obviously the Biblical reference stands, and ties in with the other Christian threads. It could also be the three singers killed in the Iowa plane crash – Holly, The Big Bopper, and Valens. Once again, something doesn’t quite gel here and one is left with the feeling that meaning has become subordinated to a snazzy rhyme scheme..

They caught the last train for the coast/ The day the music died

The west coast has long been a place where all the weirdo cults seem to thrive, and all the hippies gravitated there, mainly to San Francisco and LA.. If the “three men” were Holly/Bopper/Valens, and going to the coast means ‘passing over’ then this repeats the conceit that the music died along with Buddy Holly.

In Celtic mythology dead heroes depart to the West for a better place (e.g. King Arthur sailing off in his barge to Avalon), so the three dead singers (‘players’) could be making a similar journey. On another tack, if the US had always been God’s own country and the US people had had God on their side from Independence to the end of WW2 at least, maybe this marks the end of God’s cooperation, and he has abandoned us to stew in our own hedonistic juices. In simple terms, God just split.

And they were singing…

Refrain (2x)


“American Pie” has been one of the most talked about and analyzed songs of the post-war era.. In it somewhere, if you can get at it, is a complete history of rock and roll but it is wrapped up in such ambivalent and esoteric imagery that it lends itself to endless interpretations.

McLean himself has consistently refused to explain the song but he has let slip a couple of hints:

‘When I first heard “American Pie” on the radio, I was playing a gig somewhere, and it was immediately followed by Peggy Sue. They caught on to the Holly connection right away, and that made me very happy. I was quite interested in America – I still write about the different aspects of America – and to me, something was slipping away and I couldn’t quite put my finger on how to express it. I was sitting up in this little house where I lived and I just started to write this first verse about the day I cut open this bunch of papers [when he was a paper boy] and saw that Buddy Holly had been killed. The memory unlocked a whole bunch of things. Suddenly the song wrote itself…’

And again: ‘I can’t necessarily interpret American Pie” any better than you can,’ ( LIFE magazine, 1972). ‘Buddy Holly was the first and last person I ever really idolized as a kid. Most of my friends liked Elvis Presley. More of them liked Presley than Holly. But I liked Holly because he spoke to me. He was a symbol of something deeper than the music he made. His career and the sort of group he created, the interaction between the lead singer and the three men backing him up, was a perfect metaphor for the music of the ’60s and for my own youth’.

Twenty-five years later, McLean’s legacy gives us a complicated yet fascinating vignette which speaks not only about his own youth but about that of a whole generation.


  • Billboard Book of Number One Hits, Bronson F, Billboard, 1985
  • Encyclopedia of Pop, Rock and Soul, (rev. ed.), Stambler I, St. Martin’s Press, 1989.
  • It was Twenty Years ago Today: An Anniversary Celebration of 1967, Taylor D, Fireside, 1987.
  • Return of the Straight Dope, Adams C, Ballantine Books, 1994, p.398.
  • Rock Chronicle, Formento D, Delilah/Putnam, 1982.
  • Rock Day by Day, Smith S and the Diagram Group, Guiness Books, 1987.
  • Rock Topicon, Marsh D et al, Contemporary Books, 1984.
  • Rolling Stone Encyclopedia of Rock & Roll, ed. Pareles J & Romanowski P, Rolling Stone Press/Summit Books, 1983.
  • Rolling Stone Record Guide, ed. Marsh D & Swenson J, Random House/Rolling Stone Press, 1979.
  • Smiling Through the Apocalypse: Esquire’s History of the Sixties, ed. Hayes H, Esquire Press, 1987.
  • The Sixties: Years of Hope, Days of Rage, Gitlin T, Bantam Books, 1987.


  1. A connection has been suggested with the story of Billy Joe MacAllister who jumped off the Tallahachee Bridge in Bobby Gentry’s song Ode to Billy Joe. Certainly there are a number of surprising coincidences too recherché to go into here but these are most likely the result of wishful thinking.
  2. Another country singer, Waylon Jennings, relinquished his seat at the last moment as therewas no space for the four of them. To this day he has refused to discuss the event.
  3. McLean uses the thorn image again in his song about Van Gogh, Vincent, with its hauntingly beautiful (and frustratingly enigmatic) lines: … a silver thorn a bloody rose, lie crushed and broken on the virgin snow.
  4. Incorrectly recorded by many as ‘Sympathy for the Devil’. The incident is recorded in the movie “Gimme Shelter”. The Stones dropped the song from their concert repertoire for about ten years.

EFL exams are not what they used to be …

When I started out as an EFL teacher back in the 1960s things were very different from now. The University of Cambridge (UCLES as it then was) was running a three-tier system of English language exams for overseas students: the ‘Lower Certificate in English’, introduced in 1939 (and renamed ‘First Certificate’ in 1976); the ‘Certificate of Proficiency in English (CPE) introduced in 1913 (and often referred to at the time as ‘the Higher’); and a third, absurdly high level exam way above CPE called the ‘Diploma of English Studies’ (DES), introduced I think in 1945. During my early teaching years I prepared candidates for all three of these and was a listening and oral examiner for the Lower and CPE. The format was different, more different than you could probably imagine, but that’s not my topic for today.

In those pre-CEFR days it was hard to assess the level of an exam, but the CPE then was to my mind much ‘harder’ than it is today. Certainly none the exams in the forms they then existed were what we would want to call communicative. The CPE included translation and both literary criticism and ‘Literature’, and was not unlike English language A-level of the day in some respects. The DES was a very ‘advanced’ exam indeed, one which went way beyond this and then further into contrastive cultural studies, etc. The candidature for DES was always small and in 1996 it was ‘quietly removed’. I have a few friends around still who achieved DES level, including one or two I helped prepare; but much of the ‘preparation’ was in fact carried out by the candidates themselves.

In the 1980s and 1990s the levels stabilised and the ‘main suite’ of exams slowly emerged until we reached the set of exams we know now.

That was then and now is now. A rather damning and anonymous comment (“A review of Local Examinations Syndicate – University of Cambridge”) was made on Wednesday 4th of January 2006 (see here for source).

UCLES administered until 1996 the Diploma of English Studies, an examination in English Literature and background studies at post-Proficiency level. Its discontinuation was due to the low number of entries of candidates; UCLES was busy running the far more popular -and profitable- FCE and CPE exams and could see no (financial) viability in the Diploma. Moreover, the introduction of new exams, such as KET and PET would mean attracting more and more test takers and the accrual of greater commercial gain, so why bother about literature and higher-level exams at all? One could argue that there was nothing wrong with their decision to discontinue it; still, an examining body which respects its audience should, as well as creating new exams, cater for the needs of successful candidates in terms of maintaining recognition even of discontinued qualifications. In short, UCLES should have done two things: It should have continued to make reference, in the Regulations, to the Diploma (as an advanced exam at post-Proficiency level) and, secondly, it should have tried to have it included in NQF (national qualifications framework) at, say, level 5 (the same level as DELTA). This way, Diploma holders would not have been left dissatisfied.

So, Mammon had a voice although it was missed by a few in its passing. Have we seen a dumbing down of these English language exams over the years? Well, probably yes and no, apples and oranges;  I have no dog in this fight.

When CPE (the ‘middle level’ of the Lower-CPE-DES exams) started, students were taking 12 hours of papers, with translations, literature and essays on such topics as ‘The effect of political movements upon nineteenth century literature in England’, ‘English Pre-Raphaelitism’, ‘Elizabethan travel and discovery’ and ‘The development of local self-government’, with no guidance as to how to approach these topics. They required strong cognitive and intellectual skills and a good knowledge of language, literature and culture which is not expected today, and in fact is often actively resisted by exam writers. I’m not sure there’s a place today in EFL for any of that.

Today’s exams are far more ‘authentic’ and student-oriented, and some would say considerably ‘easier’ in terms of the language they test. They are also far less Anglocentric and undoubtedly more accessible to today’s students than the post-WW2 versions would be, and that has to be a good thing.

Glíglico in English

This is a fairly free translation (what else could it be?) of an extract from Julio Cortázar’s Rayuela, chapter 68. Cortazár wrote this in Glíglico, a language he invented for the purpose. I did it to try to prove to a friend that it was possible – the reader can be the judge.

Source text

Apenas él le amalaba el noema, a ella se le agolpaba el clémiso y caían en hidromurias, en salvajes ambonios, en sustalos exasperantes. Cada vez que él procuraba relamar las incopelusas, se enredaba en un grimalo quejumbroso y tenía que envulsionarse de cara al nóvalo, sintiendo cómo poco a poco las arnillas se espejunaban, se iban apeltronando, reduplimiendo, hasta quedar tendido como el trimalciato de ergomanina al que se le han dejado caer unas filulas de cariconcia. Y sin embargo era apenas el principio, porque en un momento dado ella se tordulaba los hurgalios, consintiendo en que él aproximara suavemente sus orfelunios. Apenas se entreplumaban, algo como un ulucordio los encrestoriaba, los extrayuxtaba y paramovía, de pronto era el clinón, la esterfurosa convulcante de las mátricas, la jadehollante embocapluvia del orgunio, los esproemios del merpasmo en una sobrehumítica agopausa. ¡Evohé! ¡Evohé! Volposados en la cresta del murelio, se sentían balparamar, perlinos Y márulos. Temblaba el troe. se resolviraba en un profundo pínice, en niolamas de argutendidas gasas, en carinias casi crueles que los oropenaban hasta el límite de las gunfias.

My translation

He’d hardly got her titler bondled before her clymisse tightened and they collapsed in wartrous wallings, in wild andonbonons, in frustrated frelights. He tried and tried to slek her impubellae but kept getting all twisted up in a crantankous whimble and could only voltate himself to confront the newal, feeling how, little by little, the squipples splunkated, scrivened and redrippled, until they were stretched out like a thumanic thrilkiat into which a few fillips of phism have been dribbled. But this was only the start. Her glissyms started to trebulate, and she let him gently into her harlouns. They barely had time to quill before a kind of melochord crescated up over them, extricted and primoted them, and then, suddenly, came the cleniks, the streferous convulcation of two madrimos, the thrilkiat’s exhalborant wettenmoth, a marfent’s sprizzen in an inhumate outpuss. Ailluie! Ailluie! Soarfling the crest of the wellule, they felt themselves steapling, all limbid and marrogate. The toc still shook, desidrating into a deep slunk, surrounded by flamblings of extenguate gauze, by the almost cruel dearings which golpentrated them, right to the depths of their gumbles.

And no, it wasn’t easy !!

Buenos Aires, February 2007

The Magic Ball

The story of Aylen, Nahuel and the Magic Ball

This was an attempt to recapture the style and language of books I read as a child.

Long, long ago, there was a wicked witch who lived in the eastern foothills of the snow-capped Andes. For much of the year she was harmless for she would sleep through most of the spring, summer and autumn, but each year, as soon the first snowfall began to dust the lower slopes she woke up, hungry and ready for her first meal of the winter.

And each year, as wintertime drew on, the people in the valley became more and more frightened, because winter after winter their children were vanishing without trace. One moment they were there in the village, or playing in the nearby fields, and then suddenly they were gone, never to be seen again. The villagers all suspected that it was the witch who was stealing their children, but they had no idea how she did this, or what she did with the children she spirited away.

The witch had a secret – a sparkly, brightly coloured, magic ball, very attractive to children but quite invisible to grown-ups, or those whom the witch did not want to see it. Such was the power of this ball, and so great the children’s desire to play with it, that they would throw all caution to the wind and follow it anywhere.

One day two small children, Aylen and Nahuel, were playing by a lake in the foothills, about half a league from their home. Aylen suddenly spotted the shiny ball in the long grass and ran towards it with a shriek of excitement. But just as she bent down to pick it up the ball rolled forward just beyond her grasp, rolling gently a little further in the direction of the hillside.

Again Aylen tried to pick it up, and again it seemed to blow out of her reach, like a leaf in the autumn wind. Nahuel, who I should have told you was her brother, tried too, but he had no better luck. The two of them spent a happy ten minutes or so chasing the ball, but each time they thought they had it in their hands it rolled a little further forward. And, although they didn’t realise it, each attempt was taking them just a little bit closer to the mountain slopes.

The two children stopped for a moment to decide what to do. It really was time to be setting off for home, but somehow the desire to hold the ball or to follow it seemed to take over their common sense.

The shiny ball had come to rest for a while by a stream, lying under a bush lush with tempting red berries. The children were not slow to eat some of the fruit and wash it down with cool, fresh water, before setting off once more in pursuit of the elusive ball.

And so the afternoon wore on, with Aylen and Nahuel taking it in turns to chase the ball, albeit with no success, alongside the bubbling mountain stream as it ascended gently through the valley. What they didn’t really notice was that the ball kept stopping in places where there was fruit to eat and fresh water to drink –which they were unable to resist– and that it was taking them closer and closer to the steep mountainside.

They followed the ball alongside the brook into another valley where the sides of a canyon rose beside them as they made their way higher. It was darker here, and the landscape was much wilder, with stark rocks scattered among the sparse vegetation. Patches of snow were beginning to appear and flakes of snow were blowing up around them. Still the ball rolled on, more slowly now, until –as the air became colder and crisper– it finally rolled up against a black rock and stopped.

Aylen picked up the glittering ball and cradled it in the palm of her hands. As she gazed into the crystal depths of the magic ball, all flecked with gold and silver like the finest marble, the surface gradually clouded over and then, like a soap bubble, suddenly burst, leaving her hands holding … nothing. In fear and disappointment she began to cry, and her brother, finding that her hands were frozen, led her round to the northern side of the rock where she was sheltered from the bitter wind.

Aylen leant back against the side of the mountain and quickly dropped into a deep sleep. Nahuel sat beside her holding her hand and wondering what to do. “As soon as she wakes up”, he thought, “we must get back home”. But he too was beginning to feel drowsy, and after wresting for a while with increasingly heavy eyelids he too soon dropped off.

Some hours later Nahuel awoke and wandered down to the stream to wash his face and drink some refreshing water. Lying in the safety of the stone refuge her brother had found for her, Aylen was dreaming that she was safe in bed at home, her mother sitting beside her combing her hair. But her mother must have been angry with her, as she was tugging her hair roughly and hurting her so badly that she gave a whimper of pain and woke up.

She tried to get to her feet, but couldn’t move her head. Somehow her hair seemed to have become tied up in the rock and bushes where she was lying, or perhaps frozen to the rock. The wicked witch was weaving her magic, but would wait until dark for her dinner.

Nahuel heard his sister and ran towards her, but as he came close he came up against an invisible wall, soft yet firm, that would not let him go forward. He could see Aylen in front of him, small and frightened, but although he could hear her sad little voice he could not reach her.

“Nahuel, help me. I’m frightened!” cried Aylen through the invisible wall the wicked witch had made.

“I can’t”, said Nahuel. “There’s something stopping me. It’s like a fence you can’t see. I can see you but I can’t get through”.

“Can’t you climb over it?” asked Aylen.

“No”, replied Nahuel, “it seems to go up and up. What can we do”?

At that moment a large white owl flew slowly over their heads, and as it circled sang out to the children:

You can undo this wicked deed
Fire and heat are what you need.

“Did you hear that?” asked Aylen through her sobbing.

“Yes, Aylen”, replied her brother.

“What do you think it means?”

“I don’t know”, said Nahuel.

“Fire and heat. Why do we need fire and heat?” sniffled Aylen.

“I think it means that the terrible things in this valley are afraid of fire”.

“Then we have to get hold of some fire. But where?” asked Aylen.

“I’ll go and look. You stay here, and don’t move”, Nahuel said, showing no sign of movement.

Which was a fine thing to say, thought Aylen, who was completely unable to move even if she tried, but she didn’t say anything.

Just then a huge Condor swooped down and as it glided by they heard him call from on high:

Burning fire her death will stay.
Follow me, I know a way

“I have to go”, cried Nahuel. “The condor must know something, and seems to want me to follow him. I’ll be back before nightfall”.

The Condor was circling above the children, as if waiting for Nahuel, to guide him.

“Yes, go and get fire”, said Aylen, in what she hoped was a brave voice. She certainly didn’t feel very brave.

She watched Nahuel set off down the hill, following the Condor, who glided from rock to rock, glancing behind to make sure the little boy was following him.

The big bird seemed to know where he was going, and Nahuel followed him along the stream, down the hill, until the stream reached a larger river. There he saw a little woodcutter’s cottage, with wisps of smoke puffing lazily from the chimney.

As Nahuel reached the door of the cottage the Condor soared into the sky and flew back over the mountains, until he was just a speck in the sky. It was as if his work was over. The door was ajar and Nahuel knocked timidly but there seemed to be nobody there. More boldly, he pushed the door open.

The cottage was empty, but clearly someone lived there. The fire was still going, but there was very little wood left so Nahuel did what he would do in his own home, that is he went out and gathered twigs and branches to build up the fire and fill the wood store. He filled his pockets and shoulder bag with kindling, and seeing that the water buckets were empty he also took those and filled them with clean water from the stream.

Back in the house he used his fire making skills and soon had a better fire burning. Exhausted by his efforts, he lay on the floor in front of the fire he had made and almost immediately fell asleep.

When he awoke he saw a man sitting on a three-legged stool, sipping from a mate and looking pensive. He offered some bread to Nahuel, and passed him the mate. Nahuel ate and drank greedily, while the woodcutter peered closely at him. As he ate and drank, Nahuel told the old man about his poor sister, breaking into tears, as he thought of poor Aylen all alone on the mountainside.

“It’s the work of the wicked old witch of the mountain”, muttered the woodcutter as Nahuel told his tale. “Tell me boy, how can we rescue your sister?”

Remembering what the Condor had said, Nahuel repeated “burning fire her death will stay”.

“Ah yes”, said the man, “the Condor is old and wise and always knows what to do”.

And at that moment the Condor, who had been back to the mountain to see how Aylen was, appeared at the doorway and called out:

The freezing cold now saps her will
But burning fire can save her still

It was clear what to do. The old man gave Nahuel a burning stick from the fire, and Nahuel ran out of the house, retracing his steps back up the mountainside to where his sister lay.

He came to a small lake. It didn’t seem very deep, and to save time he decided to wade through it. But as he ran the water splashed up on either side and after a few minutes the stick had become so wet that the water put out the flames. Feeling wretched, Nahuel turned round and ran back to the woodcutter’s cottage.

“Please give me a second stick”. I was foolish and the fire went out. This time I’ll run around the lake”.

The Condor, who was still there perched on a gatepost, called out:

Only fire can save her now
You have to get it there somehow

The woodcutter poked around in the fire and gave him a second stick, and this time Nahuel ran carefully around the edge of lake where he had lost the fire before, through bog and marsh and up the mountainside where his sister awaited him, only pausing to catch his breath.

But as he reached the place where the snow started he slipped on a patch of ice, and putting out his hands to steady his fall he thrust the burning stick into the deepening snow. Rising to his feet he saw he was now holding a charred, black useless stick. Crestfallen, he once again turned round and ran back to the woodcutter’s cottage.

The old man was waiting for him, and was pleased to give him a third chance. Just then the Condor flew back, and they listened to what he had to say:

The cold, cold night is drawing on
Without fire she’ll soon be gone

For the third time Nahuel set off, back up the mountainside, this time clutching the burning stick so tightly that his hand ached. Carefully he made his way through lake and marsh, hill and valley, until once again he reached the place where the snow started.

It was so slippery that he could hardly walk, and poor Nahuel was frightened that he would drop the burning branch in the snow again. But at that moment a pure white flamingo appeared by his side and ran beside him, wings spread wide. Nahuel put his free hand on one of her wings, and thus balanced, he was able to continue on his way.

Faster and faster the flamingo hurried, and Nahuel gripped her tighter and tighter. Suddenly he found his feet were no longer touching the ground. The flamingo was flying now, and the two of them were soaring up the last bit of mountain to where Aylen lay.

Nahuel was hanging on to the flamingo for dear life, and could see the burning stick, fanned into flames by the wind as they few, burning the poor flamingo’s neck and breast badly. But the noble bird did not complain and very soon they arrived at the rock where Aylen was lying. As Nahuel approached with the burning stick in his hand he found that the invisible wall was no match for the fire, and with only a little difficulty he was by his sister’s side.

He threw the burning stick into some dry moss at the foot of the rock. The moss crackled and hissed, and suddenly burst into a small flame. In his pocket and shoulder bag he still had some twigs and small sticks that he had gathered for the woodcutter, and with some fanning and blowing he soon had a blazing fire.

Suddenly there was a great crack, a horrible scream and the rock split into a thousand pieces, breaking the witch’s spell and freeing Aylen. The little girl hugged the flamingo, trying to soothe its burns, but for all her efforts she could not completely heal the poor bird and to this day its descendants carry in their crimson feathers the marks of this one bird’s bravery.

The wicked witch was never heard of again. Some say she crossed over the Andes and went to play her tricks in another land. As for Aylen and Nahuel, they lived long in that quiet valley in the foothills among the birds they loved, and the shiny coloured ball soon became a distant memory.


More Tom Swifties – and beyond

A light-hearted look at some verse forms – including limericks, clerihews and double dactyls. Published in MET Vol. 10 No. 4 (October 2001) [This is a continuation of an article you can find here]

In a previous article in MET Vol.10 No.1 (Jan 2001) we looked at Tom Swifties. Here’s an example to remind you: ‘Give me your gun,’ said Tom, disarmingly. Yes, they are very bad puns but that’s the point – the reaction is supposed to be a groan, not a laugh. In fact there is more than one kind of Swiftie.

The kind we’ve looked at is the adverbial kind (‘They say I overuse adverbs,’ said Tom, swiftly). But there is another kind which uses a verb instead of an adverb. An example might be ‘What a lovely brook,’ Tom babbled, where babbled refers both to what Tom says and the noise of the running water.Here are some more ‘verbal’ Swifties: 

     ‘Don’t you get angry with me,’ Tom growled.
     ‘I think there’s a hole in the road ahead,’ Tom hazarded.
     ‘What? Me? A drinking problem?’ Tom gulped.

There is a rarer third type, using a prepositional phrase: ‘I’m leaving you, Rupert,’ said Rodney in gay abandon. These are rather harder to construct than the other two (and my apologies for the stereotyping here).

Another variant of the Tom Swiftie matches a person’s name with an appropriate adjective. We might for example speak of The hasty Mr Swift, where the adjective hasty picks up on an attribute contained in the name Swift. Some more examples: thinking of ELT authors, we might refer to the brutal Mr Harmer where the word ‘harm’ (embedded in ‘Harmer’) is associated with the idea of brutality or violence; the festive Ms Revell (‘revels’ are parties); or the towering Mr and Mrs Soars (to ‘soar’ is to shoot up high into the air).You get the idea.

But Swifties are only one example of ways in which people play with words. Let’s have a look at some other ways of bending the language to our will, playing this time with what might charitably be called verse but should more accurately be termed doggerel.

The limerick

The limerick is an institution throughout the English-speaking world. In fact, there is actually a Limerick day – celebrated on the twelfth of May. I’ve no idea who decided this, or when, but one year US novelist Erica Jong celebrated the occasion with a tribute to the inventor of the Limerick, Edward Lear:

A bespectacled artist called Lear
First perfected this smile in a sneer.
He was clever and witty
He gave life to this ditty
That original author called Lear.

Edward Lear first published limericks in 1846 and since then the craze has never really died, although the majority in circulation are probably not suitable to tell your grandmother. The rhyme and rhythm are supposed to be always the same (AABBA) and the last line is supposed to produce a humorous climax.

The format is not as restrictive as it might seem. Here’s another, slightly less conventional one.

It’s a favourite project of mine
A new value of p to assign
I would fix it at 3
For it’s simpler, you see
Than 3 point 1  4  1  5  9

Lear’s original Limericks usually started with ‘There once was a man from…’ or ‘There was a young lady from…’ and the final line echoed the first one. This form is rare now, and there is really no limit to the ingenuity of some people who turn their hand to writing limericks.

I was once challenged to write a limerick beginning ‘There was a young girl called Victoria’ (Victoria was the name of the Institution I worked at) and it took me quite a long time to work out a suitable rhyme scheme. If you’re sensitive, skip the rest of this paragraph – but I was quite proud of what I eventually came up with:

There was a young girl called Victoria
Who frequented the world’s crematoria
The key to her dreams
Was the smell, so it seems,
Which induced a protracted euphoria.

Rapidly shifting to a loftier example, a graduate of the University of Birmingham has embarked on the extraordinarily obscure task of putting Shakespeare’s tragic masterpiece King Lear into limerick form (see box). Don’t ask me why, but if you compare this extract with the original text (King Lear, Act I, Sc ii) and try to continue for a verse or so, you will rapidly realise just how impossibly difficult the task is.

This comes from Act I, Sc ii, where Edmund and his father Gloster are reading and discussing a letter, supposedly written by Gloster’s bastard son Edgar, in which it is proposed that the two sons murder their father. To appreciate this tour de force it helps considerably if you know the plot.

Edmund Dear Edmund, times stink, and the proof
is oldies have ackers, but youth
must cope without cash
with nothing to splash
until we’re quite long in the tooth.
Gloster He says that, does he ? Good, bend an ear,
and I’ll comment in words that are clear
as a bell. If you list-
en You might learn.
Edmund Wouldn’t miss
 exposition from you, dad,
Gloster So here
is a case, as we see, where it’s clear
that the pain, if one’s poor, is severe.
And unless one gets rich
like me, life’s a bitch
and the goodies impossibly dear.
Ah ha! Now where are we, this raises
the question of hardship. What fazes
me is waiting for bread
till our daddy is dead
and buried and pushing up daisies.
Edmund Up daisies, up daisies, wha- what ?
He couldn’t, he didn’t, Great Scott,
well that is on the terse
side, the next bit is worse
though. Goodness !
Gloster Go on!  Read the lot. 
Yes read it.
Edmund He thinks you’re too slow
Gloster I’m what ?
Edmund You won’t go.
Gloster Won’t go where ?
Edmund That’s the drift.

So, if dad will not shift
himself from this place here below

and transfer up to heaven above
We should do what is needed to shove
him. As Edgar I sign
for myself on the line
and conclude with all brotherly love.’

Here are a few more limericks for you:

This self-same young girl called Victoria

(whose hobby could not have been gorier)
Was consigned to the flames
By a curate called James
Who then sang an improvised ‘Gloria’
(Helen Grayson)

The limerick is furtive and mean;
You must keep her in close quarantine,
Or she sneaks to the slums
And promply becomes
Disorderly, drunk and obscene.

There was a young lady from Kent
Who said that she knew what it meant
When men asked her to dine,
Gave her cocktails and wine
She knew what it meant but she went.

12, 144 + 20
+ 3(√4)
÷ 7
+ 5 x 11
= 81 + 0
(Nigel Dunn – See below for translation)

The clerihew

This is another verse form that has a strict rhyme scheme but the rhythm is rather more flexible. It was invented in 1890 or thereabouts, perhaps unsurprisingly by a gentleman of the name of Edmund Clerihew Bentley. His first clerihew is said to have been as follows:

Sir Humphry Davy
Was not fond of gravy
He lived in the odium
Of having discovered sodium.

Although very possibly the first of its kind, this is far from the best example of the genre and other writers with time on their hands have since gone on to produce far more skilled examples. Here are a couple more:

Sir Christopher Wren
Said ‘I’m going to dine with some men.’
If anyone calls
Tell them I’m designing St Paul’s.

And another I found in my notes:

Billy the Kid
Never did
For killing those guys

The structure of the clerihew consists of two phrases, each consisting of rhyming couplets and spread over two lines of indeterminate length, giving a total of four lines. The first line is the name of a person and the other three lines make a comment or observation about him (or her, technically, but strangely all the clerihews I have read seem to be about men. There must be a paper in that somewhere …)

The double dactyl

This is a variation on the clerihew, although a little more structured, and is known in the US by the name Higgledy Piggledy. The form is said to have been invented by Anthony Hecht and Paul Pascal (see references below). It consists of two quatrains each of four lines. The second line must be a person’s name and the fourth and eighth lines must rhyme. At least one line must consist of a single word only, almost always multisyllabic. Here’s an example from The Sunday Times Guide to Wordplay and Word Games:

Tweedledum Tweedledee
Alice in Wonderland
First she was tiny and
Then she was small
Argued with animals
Didn’t accept their
Conclusions at all.

And another from Helen Grayson at the University of Leeds

Opera seria
Kiri Te Kanawa
Hits all the highest notes
Never sings flat.
Would Gotterdammerung
Happen tomorrow if
Kiri got fat?

Double dactyls are as not easy to write as limericks or clerihews, especially when the sense of the poem is supposed to relate to the life of the person mentioned in the second line, although the form has found popularity on university campuses where people tend to be more used to long words and convoluted language.

Material consulted

  • Hecht A. & Pascal P., Jiggery-Pokery: A Compendium of Double Dactyls, Athenaeum, New York, 1967.
  • King G., The Sunday Times Guide to Wordplay and Word Games, Mandarin, London, 1993
  • McArthur T., The Oxford Companion to the English Language, OUP, 1992
  • Ousby I., The Cambridge Guide to Literature in English, CUP, 1993

Translation of Nigel Dunn’s limerick:

A dozen, a gross and a score
Plus three times the square root of four
Divided by seven
Plus five times eleven
Provides eighty-one, nothing more



Nifty Fifties Swifties

Published in Modern English Teacher,  ISSN 0308-0587, Vol. 10, Nº 1, 2001 , pp. 18-19

A game which developed amongst language lovers back in the fifties was based on Tom Swift, the hero in a series of boys’ adventure books who never simply ‘said’ anything, but always said it ‘morosely’, ‘resignedly’, etc. This adverbial inclination led to the ‘Tom Swiftie’, a kind of word game in which you have to link an adverb to the meaning of a phase in such a way that it has a double meaning.

For example, if poor Tom is hobbling around after a skiing accident and has mislaid his crutches we might say:

“I’ve lost my crutches”, said Tom lamely.

where the word ‘lamely’ has the double meaning of a poor excuse and the difficulty Tom experiences in walking.

If you like playing with words and their meanings this kind of thing can be immense fun and highly addictive. Like all puns the more outrageous it is the better: few Tom Swifties arise accidentally.

The Random House Dictionary of the English Language, 1st edition (1966) defines Tom Swifties thus:

Tom Swiftie, a play on words that follows an unvarying pattern and relies for its humor on a punning relationship between the way an adverb describes a speaker and at the same time refers significantly to the import of the speaker’s statement, as in “I know who turned off the lights,” Tom hinted darkly. [named after a narrative mannerism characteristic of the Tom Swift American series of adventure novels for boys].

In actual use, “Tom Swifty” seems to have a somewhat broader meaning, and includes the form sometimes called “croakers” or ‘groaners’, where a verb rather than an adverb supplies the pun, e.g.

“I’m dying”, Tom croaked.”

Who is this Tom Swifty character anyway?” asked Tom unselfconsciously.

Tom Swift first appeared in the eponymous series “Tom Swift” written by Edward L. Stratemeyer and first published in 1894 and later revived to continue (under different writers) until about 1935.

In these stories Tom never merely “said” anything; he asserted, asseverated, averred, chuckled, declared, ejaculated, expostulated, grinned (plainly or mischievously), groaned, quipped, or smiled. In particular, sentences of the form “xxx”, Tom said xxx-ly were used ad nauseam. Over time a person or persons unknown decided to satirize the mannerism by using puns, and the Tom Swifty was born.

The following examples (courtesy Mark Israel) will demonstrate how they work. Let’s start by taking an adverb such as ‘abstractly’ and look at three sample Swifties we can make:

“I like modern painting”, said Tom abstractly.

“Now that’s worth stealing”, said Tom abstractly.

“This is the first step towards my thesis”, said Tom abstractly.

Here we can relate the concept ‘abstract’ to, in turn, ‘modern art’, ‘the verb abstract’ (meaning ‘to steal’) and the kind of ‘abstract’ you make of an academic paper.

Here are some more complicated ones (with hints in brackets)

“The executioner has received the tool he needs”, said Tom with a heavy accent. (Axe end)

“Let’s all play an A, a C#, and an E”, cried the band with one accord. (A single chord consisting of the notes A, C# and E)

“I got this ballpoint pen from a Yugoslav friend”, said Tom acerbically. (A Serb BIC)

If you found these painful, the whole point of Tom Swifties is that – because they are puns – they are contrived (the more contrived the better) and make you groan rather than laugh.

In the box on the right / below / wherever you will find some more examples for your amusement – you should be able to work them out for yourself without too much trouble. Once you get the idea perhaps you might like to try and invent a few of your own. We’ll publish the best here, propriety permitting.

More Tom Swifties . . .

Here are some better known Tom Swifties. Readers of MET may have fun making up their own examples and are invited to contribute these for a follow-up issue.

  • “I seek the Great White Whale”, pronounced Captain Ahab, superficially.
  • “In the ad it says ‘3 bdrm 2 bth tel. c.h. ’ ”, said Tom aptly.
  • “I really have no idea”, replied Tom thoughtlessly.
  • “Won’t you help me get out of prison ?” said Tom balefully.
  • “Out, out, damned spot!” muttered Lady Macbeth disdainfully.
  • “I get confused with all these French street names”, complained Tom ruefully.
  • “Are you sure you wouldn’t prefer a puppy”, he asked doggedly.
  • “Can I get you a drink”, the waitress asked fetchingly.
  • “I build bridges”, he said archly.
  • “I hate fairy tales”, she declared grimly.
  • “No thanks, I’m on a diet”, he said stoutly.
  • “The results of my ECG were reassuring”, he said wholeheartedly.
  • “Watch out for the kerb”, he shouted gutturally.
  • “Would you like a Pepsi”, he asked coaxingly.
  • “You’ll find supper in the freezer”, she replied icily.
  • “I’ve bought you a negligée”, he said transparently.
  • “. . . and a lovely bikini”, he added briefly.

 And a couple more croakers …

  • “How I long for the Forest”, pined the lumberjack.
  • “My pants are too tight”, Tom burst out.

[Article continued here]