Sunday, March 26, 2017

Brian Hyland – “Itsy Bitsy Teenie Weenie Yellow Polkadot Bikini” (1960)

Two, three, four
Tell the people what she wore

Did you know that if you use multiple adjectives to modify a noun, there is a rule about the order in which those adjectives must appear?  

Well, there is.  Adjectives that express a general opinion about a noun (“beautiful” or “nice”) should appear before adjectives that express a specific opinion (“wet” or “rough”). 

Adjectives relating to size, age, shape, color, origin, material, and purpose follow – in that order.

You probably have never been taught that rule.  But I’m guessing you never violate it.

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The artist formerly known as Prince followed the rule: his 1983 hit is titled “Little Red Corvette”– not “Red Little Corvette.” 

I wonder if that song inspired the recent senior thesis of a certain linguistics student, who searched something called the Corpus of Contemporary American English – which contains 450 million words published over the last 25 years – and found 382 examples of  “big red [noun]” but zero examples of “red big [noun].”

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Here’s an acronym that might help you remember the proper order of different types of adjectives: GSSSACPM (General opinion, Specific opinion, Size, Shape, Age, Color, Provenance, Material).  

Then again, it might not.

It turns out that the adjectival sequence that English speakers follow is the same sequence followed by speakers of other languages.  For some reason, humans need “big” to precede “red,” and not vice versa.

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So why is it “big bad wolf,” and not “bad big wolf”?  After all, the GSSSACPM rule dictates that general-opinion adjectives (like “bad”) precede size-related adjectives (like “big”).

It turns out there is another rule you’ve never heard of – the rule of ablaut reduplication.  (That’s a mouthful, isn’t it?)

If a word or syllable is repeated exactly (“bye-bye,” “choo-choo,” “pee-pee”), it’s called an exact reduplication.

Examples of rhyming reduplications include “super-duper,” “razzle-dazzle,” and “hoity-toity.”

The two parts of ablaut reduplications are identical except for the vowels: “chit-chat,” “flip-flop,” and “zig-zag” are examples.  (“Ablaut” means “change of vowel.”)

The first vowel in an ablaut reduplication is a high vowel (where the tongue is held near the roof of the mouth), while the second vowel is a low vowel (where the tongue is held near the bottom of the mouth).

That’s why it’s “flip-flop” – not “flop-flip” . . . and “ding-dong” – not “dong-ding.”  (Just try to say “flop-flip” and “dong-ding” . . . it’s not easy, is it?)

So it’s “big bad wolf” – not “bad big wolf.”

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I considered a lot of songs to feature in this post.

I could have chosen a song title that included an exact reduplication, like Louis Jordan’s “Choo-Choo Ch’Boogie.”

And there are plenty of rhyming reduplication songs – like “Boogie Woogie Bugle Boy” by the Andrews Sisters, or the famous children’s song, “The Hokey Pokey.” 

I could have done an ablaut reduplication song like Bobby Darin’s “Splish Splash, or “Ding Dong! The Witch Is Dead” from The Wizard of Oz.

But I chose a song that illustrates the GSSSACPM rule (which says that an adjective relating to size should precede an adjective relating to color), and also includes a couple of rhyming reduplications.

Brian Hyland’s “Itsy Bitsy Teenie Weenie Yellow Polkadot Bikini” hit #1 on the Billboard “Hot 100” in August 1960.  

Paul Vance and Lee Pockriss co-wrote the song, which Vance said was inspired by his daughter’s refusal to wear a bikini in public.  Vance described the song as a “money machine,” and said it had earned him several million dollars in royalties.  

Vance and Pockriss also co-wrote “Catch a Falling Star” and “Leader of the Laundromat.”

Here’s “Itsy Bitsy Teenie Weenie Yellow Polkadot Bikini”:

Click here to buy the song from Amazon:

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