Silly Questions: Can you can't make sense?

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THE etymology and grammar of song lyrics have been exercising the minds of our correspondents over the past week, starting with 'a wop bop a loo bop a lop bam boom'.

The talent to compose such lyrics, says Stuart Cockerill, is 'latent within all of us, but generally withers during pre- infancy.' He claims that it may be revived by a classical education and chemical stimulation. Nicholas Gough takes a similar viewpoint, attributing the popularity of such lyrics to their being 'akin to sounds heard by the human foetus in the womb . . . the sounds of the maternal heartbeat mixed with external noises, filtered through the amniotic fluid to the perceptive embryo.'

Mrs B Atkins Smart refers us to page 19 of Mrs Hinkley's Typewriter Exercises for Technical Schools on which the very expression 'a wop bop a loo bop a lop bam boom' may be found. Her husband, she says, attributes it to the result of impoverished songwriters sharing typewriters, each using half the keys.

'Is you is or is you ain't my baby' is, if we understand Mr Cockerill correctly, a Creole version of an old Leeds lullaby: 'Be tha be, or be tha bain't one's infant,' although this contributes little towards a solution of the conjugatory intricacies of the verb.

According to R J Pickles, the key lies in the words 'is or is' which are, he says, 'a cleverly concealed anagramatic reference to the Egyptian deity Osiris, husband and brother of Isis and reputed father of Horus. The question carries a suggestion that the father of Horus may be Set, brother of Isis and Osiris.' The line 'Guess my flame in your heart done gone out' is an expression of Osiris's doubt concerning his wife's fidelity. Unfortunately, Mr Pickles's research grant ran out before the Child Support Agency could be contacted.

N Edwards, however, says it is all very simple. 'The verb 'to be be', is an echolalic form of the verb 'to be' conjugating I am am, you are are, he is is and so on. Its emphatic form, I do be, you do be, he does be, gives rise to the popular lyrical cry do-be-do. Your questioner clearly confuses this with the third person dittographic verb 'to be is' used in the lyric quoted.

'This conjugates I am is, you are is, he is is. The more demotic form, you is is, becomes, in its interrogative present indicative, is you ain't. 'Guess my flame in your heart did done gone out' as suggested by your question, would be a solecism, to say the least.'

The question of why dancers always rotate clockwise (or anti-clockwise, depending which way you look at them) is dismissed trivially by Stuart Cockerill: 'It is quite wrong to credit this phenomenon to the Coriolis force which works along the plane perpendicular to the bilaterals of motion and rotation, and can only explain jive, hip-hop and break-dancing. In fact the motion is entirely Brownian, being caused by particulate excitement within the thermo-couple.

'The clockwise default is produced by a combination of P-Q asymmetry and the optical mono-isomerism of ballroom dancers.' In view of this, we must discount the suggestions of those readers who thought it was something to do with people being predominantly right- handed.

This week's problems: Why do penguins (as in Batman or The Wrong Trousers) always seem to be portrayed as criminal elements? (D Howell). Why do the wood pigeons of Stratford-upon-Avon persist in crying 'Bravo, Sid'? (Dr M K Alexander, who has sought in vain for an answer in the works of the bard). Why is 'long' a shorter word than 'short'? (Raymond Read). All answers and further bemusements to: Silly Questions, The Independent, 40 City Road, London EC1Y 2DB.

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