Unlike literature, pop music tends not to last — the melody of a song is catchy for a while, the chorus gets into your head for a few days at most, and then it's on to the next song.
The fact that popular music can be so disposable makes the achievement of a band like The Beatles all the more impressive. June 1st marks the 50th anniversary of one of their greatest albums, Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band. On this album, The Beatles proved beyond a shadow of a doubt that they were not limited to love songs, or constrained by any topic at all. It is this freedom of expression that makes Sgt. Pepper's so interesting to talk about from a linguistic point of view.
For more language from the lyrics, check out: Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Heart's Club Band Tribute List
The language mysteries of "Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds" only deepen on repeated listenings. The character the singer of the song seems to be searching for during the song is a "girl with kaleidoscope eyes."
A kaleidoscope is a tubular toy filled with mirrors and colorful materials that you hold to your eye and turn to create ever changing patterns. Its inventor put together some Greek elements to capture the essence of his entertaining toy, kalos, "beautiful" + eidos, "shape" combined with the -scope from telescope. Kaleidoscope eyes sound cool, but they would probably get exhausting after awhile, like when you just wanted to see what was in front of you, or comb your hair.
Two other words in "Lucy" refer to materials. The "cellophane flowers of yellow and green" are thin and transparent. The first element of cellophane is from the material it's made of, cellulose, with the Greek-derived -phane, meaning "having the appearance of." There's another song, "Mr. Cellophane" from the musical Chicago (lyrics by Fred Ebb), which really drives home the inconsequential nature of the stuff:
Cellophane, Mister Cellophane
Shoulda been my name
‘Cause you can look right through me
Walk right by me and never know I'm there.
The "plasticine porters" are train workers who aren't very secure because plasticine is an easily moldable material, like clay. You can see "plastic" inside plasticine and that's a good way to think of it — bendable, without definite shape. Between the vision of "the girl with kaleidoscope" eyes constantly changing, "plasticine porters" and the "rocking horse people" eating "marshmallow pies," Lucy-in-the-Sky-land is populated with a bunch of less than stable characters.
In "When I'm Sixty-Four" the singer says that to rent their cottage on the Isle of Wight, he and his listener will "scrimp and save." Scrimp was originally an adjective meaning "meager, very little in amount", which gives you an idea what a dream this cottage is for the singer. As a verb, scrimp means that they will have to save every last penny in order to afford the vacation home — cut corners, clip coupons, go without things they might enjoy in the short term to keep their eyes on the bigger goal.
So, say you're in love with this meter maid. You're sure that you are a perfect pair, and have even begun referring to the two of you (in your head, anyway) as an "us" as in, "Lovely Rita, Meter Maid/nothing can come between us/when it gets dark I tow your heart away…" The question is, even if you are bubbling up with feelings for Rita, how do you approach her to ask her out for the first time? Paul McCartney, in "Lovely Rita" has some sage advice for those in this predicament:
May I inquire discreetly
When are you free
to take some tea with me?
Discreetly means "with self restraint, wisely" and is the exact opposite of how the narrator of the song is feeling on the inside — in his head, he's already captured her heart, but in real life, they don't know each other, so he has started slowly, simply asking her to tea. No one can stop you from imagining an entire future with women in crisp uniforms, but please act with wise restraint when asking them on dates. Act discreetly! (By the way, this discreet is not to be confused with its homonym discrete, which means "separate" or "divided" — you'll often hear about dividing something complicated, like a piece of machinery, into discrete parts.)
The Beatles were adventurous, ground-breaking musicians and lyricists. For their contribution to endure for so long, however, there has to be something to the music beyond the risks they took. One of the keys to longevity of The Beatles lies in the way those amorphous images pile up in "Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds", and the way the -ee vowel sounds pile up in "Lovely Rita": "discree(tly), free , tea, me." It's in the way Paul says "scrimp" and "Chuck" in "When I'm Sixty-Four." It's in Ringo's tease in "A Little Help From My Friends" about what he sees when he turns out the light: "I can't tell you but I know it's mine." The audience's familiarity with them created a kind of creative freedom for The Beatles — the biggest band in the world could try anything and many people would follow them anywhere. The fact that that they capitalized on this freedom both musically and linguistically is a testament to their collective talent.
Adam Cooper studied linguistics at Brandeis University and The University of Chicago. Since 2010, he has been working with The Endangered Language Alliance in New York City on documentation and preservation projects.Click here to read other articles by Adam Cooper
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