Literal-Minded

Linguistic commentary from a guy who takes things too literally

Hating All But the Right Folks

Posted by Neal on February 15, 2007

We’re fifteen days into February, so no matter whether you’re counting lines on a calendar page or individual days, we’re now into the third week of February. You know what that means: It’s National Brotherhood Week!

Actually, you probably didn’t know that. It’s not publicized like Valentine’s Day, Groundhog Day, Black History Month, or the holiday that replaced the observation of George Washington’s and Abraham Lincoln’s birthdays. I learned NBW was the third week in February only after reading almost all the way down in the Wikipedia entry I linked to earlier. So how did I know about NBW in the first place? The same way that you probably know about it, if you do: the Tom Lehrer song by that name. I got the LP with that song on it back in 1984; got the same album on CD a decade later; put the song on my MP3 player a decade after that. But it was only last year, when I played the song for Doug, that I realized I’d been misparsing one of the lines in it for all that time. It’s in the first verse, which goes like this:

Oh, the white folks hate the black folks,
And the black folks hate the white folks;
To hate all but the right folks
Is an old established rule.

I was taking to hate all but the right folks in the same way as I might take to work all but the right problems. You know, like when the teacher assigns you to work all the even-numbered problems on a page in your math textbook (because the even ones don’t have the answers written in the back), but you goof and work the odd-numbered ones. In other words, to interpret the right problems, you have to supply an understood verb from the immediately preceding context, to arrive at the meaning “the right problems to work”, a phenomenon known as ellipsis. So I interpreted to hate all but the right folks to mean “to hate all the folks except the right folks to hate”.

When I first heard the song, I didn’t know exactly what it meant to hate everyone except who you really should be hating, or what was supposed to be funny about the line. I just took it to be one of the many topical-in-1965 jokes in the album that I didn’t get. For example, I didn’t catch on when Tom Lehrer talked about Massachusetts having three senators until I learned more about Robert F. Kennedy many years later. I didn’t get it when he sang, “Even in Egypt, the pharaohs had to import Hebrew braceros” until the late 90s, when I read a newspaper article that told me what a bracero was.

The problem was that in 1984, I wasn’t familiar with the more specialized, racist/classist meaning of right. Unlike the right which teams up with an infinitive to modify any noun, as in the right problems to work, this right modifies only nouns that refer to people and does not team up with an infinitive. It comes with its own understood verb, so that the right people/folks means something like, “the right people to associate with”. Sometime in the past 20-some years I learned this meaning for right, but never reexamined the line from the song in light of this knowledge until last year.

Now the line makes much more sense: To hate all but the people it’s proper and fitting to associate with is indeed an old established rule. But it doesn’t have to be that way. This week, let’s all follow Lehrer’s exhortation to “be nice to people who are inferior to you”! Tell me: Who will you be nice to?

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5 Responses to “Hating All But the Right Folks”

  1. Eric said

    Tom Lehrer wrote my favorite short linguistics-related poem:

    I cannot distinguish
    some phonemes in Enguish
    which causes me anguish
    in learning the languish

  2. Bob said

    I don’t know about you, but –

    I’m spending Hanukkah
    In Santa Monica,
    Lighting candles in my sandals by the sea;
    I spend Shavuos
    In East St. Louis,
    A lovely spot, but clearly not the spot for me.
    Those eastern winters,
    I can’t endure ‘em
    So every year I pack my gear
    And come out here ’til Purim ….

    The man is a genius. He’s alive, you know, and living in Santa Cruz.

  3. Neal said

    Thanks for the Lehrernalia. I hadn’t heard either of those. Eric: Is there a story behind the linguistics poem? And do you have a least-favorite short linguistics-related poem?

  4. [...] incorrect, ‘National Brotherhood Week’ (lyrics | track) (wonderfully parsed here); with the rousing last verse: But during National Brotherhood Week, National Brotherhood Week, [...]

  5. [...] jokes by swapping one for the other. In his album That Was the Year That Was (the same one with “National Brotherhood Week”), Tom Lehrer sang about New Math (or as they call it now, math). In the refrain, he declared, [...]

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