Literal-Minded

Linguistic commentary from a guy who takes things too literally

Lay Down and Throw Up Your Arms

Posted by Neal on June 24, 2012

In my last post (so very long ago!), I said that the song “Twenty One Guns” by Green Day was linguistically interesting to me for two reasons, one of them being the pronunciation of twenty one guns. The other was that it reminded me of writing chapter 2 of my dissertation. Now, over a month later, I’ve finally pulled myself out from under a pile of teaching and grading obligations and am here to finish what I had to say about “Twenty One Guns”.

So as you’ll recall, the refrain went like this:

One
Twenty-one guns
Lay down your arms
Give up the fight.

One
Twenty-one guns
Throw up your arms
Into the sky.

First of all, a correction: The chapter I was remembering was chapter 1, not chapter 2. In chapter 1 of my dissertation, I was writing about diagnostic tests for whether you have a pair of homonyms or a single word whose meaning is vague enough that it can cover the meanings you’re interested in. I summarized some of these tests from a classic work by Arnold Zwicky and Jerry Sadock (which itself was a summarization of various ambiguity tests they had seen in the literature), and one of them they called the crossed-senses test. Take a sentence like

Doug and Adam both like rock.

This could mean that my sons both like rock music, or that they are both geology enthusiasts. But how about this: Could it mean that Doug likes rock music, while Adam likes igneous, metamorphic, and sedimentary pieces of the Earth’s crust? If it can, then rock passes the crossed-senses test for these two meanings, indicating (according to the theory) that musical rock and geological rock are not homonyms, but a single word with a meaning vague enough that it encompasses both meanings of rock.

As it happens, I can’t get this crossed-senses reading, except as a joke. For comparison, if I said Doug and Adam both read a book, it could certainly be true if one read a hardback and the other a paperback. If you can’t crossed senses for both like rock, then for us at least, musical and geological rock are homonyms: separate words that happen to sound the same (and be spelled the same too). Since they’re separate words, you see, the single utterance of rock can only be one or the other.

Years after Zwicky & Sadock, a paper by Alex Lascarides, Ann Copestake, and Ted Briscoe observed that failing the crossed-senses test wasn’t enough to conclude that you had a pair of homonyms. Why? Because you get the same kind of goofiness even when you repeat that word with the two meanings. Using the rock example again:

Doug likes rock, and Adam likes rock.

Can you get the crossed senses now? I can’t. So at this point, whatever is blocking the availability of both meanings of rock, it’s not that they are homonyms instead of a single, vague word. If they’re homonyms, there should be no problem with having the geological one in the part of the sentence about Doug, and the musical one in the part about Adam. There must be something else going on, and whatever it is can also explain why Doug and Adam both like rock fails the crossed-senses test, too. For what it’s worth, LC&B argue for a pragmatics-based explanation.

Anyway, that’s what I was thinking about recently when I listened to the chorus of “Twenty-One Guns”. The plural noun arms has two meanings. In the phrase lay down your arms, it refers to weapons. In the phrase throw up your arms, it refers to the body parts between your shoulders and your hands. Now suppose we had a sentence with just one token of the word arms, but with both meanings needed; something like…

Lay down and throw up your arms.

Does it pass the crossed-senses test? No way. For me, it cannot mean to surrender your weapons and then quickly raise your arms above your head. It could mean to lie down (with the nonstandard usage of lay) and then quickly raise your arms above your head. Or it could mean to place your body-part arms on a table in front of you before raising them in the air. Or it could mean doing the same thing with your weapons. Of course, throwing up your arms could also mean vomiting them up, whether you’re regurgitating weapons that you’ve eaten, or your own arms that you previously chewed off in an act of autoanthropophagy. So the three meanings multiply out to six, but in no case can I get arms referring first to weapons and then to one’s upper limbs (or vice versa).

But unlike the example with rock, which fails the test whether you say Doug and Adam like rock or Doug likes rock and Adam likes rock, this one improves greatly when you say the word arms twice. I’d been listening to the song for a couple of years before I ever took note of the two meanings of arms coexisting in the same refrain. How does that happen?

Actually, arms doesn’t pass the crossed-senses test so easily in a sentence like this:

Lay down your arms, and throw up your arms.

I can get the crossed senses, but not as easily as I do when listening to the song. The context helps: The idiom lay down your arms always refers to surrendering your weapons, and more figuratively to “giv[ing] up the fight”. The phrase throw up your arms doesn’t have an idiomatic meaning that I’m aware of (beyond that of vomiting, as noted earlier), so that would nudge listeners toward the more literal body-part meaning. Maybe the typical hip-hop exhortation to “throw your hands in the air” (usually in a manner so as to suggest that you just don’t care) helps a bit, too. Even so, the meanings rub against each other enough to make me think about the other possible interpretations, and smile to myself.

So once again, how did the song lyrics manage to slip these two meanings of arms past the crossed-senses barrier without my noticing for all that time? My only guess at this point is that in addition to the context cues, you have those extra words in between, giving more space for the first arms activation in your brain to die down before the second one comes along. That, and the fact that Green Day sing this chorus so very slowly!

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6 Responses to “Lay Down and Throw Up Your Arms”

  1. M said

    Could it be that the “rock” example doesn’t really convey the “geology” meaning in the first place? I’m not a native English speaker and it might be a dialect thing, but I would say “rocks” in that context.
    Other examples such as “bass” (fish / musical instrument) pass the crossed senses test just like “arms”.

    • I agree. For me “Doug and Adam both like rock.” can only mean that they like a certain type of music. It cannot mean they are geology enthusiasts. That would be “Doug and Adam both like rocks.”. And we can also say “Doug and Adam both like this rock.”

      Rock for rocks can work as a non-count noun in some constructions. “There’s a lot of rock over there” is okay. I think the difference is meaning. “There’s a lot of rock over there” uses “rock” to refer to, well, rocks. A bunch of individual rocks. But “Doug and Adam both like rock” would refer to the substance, and there we need the word “stone”. “Rock” does not refer to the substance rocks are made of. Or, if we do mean rocks, not stone, the plural is needed. “Doug and Adam both like rocks.”

      That’s what’s true for me, anyway. And I am a native speaker.

      • Neal said

        Rock as a mass noun is fine in my grammar, but no matter: If that example doesn’t work for you, feel free to replace it with Doug and Adam both like metal.

  2. Ben said

    “Of course, throwing up your arms could also mean vomiting them up, whether you’re regurgitating weapons that you’ve eaten, or your own arms that you previously chewed off in an act of autoanthropophagy.”

    I love you.

    Greenday have always been good at ambiguous lyrics though. I think confusable meanings appeals to Billy Joe. The one that immediately jumps to mind is “another turning point // a fork stuck in the road”.

  3. Glen said

    “Throw up your arms” isn’t a standing idiom to me, but “throw up your hands” definitely is. If your throw up your hands, you’re saying the situation is futile so you’re giving up. (A typical context would be an argument with someone who is intransigent.) So I suspect that idiomatic meaning is assisting in allowing the song to pass the crossed-senses test. And I agree that the intervening words also help a lot. If those two sentences had been adjacent to each other, I certainly would’ve noticed the two different uses of ‘arms’.

  4. I hadn’t noticed this before. It really makes you think about the lyrics more carefully. A very interesting article!

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