Literal-Minded

Linguistic commentary from a guy who takes things too literally

The Best Song in my Collection, or the Best Song, in my Collection?

Posted by Neal on February 7, 2006

There’s a song I really like on a tape I bought in 1990, a tape I never got around to replacing with a CD. And I’m certainly not going to replace it now, in this era when I can download precisely the songs I want for a dollar apiece. The trouble is that it’s been taking quite a while for this artist’s work to become available on iTunes. His latest stuff is there, but content from his back catalog has been showing up a few songs at a time, over the course of a few months. But I’m a happy music consumer today! I checked iTunes and found that the song was now on the list, ready to be downloaded.

So now I’m listening to “The Biggest Ball of Twine in Minnesota” by “Weird Al” Yankovic, and enjoying it just as much as I did when I first heard it. How can I describe it? Well, I don’t think I could put it better than this guy does:

“Twine” is the epic tale of a man’s quest for truth and happiness for himself and his family, all the while paying homage to the minutae of the lower-Middle class lifestyle as well as the true Americana spirit. What starts out at a simple family vacation ends with a man questioning the soul of humanity, and perhaps a glimpse into real bliss nirvana. It’s a fun singer-alonger-to.

Singer-alonger-to? Maybe I’ll have something to say about that in a later post. The point is, it’s a great song. But…

The semantics of the song’s title and refrain has nagged at me for 16 years, and it’s time to say something. In this song, a family takes a road trip to see the biggest ball of twine in Minnesota. They have to cross state lines (indeed, drive “straight through for three whole days and nights”) to get there, so they’re not just going to see the biggest ball of twine in their home state. A reasonable conclusion is that the biggest ball of twine in Minnesota is bigger than the biggest ball of twine in whatever state this family is from. Probably, we infer, it’s the biggest ball of twine in the United States, maybe even the world. And in fact, this inference is correct. There really is such a twine ball, in Darwin, Minnesota, and for a while it held the record for the world’s biggest ball of twine. (The signs for it now put in fine print “by 1 man” to distinguish it from a now-larger collaborative effort in Kansas.)

So why weaken the claim to fame by just calling it the biggest ball of twine in Minnesota, instead of the world? Prosodic reasons, I surmise. The title as is makes for a nice run of trochaic feet, and with Minnesota, you can rhyme go to, De Soto, diet chocolate soda, pagoda, and North Dakota.

I wonder, though: Is it possible that for Weird Al, the phrase biggest ball of twine in Minnesota actually does not have to refer to the one ball of twine in Minnesota that’s bigger than all other balls of twine in Minnesota? It seems that what he really means by this phrase is, “the biggest ball of twine anywhere, which by the way is in Minnesota.” That is, in addition to this structure for the phrase:

[biggest [ball of twine in Minnesota] ]

Weird Al can also have the following:

[ [biggest ball of twine] in Minnesota]

Can your grammar do that? Mine can’t. If it could, if it were allowed to stick on other modifiers after biggest had done its work, then I’d expect to be able to say this:

the biggest ball of twine in the world in Minnesota

and mean “the biggest ball of twine in the world, which ball happens to be located in Minnesota.” But I can’t. They only way it would work for me would be to embed it in a sentence like I saw the biggest ball of twine in the world in Minnesota, where in Minnesota modifies the verb saw, not the noun phrase.

It’s a testament to the toe-tapping beat, catchy melody, and clever lyrics of “The Biggest Ball of Twine in Minnesota” that I like it as much as I do, in spite of the flawed semantics of its title.

4 Responses to “The Best Song in my Collection, or the Best Song, in my Collection?”

  1. bearing said

    I, too, love this song, and the title has always nagged at me for the same reason.

    “and then I got all mushy inside and I fell on my knees and I cried and cried and that’s when the security guard threw us out.”

  2. Justin said

    I wouldn’t be surprised to go through Weird Al’s lyrics and discover that there were plenty more decisions made for prosody over syntax with nicely interpretable semantics. Just to take the first example that comes to mind, I’ve never been sure of exactly how to interpret the line from “Fat”:

    When I sit around the house, I really sit around the house.

    I get that the intent of this line is that the character in question is so large that he’s bigger than a house, but he couldn’t really fit “around” the house unless he was, um, doughnut-shaped (you are what you eat!?!).

    I’ve had the privilege of seeing Weird Al perform three times in the last four years, and the man goes through 10 costume changes in the course of a 1 1/2 hour show. Whatever might be said of his grammar, the man works hard to make you laugh.

    –SC

  3. Neal said

    SC:
    True about the existence of other examples, but I’d say mine was done for prosody, while and yours for the humor in the ambiguity of ‘sit around the house’. As for what the more literal parse means, I’ve always just pictured someone sitting Indian style, with their legs encircling the house.

    Weird Al is the only performer I’ve seen in concert more than once, and he’s the first and only one I saw in concert in high school. I was surprised to see my Latin teacher there.

  4. […] Here’s an example of mixed pseudo-cumlative and coordinate adjectives, from Weird Al Yankovic’s “Generic Blues” (from the same album as the song I wrote about here): […]

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