Imagine this: you’re Tim Minchin. You’re writing a song. It’s about love and the pull of home. You want to list your faraway family members. How to organise the list? It matters. There’s a surprising emotional power to the first and the last in a list, especially in song.
Here are a few options (using the family members that Tim names):
- …my mum, my brother and sisters, my dad and my gran
- … my brother and sisters, my gran, my mum and my dad
- …my dad, my brother and sisters, my gran and my mum
- …my gran, my dad, my brother and sisters and my mum
You’re looking for emotional power, a vivid sound picture and a pleasing rhythm to your words. Where you place gran is surprisingly important to the balance of the group.
How does Tim choose to arrange his family? Listen:
Why is mum the perfect final word for the line? The Tardis word? Because:
- Try saying the word mum. The rounded m is wonderfully, satisfyingly, soft and ‘bouncy.’ Dad doesn’t have the same effect – d is a harder sound.
- Mama is the first word that babies say, the world over. Mum or mama is a word that’s close to all our hearts.
- We can all imagine travelling a long way to get back home to our mum. The word taps into the primal feeling of seeking security and safety that we all had as babies.
- The u in mum is made by just opening your mouth between the cosy m sounds and letting the breath out. No effort, just an easy out-breath cuddled between two soft pillows of m sounds.
- Mum is a pet word. Short for mummy. The word mother wouldn’t have drawn us so close to the emotion of the song. Mummy would have sounded odd coming out of the mouth of an adult. Too personal and too private. Too posh.
- Placing mum at the end of the list means that Tim can pass the idea of travelling back to safety and security forwards onto his own children, in the future. Gran wouldn’t have worked as well for that.
- Gran might have worked as the final word in Tim’s family list if he were known to be a childless orphan. Gran has a soft, cosy feel to it – it ends in a soft n. But mum trumps gran for Tim.
- In Tim’s list, knowing that he has father and mother, gran would have been a less powerful last word. It unbalances the family list. The audience would be expecting grandad to appear too. They’d be distracted when he didn’t.
- Putting dad at the beginning of the list and mum at the end embraces the whole family neatly. They act like bookends.
I could go on (yes, I really could) but you get the idea. Mum‘s another one of those useful tiny words that carries a whole emotional world folded inside it. Ready to unfurl in the listener’s mind.
I doubt if Tim plotted his list as strategically as that, but, once things began to fall into place, especially with the possibility of the sun/mum rhyme, he will have recognised how perfectly the word mum, placed at the end of the family list, boosted the emotional charge of his song. Tim’s a master wordsmith.
Once Tim placed mum at the end of the line, he would have heard how well she worked there. If he’d placed mum in the middle of his family list, he would have smothered the word’s emotional power under the weight of brothers and sisters.
The power of a list is often in its beginning or at its end. Choose word order wisely. Words are never simply lexical items in English. Each word is a whole world. Even the tiny ones.
© Sing Better English, 2014