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Jagged little words: the language of Alanis Morissette

Jagged little words: the language of Alanis Morissette

If you had aspirations of being a disaffected youth in the mid-1990s, chances are you had a copy of Alanis Morissette’s album Jagged Little Pill. That’s not quite fair; you might, after all, have been the sort who dealt with angst by listening to Black Sabbath, or even bashing out Beethoven’s Fifth in moments of rage – and angry teenagers alone wouldn’t account for the 33 million copies Jagged Little Pill has sold worldwide.

Many people with that 1995 record in their CD racks might be surprised to learn that, not including compilations and live albums, Alanis Morissette has now released eight albums, the latest being 2012’s Havoc and Bright Lights. So, to celebrate her birthday on 1 June let’s find out how often she is cited in the Oxford English Dictionary’s illustrative quotations.

My money was on ‘not at all’, but this would underestimate her contribution to the English language – at the time of writing she appears once, offering what is currently the earliest known use of the expression friend with benefits (a chiefly American phrase, meaning a friend with whom one has a casual sexual relationship – or, alternatively, a lover with whom one shares an emotionally close friendship.)

Although this is the only citation of Alanis’s lyrics in the OED, at least at present, we shouldn’t come away with the conclusions that (a) she sings rather salacious songs, or (b) she isn’t innovative with language. After a bit more exploration, here are some ways in which Alanis Morissette uses the English language in interesting and unusual ways…

Syntax and suffixes

Alanis does love to play around with syntax. While some songwriters play fast and loose with the norms of sentence structure for the sake of rhyme (I’m thinking of you, “Papa don’t preach / I’m in trouble deep”), Alanis Morissette seems to revel in the effects she can create by playing around with common expressions. One of her albums is called Under Rug Swept, after all, and that’s before we get to such choice lyrics as “inside line, colouring” (‘So-Called Chaos’) and “the granted I’m taken for” (‘Wake Up’).

Another of her signature tricks is to add prefixes or suffixes to recognizable words, thus using unusual or newly-created words without any fear that the listener will be baffled. Examples include “your Jekyll and Hydeness” (‘Front Row’), “distressless” (‘So-Called Chaos’) and the song title ‘Unprodigal Daughter’, from the album Feast on Scraps (an obvious play on the expression ‘prodigal son’, derived from a Biblical parable).

In some cases, though, Alanis might have thought she was creating a new word, but others beat her to it. Another track on Feast on Scraps is called ‘Purgatorying’ – Alanis has indulged in verbification (which is, as it sounds, the creation of a verb from another part of speech – in this case, from a noun. The word verbify is itself, incidentally, an example of verbification.) Although using purgatory as a verb sounds like it could well be an Alanis-original, the OED currently dates its first use as far back as 1696. Having said that, the usage listed in the OED isn’t quite the same as that used by Alanis. While the Dictionary sense is a transitive verb – a verb that has an object – Alanis Morissette’s use is as an intransitive verb (“Don’t disturb me in this state / Please leave me purgatorying”).

Of course, the OED requires several independent examples of a word being used over a period of time, so I’m not suggesting that the intransitive verb should get into the Dictionary – but it is an example of Alanis Morissette being at least a little inventive.

Isn’t it ironic… doncha think?

The most discussed reference Alanis Morissette ever made to the sphere of English language is almost certainly the song ‘Ironic’. Comedians still occasionally give her a hard time for not understanding the ways in which irony works – a jab which is perhaps rather unfair. Irony is notoriously difficult to identify, but these are the definitions in the OED:

1) A figure of speech in which the intended meaning is the opposite of that expressed by the words used; usually taking the form of sarcasm or ridicule in which laudatory expressions are used to imply condemnation or contempt.

2) A condition of affairs or events of a character opposite to what was, or might naturally be, expected; a contradictory outcome of events as if in mockery of the promise and fitness of things.

Alanis doesn’t include any instances of the former definition in ‘Ironic’ (although the Shakespearean-inspired song ‘Doth I Protest Too Much’ from So-Called Chaos consists largely of these figures of speech) but there are many examples of the latter. Tempting though it is to quote the entire song, pointing out where Morissette’s lyrics are ironic and where they aren’t, instead I’ll just give one example of each.

“It’s like ten thousand spoons when all you need is a knife.”

Yes, that’s pretty ironic. Such a curious superfluity of spoons is ‘as if in mockery of the fitness of things’, when you’re desperate for a knife. And you might naturally expect, given so much cutlery is about, that at least one item of it would be a knife.

“It’s a black fly in your Chardonnay.”

This one’s just unfortunate, Alanis.

Mishearing Alanis

Finally, although this cannot really be attributed to Alanis Morissette, I should also mention that Jagged Little Pill included a mondegreen for me. A mondegreen is ‘a misunderstood or misinterpreted word or phrase resulting from a mishearing of the lyrics of a song’, and you can read all about them in a previous blog article.

So, what was it that I misheard? You might recall, in ‘You Oughta Know’ (track number two on Jagged Little Pill, and perhaps the angriest song on the record) Alanis sings “It’s not fair to deny me / Of the cross I bear that you gave to me”. As with ‘Unprodigal Daughter’, Alanis is using a Biblical image as a metaphor. You would think I’d have understood that, being a church-going lad. But, no, to my ears she was reprimanding her ex-inamorato with the words “It’s not fair to deny me / Of the cross-eyed bear that you gave to me”’.

If you think about it for a moment, it makes sense – her boyfriend might well have given her a teddy bear as a present, and said bear might well have been optically-challenged. Of course, if you think about for another moment, it doesn’t make much sense at all. Alanis Morissette may have been more experimental with the English language than you might expect, but even she had her limits.