When words die from overuse
Nicholson Baker once wrote an essay on the omnipresence, a century ago, of a word usage we never see anymore: lumber, used in reference to the contents of our minds. Lately, I have been interested in a phrase that was everywhere in the 19th century but has long since fallen out of use: after the ball.
In linguistic terms, the phrase is a listeme, or a group of words that, being strung together, have the lexical status of a single word. (The linguists Anna Maria Di Sciullo and Edwin Williams coined the term; other examples are kick the bucket and in the dark.) After the ball used to mean, essentially, ‘after the party’s over’—an equivalent to the modern phrase ‘the morning after’, albeit social rather than intimate and romantic rather than sexual. Newspaper headlines—a genre that makes an odd poetry from familiar expressions—frequently featured the phrase. (They even used it for crime stories: ‘After the Ball a Bullet’, ‘Murdered After the Ball’, ‘Stabbed After the Ball’.) Language historians often discuss how specific words drop out of use; the question of how whole listemes drop out of use, especially ones so prevalent as to be cliché, is less often asked.
Many the hopes that have vanished
After the ball presents an interesting case because it appears to have died from overuse. The immediate cause was a song titled ‘After the Ball’, first published in 1892, which is often described as Tin Pan Alley’s first smash hit. (It was the first song from Tin Pan Alley to reach sheet sales of one million, and it eventually sold over five million copies; this in an era in which sheet sales of a few thousand constituted a hit.) Like many Tin Pan Alley songs from the 19th century, ‘After the Ball’ uses a waltz meter and a verse-chorus structure; of interest here are not the song’s verses (which tell the story of a man who drives away a sweetheart he mistakenly believes to be false), but rather the chorus, which, musically, is incredibly catchy:
After the ball is over,
After the break of morn,
After the dancers’ leaving;
After the stars are gone;
Many a heart is aching,
If you could read them all;
Many the hopes that have vanished
After the ball.
Popular music often builds choruses around phrases from the media or colloquial speech. It would appear, in this case, that the very success of the song ‘After the Ball’ killed the listeme after the ball. Following the song’s explosive rise, newspapers used the phrase almost exclusively to refer to the song; afterward, uses of the phrase vanished altogether, apparently as everyone grew tired of the song. (Oversaturation still happens today. Justin Timberlake has said that he feared his song 2006 song ‘SexyBack’ had become overused when Al Gore walked onstage at an awards show and said, “MTV explained to me that Justin Timberlake is bringing sexy back, so here I am.”)
The bandwagon effect may have hastened the song’s cultural saturation. The historian Ben Yagoda notes that a hit from 1909, ‘Meet Me Tonight in Dreamland’, set off a deluge of songs with dream titles, such as ‘When I Met You Last Night in Dreamland’. The same went for ‘After the Ball’, which soon inspired imitators: for example, ‘The Fatal Night of the Ball’.
Take Me Out to the Ball Game
My pet theory is that one of the imitators of ‘After the Ball’ was a song that is now far better known: ‘Take Me Out to the Ball Game’ (1908). Forget, for the moment, the coincidence of the word ball, which has different origins depending on whether the meaning is social gathering (from the Old French baller, to dance) or a spherical object (from the Old Norse bollr, spherical object). The interest here lies in the melodic similarities of the songs’ choruses.
I asked the music historian Erika Honisch whether she could identify similarities between the songs from a formal perspective. She noted that both songs are in a waltz-like triple meter—and, indeed, both are to be performed ‘in waltz time’ (Tempo di Valse). The choruses—both cast in the 32-bar form standard for Tin Pan Alley—unfold in regular four-bar phrases. But something more about the choruses, something their tunes have in common, pricks the ears of the keen listener.
The resemblances are clearest at the start and end. The four-bar phrase that begins each chorus opens with an ascending leap and closes with a descending fourth over two bars. Easier to hear is the melodic movement at the end of each chorus. ‘Take Me Out to the Ballgame’ famously rises by step on the words ‘the old ball game’, from the fifth scale degree, to the sixth, the seventh, and at last to the eighth—the tonic, or ‘home’ pitch. This striking gesture, easy to sing and immensely satisfying at the end of a seventh-inning warble, also features (mutatis mutandis) in the closing phrase of ‘After the Ball’. And they share a basic harmonic progression.
There are real differences, to be sure: the key (higher in ‘Ball Game’), the method by which the songs avoid monotony in the middle of the chorus (a sentimental harmonic turn in ‘After the Ball’ and a propulsive stepwise ascent in ‘Ballgame’). But even with these differences, which suit the different scenarios each song evokes, the melodies share striking similarities. “These might well be the by-products of a famously formulaic genre,” said Honisch, “but they might alternatively be the result of a savvy composer listening to a recent hit, and identifying—and intensifying or exaggerating—its most infectious qualities.”
Perhaps the dedication to formula that drove Tin Pan Alley made it likely that any song would sound like another. (Voicing a common sentiment, one critic complained that the music of Tin Pan Alley was “familiar even before one hears the song for the first time; the style is similar to thousands of other songs written before (and after) this particular song”.) But the fact of both songs passing through the same factory system makes the different fates of their catchphrases a puzzle. The alchemy by which the same cultural forces affect units of language differently—by which the act of being set to catchy music gives life to one catchphrase while extinguishing the other forever—may always be a mystery. Still, this changeover reminds us what philology often teaches: that cultural forms don’t die so much as transform. To borrow a phrase, we often think that we have hatched something new, only to find the eggshells of the old still clinging to it.