Friday, June 12, 2009

Not Just Whistling Dixie

There are a few beliefs which can reliably cause arguments on teh internets. Writing about the plural of 'octopus' for instance, will get any party started. Creationism and evolution do very well. Calling your opponent a Nazi is so common and so well known that there's a law about it - Godwin's Law, which states that as any thread lengthens, the probability of someone comparing someone else to Hitler approaches one.

A lesser known but very amusing argument is the one comparing Joan Baez' version of The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down with The Band's version.

The Band, writing about the Civil War, sing:
Back with my wife in Tennessee, when one day she called to me,
Virgil, quick, come see, there goes Robert E. Lee!

Joan Baez, for unknown reasons sings:
Back with my wife in Tennessee, when one day she said to me,
Virgil, quick, come see, there goes the Robert E. Lee!

The use of the definite article is, how shall I put this, incorrect. One does not use 'the' with a proper name in that kind of sentence. The usage gives the impression she's singing about the Robert E. Lee, a steamboat, star of the song Waiting for the Robert E. Lee.

Recently, this surfaced on rec.arts.sf.written. People staked out most of the usual positions.

1. Joan Baez heard it incorrectly and sang it in good faith
2. Joan Baez couldn't speak English properly
3. Joan Baez thought it was a song about a steamboat
4. It's perfectly correct to use "the" with Robert E. Lee! You can say, "Are you the Lyle Hopwood?" And people nowadays call Donald Trump "The Donald"! Duh!

The last two are the most amusing, really, aren't they?

Always good for a debate, that song.

The indefinite article has caused problems too. Look at the retconning of "One small step for man, one giant leap for mankind". Apparently, when asked in 1971 whether the tape was voice-activated and had simply choked off the "a" before "man", Armstrong replied, 'We'll never know."

I'm sure if he doesn't, no one does.

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