What connects Katy Perry with the Biblical book of Ecclesiastes? And, before you ask, no, there's absolutely nothing in Ecclesiastes about kissing a girl. I'm talking about her other great hit "Hot N Cold." You know the one:
"You're hot then you're cold,
You're yes then you're no,
You're in then you're out,
you're up then you're..."
Can you guess the next word?
And then a whole lot more opposites. It doesn't necessarily mean very much, but godammit it works. It's a great song. It works almost as well as the lyrics of "Hello, Goodbye" by the Beatles.
"You say yes.
I say no.
You say stop and I say...
Go! Go! Go!"
Great lyrics. They don't actually mean anything of course. But they're great lyrics nonetheless. Almost as great as "You say potato and I say potato, you say tomato and I say...". Hmm... those lines rather lose something when you write them down, don't they?
My point here, is that one little trick, makes all these different hit songs hits. And that trick actually has a name. It's called progressio and people have been using it for centuries to make a memorable line. Charles Dickens used it at the opening of A Tale of Two Cities: "It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief..." and so on and so forth. And the earliest example I know of comes all the way back in Ecclesiastes Chapter 3:
"A time to be born, and a time to die; a time to plant, and a time to pluck up that which is planted; A time to kill, and a time to heal; a time to break down, and a time to build up..."
And on and on and on. Just like Katy Perry. The whole passage could be summed up as "There's a time for everything," but that wouldn't be nearly as memorable. The long series of opposites, the progressio as the Romans called it, is just a little trick that makes it sound great.
And there are loads of these tricks. Have you ever wondered why the line "Bond, James Bond" sounds so cool? I mean, there's not much content there. It's just a character saying his name. But it's one of the most famous lines in movie history. It's right up there with "Run, Forest, run" or "Fly, my pretties, fly!" or "Game over, man, game over" or "Zed's dead, baby, Zed's dead."
Do you notice a pattern forming here? I thought so. But maybe it's just a coincidence. Just four lines. Bound to happen. Right. Here we go:
Home, sweet home. Sunday, bloody Sunday. O captain, my captain. Yeah, baby, yeah. Burn, baby, burn (Disco Inferno). It was you, Fredo, I know it was you. Crisis, what crisis? Sea to shining sea. Why, God, why? To be or not to be.
Except Shakespeare knew what he was doing. You see, Shakespeare was taught rhetoric at school. So he knew that that trick was called diacope, and had been known about since the time of the Ancient Greeks. He would have had all the tricks beaten into him, and then he pulled them out when he needed them. When he wanted a good line for the climax of Richard III he wrote "A horse! A horse! My kingdom for a horse!" And when he wanted one for Romeo and Juliet he wrote "Romeo, Romeo! Wherefore art thou Romeo?" and when he wanted one for Hamlet he wrote "Villain, villain, smiling damned villain!" And when the Cardigans wanted a chorus for Lovefool they wrote "Love me, love me, say that you love me."
Because these tricks still work. It doesn't matter if you were using them deliberately, like Shakespeare, or coming across them by accident, like the Cardigans, they can make anything memorable, they can make anything beautiful. Mind you, I may be making an unfair assumption about the Cardigans there. Perhaps they did know what they were doing. The only reason I doubt it, is that the figures of rhetoric, these little tricks, aren't taught in schools any more. They should be, because they still work. They should be brought back, and that's why I decided to write a book -- The Elements of Eloquence -- listing 39 of them and explaining exactly how they work. Because if they're good enough for Shakespeare, God and Katy Perry, they're good enough for everyone.
Mark Forsyth is the author of The Elements of Eloquence: Secrets of the Perfect Turn of Phrase.
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