You can’t get no ways…

… if you don’t know the phrase. An exercise in cartoon understanding that came to me from Facebook connections, but without any credit to the artist:


If you don’t recognize It don’t mean a thing as part of a particular formulaic expression, you’re screwed; the cartoon is incomprehensible.

On the other hand, if you recognize it as the beginning of the song title It Don’t Mean a Thing (If It Ain’t Got That Swing), then you can see that it’s a joke reference to the missing swing in the cartoon.

The task presented by #1 is a lot like the one I taked about in my 3/13/19 posting “Car wash cartoon understanding”, which crucially depends on your knowing the catchphrase The devil is in the detail(s), although that one requires that you put together the Devil and the detailing of cars as topics, while this one is a more straightforward formula-completion exercise.

I was at first outraged that, apparently, once again someone had posted a cartoon without crediting the cartoonist. But then I recognized the style as New Yorker cartoonist Bruce Eric Kaplan’s — he has a Page on this blog — and found the original, which is a lot easier to understand:

(#2) Aha! BEK in the 4/20/92 New Yorker

If you don’t know the song title, this one is comprehensible, but only mildly entertaining; the title enriches the experience.

Another bash at the BEK. This time some transposition/Spooneristic word play from Mark Stivers (who also has a Page on this blog):


The song. From Wikipedia:

“It Don’t Mean a Thing (If It Ain’t Got That Swing)” is a 1931 composition by Duke Ellington, whose lyrics were written by Irving Mills. It is now accepted as a jazz standard, and jazz historian Gunther Schuller characterized it as “now legendary” and “a prophetic piece and a prophetic title.”

The music was composed and arranged by Ellington in August 1931 during intermissions at Chicago’s Lincoln Tavern and was first recorded by Ellington and his orchestra for Brunswick Records (Br 6265) on February 2, 1932. After Mills wrote the lyrics, Ivie Anderson sang the vocal and trombonist Joe Nanton and alto saxophonist Johnny Hodges played the instrumental solos. The song became famous, Ellington wrote, “as the expression of a sentiment which prevailed among jazz musicians at the time.” Ellington credited the saying as a “credo” of his former trumpeter, Bubber Miley, who was dying of tuberculosis at the time [a credo crying out for authenticity]

A spirited 1943 performance of the standard by Duke Ellington and his orchestra:


And two performances by Ella Fitzgerald (two, because Ella):

(#5) Fitzgerald in 1957, when she was in her late 30s

(#6) Fitzgerald in 1974, when she was about 60 (with a playful introduction by her)

(I saw her perform live in the early 1960s.)

A note on 3sg don’t and on ain’t. Both are features of what you might call  Working Class Vernacular English, occurring across regions and racial/ethnic groups throughout North America and many other parts of the English-speaking world, though the details of course vary from situation to situation. The point in the current context is that though the features are general in AAVE — an AAVE speaker who doesn’t use them ain’t got that swing — they aren’t diagnostic of it.

Truncation as a communicative strategy. Quoting the beginning of the song title can convey the whole thing, along with its meaning (as appropriate to the context of quotation). Earlier on this blog…

First, from my 3/29/18 posting “Bits of culture”, on a Sam Anderson NYT column about Morgan Parker’s poem ‘There Are More Beautiful Things Than Beyoncé’:

Filling in the reference. Anderson gives four examples of formulaic expressions (a proverb, a classic limerick, two lines from familiar songs) that can easily be “filled in” given their beginnings, plus the Gershwin song from Parker’s poem [“Summertime, and the living is [easy]”]

For any one of these, you could say, or write, the initial part as set-up and convey either the following part or the content of the entire formula, as tacit pay-off. When the moon hits your eye can convey ‘That’s love’. You can lead a horse (to) can convey ‘You can’t force someone to do something they don’t want to’. There once was a man from can convey ‘Fuck it!’.

There’s a conversational strategy here: producing just the beginning of a formula can convey the whole thing; conversational truncation — just truncation, for short — is an effort-saving scheme (and also serves to bond speaker and hearer socially, through their sharing the materials of culture).

Such nonce truncations (as I called them in a 3/7/10 posting here) are very common. A few examples from the many in my files (mostly based on idioms):

[in a Cold Case episode] You think he had a snowball’s chance [in hell]?

Law & Order S12 E9 “3 Dawg Night” (2001), cop: “Why not kill two birds [with one stone]?

Law & Order S4 E4: ‘Everyone swears on a stack [of bibles]: perfect marriage”

take a load off [your feet] – heard on a CSI re-run 5/24/16

I get the motivation from my boys winning, never did it with a co-sign / We built the whole machine, we go the whole nine [yards] – lyrics to “The Whole Nine” by Packy

They really went above and beyond [the call of duty] – TripAdvisor review of The Fairmount Express in Victoria BC

Then, in my 3/3/19 posting “The MetaCat”, harking back to that 3/7/10 posting “Nonce truncations”, about truncations that are deployed by individual speakers/writers “for the nonce”, for the sake of brevity, in contexts where the omitted material can be supplied by hearers/readers — notably in fixed expressions:

A favorite example of mine comes from the British detective series Midsomer Murders (S14 E4 “The Oblong Murder”)”, DCI (Detective Chief Inspector) John Barnaby to his DS (Detective Sergeant) Benjamin Jones, urging Jones to take on a task:
England expects, Jones. [supply: that every man will do his duty]

Exquisitely dependent on context and shared background knowledge (in this case, of Admiral Nelson’s signal to his troops at Trafalgar in 1805).


One Response to “You can’t get no ways…”

  1. kenru Says:

    The truncated original immediately gave me a semi-permanent earworm and a smile.

Leave a Reply

%d bloggers like this: