There was a singer had a dog

The Epiphany Rhymes With Orange is an exercise in cartoon understanding:


Without the title and the comment balloon (on the left), the cartoon is still compensible, and funny — this material adds some extra humorous depth — but none of it works at all unless you know the song.

The song. The first verse, which gives the song in full (from the Beth’s Notes site for music educators):


Then from Wikipedia:

“Bingo”, also known as “Bingo Was His Name-O”, “There Was a Farmer Had a Dog”, or informally “B-I-N-G-O”, is an English language children’s song of obscure origin. Additional verses are sung by omitting the first letter sung in the previous verse and clapping instead of actually saying the word.

So, the third verse (the one in #1) goes:

There was a farmer had a dog,
and Bingo was his name-o.
And Bingo was his name-o.

It’s a kids’ song, so most of the recordings are performed by annoying children. Here’s an intriguing variant, the Desmond Dennis R&B remix, which you can watch here (#3).

(The Wikipedia entry has considerable information on antecedents and variants for the song as we know it now.)

Subject zero relatives. Aka subject contact relatives. The topic of the Yale Grammatical Diversity Project: English in North America entry, Tom McCoy’s “Subject contact relatives” (2016):

A subject contact relative is a construction construction where the subject is immediately followed by a phrase describing it (without the phrase being introduced by who, which or that). This is illustrated by the bolded part of:

(1) There’s a girl wants to see you.

In standard English, sentence (1) could be paraphrased as:

(2) There’s a girl who wants to see you


… Subject contact relatives are observed in many different varieties of English. In North America, they are a property of Appalachian English (Wolfram & Christian 1976), Ozark English (Elgin & Haden 1991), African American English (Green 2002), and Newfoundland English (Clarke 2004). They have also been observed in the British Isles in Hiberno English (Doherty 1993, 2000) and Belfast English (Henry 1995).

… [Knud] Lambrecht’s observations suggest that this construction [functioning with presentational function] might be more widespread than popularly believed, and it might simply be stigmatized so that most speakers do not realize that they themselves use it on occasion.

(There are a fair number of performances of “Bingo” in which the initial line is prissily corrected to “There was a farmer who had a dog”.)

Crucial bibliography:

Knud Lambrecht. “There was a farmer had a dog: Syntactic amalgams revisited” (Berkeley Linguistics Society 14, 1988)

Cathal Doherty, The Syntax of Subject Contact Relatives (UC Santa Cruz PhD dissertation, 1993)

Digression: personalia. Lambrecht, who died recently, was a keenly observant scholar of language in discourse context, and also a wonderful, charming colleague; I miss him. From the Linguistic Society of America’s “In Memoriam: Knud Lambrecht, 1939-2019”, on 11/1/19:

The LSA is saddened to announce the passing of former LSA member Knud Lambrecht, who was a Professor Emeritus of French Linguistics at the University of Texas at Austin, and passed away on September 6, 2019, at the age of 80.

Lambrecht was highly regarded by his students and colleagues as a dedicated and caring teacher with a charming sense of humor and a love of multilingual puns.

Doherty, meanwhile, is now Fr. Cathal Doherty SJ, assoc. prof. of theology at USF.

Bonus note: NGO. As it happens, verse 3 of “Bingo” gives us the letter sequence N-G-O, which would be available for word play, but the cartoonists chose not to do so. NGO is an initialistic abbreviation for nongovernmental organization — but what’s conveyed by NGO is vastly more than ‘organization that is not part of the government’, a definition that would take in, among other things, the LSA, the Linguistic Society of America; BASH, the Bay Area Sacred Harp organization; soc-motss, the (closed) Facebook group for lgbt people and their friends; and the group blog Language Log (just choosing organizations I have some connection to). None of these is part of the government, but none of them counts as an NGO.

As usual, the whole semantic story for the expression crucially involves the functions of the referent. In a complex way, but crucially. From the on-line Britannica article:

Nongovernmental organization (NGO), voluntary group of individuals or organizations, usually not affiliated with any government, that is formed to provide services or to advocate a public policy [these being among the functions of governmental agencies]. Although some NGOs are for-profit corporations, the vast majority are nonprofit organizations. Some NGOs, particularly those based in authoritarian countries, may be created or controlled by governments. By most definitions, political parties and criminal or violent guerrilla organizations are not considered NGOs.

(Organizations, just not the right kind.)

2 Responses to “There was a singer had a dog”

  1. Eamonn McManus Says:

    Cathal Doherty SJ is at USF, a Jesuit-run university, not UCSF. I only noticed because my partner also went to USF. Cathal, of course, is one of those Irish forenames that makes non-Irish people want to throw things when they find out how it is pronounced, in this case /ˈkahəl/.

    • Arnold Zwicky Says:

      Yes, USF: a slip of the mind, now corrected. Thanks also for the note on the pronunciation of Cathal (I have long wanted to maliciously tell people it was pronounced /kæl/.)

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