Word Routes

Exploring the pathways of our lexicon

Buddy Holly, Wordsmith

Today marks the 50th anniversary of the passing of Buddy Holly, who died in a plane crash along with Ritchie Valens and J.P. "The Big Bopper" Richardson. Rather than glumly mope about "The Day the Music Died," as Don McLean dubbed the tragedy in the well-worn song, "American Pie," I'd prefer to reflect on what a tremendously gifted singer/songwriter Holly was. He had a beautiful touch with the English language (sung in his signature hiccupy style), and in his lyrics he found ways to take familiar words and phrases and innovatively shape them into his own. Here are my brief thoughts on the language of four of his songs.

That'll Be the Day (May 1957)

Well, that'll be the day, when you say goodbye
Yes, that'll be the day, when you make me cry
You say you're gonna leave, you know it's a lie
'Cause that'll be the day when I die.

For his first hit single, Holly drew inspiration from a memorable line in the 1956 John Wayne movie, "The Searchers," directed by John Ford. The expression "That'll be the day" had actually been floating around American pop culture for a couple of decades — etymologist Barry Popik notes its use in the comic strip "Joe Jinks" in 1938 and then as a tagline for Kellogg's Corn Flakes in 1942. But it was John Wayne's swaggering delivery in "The Searchers" that would have been foremost in the mind of young Buddy Holly as he was toiling away in Lubbock, Texas to come up with songs for his new band The Crickets. As Ethan Edwards, an ex-Confederate soldier obsessed with finding his kidnapped niece, John Wayne utters the line several times over the course of the film:

You wanna quit, Ethan?
That'll be the day.

I hope you die!
That'll be the day.

Holly took Wayne's expression of dogged defiance and repurposed it for a heartfelt love song. The single made him a big star in the summer of 1957 and had a lasting influence on the course of popular music. The following year, a cover version of "That'll Be the Day" was the first recording ever made by an up-and-coming Liverpool group known as The Quarry Men. We know them better, of course, as The Beatles — an insect-y name that was partially an homage to their heroes The Crickets.

Not Fade Away (October 1957)

I'm gonna tell you how it's gonna be
You're gonna give your love to me

I wanna love you night and day
You know my love not fade away.

Here's another song on the theme of obstinate resolution in the face of love's evanescence. As with "That'll Be the Day," Holly might have been inspired by a tough guy of the times: in this case, General Douglas MacArthur. In his Farewell Address to Congress in 1951, MacArthur famously said:

The world has turned over many times since I took the oath on the plain at West Point, and the hopes and dreams have long since vanished, but I still remember the refrain of one of the most popular barrack ballads of that day which proclaimed most proudly that "old soldiers never die; they just fade away."

Could Holly have been suggesting that his love was tougher than even MacArthur's old soldiers? Perhaps he was just drawing on a phrasal verb with echoes going as far back as the King James Bible ("The earth mourneth and fadeth away," Isaiah 24:4). In any case, "(not) fade away" became a popular expression in rock music, and not just from groups like The Rolling Stones that covered the Crickets tune. Stephanie Zacharek, writing in Salon, observed that Holly "was talking about keeping a love affair alive, but his followers took the song to heart as a pledge to keep rock 'n' roll thriving, past the stage of being a fad." The Who turned the expression on its head in their rebellious youth anthem, "My Generation": "Why don't you all f-f-fade away?" Later rock acts from Blondie to Bruce Springsteen incorporated "fade away" into their lyrics — to lament a loss, or, like Holly, to vow against its possibility.

Oh Boy! (October 1957)

All of my love, all of my kissin'
You don't know what you've been a-missin'
Oh boy, when you're with me
Oh boy, the world can see
That you were meant for me.

Though Holly is remembered as a pioneering "singer/songwriter" (matched only by Chuck Berry in the early rock 'n' roll era), he also was an excellent interpreter of music and lyrics composed by others. Fellow Lubbock native Sonny West wrote "Oh Boy!", and Holly was quick to record it with the Crickets ("Not Fade Away" was actually its B-side). Holly takes West's words and invests them with great excitement and anticipation. Linguistically, the song is notable for its prominent use of "(Oh) boy" in addressing someone of the opposite sex. This demonstrates how boy, like man, has transformed from a male term of address (or "vocative") into an exclamation that can be used regardless of the addressee's gender. As I discussed in a previous Word Routes column, we're now seeing a similar transformation with the word dude.

Rave On! (April 1958)

Well, the little things you say and do
Make me want to be with you
Rave on, it's a crazy feelin'
And I know it's got me reelin'
When you say, 'I love you,' rave on.

Rave started out as a verb chiefly meaning "talk in a noisy, excited, or declamatory manner," but it developed its own semantic pathways in pop-music usage — and this rollicking song (another Sonny West offering) may have played a critical role. Rave came to be associated with loud, uptempo music and the party atmosphere such music generates. A rave (or rave-up) was a crazy party, and a raver was a party animal. Decades later, rave began to be applied to dance parties with electronic music and light shows, spawning the rave music scene of the '80s and beyond.

Seen from a modern vantage point, the language of Buddy Holly's songs may seem rather simple. But as Spencer Leigh recently wrote in The Independent, "It is wrong to assume that Holly's simple songs imply simplicity." His genius was taking elemental expressions in the English vernacular and imbuing them with an irresistible energy that resonates to this day.


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Ben Zimmer is executive producer of the Visual Thesaurus and Vocabulary.com. He is language columnist for The Wall Street Journal and former language columnist for The Boston Globe and The New York Times Magazine. He has worked as editor for American dictionaries at Oxford University Press and as a consultant to the Oxford English Dictionary. In addition to his regular "Word Routes" column here, he contributes to the group weblog Language Log. He is also the chair of the New Words Committee of the American Dialect Society. Click here to read more articles by Ben Zimmer.

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Comments from our users:

Tuesday February 3rd 2009, 6:08 AM
Comment by: Geoff A. (United Kingdom)Top 10 Commenter
How refreshing to see such respect being shown to the role played by popular music in the development of our language. Thanks for that, Ben.

It's a truism that 'less is more'. In songwriting, one might say that 'simple is complex'. Recalling the days when poets had their muses constricted by set metres, forcing them to squeeze their inspired thoughts into fixed line lengths, stress patterns and rhyme, songwriters still have to perform this miracle of saying a lot with great economy of words. In doing so, one can see how they might indeed be led to imbue common expressions with new energy as the music takes hold of the words and helps to burst them out of their mundane shells. I believe doctorates have been gained by scholars doing to Dylan's songbook what you have so cleverly done to these four Holly numbers!

Thanks again.

Geoff A.
Tuesday February 3rd 2009, 8:24 AM
Comment by: Jim K. (Sandia Park, NM)
What a wonderful article!
Tuesday February 3rd 2009, 10:35 AM
Comment by: Clarence W.
Neil Young used the fade away phrase ("it's better to burn out than to fade away") as a vow against the possibility of rock music dying in his 1979 song "Hey, hey. My, my."
Tuesday February 3rd 2009, 3:28 PM
Comment by: philip A.
Great article,Ben.
Tuesday February 3rd 2009, 3:31 PM
Comment by: Tamara H. (Indianapolis, IN)
Great tribute to a great musician; however I would argue that the interpretation of "Oh Boy" as a means of "addressing someone of the opposite sex" is out of place in this context. Certainly the terms "man" and "dude" have morphed into unisex nicknames today, but in Holly's song wouldn't you agree that he is merely exclaiming delight - the more popular useage of the phrase? Even if one suggests that "boy" is used in a generic manner today (and really I don't see that it is, but I'll leave that aside) I doubt it would have been used that way in Holly's time.

Thank you though for an entertaining look at Buddy Holly, I'm a big fan of his. It is interesting to explore where popular phrases in music evolved from, and this was no exception.
Tuesday February 3rd 2009, 3:57 PM
Comment by: Ben Zimmer (New York, NY)Visual Thesaurus ContributorVisual Thesaurus Moderator
Tamara: Sorry if I was less than clear! The song "Oh Boy" is addressed to someone of the opposite sex (we're presuming), but you are correct that "boy" is not in itself a term of address here. That's what I meant when I said that "boy" (like "man") has become an all-purpose exclamation. Exclamations don't depend on the gender of the addressee, but that's a bit different from what you're calling "unisex nicknames." It's a tricky point, though, since it's not always clear what's a "vocative" term of address and what's an exclamation. (A lot of recent examples of "dude" could be interpreted either way.) In this case, however, it's clear that we're dealing with an exclamation, no different from "gee whiz!", "golly!" -- or, to use another example that's lost its gender, "oh brother!"
Tuesday February 3rd 2009, 3:59 PM
Comment by: Kristi N. (Northridge, CA)
Thank you for pointing to Buddy Holly's influence on the Beatles, particularly in the covering of "That'll Be The Day" and the insect-like band name! Buddy Holly is definitely an unsung hero.
Tuesday February 3rd 2009, 5:32 PM
Comment by: Nancy F.
Now I know Visual Thesaurus is the place to be. Tributes to both John Updike and Buddy Holly. Your writers don't miss a thing when it comes to the places where words are most alive. Would love to see a regular column on song lyrics.
Wednesday February 4th 2009, 2:37 PM
Comment by: Jon D. (King of Prussia, PA)
That irresistible energy is a great way to convey the power of using deep contexts that underlie many simple words and phrases.

This helps explain why sometimes the plain talker can evoke such a deep emotional impact. We're not only hearing the words....we're experiencing the words' routes.
Wednesday February 4th 2009, 7:06 PM
Comment by: Roger Dee (Haslett, MI)Top 10 Commenter
Great thoughts with clarity and relevance.
Tuesday July 13th 2010, 9:54 AM
Comment by: Dale S. (Smithville, TN)
Thanks for this article, Buddy has become an even closer friend. Thanks Ben!
Tuesday July 13th 2010, 10:01 AM
Comment by: Dale S. (Smithville, TN)
Ben, I was just thinking I might use this article when I teach my high school history class. Not so much for the wonderful insight into the music of the 50's, but to show my scholars that they can be Zimmer (Ben) like. That is to say, "one can rock" (or God forbid rap) and yet be a scholar of the highest level at the same time, such as young Ben Zimmer has demonstrated.
Hopefully they will Zimmer Out or would it be Ben Bop as they increase their vocabulary level and historical knowledge! Thanks for being a role model for my scholars!
Monday May 30th 2011, 11:09 PM
Comment by: Adrienne J.
Wonderful article! Many thanks!

Mary A

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