Lay lady lay

I realise that some will see this as a sacrilegious thing to say on Good Friday, but I have admitted it on this blog before, so I’ll say it again regardless of the day: I’m not a huge Dylan fan.

Yes, I’m afraid it’s true. For this sin, I expect to have a few less followers by tomorrow afternoon (when the Northern Hemisphere catches up). The reason it will only be a few is because most followers don’t actually read the blog, as far as I can gather.

But back to Dylan.

Why is it that I never really took a liking for his music? Maybe his particular brand of folk-country-rock music is a taste I still have to acquire. I do like some folk music, and a lot of rock music, but truth be told, I’m not much for country, unless it’s a little bit alt. Then again, maybe it’s the nasal quality of the younger Dylan’s singing voice that I’ve never really liked, although that has now developed into a gravelly deep voice that I have no objection to.

But maybe, and most likely, it’s because I have traced the annoying, recurring misuse of the word lay in everyday conversation back to his 1969 song Lay Lady Lay. It seems clear that Dylan is to blame for the constant and blatant misuse of the word lay that I encounter in my day-to-day life.

The situation is getting so out of hand that I have started to wonder if I’m the only person left in the English-speaking world who still believes that there is a sentence structure where the word lie is correct and where lay sounds wrong – and also ignorant, or silly.

It does make me fear for the future of the human race. From giving up on lay and lie, it’s a slippery downward slope. The next thing you know, no-one is bothering to use an indicator when they change lanes, and it’s all because they just don’t care any more. They don’t care about good grammar, and they don’t care about the risk of causing an accident, writing off their car and/or yours, and causing injury to themselves and others. From there, it’s a small step to organised crime or party politics.

Now, I realise that the English language is a constantly evolving thing, and I applaud that. As it has become so ubiquitous, I can’t say when, in the evolution of the language, the change from lie to lay took place. Was there a memo about it that I missed? Not according to the Cambridge dictionary online, which says that lay means

to put something in a flat or horizontal position, usually carefully or for a particular purpose

to prepare a plan or method of doing something

and goes on to say that the verb lay must have an object.

Thus: Lay your work out on the desk; try to lay the baby down in the cot as quietly as you can; I am laying out the clothes I plan to wear tomorrow but I can’t find any clean socks because no-one in this house has put away any laundry for about 3 weeks.*

(While researching this topic, you may be interested to know that my research team came up with a quote from another blog – but promptly forgot what blog they found it on! – suggesting that, if used correctly, in a sentence that’s in the present tense, you should be able to replace the word lay with the word put. (Use the phrases above to try it at home for free!) According to this theory, if put doesn’t work then you should use lie.

Let’s try that test now.

Put lady put,

put across my big brass bed

Hmmm. It’s actually worse than lay, isn’t it. Definitely wrong. Which tells us that lie would be grammatically correct, although I can accept that it would not have sounded quite as catchy, and would have presented some difficult obstacles for the songwriter to get over.

Lie doesn’t rhyme with stay, for a start, a word that is tripping over itself in its eagerness to be utilised in the next verse. What word could Dylan have used in verse two, if he’d used lie in verse 1? Sky? Pie? Die? You can see that there is much more at stake in writing a song, than merely grammar. Had he stuck with correct grammar in verse one, the lady in the song may well have had to be killed off in verse 2, possibly by eating a poisoned pie, leaving the protagonist singing mournfully to the empty sky.

Bob Dylan (in a harlequin costume) tries correct grammar in the early stages of writing Lay Lady Lay.


The other thing Dylan achieves by using lay, is to very efficiently create an image using only two words.

Instead of speedily conjuring a scene of a woman draped languidly across a bed, opening the song with the words “lie lady lie”might cause the listener to initially suppose the song was about a woman who had deceived the singer, a misconstrued notion which would take until line 2 to be cleared up. Song lyrics need to be economical, you can’t waste a whole line having the listener set out down a conceptually wrong path, just for the sake of getting the grammar right. (Although in this case, if he had used lie, as previously covered, he would now have to rhyme lie with pie and die, so I suppose he could have solved this dilemma by turning the song into a ballad about his lying female associate who ends up getting what was coming to her via a few drops of arsenic in a beef and mushroom pie.)

So of course I’m not seriously criticising Dylan for using incorrect grammar in a song. I’m a firm believer in poetic licence in song writing (and poetry!), where other things are more important than grammar. We can wonder all afternoon about how the song would have unfolded if he’d used lie instead of lay, but the point is, poetic licence does not apply in every day speech, where one’s primary aim is to communicate clearly, not to set a rhythm, create a rhyme, or evoke an image using only 2 words.

So far, we’ve talked about how lay and lie are two separate verbs with different usage, but, just to prove how confusing English can be, even to native speakers, get this: lay is also the past tense of lie! Therefore, if speaking in the past tense, you can use lay without an object. Eg, I lay back on the daybed and imagined I was holidaying in the French Riviera.

But the reason I am frothing at the mouth, and have finally succumbed to ranting about it here, is because I don’t recall ever learning these lessons in grammar – indeed, I am quite sure I never learned any rules of grammar at school beyond nouns, verbs, adjectives and adverbs, and perhaps tenses. I don’t know what it means to conjugate a verb, as some good grammar-focussed blogs do when explaining the different uses for lie and lay. But despite the lack of formal training, I must have developed an ear for what is correct and what is not, and I am forever cringing at hearing lay used in the present tense, to replace the word lie. For example

I’ll get you all to start by laying on your mats (a yoga teacher)

She’s not feeling well so I told her to lay down (a colleague at work)

All I want to do is have a day off and lay around reading a book (overheard in a bookshop) (I find it hard to believe this person can actually read.)

I’m disheartened every time I hear this kind of misuse of the word lay, but I don’t correct people. To counteract the frustration I feel when I hear these misplaced phrases, I cheer myself up by quipping a witty response like Should we lay an egg on our yoga mat? Or should we lay some bricks? Of course, I don’t say this out loud, but only in my own head. And after I’ve chuckled, and congratulated myself on my wit, I make my own small protest, by lying on my yoga mat instead.


*a true story

**Fans of Dylan probably stopped reading after the second line of this post, but fans of yoga mats keen to read more about the yoga mat that starred in this post, should click on the tag, yoga mat, (below) to be taken to more scintillating yoga mat-related stories. 



A few words from our sponsors

A Few Words From Our Sponsors is a new quarterly segment brought to you by our local business sponsor,  Moustaches Are Us, suppliers of quality moustaches to existentialists and philosophers for over 150 years. Below are our favourite words for Spring.



the state of despair arrived at when you have eaten all your hummus* and have none left to dip that last bit of pita bread into. (*some spell it humus or humous – a tasty dip of Lebanese origin, made from chickpeas.) Some believe that this state can lead to questioning the very meaning of existence and that it may have been a hummus shortage that triggered the beginnings of the existentialist movement in the late 19th Century.


Rejected cover art for the biography of Friedrich Nietzsche

A rejected submission for the cover of a biography of Friedrich Nietzsche


a word designed for the sole purpose of having a softly soothing word to whisper quietly to yourself in the dead of night when you cannot sleep. Try it tonight! For certain success, drink a large glass of brandy and swallow a valium before you crawl into bed to begin. As a cure for insomnia, the Phosphorescence method is highly recommended by Lady Macbeth, and endorsed by Dorothy Parker.


a word that will forever feel incomplete, because of the oversight of the powers-that-be, who did not include a silent n at the end of this word when they built the original. This author bravely attempted, back in Grade 6, when taking part in the combined primary schools spelling bee, to bring this scandalous oversight to light, but her efforts to highlight the need for an n on the end of rhythm did not get the swell of community support hoped for, so rhythm continues to always seem one (silent) letter short of its full potential.

unrequited (by request from the Department of Speculation)

A word brimming with possibilities, but mainly only if you are playing the game where you locate other words hidden within it. This author put her timer on for 3.25 minutes and located the following:












If you can find other words, please leave these in the comments below, to go into the draw to win one of our Existential Moustaches for October.


this word is the result of a dysfunctional union between two already icky words: bile and ill, but that second syllable in billious adds a whole other dimension to it, making this writer imagine a sickly, yellow hue, and think of movement in a circular direction, all of which seems to suggest very clearly the vomit that is probably churning ferociously up your intestines as you read this.


Nietzsche famously remarked that it’s a myriad of pleasure just to pronounce the word orangutang, let alone to visit the obligingly zany creature at the zoo. (I believe Nietzsche actually confided to a friend that in fact he got even greater enjoyment from the phrase, Hubba Bubba, and had spent many delightful evenings engaged in smoking his pipe on the verandah and repeating that diverting phrase to himself, but conceded that orangutang was a strong second choice and gave him a chuckle every now and then.) The burning question is, why has no-one named a tangy orange drink Orang-u-tang? Red bulls have a drink named after them, why not orangutangs? You heard it here first.


While we are making predictions, this word has so much presence all by itself that it is just begging to be the startling, one-word title of the next Man Booker Prize winning novel, and following that, the Hollywood film based on the novel, starring Edward Norton, Naomi Watts and Maggie Smith. (I really wanted Jake Gyllenhaal but he just wasn’t quite right for the part.)


ricochet is fun to say. We like words that are fun to say, but we also like it when, in our imaginations at least, the word seems to convey the concept. Ric-o-chet sounds to us like the pinballs bouncing from one corner to another inside a pinball machine.

And that’s it for our words for this quarter. Stay tuned for summer when we will bring you another round, courtesy of Moustaches Are Us.


World of Wordcraft

Today, dear readers, you are in for a treat, because I rarely write posts by request.

Of course, that’s mostly because I never receive requests for my posts. In fact, I’ve never received a request for a piece of my writing in any format, actually, apart from when I was a kid and mum was always asking me to write a letter to my grandma.

And there was that time the New Yorker phoned to say that some famous author had pulled out of a contractual arrangement at short notice, and they were desperate for a piece on the theme of rhinos and boiled eggs. Coincidentally, I happened to have such a piece lying around, just dripping with the diligent background research, months of interviews, and intelligent, well-informed interpretation of the content that their highbrow readership could appreciate. Personally, I thought it was quite a moving piece.

(Sadly, that piece was never published – for some reason, at the last minute New Yorker Magazine changed the theme for that week’s “Idiot’s Ramble” and didn’t go with my piece. I’ve followed them up, but the last time I phoned that editor, she’d had her number changed and quit the magazine, and no-one knew where she had gone.)

Anyway. Recently a reader, not even an imaginary one as far as I can tell, casually commented in a comment (where better to comment?) that I should write a post about words that have annoying spelling – silent letters, for example. This was because I mentioned that I can never spell rhythmn rhythm correctly first go. In an odd twist, that’s not because of its silent letter “h,” which could legitimately trip someone up, but because I suffer from a little-known, but quite debilitating, neurological condition, causing me to see a phantom letter “n” where no letter “n” really exists. Fortunately, the only circumstance in which I ever see that letter “n” is at the end of the word rhythm, so I’m able to live an almost normal life, and few people have ever guessed at the hardship I suffer in private.

Now, some people would not see that as a request, but based on the fact that FM radio stations can get away with pretending they’ve received “requests” for songs that no-one ever wants to hear, I think I can legitimately claim that comment was a “request” for me to write such a post, so here it is. An attempt to write a post about words, some of which may be annoyingly spelled.

If that endeavour fails, then at the very least, I’ll be using words to write the post, and some of them may be annoying.

Before we get on to words, though, I must point out that amongst the blogging community, not surprisingly, there are at least a few people with more than a passing interest in words. Even amongst those blogs I regularly read – I say “even” because I mostly read blogs that are personal, non-academic, and usually don’t follow a particular theme – there are plenty of bloggers who have a keen amateur interest in etymology, or linguistics, or maybe just know the rules of grammar and have a passion for seeing them implemented.

The reason I mention this is because, as usual, I am an expert in none of those things. Jack of all trades, master of none. Sure, I like words as well as the next guy, but not so much that I study up on their history. If I’ve written a post about a word – such as my post about cool – my focus has been about the concept the word embodies, rather than the word itself. I’m not so much into focussing on particular words. I like them best when they are in a group, as you can gather from the length of my posts.

Because words have meanings, I find them most interesting when juxtaposed against other words with seemingly no connection – for example, the random selection of words that ends up in the “Tag Cloud” on my blog simply because they are words I’ve written about and tagged more than any others.

A random selection of words I must like.

A selection of words I must like.

The enjoyment I get out of that random grouping is that my mind tries to make meanings from two unrelated words placed next to one another. In fact, I’m lying – it doesn’t even try, it just enjoys their meaningless juxtaposition. Maybe when I read those words, in a milli-second, faster than I can concsiously register, my mind tries to combine the words, and finds the outcome amusing. Being too slow to catch the speed of that transaction at a conscious level, all I register is that the juxtaposition makes me chuckle. Perhaps I will do a series based on the Tag Cloud, and see what I can manage to write about Christmas cockroaches, existentialism eyeballs, Radiohead rhinos, and Simon and Garfunkle spam stars.

Outside of chuckling at random pairings of otherwise unconnected words, I like words best when they are strung together to form a sentence that communicates an idea. Now there’s an idea for my epitaph:

She liked words, but only when they were strung together to form a sentence like this. 

(Whether I run with that one or not, it’s almost certain that my epitaph will be the shortest piece of writing I will ever be associated with. But if it happens that, by the time of my demise, advances in technology have developed an inexpensive way to engrave a 1500 word essay about some ridiculous topic onto a headstone, I will instruct the executors of my estate to take that option.)

But back to the topic at hand. Words. Yes, really, the further I dig myself into this post, the more I think that I’m the wrong person to write a post about interesting words, annoying words, or words of any sort, because I don’t really collect and analyse words as some people do – probably as any aspiring writer-type should do.

It’s a huge failing on my part, that probably highlights what a lazy would-be writer I am.

Why, just a few months ago, I read a post about favourite words, and, much as I would have liked to contribute my own favourite words in the comments, I discovered that I was unable to think of a single favourite word! I let the idea sit in the back of my mind for weeks, and still couldn’t come up with one. It was only some time later, when I came across this word again, that I recalled with almost a sense of relief, that I have previously identified a word I like, all on its own:


That’s a great word. What does bioluminescence mean? Well, as I’ve previously covered here, it’s the production and emission of light by a living organism – think of fireflies, or some types of jellyfish and other deep-sea creatures. That’s pretty cool isn’t it? Like, on the list of superpowers that would be handy to attain, it should be right below invisibility.

But, seriously, I think the reason I like the word bioluminescence is not because it’s a cool concept, but because so many of the creatures who are bioluminescent are other-worldly. Generally they live in an environment that I will never see and can barely imagine – the darkest depths of the ocean, down at the ocean floor. It’s only a few miles to the bottom of the ocean, but down there it’s like another universe. Can you imagine that darkness, miles below the surface, where the light from the sun doesn’t reach? Can you imagine how it sounds down there under all that water? How it would feel, all that water weighing down on you and all around you.


In some ways those bioluminescent creatures are the closest things we have to aliens life-forms, right here on earth, scuttling around in watery darkness, emitting their own light, where their ancestors scuttled around a million years earlier.

The sound of a favourite word also plays a big part in why you like it. At first, up above, I wrote bioluminescent. Then I thought about it and realised that bioluminescence is a better word. I think that is because of the sound it makes: the softness of ending on the “s” of e-scence instead of on the “t” of e-scent. There is almost an element of onomatopoeia, at least in my imagination: as if the soft hiss of scence at the end of the word somehow matches the image of something gently emitting a soft glow.

So for me, the word bioluminescence, is like shorthand for other-worldly creatures, life forms that have existed with little change since before humans were on earth. Mysteries. Chills up my spine.

Words. They can be annoying. But they capture concepts so well when they get together and form handy phrases! This has been so successful that I may write more posts about words. Or possibly I’ll just utilise more words and write another post. Only time will tell. Just don’t ask me to spell rhythm.*


(*I typed the n and then deleted it)





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