Tag Archives: The Beatles

helter-skelter

English is a wild ride, a climb of clatter and cacophony as of skeletons in halters, a slide ride down flung with centrifugal force and out-of control collisions, slaps and claps. It is a welter of words taken from here and there and ricocheting against each other like so many billiard balls, harum-scarum. And references and references to references and lost and forgotten references all going around and coming around.

Take helter-skelter. Where do you know that from? How old do you think it is? Who came up with it? What does it come from?

The last two questions are easy to answer because they are impossible to answer. Helter-skelter existed in common use by Shakespeare’s time, to mean ‘pell-mell; fast and out of control’. Why helter and why skelter? Obviously it’s a reduplicating formation, like hurry-scurry and the other couple I’ve already used. The skelter may come from an old word skelte ‘hurry’, with the helter added for effect. But the word just lands in the printed record out of nowhere, as if it slid in from above and dropped with a thump on the page.

It’s useful, anyway. It got a good workout in literature: Shakespeare, Coleridge, Longfellow, Trollope… Jonathan Swift made it the title of a poem about lawyers on the country circuit. It carries so many echoes: not just halter and skeleton but welter, swelter, shelter, pelter, kelter (the word we know better as kilter, meaning ‘good health, good spirits’ and best known to us in out of kilter), skelper (from skelp ‘slap, strike’), skelder (‘beg, cadge, swindle’), perhaps Hitler and kettle and skillet and kelp and helper… If you listen with an interested mind, the chaotic clatter of this word may carry echoes of many things climbing up from your unconscious or dropping down from your surroundings.

Helter-skelter is a good term for the behaviour of children on a playground, if a little scarier than higgledy-piggledy. And so in the early 1900s, when someone invented a fun park attraction that is a tower (looking like a little lighthouse, perhaps) with stairs up in the centre and a slide spiralling down around the outside, they named it a helter-skelter. The first one was at that famous seaside place called Blackpool.

It seems to have been one of those that Paul McCartney had in mind when he wrote the song “Helter Skelter.” McCartney wanted a truly wild and grungy sound, one that would soundly thrash musical expectations just as Lennon’s “I Am the Walrus” thrashed exegetical expectations. He wanted to out-Townshend Pete Townshend. What is “Helter Skelter” about? It’s about the punkiest sound you can imagine, and not what one generally expects from The Beatles. It’s about four minutes and thirty-three seconds of quite the opposite of what John Cage did with his four minutes and thirty-three seconds. It’s skelping and out of kilter, it’s – here, listen. Listen to Paul McCartney singing it and his bandmates thrashing it out. Listen as it fades out and then comes back in at the end, with the shout (often thought to be from John Lennon, but actually it was Ringo Starr) “I got blisters on my fingers!”

What do you hear? What you hear and what you get from it will of course be conditioned by what you bring to it. What Charles Manson heard was his vision for a coming apocalyptic race war. The racket of the song echoed inside his head and mixed in with the other noises there and came out with murder. The song, for him, was apocalyptic violence.

Easy enough to hear it that way? Sure. Now hear it another way.

semolina

This is a word from my childhood.

Not because we ate semolina pudding, or couscous made from semolina, or because I was aware of the spaghetti we ate having been made from semolina. No, it’s because I grew up listening to The Beatles, and the first Beatles album I owned myself (as opposed to belonging to my brother or parents) was Magical Mystery Tour. On that album is “I Am the Walrus.” If you give it a listen (you really should, and watch the video), you will hear, at about 2:53, “Semolina pilchard climbing up the Eiffel Tower.”

When I, less then ten years of age, heard that, I assumed Semolina Pilchard was the name of a girl. Why not? Serena Pritchard or Selma Pilcher would be. I had never heard of semolina, nor of pilchards. Come on, I was growing up in the Alberta foothills in the 1970s! Semolina Pilchard seemed to me to be a name to go with Semilema Tina. You know, from “Ferrajocka.” That actually turned out to be “sonnez la matine” from “Frère Jacques.” But for a while it made sense to me, and from the same song I also had the idea there was a word “donlayvoo,” which seemed to be something like an escalator and/or vaccum cleaner.

But hey. Songs often come through the ear to the mind like grains of wheat halfway through the grinding process. Which is what semolina is. And that’s why I assumed for some time that semolina was formed from Latin semi ‘half’ and molina ‘mill’. Doesn’t that make sense? Why grind your way through all the etymology if you can take some nice bits and make a pleasing porridge of them?

Actually semolina comes from Italian semolino, diminutive of semola ‘bran’, which in turn comes from Latin simila ‘flour’. There do seem to be some similar words out there, yes, but similis ‘like’ is a different root. Well, grind them down and they may start to assimilate. I just now told my wife I was writing on semolina and she said, “The flower?” And I said, “No, the – oh, yes,” and realized she had actually said “The flour?” Which would have been the logical thing for me to hear in the first place.

John Lennon wrote “I Am the Walrus” with the express purpose of confounding literary analysis. A student had written to him that his teacher was having the class analyze the lyrics of Beatles songs. So he went out of his way to make it impenetrable. My experience suggests he needn’t have tried so hard.