October 7, 2011, by Jon McGregor

A rich example of compressed meaning

If you scroll down to an earlier post, you’ll find me talking about George Saunders talking about sentence compression; the fine art of making words carry multiple layers of meaning. (This is what people mean when they talk about sentences being ‘taut’; it’s not just that the sentence is as short as possible, but that it’s bearing a load, like a steel cable. A tight-rope is easier to walk on than a slack one.)

Here’s a great example, from a song by Tanita Tikaram:

If I was a Londoner, rich with complaint

Isn’t that wonderful? And doesn’t everyone who’s not a Londoner know exactly what that means? Look at the two jobs done by rich. The meaning, ‘having plenty of’ can be taken to mean ‘having plenty of complaints,’ or ‘having plenty of money and having complaints.’ Imagine a comma after the ‘rich’, and imagine hearing the song without knowing whether or not the comma is there: your brain would flicker between the two meanings, and hold them together. Those Londoners, with their world-class museums and art galleries, their jobs, their transport network which runs all night; and you hear them complaining about having to wait 5 minutes for a tube train! You try living in Basingstoke and see how much you like that!

Because, of course, the implied insult of ‘rich with complaint’ is counterbalanced with the implied desire or jealousy of ‘If I was a Londoner.’ The speaker wants to be that which she holds in disdain, or she doesn’t but she’s fascinated by it, or drawn by it. Immediately, from the first line of the song, the attentive listener is given an armful of meanings to juggle with as they make their way across the taut rope of the rest of the song. And all of this is achieved in the space of eight words. Now that’s sentence compression.

The rest of the song is pretty good too.

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