Mars ain’t the kind of place to raise your kids
In fact it’s cold as hell
And there’s no one there to raise them if you did
– Elton John/Bernie Taupin, “Rocket Man”
I was listening to this song on my way home from work this evening, when those lyrics struck me as somewhat peculiar. You might be able to guess that it’s the cold as hell part in particular that roused my interest. How can something be as cold as hell?
Because you see, hell’s not cold at all. Just in case it wasn’t obvious. But at the same time, the phrase kind of made sense too. At least, it sounds ok, and it took me a few moments to notice it was weird. And that’s because despite how literally illogical cold as hell might seem, the frequency with which we use or hear the phrase as hell disguises its weirdness. Like the word Facebook, the combination of such common words doesn’t really sound strange. This is especially true in this case, because cold as hell has grammar on its side. Even if the phrase doesn’t make literal sense, as an adjective (cold) with an intensifying adverbial phrase (as hell), it makes grammatical sense.
Think of it like a phrase like a blue apple, or the bright, shiny ancient pizza. They don’t make much sense, but they don’t sound too odd because they’re grammatically sound. Adjective + noun: a winning combination. In fact, you could say the same about Rocket Man. They’re two words we never put together in regular speech, but no-one’s ever thought it an odd title (what is a Rocket Man?). And that’s because we’re so used to jamming nouns together to make compound nouns. You can take any two nouns that logically sound like they shouldn’t belong together, and they’ll still have an ok rhythm: chair angle; window mandarin; President Trump. Well, maybe that last one does sound ridiculous.
So cold as hell doesn’t sound too strange, because it follows grammar rules. I’m sure that Bernie Taupin was aware of this when he was writing the lyrics (did you know that Bernie Taupin writes the lyrics for all of Elton John’s song, and Elton then writes the music?) and appreciated the irony of the phrase. And I appreciate that too, but I also think it’s a great example of how grammar works. Grammar is an essential framework for any language. It provides a guide for how to create and share meaning in a general sense. But it’s not all there is to a language. To strain another analogy, a language is like a tree, and its grammar is like the trunk and branches. They hold it all together, but all the interesting things are happening in the leaves and little twigs, which go off on strange little tangents, and get all mixed up with leaves from other trees nearby, and perhaps the blossoms cross-pollinate a little. And birds make nests! I don’t know what the birds are in this analogy, but they’re a nice image, aren’t they?
My point being, grammar will only point you in the right direction. It’ll tell you which types of words you can put together, and in what order, but it won’t tell you how to make someone smile, or laugh, or how to truly convey to them the folly of a prescriptive approach to grammar. To do that, you’ve got to listen to what real people say, notice how they react to what you say, and sometimes just go with what feels right, rather than what you think the rules might dictate. If you do that, you’ll find communicating with people much easier, and you won’t get annoyed when people don’t follow the exact diktats of grammar. And you’ll, uh… have a lovely… tree, and won’t… drive off the branches (it was a good analogy at the start).