No, I didn’t, sorry, I never watch it.
I’m referring here of course to popular BBC Saturday-evening dance programme Strictly Come Dancing (translated into American English as Dancing with the Stars). It’s often referred to simply as Strictly, but if you step back and think about it, isn’t that a little odd?
Looking at the origin of the name, it makes more sense. Come Dancing ran on the BBC from 1950 to 1998, and featured non-celebrities engaging in some fairly gentle ballroom dancing. Nothing too racy.
When the BBC decided to revive the series in 2004, they wanted the dancing to be a bit sexier. So, they sought inspiration in the 1992 Australian film Strictly Ballroom. The use of strictly in the film’s title makes sense in an ironic way. It refers to the fact that the main character is treated as a rebel by his fellow dancers as his moves are not strictly ballroom.
The film became a fairly big hit: so much so that 12 years later, adding Strictly to Come Dancing was a clear reference to the film, and a sign that this wasn’t going to be your grandmother’s Come Dancing!
Now these 13 years later, the word strictly, in a dancing context, is probably more associated with Strictly Come Dancing than with Strictly Ballroom. In the UK anyway. Which might make you think the title should seem odd to anyone young enough not to know about Strictly Ballroom, and who instead grew up only knowing the title of the TV programme. Even if every step from the original Come Dancing to Strictly Come Dancing via Strictly Ballroom seems logical, the end result of the programme being called Strictly should seem to strange to anyone not aware of those steps.
But it’s not strange to them. It probably should be. Look at it objectively: it doesn’t really make sense. Does it mean you can only dance in a strict manner? Does the strictness only apply to coming dancing? Once you arrive, can you dance in a relaxed way? Looking at the phrase purely as a piece of language, it doesn’t really make any sense. And we all have the ability to recognise that.
But, we can’t just go around questioning every little bit of language we see. If we did, we’d become the type of person who writes a blog about the little details of how we use language, and no-one wants to be that person.
Instead, our brain goes on autopilot. It’ll spot big grammatical or lexical oddities, sure. But if there’s a programme on the BBC, we probably won’t think about how strange the title actually is. It’s the BBC: they can be trusted to have normal titles. When have you ever had to question the linguistic logic of one of their titles before? Plus, the words have an OK rhythm together, so the title doesn’t sound obviously wrong.
The way we unconsciously process language is fascinating. Our brains automatically recognise and produce accurate grammar without us having to consciously think about it. Equally, it’ll spot when things are off. But familiarity and habit can make us switch off our critical capacities. It’s a little like when someone asks you what you put in a toaster, or writes the word blue in red ink and asks you what colour you see.
And that’s all OK. We need those shortcuts to be able to live normal lives without getting paralysis through analysis. And the occasional tricks these shortcuts play, or linguistic oddities they blind us to, are a price worth paying for that efficiency. Yes, it might be strictly weird that people refer to a Saturday-evening ballroom-dancing programme as Strictly, but so what? It’s not going to make the foundations of English grammar fall apart.
It will be interesting to see if people in Britain stop using strictly so much in its original sense, as they associate it more with the programme, but I suspect it’ll be another few years before we begin to notice that. And it might well happen, and then purists and pendants will complain that we’ve lost the meaning of strictly. But as always, the language will adapt, and the world will keep turning.