Understanding Lyrics: Diction

by criticalhit009

This post is part of a series on how to do close readings of lyrics. For the full list of analytical tools for lyrics, see my introductory post. To help flesh out the previously posted list on close readings of lyrics, I shall go through each item listed and give some examples to help illustrate some real-world examples of the concepts being talked about. Those familiar with analyzing poetry will find much familiar in this list, as this post will be a basic overview examining the purpose of a song’s lyrics. Songs cannot be examined by their lyrics alone, but they serve as an important piece of the work to evaluate. This series seeks to help shape the conversation in lyrical analysis to broaden the rhetorical discourse on song lyrics.

Pay close attention to words and word choice (aka diction.)

  • Look at the title. How is it significant? What aspect of the theme or mood does it illuminate?
  • What are the connotations (meanings, associates, emotions connected to a word, as opposed the word’s literal meaning, or denotation) of certain words? Are there and ordinary words used in an extraordinary way? Are any words repeated, and for what effect?

Now we get to the meat of the matter. Words are the building blocks for all forms of language expression. As such, words shape everything, with a multitude of nuance and subtleties imbued with them. When it comes to word choice, known as diction in literary and academic circles, a whole host of possibilities arises.

Put plainly, using one word instead of another changes the meaning of the expression. Looking at a specific example, let’s turn to “Rusholme Ruffians” by The Smiths.

For starters, let’s look at the title of the song. What does it impart? As a song about the rough neighborhood of Rusholme, its a literal signpost for who the song describes. It also implies the roughness and the casual violence the song seeks to impart. Next, let’s look at some of the words used in the song and how they give meaning.

So…scratch my name on your arm with a fountain pen 
(This means you really love me) 
Scratch my name on your arm with a fountain pen 
(This means you really love me) 

This stanza particularly resonates with me because of its striking diction. The use of the word “scratch” as opposed to “write” or “draw” underlies the feeling of roughness and violence undercurrents throughout the song. A lover’s name isn’t lovingly doodled on the arm, but rather brutally scratched instead. All of this is imparted from using the word “scratched,” helping build to the overall themes of breaking innocence.

And though I walk home alone 
I might walk home alone …
…But my faith in love is still devout

Another stanza repeated multiple times in the song, the last line is particularly strong, ordinary words used in a new and fascinating way. It describes the innocent picture of love a character holds. Their faith is no in religion or God, but the concept of love itself. Can their be a cult of love? It’s a curious comparison between religion and love.

Then someone falls in love 
And someone’s beaten up 
Someone’s beaten up 
And the senses being dulled are mine 
And someone falls in love 
And someone’s beaten up 
And the senses being dulled are mine 

Repetition is a different beast when it comes to songs. Choruses and similar song structures usually make it clear what a song is about by repeated the song’s main theme. In this case, repetition is used widely in this song with multiple phrases. This stanza illustrates the cycle of breaking innocence into adulthood in Rusholme, giving an impression as a place of both young love and violence.