Haligo Daligo Woods and other Miscommunications

My girl is at a school that is very big on music.  Seriously, at least twice a year they have Official Events at which they play ALL THE THINGS, then a couple of times more they have small events at which they play even more things.  At last count she was in five different musical groups and attending the rehearsals of a sixth, which her best friend is in.

It is the latter group that is currently rehearsing a rather funky arrangement of Elton John’s Goodbye Yellow Brick Road.  For those of you not around in the 70s, it goes like this:

In the chorus of this song, Elton sings that he is giving up the so-called high life (characterised as ‘The Yellow Brick Road) and is going back to his plough.  Then he says that he is going back to something in the woods and will be hunting something something toad.

Since 1973, I have been singing along to this song and have never got closer to knowing what these words were than that.   True, I inserted a completely spurious cabin into the woods, because it seemed a likely thing to be going back to, but I guess I always knew it wasn’t right.  It doesn’t scan.  To fit with the music, it would have to be a cabin-o (which is, indeed, frequently what I sang) and even Elton, in his most outre glasses days, would not have inflicted a cabin-o on an unsuspecting public.  I also doubted that even the most disenchanted would leave the high-life for the dubious pleasures of hunting toads.  But I chose not to go into that too closely.  I was young, in the 70s, and there was a limit to what I wanted to know about alternative lifestyles.

My daughter, who clearly listened more closely than I did (or who, perhaps, scorned a cabin-o) sang that he was going back to the Haligo Daligo woods.  She, too, felt this was unlikely to be correct, but there are many woods in the backblocks of the USA and who is to say that his plough was not domiciled in the Haligo Daligo woods?  It did, at least, scan.

It turns out that the actual lyric is ‘back to the HOWLING OLD OWL, in the woods, hunting THE HORNY-BACKED toad.’

A Horned Owl, which may or may not be about to howl...

A Horned Owl, which may or may not be about to howl…

Get out.

I take it back about what Elton was willing to inflict on an unsuspecting public.  If ever a line was written to fit a gap in a song (and to rhyme with road) this is it.  Do owls even howl?  I mean, I know they can make many noises, but I’m not sure howling is among them (cue a deluge of info from owl-fanciers about their cries).  Although, to be fair, it is all real words (no cabin-o) and it does, indisputably, scan.

But it made me wonder just how many things are misunderstood, not just in songs, but in stories, and what effect it might have on the reader.

I, for example, dearly love a ‘saying’.  I enjoy colloquialisms and I use them fairly freely in my writing.  I sometimes run afoul of editors as a result.  In the novel that I had published last year, I took one out, because my editor didn’t understand it, only to see exactly the same expression used in a novel I read just a few weeks later.

I am all for writing clearly, but I think colloquial language injects colour and potential amusement – within reason of course, one doesn’t want to drown in dialect – and should be left in.  But I suppose it does raise the potential for ‘Haligo Daligo Woods’-style misunderstandings.  I generally think unfamiliar words and word usage can be worked out from context, but I wonder, though, even if it does lead to misunderstandings, whether it matters?

So I guess my question is, do you think you should leave out the quirky speech in favour of clarity, or leave it in and let the misunderstandings fall where they may?  Or should you, as one historical writer I know does, include a glossary at the back?



Horned Owl photo courtesy of FreeDigitalPhotos.net

13 thoughts on “Haligo Daligo Woods and other Miscommunications

  1. I think if the meaning can be assumed from the context it should be put in but if you need to explain it or have a giant glossary of terms you might be going overboard. I like a glossary for some things but not having to stop in the middle of some dialogue to look it up.

    • No, fair enough, Fiona. The glossary I’m talking about covered things like the specific names of floor coverings. It wasn’t that they needed to be explained to understand the text, more that they provided some interesting historical detail. I have occasionally myself resorted to another character asking for an explanation!

  2. For most of us it’s getting that balance between period authenticity in a historical novel, and something we can identify with today – which is, by historical standards, a foreign land (or vice versa… :-)). I say most of it – every so often a brilliant writer pops up who flouts that one and comes up with a brilliant novel. I am thinking of George McDonald Fraser’s ‘Flashman’ novels, which were spot on period pastiches and really demanded that you first knew the history (also accepted mid-19th century blokish values)…but were also absolutely gripping yarns by any standards.

    • Oh yes, Matthew – isn’t it a sod that you can always find someone who pulls the impossible off with such panache. It sometimes feels as though if they can, everyone can. But it aint necessarily so, as the song goes! If only one could know when writing whether your local or period colour was just that, and would stand the test of time, or horribly dating nonsense. I try for a balance, but sometimes I wonder if I have perpetrated the equivalent of a Haligo Daligo wood…

  3. Colloquialisms are colour and culture. I say keep them. Not necessarily all of them, to the point where your reader has to reach for google every five seconds. But I’d keep some of them. I certainly wouldn’t swap an Aussie colloquialism for something a US reader would understand. Like ‘ute’ for ‘SUV’ or something like that. I go with ‘ute’.

    • That’s a good example, Lily. I hate seeing things ‘translated’. I understand American editors sometimes think that American audiences won’t take to stories written in the vernacular of other countries, but I think they underestimate the American reading public. I am a great believer in giving the reader the benefit of the doubt when it comes to intelligence and adaptability!

  4. First off, I can’t believe you didn’t know the lyrics after all this time LOL. This is not Elton’s personal fav song but it was a HUGE hit as was that album. As a big Elton fan – I’ve seen him 10x in concert and he is still the only rock act I’ve seen to play for 4 hrs – this is my fav rock song. I just like the lyrical texture Bernie Taupin put out here. I think the lyrics work. You have the city vs country (a big Bernie Taupin theme in those days) , street smart vs country wise. I think these type of colloquialisms paint a picture and that is why they work. They give you a sense or an atmosphere for the message. However if your daughter wants more challenging musical stuff by this duo check out ‘Captain Fantastic & The Brown Dirt Cowboy’ (his best album) or ‘Blue Moves’ (which he considers about his best). And of course, rock on! 🙂 Now if you will excuse me, you’ve inspired me to load up the Elton songs that are in my itunes library.

    • It is indeed, a disgrace and I am duly humbled. Although I must admit it’s something I am a bit prone to. I long ago lost count of the songs I sing along to merrily with only a vague phonetic idea of what the lyrics are, in places…

      I’m more than a bit jealous that you’ve seen Elton live so many times. He is a phenomenally talented man and I believe, wonderful in concert.

      I didn’t really mean it about the lyrics. They are an excellent contrast, really. And I am a big fan of owls. They are quite amazing birds, especially in their hunting skills. But it still cracks me up that I could have been so far off the mark. It does rather make my point though, that if the rest of the material is good, the odd misunderstanding or non-understanding doesn’t matter to the enjoyment of the whole!

      BTW, thank you so much for the email, Jett. Am getting to it! It’s been a bit mental around here lately!

      • The thing with songs is since it is words and music, you get that creates a mood. For the listener, this can mean a 1000 different things which is why 10 people will think a song means 10 different things. If you don’t know the words, it is a good chance to practice some creativity. Who knows, you might come up with something good on your own 🙂 Yeah, seen you have been busy. It is a good thing though.

    • LOL! I see what you did there! Yes, indeed, owls are a hoot, especially when they pop up in unexpected places. I guess that’s one advantage of the internet for the song writer – they can at least address mondegreens directly!

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