3

From the folk song Oh! Susanna by Stephen Foster (presumably written in slave dialect):

De bullgine bust, de hoss ran off, I really thought I’d die; I shut my eyes to hold my bref—Susanna, dont you cry.

Sheet music from Duke University on Wikimedia Commons

Emphasis mine. What does this phrase mean? All searches of that phrase and its variations turn up lyrics to Oh! Susanna, which makes me wonder if this phrase is unique.

1
  • This is an English language website which focuses on the history, meaning and usage of the English language. Normally, titles are bowdlerised if the word or phrase being discussed is considered racist, offensive, or vulgar. Titles are visible to anyone on the network who might not understand the scope of ELU
    – Mari-Lou A
    Nov 14 at 6:47
8

It doesn't mean anything. The lyrics are deliberate nonsense, full of contradictions.

Consider :

It rained all night the day I left, the weather it was dry;
The sun so hot I froze to death—Susanna, don’t you cry.

The weather is both rainy AND dry. A contradiction. The sun was hot, but the singer froze. Another contradiction.

I jumped aboard the telegraph and traveled down the river,

How is it possible to travel on a telegraph? It isn't possible, it's nonsense.

I shut my eyes to hold my breath

There is no connection between shutting eyes and holding breath. It's a non-sequitur. Another piece of nonsense. It doesn't mean anything, and that's the joke.

6
  • The older song “Nottamun Town” has similar nonsense: “I called for a quaff [=drink] to drive gladness away / To stifle the dust for it rained the whole day.” Nov 14 at 7:24
  • @AntonSherwood is there a term for this kind of non-sequitur in lyrics?
    – forest
    Nov 14 at 7:29
  • @forest Yes, it's called 'absurd' or 'nonsense'.
    – Mitch
    Nov 14 at 21:43
  • @Mitch I meant a term specific to the lyrical technique. I take it you mean there is none?
    – forest
    Nov 15 at 23:30
  • 1
    @forest: The rhetorical device — whether in lyrics or prose — is called paradox: a statement that is self-contradictory. Nov 17 at 17:20

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service, privacy policy and cookie policy

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.