Of blue raincoats and polka dot bikinis

Ah the last time we saw you/you looked so much older

Your famous blue raincoat was torn at the shoulder

Leonard Cohen, Famous Blue Raincoat, 1971



It was an itsy-bitsy teeny weeny yellow polka dot bikini

That she wore for the first time today

Brian Hyland, Itsy-Bitsy Teeny Weeny Yellow Polka Dot Bikini, 1960


Two songs from my childhood, both immensely memorable. One a novelty song that charted its way to the top, the other a haunting, lilting melody. Guess which one I had to learn to dance to at the age of 14? [I’ll have you know that dancing to Leonard Cohen is no laughing matter!].

So what are these songs doing in “a blog about information”?

Let me try and explain. Famous blue raincoat. [Incidentally, it was a Burberry]. Not blue famous raincoat. Itsy-bitsy teeny weeny yellow polka dot bikini, not polka dot yellow itsy-bitsy teeny weeny bikini.


Because the other forms just don’t sound right, don’t feel right, there’s something you can’t quite put your finger on why, but they’re not right.

Because adjectives have an order, a hierarchy; an order that is tacitly understood, learnt and practised by native English speakers; an order that has to be explained explicitly to non-native speakers of the language.

An order that goes something like this:

Quantity. Opinion. Size. Age. Shape. Colour. Origin. Material. Purpose.

Visit this site to see how non-natives get to learn the order and hierarchy. You may also find it of interest to read these posts on the subject. Other languages appear to be less hierarchical when it comes to adjective placement and order. [If you’re interested, you can even take a look at Dalcurian adjectives :-)]

I had three reasons to write this post:

One, having known about this for some time, and having been reminded of it regularly more recently, I wanted to share it with you, in case you were as interested in it as I was. English is a wonderful, living, just-slightly-insane language.

Two, I think it’s a great example of tacit knowledge, something we need to understand better as we move forward with the web. We know it, but don’t know we know it. We use it, without knowing we’re using it.

Three, I think it’s a great example of how the web works, allowing me to write a post like this, linking to stuff that lets you dig into it if you choose to.

Incidentally, when people come and argue with me about apps and HTML5, I’ve tended to use just one word in reply.


3 thoughts on “Of blue raincoats and polka dot bikinis”

  1. As a native English speaker, I admit I haven’t given adjectival order much – if any – thought before; it’s an interesting notion, and I’ll do some further reading of those links.

    I wonder if the same is true with German; while I learned that clauses in sentences follow a strict order of “time, manner, place”, it’s something which a German might well not consciously notice.

    I also remember hearing a while ago that English word order had begun to creep into spoken German; I first came across an RPN calculator when I was learning German, and it struck me as elegant that German sentence structure was like putting the clauses on the stack, and then operating on them with the verbs. A very well-read Frenchman once told me “English was designed to be spoken, whereas French was designed to be written” – in this vein, I can pretty much add “and German was designed to be run” :-).

  2. Very interesting. I remember similar things when I was learning German (“time, manner, place”, “accusative nouns last”, “accusative pronouns first”) but I think they are more hard and fast rules of grammar.

    I don’t think “blue famous raincoat” sounds wrong, it just must makes the blueness more significant. But then I do’t k ow the song…I’ll need to point of noting if this English word order is being adhered to in everyday parlance.

  3. I had to look at the pictures for a long time before I worked out why I was convinced something was wrong.

    It’s because I always thought the itsy-witsy teeny-weeny yellow polka-dot bikini looked like this: (I can recall seeing women dressed in such outfits when my mother took me to the beach): http://lafemmenicki.tumblr.com/post/20000253056/lauramcphee-polka-dot-bikini-1962-she-wore

    I also remember somebody telling me that Famous Blue Raincoat is about heroin. The blue is for a vein, and the tear at the shoulder a reference to injecting. Going to the station is a reference to going to meet a drug dealer (as in Irvine Welsh’s ‘Trainspotting’), but the image also reminds me of Robert Johnson’s ‘Love In Vain’

    “The train left the station
    With two lights on behind.
    The blue light was my blues,
    The red light was my mind.
    All my love’s in vain.”

Let me know what you think

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