Etymology Usage

A song and dance

Q: In his book A Fine Romance, David Lehman writes about the Gershwin songs that Fred and Adele Astaire “sang and danced to.” This got me to thinking. Why can we simply sing a song but we have to dance TO it? It doesn’t make sense to me.

A: It makes sense to us. A singer is HEARD, while a dancer is SEEN.

A song, or any other piece of music, consists of sounds. In order to be heard, the notes must be sounded—that is, they have to be sung.

But the notes are not danced, because a dancer’s movements don’t make notes that are heard. The notes can only be danced TO, because the dancer isn’t sounding notes. (Yes, a tap dancer makes percussive sounds, but they’re not notes.)

Your question concerning David Lehman’s book about Jewish songwriters in America gives us a chance to discuss the expression “song and dance.”

When the phrase entered English in the early 17th century, according to the Oxford English Dictionary, it meant a “form of entertainment (spec. a vaudeville act) consisting of singing and dancing.”

The earliest published reference in the OED is from a 1628 account of Sir Francis Drake’s circumnavigation of the world. During a landing in California, he witnessed a “song and dance” by Native Americans.

It wasn’t until the 1870s, though, that the expression was used in its vaudeville sense. Here’s an example from an 1872 issue of the Chicago Tribune: “First week of the distinguished song and dance artists.”

By the end of the 19th century, according to the OED, the expression was being used figuratively to mean “an elaborately contrived story or entreaty” as well as “a fuss or outcry.”

The earliest citation for the usage in the OED is from an 1895 collection of short stories by Edward Waterman Townsend: “Den, ’is whiskers gives me a song an’ dance.”

We’ll conclude with an example from A Diversity of Creatures (1917), a collection of Rudyard Kipling’s short stories: “I don’t see how this song and dance helps us any.”

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