Merrily we cycle along

February 27, 2014 at 7:43 pm | Posted in language | 2 Comments
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In this newspaper article,  a motorist describes a cyclist as ‘merrily cycling along’ on the M25.

This led @Doctor_Hutch to wonder

Right. The motorist could mean the cyclist was riding along going ‘Hallo, birds! Hallo, trees!’ I’ve done this myself in the past, though it seems a bit unlikely on the M25. Was the motorist (dare we say it) taking the mick? We might suspect this, but could we be sure?

I put my linguist hat on (it looks a bit like this ô) and got to work.

First stop, the OED. I love the OED. If you have a library card from pretty much anywhere, its riches are yours for the absorbing.

Anyway. According to the OED, ‘merrily’ has more than one sense. There are some fairly literal ones:

  1. With exuberant gaiety, joyously; cheerfully, happily. Also, in early use (esp. of song or speech): †pleasantly, agreeably; brightly (obs.).
  2. With alacrity; in a brisk and energetic manner.

There’s an obsolete one:

  1. † Jokingly, facetiously; wittily, cleverly. Obs.

And there’s a disparaging one:

4. Blithely, heedlessly; with disregard of possible consequences or future implications.

Senses 1-3 have been in use since the 1370s. Sense 4 is a more recent addition: the first citation is from 1906.*

So does the motorist mean the cyclist is riding along joyously? Or is he implying blithe and heedless disregard of possible consequences? Now I was wearing my linguist hat, I wondered whether we could tell from the construction whether sense 4 was intended. Or do we need to be there – to hear intonation, maybe? Do we have to rely on clues from the context (a particularly joy-inducing section of the M25 – South Mimms to Potters Bar?)?

I went off to search the British National Corpus.**

My search gave me 160 sentences using the word ‘merrily’ which had been spoken or written by English speakers in natural contexts (i.e. no-one sat them down and told them what to say/write).

I mucked around for a LONG time looking at the meanings of verbs that co-occur with ‘merrily’, finding out all sorts of interesting-but-fairly-tangential things (e.g. that it’s frequently used to describe how people talk – people are always answering merrily, calling out merrily, chatting merrily, etc – and also that fires blaze, burn and crackle merrily quite a lot, and things tinkle, ring, whistle and chirp merrily (and no doubt quite irritatingly) too.) Verbs describing movement are often used with ‘merrily’ – people swing, skip about, dance and sail along merrily.

I also looked at which of the OED’s senses ‘merrily’ was being used in. (I ignored sense 3, as it’s obsolete, and rolled senses 1 & 2 into one, so I was just looking at whether ‘merrily’ was being used literally or not.) There was some overlap between these groupings and verb meanings – ‘merrily’ is generally used in a literal sense with verbs describing people’s speech and the sounds things make, and generally in sense 4 (non-literally or mick-takingly) with non-action, more abstract verbs like ‘accumulate’, ‘divvy up’, ‘go about your business’). But usage with verbs of movement (where ‘cycling’ should show up) followed no clear pattern.

So far, so frustrating. Then suddenly, in the shower, I thought: What about the placement of the adverb? Many adverbs are pretty flexible about where they go in a sentence. You can cycle merrily, or merrily cycle.

I ran downstairs, dripping, did the analysis, and you won’t believe this, but it’s the answer. Simply put:

  • If you put ‘merrily’ after the verb, you’re being literal.
  • If you put ‘merrily’ before the verb, you’re taking the mick.

So if someone says you were ‘cycling merrily along the M25’, you’re all right (if a little misguided). If they describe you as ‘merrily cycling along the M25’, you’re not.


The author and companion, merrily cycling/ cycling merrily* somewhere in Calderdale (*delete as applicable)

This works for 80 out of the 93 examples I ended up analysing. (Many of the others are phrasal verbs***, whose syntactic behaviour is less predictable. I may go back and look at them, as I like phrasal verbs: in fact I’m a bit obsessed with them, to the extent I wrote an academic paper on them).****

I was almost too scared to go back and look at the original article. But there it is: ‘merrily cycling’. (I did actually leap from my chair with both arms in the air shouting YES! when I saw this.) So the motorist *was* taking the mick. Yeah, yeah, I know. Like we’re surprised.

So, on your way. Merrily. The lot of you.


* This makes sense, of course, as it leans heavily on everyone already knowing the more literal uses of ‘merrily’, and understanding that it is now being used to create a different effect.

** If you want to search the BNC, I suggest using the Lancaster University interface ; you can sign up for free, and search the database in all sorts of exciting ways. As I only got 160 hits, I did my analysis by hand, but there are plenty of ways of doing clever searches with query syntax. Let me know if you want to do this – I’ve got LOTS of handouts.

*** Phrasal verbs (also called multi-word verbs, particle verbs, and a couple of other things I can’t remember) are combinations of a verb plus something that looks like a preposition, but isn’t. They’re distinguished from true verb + prepositional phrase constructions by having a non-literal meaning (i.e. the meaning is more than the sum of its parts). So ‘run up the stairs’ is verb + prepositional phrase; ‘run up a dress’ is a phrasal verb, ‘run up’, plus a noun phrase. Other examples: ‘look up (in a dictionary)’, ‘look after’, ‘think over’, etc.

**** There are also a lot of repetitions of ‘Ding dong merrily on high’ and ‘Row, row, row your boat, merrily…’ which I ignored.


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  1. I would take ‘merrily’ to mean he’d probably downed a few sherries before he set off on the ride ended up on the M25

    • Yeah! I wondered about that, too. Interestingly, the OED entry for ‘merry, adj.’ lists ‘c. Boisterous or cheerful due to alcohol; slightly drunk, tipsy.’ but this (as you can see) isn’t yet attested as a meaning for ‘merrily’.

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