Last Month In Pop Language: Black Panther And Other Best Sellers

by Molly Rosen Marriner

This is our first installment of Last Month in Pop Language, a column where the most popular (statistically) song, book, and film of the month will have their words analyzed in hopes of drawing a conclusion about language’s current usage—and future. At the end of each monthly column, we’ll draw a conclusion: Was last month’s pop language masterly, malevolent, or merely meh?

Film: Black Panther

Black Panther debuted on February 16, 2018 and has been holding fast ever since. It was the number one film for nearly all of March, 2018. While most of the film’s credit has gone to its directorial vision and world-building, similar kudos goes to its screenplay by Ryan Coogler, Joe Robert Cole, and Jack Kirby. The language is never flashy, but it does a great job of avoiding “with great power comes great responsibility”-type superhero cheese. Best of all, the script knows when to use humor (often subtly), when to use overtly emotional dialogue (when Killmonger asks to be buried at sea with his ancestors), and when to rein it in (the simple yet iconic cry of “Wakanda forever!”)

We even found some literary devices employed in the script . . . take a look:

  • Allusion: “Is this Wakanda?” “No, it’s Kansas.”
  • Simile: “Did he freeze?” “Like an antelope in headlights.”
  • Verbal irony: “Praise! Another broken white boy to fix.”
  • Metonymy: “I am loyal to that throne, no matter who sits on it.”

Song: “God’s Plan” by Drake

Since its release on February 3, 2018 when it premiered at the top of the chart, “God’s Plan” has been one of the best-performing audio streams of all time. However, that doesn’t say much for “all time.” The song features rapper Drake sing-speaking extremely simple, short phrases with an infrequent rhyme pattern. (Though, to be fair, he tries: sometimes he rhymes sorry with party and me with . . . me.)

In the song, there is only one word longer than two syllables (“I finessed down Weston Road”); nearly every sentence begins with a simple subject-verb pattern. Yeah—if the most complicated syntax is “Turn the O2 into the O3, dog,” perhaps a rapper who raps rather than chants might unseat Drake soon with better wordplay. However, maybe the song tops the charts because of its simplicity: if there are no long or complex words, is it easier to sing along to?

The credit probably doesn’t belong to the lyrics or the beat, but to the song’s author. Alright, Champagne Papi . . . alright.

And, even Drake uses some literary devices in his lyrics . . . here they are:

  • Rhyme: “I only love my bed and my momma, I’m sorry…they’ll bring the crashers to the party.”
  • Metaphor: “Someone watchin’ this shit close.”
  • Hyperbole: “Without 40, Oli, there’d be no me.”
  • Interjection: “Yeah, yeah.”

Book: A Wrinkle in Time by Madeleine L’Engle

According to Publisher’s Weekly‘s online charts, the 1960 children’s book A Wrinkle in Time topped the bestseller list for most of March—undoubtedly due to the recent Oprah/DuVernay film (no offense, Madeleine). In fact, there’s a general dominance of children’s books topping the charts in March: also making appearances on the Publisher’s Weekly list are Seuss’s Green Eggs and Ham, One Fish Two Fish, and The Cat in the Hat, as well as Unti Celebrity Picture Book, and the newest installment of Captain Underpants. The only two adult fictions are both mass-market suspense: the new John Grisham and David Baldacci. (Does the month’s sweep of older texts—the L’Engle and Seusses, all midcentury—show a disturbing lack of originality in contemporary children’s lit? Eh. Every March, Seuss titles make a resurgence: his birthday is in March, and schools and libraries order copies en masse for Seussian celebrations. So, probably not.)

Ok, but back to A Wrinkle in Time—why does it resonate so much with modern-day audiences, making it March’s bestseller? (Especially when the movie received such poor reviews.) From the 1960s to today, young adult books always sell well—as do movie tie-ins. But, it’s the book’s mix of philosophy, science, and lite religion that makes it still resonate with modern audiences, just as the combination succeeds in The Chronicles of Narnia or the Golden Compass series, as well. Plus, the book (and movie)’s female protagonist makes it extra-appealing to modern book-buyers.

And, to carry out the literary device theme . . . here are some found in the classic book:

  • Allegory: “The Black Thing” represents evil
  • Imagery: “The first sign of returning consciousness was cold. Then sound. She was aware of voices that seemed to be traveling through her across an arctic waste. Slowly the icy sounds cleared and she realized that the voices belonged to her father and Calvin.”
  • Personification: “Meg’s pencil was busy”
  • Allusion: “And the light shineth in the darkness; and the darkness comprehend it not”—actually, everything Mrs. Who says

The Verdict on March, 2018 in Pop Language: Merely Meh

Last month’s vocabulary is best classified as “decent, but stale.”

While Black Panther boosted March’s intellectual credibility and saved the month from “malevolent” classification, it had been out for over a month. Plus, A Wrinkle in Time first came out in 1960—March shouldn’t be too proud that it’s relying on its progressive literary vision from a book that pre-dated AOL.

Most damningly, though, is another month of Drake dominance. Drake is outdone only by Too Short and DMX for the ignoble distinction of “rappers with low vocabularies” (check out the study by Matt Daniels here); with linguistic simplicities like cuddle, wishin’ on me, and bad things, April needs to bump “God’s Plan” from the charts if it wants the English language to receive this columnist’s Dictionary.com stamp of mellifluous mastery. In the future, Drake, might I recommend a little more allegory and three-syllable words? Madeline L’Engle says it works every time.

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Molly Rosen Marriner is a writer, editor, and basset hound aficionado who lives in Oakland, CA.

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