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Warren Clements: Word Play

What the NA? Depends who you ask Add to ...

Reviewing an Aug. 5 performance by the Hidden Cameras, Robert Everett-Green touched upon the Canadian group's popular song In the NA. It has a refrain that just won't quit, or, as Everett-Green put it, it's "one of the real ear-worm indie songs of the past year." The ear worm is a lovely term for a melodic hook that lodges in the brain and, often to the point of distraction, lingers long after the song has ended.

But what do the Cameras, or more particularly songwriter Joel Gibb, intend by "the NA"? "Loose my step in the NA," the singer says, according to the lyric sheet of the CD Origin: Orphan. He continues: "Hold me close in the NA. … In the NA will be my fate. ... Then I wouldn't be the only one to delve into the sea of NA. No, I wouldn't have a single thought, free from any MA or BA. I'd be staring at the ground with my head in the clouds."

Okay, as with Lewis Carroll's poem Jabberwocky, we may be in the realm of nonce words - words coined for a specific occasion and unlikely to be used otherwise - but let's persist. The references to MA and BA - master of arts, bachelor of arts? - could leave NA open to interpretation as "no arts" or "nihilist of arts".

What about NA as North America? The sea of NA could be the Labrador Sea or the Beaufort Sea. And what's a major ingredient of sea water? Salt, which is sodium, the chemical symbol for which is Na (short for the scientific Latin natrium). Aha! There's Na in the sea of NA. Or, as both Steam and Bananarama sang in the hit song Na Na Hey Hey Kiss Him Goodbye, "Na na na na, na na na na."

All right, focus. In his review, Everett-Green suggested the word might be read as "n/a, for "not applicable," meaning a zone of otherness where straight rules don't apply." N/a can also mean "not available," which would make it difficult to "hold me close," but could explain why the singer doesn't have "a single thought."

There's a more negative possibility. According to the Dictionary of American Regional English, na and its variants nah and naw are all other ways of saying no. Na and nae in the same sense can be traced back to Scotland. A dictionary of slang from the late 1800s recorded the pidgin word "na-hop," literally "no have," which more colloquially meant without, lacking, deprived of. Maybe the NA is the void.

Perhaps it refers to something more comforting. In his book Canadian Words and Sayings, Bill Casselman writes about the Na-Dene family of northern languages. Dene means person in Chipewyan and in Proto-Athapaskan, he says, while "Naa in related languages like Haida and Tlingit has to do with roots meaning 'house,' 'living' and 'tribe.' Thus, the semantic sense of Na Dene is 'our people.' " If the NA is an all-encompassing house or grouping of humanity, "hold me close in the NA" would be a sufficiently cozy thought to be printed on greeting cards. Hello, royalties!

But I didn't mention another snatch of Gibb's lyrics: "Then I wouldn't need a single NA, to take each NA as my own." So the cozy NA doesn't fit. I'd be tempted to throw up my hands and cry "Well! Now!" except that the German word for those interjections is apparently "Na!"

In desperation, I turned to the Hidden Cameras' website, where an article on In the NA says the song "demonstrates that Gibb's taste for obscure but evocative wordplay remains as strong as ever, the nonsense syllable of the title acting as a stand-in for any number of words. 'It transcends meaning,' remarks the songwriter. 'It's a variable like x, y or z.' "

Oh, sure. Na he tells us.

 

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