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Going for a song

Posted by Victoria S Dennis on March 19, 2007

In Reply to: Going for a song posted by RRC on March 18, 2007

: : : : : Does anyone know where the phrase 'going for a song' (meaning going cheap) comes from? I can't find the original meaning anywhere!
: : : : : Many thanks
: : : : : RT

: : : : The original meaning? You mean, song as a mataphor for virtually nothing? It started when songs didn't cost anything, at least not to sing. That's all changed now, of course, and if the Disney company and some others have their way you'll have to pay a royalty on every B-flat that you sing. That's an exaggeration, but I think that the changing times have made this metaphor nearly obsolete. To find out how old the metaphor might be I consulted the Oxford English Dictionary, s.v. song.

: : : : "Used to denote a very small or trifling sum, amount, or value, or a thing of little worth or importance. Freq. an old (also a mere) song. a. In the phr. for a(n old) song, for a mere trifle, for little or nothing.
: : : : (a) 1601 SHAKES. All's Well III. ii. 9, I know a man that had this tricke of melancholy hold a goodly Mannor for a song. a1639 W. WHATELY Prototypes II. xxvi. 25 To have so little esteem of the outward means of salvation, as to part with them for a song as we say. 1707 Reflex. upon Ridicule 262 He retrenches the Number of his Servants or their Wages, and would have them serve, as they say, for a Song. 1751 H. WALPOLE Lett. II. 395 The whole-length Vandykes went for a song! 1808 PIKE Sources Mississ. I. App. 10 You will perceive that we have obtained about 100000 acres for a song. 1865 DICKENS Mut. Fr. III. xvii, I assure you, the things were going for a song. 1890 JESSOPP Trials Co. Parson iv. 173 A brief report was published, and may be purchased now for a song."
: : : : SS

: : : The saying seems to have started off as 'All this for a song' and is the alleged angry response by Burleigh to Queen Elizabeth I when she instructed him to pay Edmund Spenser £100 for a performance of his "The Faerie Queen". The original inference is clearly different and opposite to present day usage.

: : I regret my ignorance of this story. It sounds as though Spenser's Faerie Queen had been "performed" for the Queen, and that Burleigh had belittled the work as a mere song. But The Faerie Queen is a pretty long poem, and I doubt that it was set to music and sung for the Queen. But even if it had been, Burleigh's comment sounds disparaging of the work. Perhaps Briggsey or someone else can elucidate what to me is a mystery.
: : SS

: £100 was huge sum of money at the time - most people didn't make that much in a year or even several years. Even if it took a month to read the poem, it was a pretty generous payment.

Street entertainers of all kinds were commonplace in Elizabethan England; singers would perform in public, and if anybody liked the song they would throw performer a penny or two. Not much, because singing was a very widespread accomplishment at the time (so much so, that barber's shops would keep a lute for the use of patrons who wanted to sing a few dumps or madrigals while waiting for their haircut). Thus, singing a song was thought of as something which anyone could do, which took no great effort, and was worth very little in the way of reward. So if you got something "for [singing] a song", you got it in return for doing someone a trivial service, or by paying a trifling price. (Note the extended version cited by the OED "for an *old* song" - implying that you haven't even given your audience something they haven't heard before!)
The first version of "The Faerie Queene" was published in 1590, and "for a song" was clearly already a proverb, or at least a catchphrase, by 1601 when Shakespeare used it. I agree that nobody would normally describe The Faerie Queene" as a song, which makes me suspect that the phrase already existed in 1590 and Burleigh's outburst, if he ever really made it (is it historically attested, or just a legend?) was a play on it. (VSD)

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