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January 31, 2018

Mapping the "Shape of You"

Ed Sheeran's "Shape of You" took home a Grammy Sunday evening for Best Pop Solo Performance. Undoubtedly Shape of You has been the most successful song of 2017: it's gone 8x Platinum in the United States, broke ABBA's record in Australia for longest song at #1 (15 weeks!), and became the most streamed song on Spotify of all time. All records aside, there's another interesting thing about "Shape of You" - the title.

"Shape of You" is an odd title. When the song first dropped a year ago, I was intrigued by the construction. In Standard English, you can't use the possessive construction "of X" with a personal pronoun. For example, you can't say "*This is the castle of me;" you would have to say "this is my castle." This restriction doesn't exist with nouns - you can say both "This is the castle of the king" and "This is the king's castle," even if the former is a little awkward. "Of me" is unusual enough that a reader once wrote in to Language Log about a politician using the construction. Now, some of you may note the existence of the phrase "boss of me," especially "you're not the boss of me," which doesn't sound bad at all. There's even a song by They Might Be Giants called "Boss of Me" which was the theme song of the show "Malcolm in the Middle." Over at Language Log, they did a good post on the history of the phrase "boss of me," which seems to go back to the 1800s! Their analysis is that the use of "of me" is infantile. This can't really apply to "Shape of You," a song about meeting someone in the club, taking them home, and being "in love with [their] body." (At least, I hope Ed wasn't trying to be childish).

One of the songwriters says that growing up in Ireland, there was an expression "look at the shape of you" to mean "look at how you've shown up." He suggested adding this line to the song because they were worried that it would be too objectifying to have a song where the hook was "I'm in love with your body."

Sheeran also came up with what he thought would be a good phrase for a chorus: “I’m in love with your body”. Mac and McDaid weren’t convinced. “’I’m in love with your body,’ on its own with no addendum, with nothing at the end or no preface, felt objectifying to me,” McDaid said. “It felt like that’s the thing ? it’s just physical, it’s nothing else.” He said “the shape of you,” a phrase common in Northern Ireland, where he’s from, “can say ‘whatever you are, whatever it is. I’m in love with you.’ You know, it’s the shape of who you are figuratively.” (Source)
Johnny says, Where I come from, there's this phrase, the say 'Look at the shape of you,' and that means 'Look at the way you've showed up.' (Source).

They reinterpreted "Shape of you" to mean something like someone's essence, though the word "shape" still cheekily implies a certain physicality to the phrase - after all, if he's "in love with [her] body," it's not a stretch that he's in love with the shape of her body. It still allows a certain ambiguity to it that the standard construction, "your shape," wouldn't have. "Your shape" places the emphasis squarely on the shape, with "your" being a descriptor. "Shape of you," on the other hand, is linking a noun and a pronoun, and by placing the pronoun at the end, gives it an extra emphasis. This distance is what allows the ambiguity of what "the shape of you" actually means. The song isn't purely physical - the second verse is dedicated to a mundane date at a buffet, and the chorus assures us that his "heart is falling too". Mining this obscure Northern Irish expression (I can't find any hits for "look at the shape of you" on Google, and Johnny McDaid says that he heard it "growing up" - he was born in 1976) therefore fit the song perfectly.

That it's an Irish expression is even more serendipitous. Sheeran has long had a fascination with Ireland. He has a Irish Gaelic tattoo, Irish folk singer Van Morrisson is one of his favorite singers (and is mentioned on "Shape of You"), and the album "Shape of You" is on, "Divide," has multiple Irish references. He managed to find an expression that also fit in with his "brand" and continuing Celtic craze.

Now remember that Standard English varieties don't allow possessive "of you" to happen. This means that when most native English speakers see a song titled "Shape Of You," it will be slightly off-kilter. Nevertheless, thanks to other pre-existing constructions like "Boss of Me," it's not too unusual. It's exotic enough to grab your attention, but not so exotic as to seem foreign and bizarre. The end result is that one of the most popular songs of the 21st century uses an obscure Hiberno-English grammatical construction for its title. Being that - per Ed Sheeran's admission - they weren't trying to be innovative with this song (similarities to other songs have been noted, and they contacted the writers of TLC to split credit due to similarities to "No Scrubs"), the title is a unique touch that separates it from other songs with the same subject matter.

A lesson to songwriters - don't be afraid to mess with dialectal expressions. By taking the title and hook of his song from an Irish expression, Ed managed to immediately make his song stand out among the rest. He didn't have to compete with other songs that may have shared the same name ("Your Body" could have been the name of the song, but that's also a Christina Aguilera song) or just blend into the background ("Body" is so bland and obvious as to be almost parodic; the longer "I'm In Love With Your Body" gives away the entire theme of the song). Shape of You is so distinctive that any songwriter who tries to re-use the phrase for a different song will be fighting against the strong association with this song. I'm not here to tell you that the secret to the song's success is its title, because it's not. I am here to tell you that the title of the song and the use of the phrase worked very well with each other. Using very common words but putting them together in novel and interesting ways is a solid technique.

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