Learn English through Classic Songs: They All Laughed

Written by brothers George and Ira Gershwin for the 1937 film Shall We Dance, the famous song They All Laughed has been covered by so many great singers, it won’t be easy to choose your favorite: the original version with Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers? Or Frank Sinatra? Sarah Vaughan? Ella Fitzgerald, Stacey Kent, or a duet of Tony Bennett and Lady Gaga?

The classic song revolves around the idiom to have the last laugh, which means to succeed when others think you will not. In the intro, the singer strikes a defiant pose against the pessimists who predict his/her budding romance doesn’t stand a chance.

The lyrics, courtesy of Wikipedia:

Intro

The odds were a hundred to one against me
The world thought the heights were too high to climb
But people from Missouri never incensed me
Oh, I wasn’t a bit concerned
For from history I had learned
How many, many times the worm had turned

Odds refers to how likely it is that something will or will not happen. In a race like the Kentucky Derby, if the odds on a particular horse are 100-1, the horse is considered a long shot and very unlikely to win.

Incensed, here a verb but usually used as an adjective, means to make someone very angry.

The idiom the worm has turned, originally used by Shakespeare to suggest that even the most harmless of creatures will fight to defend itself, evokes again the idea of expectations upended.

In the first verse, the narrator compares herself/himself to famous inventors and explorers (click on the links for more information) who proved the doubters and skeptics wrong.

1st verse

They all laughed at Christopher Columbus when he said the world was round
They all laughed when Edison recorded sound
They all laughed at Wilbur and his brother when they said that man could fly
Why, they told Marconi wireless was a phoney – it’s the same old cry
Why they laughed at me, wanting you – said I was reaching for the moon
But oh, you came through – and now they’ll have to change their tune
They all said we’d never get together – they laughed at us and how
For oh, ho, ho – Who’s got the last laugh now?

Changing a preposition can have a powerful effect on meaning: to laugh with someone means to share one’s amusement with another, and the tone is friendly; to laugh at someone is to mock them, and the tone is distinctly unfriendly.

Phoney (also spelled phony) means fake, or in this context worthless.

Cry is used here in the sense of shout rather than weep.

To reach for the moon is to try to attain the unattainable.

To come through is a phrasal verb meaning to succeed despite the difficulties.

To change your tune is to voice an opinion contrary to your previous opinion.

The second and final verse lists a series of inventions (and an architectural project) that were mocked when new.

2nd verse

They all laughed at Rockefeller Center – now they’re fighting to get in
They all laughed at Whitney and his cotton gin
They all laughed at Fulton and his steamboatHershey and his chocolate bar
Ford and his Lizzie kept the laughers busy – that’s how people are
Why they laughed at me, wanting you – said it would be “Hello – Goodbye”
But oh, you came through – and now they’re eating humble pie
They all said we’d never get together – darling, let’s take a bow
For oh, ho, ho, Who’s got the last laugh –
Hee, hee, hee, Let’s have the last laugh –
Ha, ha, ha, Who’s got the last laugh now?

To eat humble pie is an old-fashioned idiom describing an apologetic, chastened, and somewhat humiliated attitude. Here, the idea is that the gossips who thought this couple’s romance was doomed should now be embarrassed.

To take a bow is to acknowledge applause and admiration, and that’s exactly what Fred and Ginger do at the end of their elegant and fast-footed dance number in Shall We Dance.

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