Navy Blue: One discourse, one sense? No.

I spent most of the 1980s in the US Navy.  The music that we were listening to in those days: Pat Benatar, Joan Jett, REO Speedwagon.  But, the classics, too: In the Navy, Navy Blue… ay, matey, there’s the rub. 

There’s this thing called word sense ambiguity.  A “word sense” is a meaning, and many words have more than one; “word sense ambiguity” is the case of a word in context (as opposed to in the “lexicon,” or “mental dictionary”) having more than one possible sense.  In practice, a word in context has as many possible senses as there are for that word in the lexicon, so: many words are always going to be ambiguous.

Does that mean that it’s not possible to recover the correct sense?  Not at all.  In fact, humans are so good at “resolving” word sense ambiguity that we rarely notice that it’s there, even though we experience it almost constantly.  For computers, though–that’s a different story.  Word sense ambiguity is a problem for any computer program that tries to do things with language.  What to do?  Well, mostly, people try to get their programs to take advantage of context in some way.

Screen Shot 2019-02-06 at 04.59.28
Gale, William A., Kenneth W. Church, and David Yarowsky. “One sense per discourse.” In Proceedings of the workshop on Speech and Natural Language, pp. 233-237. Association for Computational Linguistics, 1992.

Some approaches to this problem, known as word sense disambiguation, take advantage of what’s known as the one sense per discourse hypothesis.  Said hypothesis postulates that in any given discussion, an ambiguous word will only have one of its meanings.  So, if you can figure out that in a given conversation the word bank refers to the land along the side of a river, then you don’t even have to consider the meaning place where you keep money for the conversation as a whole.  Figure it out one time, and you’re done for the remainder of that “discourse.”

I spent most of the 1980s in the US Navy.  The music that we were listening to in those days: Pat Benatar, Joan Jett, REO Speedwagon, Berlin.  But, the classics, too: In the Navy (Village People), Navy Blue (Diane Renay)… ay, matey, there’s the rub.  See, in the single song Navy Blue, there is a play on the word blue.  

Replace the crossed keys with a caduceus and that’s what my blues looked like at the end of my enlistment. Source:
  • navy or navy blue is a color.  It’s the color of what we call in the Navy our “dress blues,” which for enlisted men means the “Cracker Jack” uniform, which in fact is a hell of a lot more black than it is blue–but, whatever.
  • blue means something like mildly sad, mildy depressed.  In French, a rough equivalent of the phrase to be blue or to have the blues would be avoir le cafard.  

One discourse, two senses: a counter-example to the one sense per discourse hypothesis.

To be fair, I should point out that Gale et al. never claimed that the one sense per discourse hypothesis was an absolute–it’s more of a heuristic.  They reported it to be true 98% of the time or so–but, not always.  Still: I must point out the shameful lack of attention to Diane Renay’s #6 hit in their classic paper.  For shame, for shame, for shame.

Here’s a link to the song.  Scroll down for the full lyrics with explanations of some of the obscure military terminology and terms of romance, and don’t forget to buy a sailor a drink today–he’s serving his country, unlike, say, Donald Trump, Donald Trump Jr., Ivanka Trump, Eric Trump…


Navy Blue

Sung by Diane Renay, lyrics by Bob Crewe, Bud Rehak, and Edward Fluri

Blue, navy blue, I’m as blue as I can be
‘Cause my steady boy said “Ship ahoy”
And joined the Nay-ee-ay-vee
  • steady boy: old term for boyfriend with whom you have an exclusive relationship.
  • ship ahoy: old mariner’s term used to hail a ship
He said he wanted to settle down
And let me be his girl 
But first he had to do a little travelin’ around
And see the whole wide world
  • to settle down: to establish a permanent residence
  • girl: in this context, ‘girlfriend’
That’s why I’m
Blue, navy blue, I’m as blue as I can be
‘Cause my steady boy said “Ship ahoy”
And joined the Nay-ee-ay-vee
I got a letter yesterday from Tokyo
And a souvenir
A walky-talky wind-up little China doll
That says “Wish you were here”
  • wish you were here: stereotypical text written on a postcard when you’re too lazy to write anything substantive
Blue, navy blue, I’m as blue as I can be
‘Cause my steady boy said “Ship ahoy”
And joined the Nay-ee-ay-vee
He’s comin’ home to see me on a weekend pass
A forty-eight hour day
That boat he’s sailin’ on just better get here fast
‘Cause I can hardly wait
  • pass: permission, sometimes written, for a military person to take time off.  A weekend pass is from Friday evening to Sunday evening–also known as a “48,” although that doesn’t have to be on a weekend.  A “96” is a 4-day pass.
  • day in this song is sometimes transcribed as day-ate, i.e. date, giving the line the meaning of a rencard galant of 48 hours.
Till then I’m
Blue, navy blue, I’m as blue as I can be
‘Cause my steady boy said “Ship ahoy”
And joined the Nay-ee-ay-vee
Blue, navy blue, I’m as blue as I can be
Paroliers : Bob Crewe / Bud Rehak / Edward Fluri
Paroles de Navy Blue © Sony/ATV Music Publishing LLC

4 thoughts on “Navy Blue: One discourse, one sense? No.”

  1. Thank you for the useful “explication de texte” of this melancholy touching song .

    Is “navy blue” the colour we call “bleu marine” ? As the Navy is “la Marine”it would be perfectly symetric .

    Ahem … Is being in the military “serving one’s country”? Pardon me, I had the impression it has been the exact opposite for many decades now . But it’s only an opinion after all .

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Is it bleu marine… I’m a linguist, so first I went to Google Images and searched “bleu marine.” One of the autocompletes was

      bleu marine et noir

      …which suggests that we’re not the first people to have this question.

      Some of the images that it gave me looked like “Navy blue,” i.e. essentially black. Others were definitely a blue color.

      Having said that: it’s stereotypical of American anglophone males that we don’t make as many color distinctions as American anglophone females. So, my judgement here is suspect.

      Next step: I went to WordReference and looked up “blue marine.” The translation: navy blue. Since I’m (still) a linguist, I then looked up “navy blue.” The translation: bleu marine.

      In the American military’s oath of enlistment, you do not swear to protect (a) the country, (b) the president, (c) a flag: you swear to protect the Constitution. If that’s not serving the country, I don’t know what is. YMMV.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. A play on “navy blue,” agreed, but I don’t see a violation of the one sense per discourse principle because she never uses the term in its more common conventional sense. And for that matter, no one else has ever used the term in her peculiar sense. I don’t think the song’s title, since it has no context, could legitimately be called a different sense, though without context it certainly calls up the main meaning people were familiar with before Ms. Renay came onto the scene.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Hm… Interesting question. Let me see if I can repeat your argument: you’re saying that (a) there’s only one sense in the song, and (b) it’s the sense of moderately sad. Looking at the data:

      > I’m as blue as I can be

      …is clearly the sense of “le cafard.” That leaves

      > Blue, navy blue, …

      …as the only other occurrence. Is it the same sense? Tough question, i.e. I don’t think that the answer is obvious.

      For the first “Blue,” yeah: I think it is, indeed, the “le cafard” sense. So, what we’re left with is “navy blue.”

      Can we immediately rule out that it’s the “cafard” sense? No, because an entirely reasonable analysis would be that we should interpret “navy blue” as “moderately sad because of the Navy.”

      As you said, though (iff I understood you correctly) (for the non-logical such as myself, “iff” means “if and only if”):

      > no one else has ever used the term in her peculiar sense.

      …which leaves me to wonder if that (i.e. “moderately sad because of the Navy”) is, in fact, what she meant.

      If it is not, in fact, what she meant: what other option do we have here, other than to posit the “color” sense? In which case we do, in fact, have two senses in a single discourse.

      Am I understanding you correctly, and if so, do you buy my reasoning?

      Liked by 1 person

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