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(Verse 2)
Suddenly
I'm not half the man I used to be
There's a shadow hanging over me
Oh, yesterday came suddenly

Yesterday by The Beatles

What baffle me is the the line "Oh, yesterday came suddenly" it seems like a phrase without any sense, how can yesterday come? What came? The yesterday as a song? I mean the idea of writing this song? like he is saying the lyrics to the song yesterday just hit his head?

Is Paul trying to say the events that happened yesterday came very sudden?

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    I’m voting to close this question because it's Off Topic song lyrics interpretation Commented Feb 5, 2023 at 15:39
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    If you're struggling with this one, you'd better steer well clear of Sgt. Pepper's! But seriously, don't look to song lyrics as a way of learning English. Commented Feb 5, 2023 at 16:04
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    It's only my opinion, but to the extent that I ascribe an actual coherent meaning to that line, I understand it as saying that as a "discarded lover", the narrator is suddenly overwhelmed by the contrast between today and yesterday. I'd also say that sudden often has strong allusions to all at once, and in this context the singer is simultaneously experiencing / thinking about both his current ("girlfriend-less") state AND the situation yesterday when everything was fine and dandy (but actually, he never needed to think about anything yesterday). Commented Feb 5, 2023 at 16:15
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    @Mari-LouA: Per my first comment, I voted to close half an hour before deciding to say how I react to the line in question. It's not an "answer", because there is no "right" answer here. I refrain from upvoting any answers posted by others to questions like this, because I think once that starts happening to any significant extent, ELL / ELU will simply be overrun by Please interpret this for me requests. Commented Feb 5, 2023 at 16:20
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    @BentoUna: I spent 4 years "learning" Literary Criticism to degree level, but as implied by Marie-Lou, your opinion is as good as mine when it comes to this kind of "interpretation". People can write whole books about what they think a few lines of poetry / song lyrics "mean". If what's been written on this page doesn't "strike a chord" with you, don't let that bother you. It's not a text for learning / teaching - just something that may arouse "feelings" in at least some people listening (but they may just be reacting to the melody rather than the lyrics). Commented Feb 5, 2023 at 17:06

9 Answers 9

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The meaning of pop song lyrics is very often hard, or impossible, to state definitely. They can be like poetry, where the intention is to create a certain emotional effect, or the words can mean nothing at all.

When an moment, hour, day, etc, comes 'suddenly' that could mean, I suppose, that previously the speaker felt happy or safe, and then was jolted out of that state by the event or events that occurred at that time. So maybe it's not so much 'yesterday' that came suddenly, but the events of yesterday that took him by surprise.

Worth noting:

  1. Especially with 'musically led' songs (ones where the tune was written first and perhaps has a greater importance), the words can be very much a secondary thing and need not have any (or very much) meaning. This is very widely the case with pop songs. It may be pointless to try to work out exactly what they 'mean'. This may be considered a desirable feature, as it would tend to make the appeal as wide as possible.

    As Paul recalled in 1968: "I couldn’t think of any words to it, so originally it was just, ‘Scrambled Egg.’ It was called ‘Scrambled Egg’ for a couple of months, until I thought of ‘Yesterday.’ And that’s it. True story"

  2. John Lennon was unhappy about the lack of meaning in the lyrics:

    But even with a complete set of lyrics, Paul’s songwriting partner, John Lennon, couldn’t get over a sense that ‘Yesterday’ was missing something.

    ... in 1980, he [Lennon] revealed the fundamental flaw in what is arguably Paul’s greatest contribution to The Beatles catalogue: "Paul wrote the lyrics to ‘Yesterday’," Lennon began. "Although the lyrics don’t resolve into any sense, they’re good lines. They certainly work, you know what I mean? They’re good, but if you read the whole song, it doesn’t say anything; you don’t know what happened."

    Yesterday (Far Out Magazine)

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    And probably it doesn’t say anything; you don’t know what happened is exactly why the song is such a success. Commented Feb 6, 2023 at 10:31
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    The insertion of 'Paul’s songwriting partner, John Lennon' seems oddly unnecessary to me, and makes me feel very old. Commented Feb 6, 2023 at 10:39
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    Just now I finally got a ChatGPT account, and asked it to write me a Beatles song. It provided "Yesterday's Memories": Verse 1: Every day I wake up and I see/All the pictures of you and me/I smile and I start to cry/Thinking 'bout the reasons why Chorus: Yesterday's memories/Keep coming back to me/All the laughter and the tears/All the joy and all the fears ... also a second verse (much like the first), a 'bridge' and an 'outro'. I am not sure what I think about this. Commented Feb 6, 2023 at 11:24
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    ChatGPT can't write music nor create any ORIGINAL work of art. It is not sentient. Full stop. What it can do is summarise texts; correct punctuation, syntax, grammatical and spelling errors and reword awkward phrases in mere seconds. The instructions have to be worded carefully though and include detail. So, it does a very good job. However, on the origin of words, it comes short. It just regurgitates what is online using different words. The bot lacks that spark of intuition and depth of knowledge that only an etymologist possesses.
    – Mari-Lou A
    Commented Feb 7, 2023 at 11:19
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    It’s worth noting that John Lennon and Paul McCartney had developed a rivalry by then, which may have colored Lennon’s opinion of McCartney’s songwriting. McCartney wrote “Silly Love Songs” in 1976, as a retort to this same criticism from Lennon.
    – Davislor
    Commented Feb 7, 2023 at 15:14
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Unlike the other answers posted so far, I don’t read “yesterday came suddenly” as being about concrete events that happened yesterday. Instead, I’ve always interpreted it as

“My life has changed so drastically that ‘yesterday’ embodies the concept of a better time. I did not anticipate that this change would happen, so the existence of ‘yesterday’ with this meaning was a sudden occurrence.”

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    I don't understand how your answer do not describe a concrete events that happened yesterday?? for me you just say:"When an moment, hour, day, etc, comes 'suddenly' that could mean, I suppose, that previously the speaker felt happy or safe" by Michael Harvey in other words
    – Bento Una
    Commented Feb 6, 2023 at 13:14
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    To me, it's not really that yesterday, or the events that happened yesterday, came suddenly, but that whatever time yesterday was, suddenly became "yesterday": I was happy an young and in love and whatever, and suddenly I found that all that had passed, and now I'm sitting here, sad and and alone, and can only remember it. I thought it would go on, maybe for ever, but now it is all something that happened yesterday. Commented Feb 6, 2023 at 14:48
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    Yes, it's the feeling that what only recently was normal and maybe good, has suddenly become part of your past life, and is now "yesterday" in your mind, whether you like it or not. It's a powerful lyric - everyone has hopes and dreams and some of them die and become part of the past, a past version of yourself, and this song is lamenting that experience. This comment is probably off-topic, but it's a comment, not an answer! ;)
    – drkvogel
    Commented Feb 7, 2023 at 3:20
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    @BentoUna I think RLH is referring to the "time gone by" meaning of yesterday. Yesterday/yesteryear can be used figuratively. Think "all our yesterdays", "the computers of yesterday/yesteryear". Commented Feb 7, 2023 at 3:24
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    If this answer had not existed, I would have posted it. I always interpreted it to mean that suddenly the singer realises that things are now part of yesterday instead of today, in the longer sense of yester-day as in yester-year, or the past. A point that is even more relevant to me today, than it was 40 years ago.
    – Bruce
    Commented Feb 7, 2023 at 5:37
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If you take into consideration there's nowhere to squeeze specifics such as "the day before yesterday", "yesterday morning", "yesterday evening" or "just after lunchtime yesterday" anywhere in the song, then you just use 'yesterday' as a dividing line.

At some point yesterday, his girlfriend left him. He's somewhat saddened by this turn of events.
That simple.

Yesterday
All my troubles seemed so far away
Now it looks as though they're here to stay
Oh, I believe in yesterday

He'd rather have 'yesterday morning' than 'yesterday afternoon at a little after half past three'.

Why she had to go? I don't know, she wouldn't say
I said something wrong, now I long for yesterday

He doesn't even know why she left. She apparently didn't tell him.

He wishes it were still 'yesterday', before this all happened. He was quite happy with the situation as he imagined it was and would continue to be.

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    +1 for He'd rather have 'yesterday morning' than 'yesterday afternoon at a little after half past three'. McCartney couldn't have put it better himself. (No, wait! - Surely he did put it better! That's why his immortal words live on, and we're still poring over them! :) Commented Feb 5, 2023 at 18:43
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Yesterday his girlfriend left him. He thought they had a good relationship, so this change caught him by surprise, and now he's devastated.

In the sentence you're having trouble understanding, "yesterday" refers to the event that took place yesterday, his girlfriend leaving. This is a form of synecdoche. "Came suddenly" means that there was no warning for this event (but I imagine that if you asked her, she'd say that the fact that he didn't recognize the problems was a part of the problem).

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    that was how I always understood it
    – WendyG
    Commented Feb 6, 2023 at 16:17
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One possible interpretation that I think fits this context: yesterday used to be “today,” and became “yesterday” suddenly. The passage of time, which somehow takes him by surprise (another meaning of “came suddenly”), is making the narrator feel old and wistful.

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Without knowing McCartney's intentions, my understanding as a native speaker was that "Yesterday" is metonymy standing for "the events of yesterday".

A similar example: if you have a busy December and don't have time to prepare presents, you could say: "It feels like Christmas Day came suddenly."

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The question seems to be about the specific wording:

how can yesterday come?

The OP seems to keep coming back to that specific word choice in comments.

Without delving into the overall meaning of the song lyrics, the basic answer is that that's simply an English-language idiom. Tomorrow is coming / will come, today is here, and yesterday came. It expresses the progression of time. The implied metaphor is of time as a series of boxes, or train cars or similar, each one corresponding to one day, passing by in endless succession.

We also use the verb "arrive" similarly ("that day has arrived"), and we talk about days and time "passing".

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    e.g. "The day will come when you realize you were wrong."
    – Blackhawk
    Commented Feb 6, 2023 at 21:46
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Yes: the narrator is saying that yesterday's events came suddenly. I agree with Barmar that this line is an example of metonymy. (Synecdoche is a kind of metonymy.)

To understand what the narrator is saying in this line, it helps to look at the rest of the song. In every other verse, the narrator describes how he was happy yesterday, but he is sad now [see footnote]. Verse 2 sharpens this contrast.

In the first three lines of Verse 2, the narrator tells us that his change from happy to sad came suddenly. Suddenly, he felt smaller ("I'm not half the man I used to be"), and his life felt less sunny ("there's a shadow hanging over me"). In the last line, the narrator tells us again that the change came suddenly. This time, however, he uses "yesterday" to stand for the change that happened yesterday. That's the metonymy.


[Footnote] To describe the central theme of "Yesterday," I might use the words of another popular English-language song:

Now, this is a story all about how

My life got flipped—turned upside down

[...]

I got in one little fight and [she went away]

[Now I long for yesterday]

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Here's my own interpretation:

There have been times in my life when some tragic event, often preventable (but not reversible), suddenly hits. The combination of it being preventable but not reversible is quite surreal. As a result, I find myself reliving that tragic moment, over and over, in my head. It happened such a short time ago -- hours, or even minutes ago -- yet I am powerless to change its course.

Even the following day I find myself thinking about the event, over and over and over. The 24-hour mark (a whole day since it occurred) hits especially hard. It's odd to think that 25 hours ago life was relatively good, and then one hour later everything suddenly irrevocably turns upside-down.

It's almost like I long to reminisce about the good times; however, these "good times" are not the times I experienced years ago, but simply the ones I experienced yesterday, before the tragic event transpired.

To me, this is what it feels like Paul McCartney is singing about. Just a few short 25 hours ago, life was beautiful and enjoyable. But then, something hit to make life veer off in an unwanted direction. And now, all I can do is helplessly reminisce about all that I lost since yesterday.

Paradoxically, even though grief hit me just a day ago, it feels like I've been grieving for a hundred years. And it's that very paradox that is what (it feels to me that) Paul is singing about: A hundred years of suffering and grief came suddenly -- not a century ago, but yesterday.

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