Ah, the age-old lie vs. lay perplexity of the English language!
As I am a huge John Denver fan, here’s an example of lie/lay muddlement in “Annie’s Song”:
Come let me love you, let me give my life to you,
let me drown in your laughter, let me die in your arms,
let me lay down beside you, let me always be with you.
Come let me love you, come love me again.
Technically, it should be “let me lie down beside you.” Grammatically, you have to lay something down; you can’t just lay down (at least not in the present tense). You can lay the baby down, you can lay down your fork, and you can even lay me down to sleep—but if you just lay down . . . you are lying. (Ha—pun intended!)
And herein lies a key problem when lie/lay is used in poetic and literary contexts: it’s often not desirable to use a word that has an alternate meaning of “not telling the truth.” There’s no room for an implication of falsity in Denver’s beautiful love song; I’ll take a slight bending of grammar over that allusion any day.
Joan Didion bent the grammar rules for a different reason when titling her novel Play It As It Lays: its sound. It’s a lovely title because it contains a vowel rhyme—an assonance—which does not occur in the phrase “play it as it lies.”
According to the Google Books Ngram Viewer, the phrase “play it as it lies” predates the phrase “play it as it lays” and was used more often in publications than the latter until, of course, the publication of Didion’s novel in 1970.
But enough about grammar—how did the phrase originate, and what does it mean? As far as I can tell from searching the Internet, its original uses pertained to gambling and golf. It means, wherever the bet was placed, or wherever the ball is resting, that’s where it will be played—and too bad for you if it was placed or is resting in a less than ideal spot.
It’s a great metaphor for how Didion’s protagonist interacts with her world. She knows her circumstance is not ideal, but she goes with it. At one point, the narrator uses the words “play it” in a context that concisely illuminates her worldview:
“Something real was happening: this was, as it were, her life. If she could keep that in mind she would be able to play it through, do the right thing, whatever that meant.”
What does it mean?