Literal-Minded

Linguistic commentary from a guy who takes things too literally

Have No Fear, Baby Buttlegs Is Here!

Posted by Neal on April 30, 2006

I first had angel food cake when I was three or four years old, and for years pronounced angel food cake the way I had heard it back then. Whoever had introduced me to it had pronounced it as angel FOOD cake, with the primary stress on food, the same intonation pattern you’d have in, say, dormroom KEG party. As a teenager, I became aware that some, perhaps even many, people pronounced angel food cake differently, putting the primary stress on angel, like this: ANGEL food cake.

Finally, one day I’d heard enough tokens of ANGEL food cake that I stopped to think about that pronunciation compared with my own, and I realized that it was my pronunciation that was strange. Angel FOOD cake sounds like it means “foodcake, of the angel variety.” Foodcake? What’s foodcake? In contrast, ANGEL food cake sounds like it means “a kind of cake so delicious that it is like unto the food of the very angels.” (As for why it’s not pronounced ANGEL food CAKE, analogous to chocolate CAKE or blueberry PIE, with stress on the final word, I don’t know.)

Anyway, one day after I’d gotten the whole foodcake issue settled, I was sitting reading the newspaper when my wife came into the room…

Her: I have baby BUTT legs!
Me: Huh?
Her: Look, I have baby BUTT legs.
Me: What’s a butt leg?
Her: No, I shaved my legs, see? Now they’re like a baby’s butt.
Me: Oh! BABY butt legs!

I felt them. Her story checked out. Why she pronounced it baby BUTT legs instead of BABY butt legs is a mystery, especially since she doesn’t do the “foodcake” pronunciation of angel food cake. But for years after that exchange, my wife made a point of mentioning her “buttlegs” whenever she’d shaved her legs. Sometimes I try to picture what a buttleg really would look like, but without much success. And never mind figuring out what a baby one would look like. Or maybe baby BUTT legs would more likely be a proper name: Baby Buttlegs. Sounds like some kind of a goofball superhero’s name, kind of like Super Diaper Baby.

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3 Responses to “Have No Fear, Baby Buttlegs Is Here!”

  1. Maritza García said

    Once, when I was standing in line in a grocery store, a woman came in and asked the cashier where to find “popeyes.” I’m thinking “Popeye the Sailor Man” or maybe “Popeye’s fried chicken.” Neither the cashier nor I could understand her, so the woman described what she wanted. Long story short, she was asking for “pot pies.”

    I yam what I yam.

  2. Neal said

    Shame on that woman for her confusing degemination! I’m assuming she assimilated the t in place of articulation to match the p in pie, the same kind of thing Italian did with words like fatto (from Latin facto). So that would have sounded like pop pie, except that she then went a step further and un-doubled (degeminated) the p‘s in the middle.

  3. [...] composed of words A, B, and C, where A and B form a compound that modifies C. Other examples are ANGEL food cake and BABY-butt legs, or INCOME tax time. But I don’t put primary stress on daylight; I put primary stress on [...]

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