Boy Scout Backformation
Posted by Neal on August 30, 2010
Adam is going into his fourth year of Cub Scouts, which means he is now considered a Webelos Scout. Webelos is a name that is supposed to sound kind of like a Native American name, but one which fortunately contains only English phonemes and obeys English phonotactic rules. And, unlike most Native American words, it’s an acronym. (At least, I haven’t heard of acronym formation in Native American languages, but if someone knows better, please correct me. Maybe Ryan does.) I’ve learned that Webelos originally stood for “Wolf, Bear, Lion, Scout,” with Wolf, Bear, and Lion being the three age-graded ranks of Cub Scouts, but what is lion doing in a faux Native American acronym? Well, it’s like this (if you can believe the current Wikipedia entry): The Cub Scout program in the United States was a melding of a British model, which used Kipling’s The Jungle Book as an underpinning for names of ranks and other things, and a United States model, which went with Native American.
However, by the time I was old enough to be a Cub Scout — I wasn’t one, but there was a time when I was old enough to be one — the Lion rank had disappeared, which undermined the basis for the acronym. So it’s not too surprising that the acronym had been regrounded by the time my classmates Peter Hannon, John Wickland, and Doug Stewart became Webelos Scouts. I learned from them that Webelos stood for “We Be Loyal Scouts.” I wondered a bit at the nonstandard grammar We be, but wasn’t curious enough to pursue it. Another question I didn’t pursue was why out of all the 12 characteristics mentioned in the Boy Scout Law, it was #2 on the list, loyalty that got put into the Webelos name. Yet another: Why the logo on their caps that looked like a half-peeled banana. (Looking at it now, I see that it’s a clever mashup of the Boy Scouts’ fleur-de-lis and a letter W.)
Sometime in the past 30 years, though, the acronymic basis for Webelos was tweaked a little to be the more standard “We’ll Be Loyal Scouts.” When I read that in Adam’s Tiger manual three years ago, I figured I must have mis-heard or misremembered what Peter, Doug, and John had been saying, or that perhaps they had mis-heard it when they learned it, but when the topic came up on the American Dialect Society email list last year, Arnold Zwicky mentioned that it had been “We Be Loyal Scouts” when he was in Cub Scouts.
As I’ve heard adult leaders in Adam’s Cub Scout pack talk about Webelos Scouts, I’ve noticed the near-universal (in this population) syncope of the unstressed medial syllable, such that it’s pronounced ['wibloʊːz] instead of ['wibəloʊːz]. Sometimes it’s even spelled “Weblos”. As I’ve thought about the acronym more, I’ve noted that whereas the initial s in Scouts is pronounced [s], the s at the end of Webelos is pronounced [z]. On the one hand, that’s not unusual: It’s a well-studied rule that in English, /s/ after a vowel is often voiced and turned into [z]. But on the other hand, this is not just a phonemic rule, i.e. one that always happens to /s/ after a vowel. If it were, we wouldn’t have words like piss, gas, mess, and pus. It’s a morpho-phonemic rule, meaning that the phonetic alternation happens only when this /s/ is a morpheme, that is, when it carries a meaning. Specifically, it only happens when the /s/ is the -s suffix for plural nouns or third-person singular present-tense verbs. So pronouncing Webelos with a [z] a the end, as the Webelos Handbook instructs, is just asking — begging! — for a backformation to occur. It’s practically forcing the listener to parse it as a plural noun, Webelo-s, and to conclude that there is such a thing as a singular noun Webelo.
And in fact, everyone associated with Adam’s Cub Scout pack does this. As they would say, “Adam is a Webelo.” They even use the backformed singular in compound nouns, as in “We have two Webelo dens,” or “Did you bring your Webelo handbook?” I’m sure I’ve done it myself, too.
I looked in the manual to see if its writers ever used the backformed Webelo, and as far as I can see, they have been very careful. On the cover it says “Webelos Handbook”, and inside it talks consistently about “Webelos Scouts”. Most tellingly, it even asks on page 4, “What is a Webelos Scout?” — singular Scout, plural-looking Webelos. A little searching through Google Books brings up this official-sounding statement from page 6 of the October 1996 issue of Scouting magazine, in an editorial response to a reader who asks if it’s correct to way “Webelo scout”:
Well, I’ve got some bad news for the BSA. People have been saying Webelo since at least 1961. For there to have been even a chance of speakers not inventing Webelo somewhere along the way, they should have been taking pains to have people pronounce it with an [s] at the end: ['wibəloʊs]. It would have sounded like a word borrowed from Greek, like ethos, pathos, cosmos, or kudos. Even that would have been no guarantee. Just look at what happened to kudos. It refers to something (praise) that can easily be perceived as a collection of things (individual compliments), and that semantic pull was enough to turn the [kʰuɾoʊs] pronunciation into [kʰuɾoʊːz], and now you can even hear people talking about “a kudo“. In fact, there’s even some confusion with cosmos. But back to what I was saying: If backformation created kudo even when singular kudos required a change in pronunciation to allow this to happen, what hope did already-plural-sounding Webelos ever have?