Linguistic commentary from a guy who takes things too literally


Posted by Neal on March 16, 2017

Lin-Manuel Miranda’s musical Hamilton hit it big last year. I gradually became aware of it during the winter and spring, and eventually bought the original cast recording for my wife. The songs soon made their way onto all of our mobile devices, and the CD itself stayed in our car player for at least a month. Like any respectable musical, Hamilton has an “I Want” song near the beginning. It’s called “My Shot,” and the chorus goes like this:

I am not throwing away my shot!
I am not throwing away my shot!
Hey yo, I’m just like my country,
I’m young scrappy and hungry,
And I’m not throwing away my shot!

Aside from the audacity of rhyming country with hungry, the line caught my attention with its double-barreled discourse marker, hey yo. The hey yo was there in every repetition of the chorus, and it always had both parts: the hey and the yo. The character of Alexander Hamilton didn’t ever, just for variety, rap “Hey, I’m just like my country,” or “Yo, I’m just like my country.” Elsewhere in the play, yo shows up by itself. In fact, just a few minutes earlier, the character of John Laurens interrupts the song “Aaron Burr, Sir” with “Yo yo yo yo yo!” A few songs later, Hamilton challenges a loyalist with “Yo!” before tearing down his argument in rap form. Later still, Aaron Burr starts off with a yo before telling Hamilton that he should try to marry one of the Schuyler sisters.

Even so, I began to wonder if maybe hey and yo had begun to coalesce into a single word. That kind of thing happens frequently in language. A great example in English is the “immediate future” construction of going to. It’s gone from being pronounced as two words to being pronounced (and even written) as gonna, and for some speakers it has even merged with I’m in the first person singular, so that instead of I am going to, or I’m gonna, we get Ima.

Evidence bearing on my question about hey yo arrived before I even finished listening to the Hamilton CD. Before the end of Act 1, the character of George Washington convinces Hamilton, by way of a rap, that his talents would be better used as Washington’s personal assistant than as a soldier. In the song “Right Hand Man,” he says:

We are outgunned, outmanned,
outnumbered, outplanned.
We gotta make an all out stand
Ayo, I’m gonna need a right-hand man!

There it was again! The same two syllables in the same order, doing the same job of telling the listener to pay attention to what comes next. But looking at the liner notes, I could see that there was a difference. This time, instead of being written as two words, the interjection was written as a single word, spelled A-Y-O. The initial H was gone, but that’s a phonetically weak sound anyway. It’s always disappearing from places where it used to be. If you’ve ever taken Spanish classes, you know this from all those Spanish words that have an H at the beginning that you’re supposed to ignore, such as hablar. You’ve also encountered this phonetic instability if you’ve ever been in an argument about whether something is a historic occasion or an historic occasion. The clincher is that the chorus from “My Shot” is repeated by the ensemble later in the song, and this time, the line that rhymes country and hungry begins with ayo, this time spelled A-Y-O.

The last of the hey yo’s or ayo’s (which from now on I’ll just refer to as hey yo, in boldface italics, to indicate its status as a single lexical item) comes in the last song of Act 1, “Yorktown.” Here, once again, the ensemble sings the chorus from “My Shot,” and this time, we’re back to the spelling H-E-Y, space, Y-O. This back-and-forth with the spelling is indicative of hey yo’s status as a primarily spoken rather than written piece of the language. As a primarily spoken rather than written interjection, hey yo has not succumbed to the pressure of standardization and settled into one accepted spelling.

I got to wondering how other spellings were out there. The writer of one definition on Urban Dictionary tried to cover all bases, by tagging their definition with eight spellings, but they underestimated. Have you ever read an entry for a word in the Oxford English Dictionary and seen a dozen or more alternate spellings from 800 years ago, from before English had a standard dialect? Of course you have! That’s what I felt like when I started looking for, and finding, different spellings of hey yo.

First there’s the choice of starting with H or a vowel; that’s two possibilities. Then there’s the choice of writing it as one word, two words, or as a hyphenated word, which gives us six possibilities. Next, there’s the choice of which letter to use to spell the first vowel: E or A? That brings us to 12 possibilities. Now, let’s talk about that Y. So…ah, forget it. Just look at the table below, where I’ve laid it all out. I come up with 64 possibilities. The two from Hamilton are spellings 15 and 33.

Highlighted in green are the spellings I’ve found attested. Some of them are attested a lot, such as the hey yo and ayo spellings from Hamilton. Others were rather thin on the ground, only appearing in, say, a single Urban Dictionary entry with no likes or dislikes. In fact, I found most of my examples in Urban Dictionary. My rule is not to accept a UD definition until I’ve found independent confirmation somewhere else. In this case, though, I accepted even the attestations that I found only in a single UD entry, if the definitions were essentially the same as those for the other spellings. Here are some of the things I’ve learned.

First, hey yo is popular in song titles. For one of them, hey yo is part of the title: “Hey Yoh, Here We Go,” using spelling number 31, released in 1993 by Technotronic. For others, hey yo IS the title. For example, in 2009, Melanie Fiona released a song simply called “Ay Yo,” using spelling number 45. In that same year, Methodman and Redman released the song “A-Yo,” using spelling number 37. That’s the same spelling that was used just last year, in the title of a song by Lady Gaga. But maybe the best-known use of hey yo is in a song where it’s not part of the official title, but is listed as a secondary title. It’s “Snow (Hey Oh),” by the Red Hot Chili Peppers, released in 2006. You know this one: It’s the one with the chorus that goes, “And I said hey oh, listen what I say oh.” This one uses spelling number 23.

The Chili Peppers song actually opened up a whole new direction of inquiry. The song is believed by many to be about addiction, and possibly about addiction to cocaine in particular. (This belief is also vehemently disputed, to judge from some of the posts and comment threads I read.) Why cocaine? A commenter on a webpage discussing the song’s lyrics points out the similarity of hey oh to yeyo, which is borrowed Spanish slang for cocaine–spelled llello in Spanish. After further investigation, I learned that the word yeyo (or yayo) became popular following the 1983 movie Scarface, in which Latin American drug runners referred to cocaine this way. And completing the circle, a 2003 song by Andre Nickatina is called “Ayo for Yayo,” and is definitely about cocaine. The title seems to mean “crazy for cocaine,” which means that this ayo is not a discourse marker, but an adjective, so I’m not sure we’re dealing with the same word. Besides, searching for all the possible spellings of yeyo would have meant another 32 searches, so that’s as far as I explored the drug connection.

The next thing I noticed about the variants of hey yo was that people disagreed about its origins. Some just took it to be a concatenation of hey and yo, as I did. Comments to this effect were more common in definitions where the interjection was not simply spelled as hey plus yo (in other words, spellings 14-16). For example, one definition with the E-Y-O spelling (number 39), calls it a “fast way of sayin hey yo.” Another one, with the A-Y-O spelling (number 33), says the same thing, but with a prescriptive edge: “An incredibly poor, not to mention grammatically incorrect way to say ‘Hey, yo.’

Other definers took hey yo (or more specifically, spellings 33, 39, and 44) to be derived from hey you, which I don’t buy. If you is going to be reduced, it typically turns into ya, with that unstressed schwa vowel. Yo has an unreduced /o/ vowel. Still other definition writers (such as this one for spelling number 6) seemed unaware of any connection to hey or yo, judging it to be “just another way of saying hello.”

So it looks like hey yo has indeed become a thing in its own right, not simply a combination of hey and yo, even if it did arise that way. It’s similar to how y’all isn’t simply a contraction of you plus all anymore. If it were, phrases like three of y’all and not all of y’all wouldn’t make sense, any more than *three of them all or *not all of them all do. And once a word’s connection to its components has been lost, shifts in meaning become easier. This is happening a little bit in the use of hey yo as just a greeting, as many of the definitions classify it. But I was quite surprised to learn of a possible sex-related meaning shift with hey yo.

At first, I didn’t believe it. I figured this Urban Dictionary entry for hey-o (spelling number 8) was just a test of gullibility:

Something said after a conversational phrase that could be interpreted as a sexual reference is said.
John: “Dude, did you do the Bio assignment?”
Mark: “Yes. That was so hard, it kept me up all night!”
John: “Hey-O!”
#that’s what she said #do it big #get some #awkward #last night
by atxlonestar21 September 08, 2009

But when I found it in at least seven other Urban Dictionary definitions, for spellings 15, 16, 23, 24, 33, 48, and 51, I had to take it seriously. So I started searching for irresistible double-entendre phrases followed by various spellings of hey yo, and found some examples in the wild, including:

Being a hot gay guy is just so hard. (HEY-YO!!) Like, women have no idea how easy they have it.

I am aware that my celibacy is a slightly short month… like a February. Black history and celibacy get the short end of the stick on this one, but the symbolism of Valentine’s day to the Ides of March is too good to mess with. Tomorrow is the Ides of March. The date Julius Caesar was stabbed and killed. I don’t know about killing, but ladies, beware the Ides of March because some stabbing is bound to go down. Heyo.

MB: “I suggest you all get off—” HEYO “—this planet—” ugh “—as soon as possible.”

This sexual meaning is developing its own variant meanings. For some speakers, it’s appropriate for any sexual innuendo, but for others, it highlights a homosexual one. A couple of the definitions specifically mention its functional similarity to the heteronormative phrase no homo.

So is this sexy hey yo the same hey yo that we’ve been seeing as a discourse marker or greeting? On the one hand, it sounds the same, and exhibits the same variations in spelling. On the other hand, it occurs at the end of an utterance instead of the beginning, or even stands alone, and of course there’s a big difference in meaning. Continuing the “different items” idea, we could account for the similar variations in spelling by saying that we just have a pair of homonyms that are both informal, primarily spoken items, so spelling variation is to be expected, and since they sound the same, we should expect the variations to be similar. But if they’re just homonyms, we’re still left with the question of where the sexy hey yo came from.

When I told Ben Zimmer about this use of hey yo, he pointed me to a possible connection with Ed McMahon. I didn’t regularly watch The Tonight Show back when it was hosted by Johnny Carson, but if I had watched it enough, I might have picked up on co-host Ed McMahon’s habit of saying “Hiyo!” to draw attention to a joke or insult made by Carson. Here’s an Urban Dictionary definition that explains it:

An expression originally coined by Ed McMahon during his sidekick status on Johnny Carson’s Tonight Show.

These days, it now is used to follow a witty response or comment to insult someone or “zing” them…
“Dad said I should be over 6 ft tall in a few years”.
“Yeah, but he also said you were going to be intelligent, but that never happened….HIYOOOOOOO”.
#hiyo #zing #clever response #humorous #funny
by Debasser! August 23, 2010

If this connection is legit, then hiyo has gone from being a general insult highlighter, to a more specific usage of highlighting a sexual insult, to a somewhat more general usage of highlighting any sexual double entendre–and along the way got absorbed into the hey yo stream, ending up with a different vowel in its first syllable. However, I would also expect to be able to do searches like “so hard hiyo” or “go down hiyo” like I did for hey yo and find at least a few hits. So far, I haven’t gotten lucky (hiyo!).

If hey yo is in your vocabulary, how do you spell it, and what does it mean to you?

Posted in Ambiguity, Lexical semantics, Music, Taboo, TV, Variation | 3 Comments »

I’ll Diagram a Sentence for You!

Posted by Neal on February 8, 2017

This is something I posted on Facebook, mainly for people who live in my adopted hometown of Reynoldsburg, Ohio. But I’m happy to extend this offer to any of my wider audience!

For the language enthusiast in your life, have a favorite proverb, punchline, or inside joke diagrammed, linguist-style. I will create a diagram like the one you see here, and email it to you for printing, framing, or social-media sharing.

The cost? A donation to Citizens To Improve Quality Of Life For Reynoldsburg, P.O. Box 1518, Reynoldsburg, Ohio, USA 43068. This is the committee that will be campaigning for an income tax increase in Reynoldsburg, which will allow the city to do some boring but essential things like repairing the sewers, and some exciting and fun things like bringing in a swimming pool and community center.

I’ve donated, and now I’m encouraging you to do the same, by adding the all-but-irresistible incentive of an enticingly visualized piece of grammatical analysis!

Suggested donation levels:

    Simple sentence, or phrase that isn’t a sentence: $20
    Compound sentence: $30
    Complex sentence: $45
    Compound-complex sentence: $60

For sentences or phrases that are particularly long, I may suggest a larger donation. For details, email me at Oh, and by the way, that node label at the top is an abbreviation for “S(entence), exclam(ative)”. Sex clam is not, as far as I know, a recognized syntactic category.

Posted in Ohioana, Syntax | Tagged: | Leave a Comment »

Babbling with L

Posted by Neal on February 4, 2017


I loved this punning tweet from @ScottishScouse that ties together the Oscar-nominated movie La La Land, the Teletubbies, and Eastern Europe. It has inspired me to post another installment of Babbler’s Lexicon, featuring the /l/ series: /lala, lele, lili, lolo, lulu/.


So first off, the La La of La La Land (both the movie and the nickname for its setting) is a play on the initialism LA for Los Angeles, since la la land is also, in the OED’s words, a “state of being out of touch with reality.” Both those senses emerged at the same time: The OED’s earliest attestation for both is 1979. In fact, the Los Angeles Times is the
source of that first non-Los-Angeles-related attestation: “Heather was in la-la land after…drinking the LSD-spiked iced tea intended for Diana.” It’s also the source of an even earlier attestation, from 1925, referring not to Los Angeles, but to France; the lexicographers surmise that there’s an ooh-la-la connection in there.

laalaaIn the movie scene that @ScottishScouse used, Emma Stone’s character is wearing a bright yellow dress, just about the same color as that of the Teletubby Laa-Laa. The others, of course, are the purple one (Tinky Winky), the green one (Dipsy), and the red one (Po…get it?).

I’m actually making an exception by including Laa-Laa in this list, because these days I’m leaning toward excluding people’s names. I’m discovering that almost every sequence of two identical consonant-vowel (CV) syllables that I’m looking at has been used somewhere, at some time, as someone’s name. If I think there’s something otherwise noteworthy about a person’s name that turns up in my searches, I’ll include it, but otherwise I won’t.


After excluding several people’s names, I didn’t really find much here. A search for “lay lay” turned up an Urban Dictionary definition for a lazy person, but I haven’t found the expression used in the wild, so I’m suspicious about this one.


Not much here, either, but as for people named /lili/, there’s the actor Leelee Sobieski. Onward!


Mostly proper nouns here, too. Briefly, Lolo is the stage name for the singer Lauren Pritchard, a character in a video game, and a nickname for the founder of a chain of chicken-and-waffles restaurants. It’s also a method of birth control also known as Lo Loestrin Fe. As a common noun, LoLo refers to a kind of cargo ship that uses on-board cranes to load (“lift on”) and unload (“lift off”) the containers.

Moving on to low low is another name for a low-rider, according to a convincingly consistent collection of definitions in the the not-always-trustworthy Urban Dictionary, as well as in . Finally, on the low low is a more reduplicate-y version of on the downlow; at least it is in this video:



Lulu is a fairly common nickname (also spelled LooLoo, Loo Loo, and Lou Lou), as well as the name of a self-publishing website. According to the OED, a lulu is “A remarkable or wonderful person or thing; freq. used ironically;” a citation from 1972 goes like this: “I do hope you’re not scared of earth tremors… This one was a real lulu.”
Looloo is a travel app for the Philippines.

All in all, my /l/ series is pretty short, but not as short as my /θ/ and /ð/ series. Maybe I should get those out of the way next!

Posted in Kids' entertainment, Movies, Phonetics and phonology, What the L | 1 Comment »

Kicks for Kooks

Posted by Neal on December 30, 2016

Keck Observatory

One of the things I didn’t mention in my review of John McWhorter’s Words on the Move was his use of minimal pairs to explore the vowels of English. A minimal pair is a pair of words or phrases that are identical in every aspect but one, chosen so as to illustrate how this one aspect results in a difference in meaning or grammaticality. For example, most English speakers find the sentence What and where will I sleep? ungrammatical, but if we change just one word, by replacing the verb sleep with the verb teach, the sentence improves for many speakers: What and where will I teach? This fact can then be used as evidence for your analysis of the syntax of wh-questions, or the semantics of verbs, or maybe other theoretical questions. In phonology, minimal pairs target not words, but speech sounds. So for example, we know that the vowels /ʌ/ and /ʊ/ are two different vowels in English, as opposed to variant pronunciations of the same vowel, because words such as putt [pʌt] and put [pʊt] mean different things. (If this seems obvious to you, consider that /ʌ/ and /ʊ/ really were variants of a single vowel at one time, when blood rhymed with could.)

McWhorter tried to do this with all the English vowels at once, assembling what I guess you could call a minimal series of words, all of the form /bVt/, where V stands for any vowel. Here’s the series he used:

  1. /i/ beet
  2. /ɪ/ bit
  3. /e/ bait
  4. /ɛ/ bet
  5. /æ/ bat
  6. /u/ boot
  7. /ʊ/ book
  8. /o/ boat
  9. /ɔ/ bought
  10. /ɑ/ baht
  11. /ʌ/ but

His series isn’t perfect; notice that book breaks the pattern. As McWhorter explains, “There is, in general, no series of words that all begins with the same consonant and end with some same other one that includes every single one of the possible vowels in between.” This may also explain why for the last item in the list, McWhorter chose the marginally English word baht, the name of the Thai unit of currency. If he hadn’t, he would have had to choose the English bot, which refers to either an internet app for repetitive tasks or a botfly larva, and maybe he thought these concepts were more likely to require explanation than Thai money. Of course, if you’re among the many speakers who have the cot/caught merger, bought, bot, and baht all sound the same anyway.

So as you can see, trying to find these minimal series provides plenty of excitement, thrills, and surprises. One series that I’ve thought about now and again is the one consisting of monosyllables beginning and ending with /k/. I guess it started when I was a kid, and first heard the insult kook /kuk/. I found it fascinating that in writing, this word was distinguished from the word cook /kʊk/ not by changing the double-O in the middle, but by replacing the C with a K! In writing this post, I’ve also discovered that in addition to referring to a crazy person, kook is also a term for a clueless surfer wannabe.

As a teenager, I learned the verb cack (out) /kæk/ from this George Carlin bit on death (starting at 7:43)–

–but I’ve never actually heard anyone else use this expression, and I haven’t found it in dictionary searches. That’s OK though, because cack can also mean “a baby’s heelless shoe with a soft leather sole,” as well as “shit”.

Years later, as a homeowner, I noticed that the plumbers and handymen we’ve dealt with prefer to talk about sealing countertops and windows with caulking instead of just plain caulk. Knowing about the cot/caught merger mentioned above, I suspect that they’re trying to avoid the potentially embarrassing ambiguity of a cock/caulk merger, whether because they’ve merged those vowels or their customers may have. In any case, for speakers who maintain a distinction between /ɑ/ and /ɔ/, cock /kɑk/ and caulk /kɔk/ belong in the series.

Filling in the rest of the series, some easy ones are kick /kɪk/, cake /kek/, and coke /kok/, but after those, the going gets tougher. Even so, in the past few years I’ve been pleased to see the rest of the series emerging. I learned about the Keck Observatory in Hawaii. And it turns out that keek is a word used in Northern England and Scotland, meaning to “peep or look furtively”. Apparently, it’s also the name of a Vine-like social medium that I never heard about until I looked it up while writing this post.

Only one last, holdout vowel kept my “K” minimal series incomplete: the mid-central vowel /ʌ/. So close, but alas, cuck is not an English word. Or … is it?

  1. /i/ keek
  2. /ɪ/ kick
  3. /e/ cake
  4. /ɛ/ Keck
  5. /æ/ cack
  6. /u/ kook
  7. /ʊ/ cook
  8. /o/ coke
  9. /ɔ/ caulk
  10. /ɑ/ cock
  11. /ʌ/ cuck

It is! Thanks to the recent surging popularity of speech attacking feminism and the politically correct people who believe in it, I’ve learned that cuck is indeed an English word, and has been since at least 2007. It’s a clipping of cuckold, an archaic-sounding but still-current term for a man whose wife has extramarital sex. Cuckold is etymologically related to cuckoo, the connection being that just as cuckoos force their unwitting victims to provide for the cuckoo’s offspring, so a “cuckoo’d” man might end up caring for another man’s child. In an interesting connection to another item in the series, kook might also derive from cuckoo by clipping. But shortening cuckold to cuck isn’t the end of the story. The new development for 2016 is summed up in this article from GQ:

The word gained political potency during the 2016 election in the portmanteau “cuckservative” (cuck + conservative) used to imply that the mainstream conservatives of the Jeb Bush variety are weak and effeminate. Donald Trump, on the other hand, is not a cuckservative. He says what he wants and doesn’t care if it’s offensive. In reference to Trump’s comments about Megyn Kelly having “blood coming out of her wherever,” radio host Rush Limbaugh snarked, “If Trump were your average, ordinary, cuckolded Republican, he would have apologized by now.”

But Donald Trump doesn’t apologize. He went on to win the Republican presidential nomination as Jeb Bush, the one-time favorite, was irrevocably set back by a simple insult from Trump delivered with an invisible wink: “low-energy.”

Since The Donald bested the field of cuckservatives with his manly virility and full head of hair, those who couldn’t see a good insult go to waste have continued to use it in its shortened form–cuck–which applies first to anyone supporting Hillary, but also anyone who would challenge Donald Trump on his spelling, his logic, or his facts.

Read the rest of the GQ article for some other interesting history and analysis. But just to recap the word’s morphological history, cuckold gave us cuck via clipping, which gave us cuckservative via blending, which has now given us cuck once again, via another clipping. Lovely! Inflammatory and hateful language has completed our /kVk/ minimal series.

Posted in Morphology, Politics, Portmanteau words, Vowels | 12 Comments »


Posted by Neal on December 1, 2016

This post began as an exploration of a head-scratcher of a sentence I heard on an episode of Radiotopia’s Criminal podcast. In it, a woman described being an inmate in a prison that housed both men and women. (She described it as a “co-ed prison,” which is worthy of comment in itself, but not the main thing I was interested in.) The men greatly outnumbered the women, which was good for her, because she was addicted to drugs, and could do favors of the sexual kind for male prisoners who had them. Or as she put it:

I’d be whoever’s girlfriend had the dope.

Sheer context allowed me to twist this sentence into a shape that matched (for me) the meaning she was getting at:

I’d be the girlfriend of whoever had the dope.

or perhaps

I’d be whoever had the dope‘s girlfriend.

Context notwithstanding, the only meaning I can get from the actual utterance is that:

  1. Some person X has girlfriend Y.
  2. Y has the dope.
  3. The speaker will somehow become Y.

Was this simply an error, or is it something licensed by the mental grammars of other English speakers? I’ll table that question for now, because in the course of trying to answer it, I’ve discovered there’s another oddity involving the possessive form of whoever that I’d never even noticed–and as far as I’ve been able to tell so far, others haven’t, either.

Take a look at this handful of COCA examples I found that contain a fused relative involving whoever’s:

  1. Ronnie is whoever’s agent he needs to be.
  2. Now take the dead battery and put it in whoever’s car you got the good one out of.
  3. It happened on the second month of his presidency. He went on for 94 more months with whoever’s blood was in him.
  4. …playing strip poker in whoever’s house had no parents in it on rainy days
  5. whoever’s brain is highest in coherence dominates. do you believe this? whosoever’s brain is highest in chaos will dominate if brains are like crowds, or greed,

In these sentences, the fused relative performs a grammatical function in the larger sentence. For example, in (1), whoever’s agent he needs to be is the complement of is. In (2), whoever’s car you got the good one out of is the object of the preposition in. And so on.

Now I want to focus specifically on the heads of the free relatives: the whoever’s followed by the noun: agent, car, blood,…. Notice that this noun is the part that delivers the primary meaning to the verb in the larger sentence (or as linguists call it, the matrix clause). In (1), Ronnie is an agent. In (2), the command is to put something in a car. In (3), Ronald Reagan has someone’s transfused blood in him. In (4), we’re talking about playing strip poker in a house. And in (5), the thing that dominates is a brain. I’ll call this the “noun head” parse.

So far, so good. Now let’s consider these other sentences, also from COCA:

  1. it feels like they are living the life of whoever’s brain was recorded.
  2. Whoever’s pitch is chosen will earn a major promotion.
  3. Or we’ll each pick a [Jeopardy!] contestant at the beginning and whoever’s contestant wins doesn’t have to do dishes.
  4. But they knew that whoever’s DNA this was would be the killer.
  5. Whoever’s shack this is, is a Tupac Shakur freak.

In these examples, it’s not the nouns (brain, pitch, contestant, DNA, shack) that provide the meaning that completes the meaning of the verb in the matrix clause. So in (6), it feels like we’re living the life of the person whose brain was recorded–not the life of the brain of that person. In (7), it’s a person, not a pitch, that will earn a major promotion. In (8), the person who doesn’t have to do the dishes is not the Jeopardy! contestant, but the TV watcher who chose that contestant. In (9), the killer is a person, not that person’s DNA. In (10), the Tupac Shakur freak is a person, not that person’s shack. In short, in these examples, it’s the whoever’s that’s providing the main meaning to the matrix clause. I’ll call this the “pronoun head” parse.

All of these sentences are grammatical for me, but possessive fused relatives are so rare that I’ve only ever had to deal with one such sentence at a time. This COCA search was the first time that I came face-to-face with the two ways of parsing them, because it was the first time I had so many all in one place. Furthermore, the even split you see in the lists above is what I found in the data: After I discarded irrelevant examples, and examples that were ambiguous between the noun-head and pronoun-head parses, the ones I’ve listed here were all the ones that remained.

For completeness, I also did the search with the much rarer whosever, and what do you know, of the two relevant examples I found, there’s one of each:

  1. then match up the plaster casts with whosever shoes they are, and that way you could catch him
  2. Whosever pole lands the straightest and farthest wins.

In (11), we have a noun-head parse: You match up plaster casts with shoes, not with people. In (12), we have a pronoun-head parse: The winner is a person, not a pole.

I looked in CGEL, expecting to find that the interesting discovery I’d just made was listed as a matter of course on page 1302 or somewhere. That’s what usually happens. But CGEL didn’t even touch on whoever’s/whosever at all, much less the details like the kind I’m discussing. I haven’t found it in some classic works on fused relatives (e.g. Bresnan & Grimshaw 1978, for those who are into this subject). If you know of anything that’s been published on this, please mention it in the comments!

Posted in Ambiguity, Fused relatives, Pronouns | 6 Comments »

Review: Words on the Move

Posted by Neal on November 28, 2016


It can be unsettling to be told to think about the fact that you have a tongue in your mouth. It’s wet; it’s biggish when you consider the whole thing all the way back; plus, it has that pebbly texture you’d find hideous to encounter in some undersea creature. Yet there it is sitting in your mouth and you can’t get it out.

As I’ve written before, John McWhorter is a master of analogies, and he still commands them in examples like this one. It comes from his latest book, Words on the Move, of which I received a free review copy from Holt Publishing. The tongue analogy above isn’t even in reference to articulatory phonetics, as you might think in a book about language; it’s about the oddball past-time marker in English used to, the commonality being that they’re both things that are amazingly weird when you stop to think about them, but which we use every day and consider completely normal. Here are some of the other analogies McWhorter uses in WOTM:

  • junk DNA
  • scooping out litter boxes
  • the mouth anatomy of fin whales
  • fade-out endings in pop music
  • fads in baby names
  • pre-ripped blue jeans
  • your child’s dating experiences
  • aside monologues in sitcoms that are not intended to be faux-reality shows
  • musical notes played
  • toolsheds
  • bees moving around in a hive
  • scurvy and being eaten by a bear (in the same sentence)
  • living squid in the ocean vs. dead squid in a kitchen
  • the Victorian party game of creating a “tableau vivant”

The theme of this book is how words not only do change, but are inevitably bound to. Fans of the Lexicon Valley podcast will recognize some of these topics from the episodes that have run since McWhorter’s assumption of host duties. In six chapters, he covers the various kinds of change that words are subject to, some of which will be familiar to most language enthusiasts, some of which won’t. Even when I was already familiar with the concepts, many of McWhorter’s examples were new to me. However, I have to say that I found this book to be M’s most “lecture-y”, because in between the fun analogies, there’s more awkward phrasing than I’m used to (or maybe more than I recall) in his other books. For example, in Chapter 3, M uses the example of some old Archie comics to illustrate how things that start out as markers of emphasis–in this case, exclamation points–end up just showing “basic engagement”. M quotes a dialogue between Archie and Veronica in which Archie is going fishing, and invites Veronica to come, and every declaration ends with a bang. M points out, “‘I’D LIKE TO FISH, TOO!’ in real life would [emphasis mine] get us near water with no one but ourselves.” He’s trying to make the text more interesting with this unexpected phrasing, but this attempt fell flat.

Chapter 1 is about one kind of semantic change, whereby words acquire meanings that are more about feelings and relating to one’s audience than they are about naming things or actions. Indeed, M observes that words like these are often hard to define. He calls them modal pragmatic markers, and uses the acronym FACE to divide them into those that emphasize factuality (those on the very/really/literally spectrum); those that acknowledge of your audience’s state of mind (discourse-initial so fits in here); those that indicate that something it counter to expectation (for example, a big-ass car is not merely big, but surprisingly big); and those that try to ease the impact of an unwelcome statement (I know, right?). Sometimes it’s not entirely clear why M puts a particular word in the box that he does, which makes me wonder how things would have shaken out if he had used, say, a 5-letter word as a mnemonic. Furthermore, the acronym wiggles a bit in that factuality is where words like really begin rather than what they become, whereas the other categories name the function that words later come to have. Even so, the classification is a good rough-ad-ready way to look at this kind of change.

Chapter 2 moves into another kind of semantic change, namely, the drifting that occurs as a result of happenstance imbuing a word with various connotations, which then become its denotation. His main source of examples in this chapter is Shakespeare, and I found this to be the driest part of the book, as he traced out example after example of seemingly familiar words that had very different meanings in passages from Shakespeare’s plays. Each would make a good entry for a page-a-day calendar, but one after another, they become numbing, even with M’s occasional one-liners to liven things.

In Chapter 3, M moves on to semantic changes that go so far that the words cease lose all of their earlier meaning and serve only to provide grammatical information. For example, the used to construction mentioned earlier really did start with a meaning that was closer to the “employ” meaning of use. It’s a good introduction to the process that linguists call grammaticalization, but M gets about halfway through the chapter before he reveals this word, since it has so many syllables that he wanted to put it off until the last possible moment.

Chapter 4 shifts from changes in word meaning to changes in pronunciation. In here, M covers not only the Great Vowel Shift, which will be familiar material to many readers of this review, but also various other vowel shifts that have occurred or are occurring in American English: the Northern Cities Shift, the Southern shift, and some less elaborate shifts, such as the cot/caught merger. He does all this without ever using the International Phonetic Alphabet, because he’s aiming for a non-specialist audience, but as with his similar attitude toward using the term grammaticalization, simply taking the plunge and bringing in the technical vocabulary earlier might have made things easier to read overall. Not using a vowel chart may have contributed to his surprisingly vague explanation of our diphthongs in mite and mouse: “[It] just branched off in a little spew.” A little spew? It makes a little more sense on his diagram, but not much.

Next, M attempts to sustain a sexual analogy throughout the entirety of Chapter 5, which he titles “Lexical springtime: Words mate and reproduce.” After quickly dispensing with portmanteau words and contractions, M resumes the progression of Chapters 1 through 3, now considering words that lose so much of their distinct meaning and pronunciation that they’re not even elements of grammar anymore; they’re just meaningless snippets of sounds that are parts of larger words. This still fits in his “words mating” analogy, because it all starts with compound words. M then goes through the stress-shift that regularly occurs in English compounds as they become familiar, to subsequent syllable reduction, to the eventual irrecognizability of the word as a compound at all. For example, I was surprised to learn here that world began as a compound of the same word for “man” that gives us werewolf and eld meaning “old”. Rather than Shakespeare, in this chapter M quotes a lot of examples from actual audio recordings, so that we can hear these processes taking place within the 20th century. (Actually, you can’t hear them so well on the page; I recommend listening to the Lexicon Valley episode where M plays the clips he’s talking about.)

In the final chapter, M talks about the effects of having a written language on how words change: It doesn’t stop it, but it makes it more visible and therefore more troubling–if you let it. M wraps up the work with a grand slam of all the kinds of word-change he’s talked about, illustrated in one word: like. He finishes with one more sexual analogy, one which, if he had spoken it, would have had me asking myself, “Did he just say what I think he said?” Here it is:

Language lives, as we do. Let’s love it as what it is–something always becoming, never still.

Maybe some prefer their flowers pressed dry in books. There are those with affectionate feelings toward the inflatable doll and the corpse. Surely, though, most of us seek life. Language, too, lives.

So if you’re looking for an entertaining and informative holiday gift for a language enthusiast, I’d go with McWhorter’s The Power of Babel or What Language Is. But if they already have those, or if their humor runs toward the sexual and scatological, Words on the Move is a good choice. And if you’d like a free copy of Words on the Move, write your best linguistics analogy in the comments, or tweet them @LiteralMinded (with the hashtag #LxAnalogy if you have room). I will see that a copy gets sent to whoever posts–by midnight EST, Monday, December 12, 2016–the most-entertaining analogy, as judged by me.

Posted in Reviews | 3 Comments »

All or Nothing On the Field

Posted by Neal on November 13, 2016

Last Wednesday, as I watched Hillary Clinton’s concession speech, she told her campaign workers:

You left it all on the field, every single one of you.

On the other hand, the week before, Cleveland Indians coach Terry Francona said this about their historic World Series run that ended in a loss with game seven:

To be associated with those players in that clubhouse, it is an honor and I just told them that it’s going to hurt. It hurts because we care. But they need to walk with their heads held high because they left nothing on the field. That’s all the things we ever ask them to do. They tried until there was nothing left.

So which is it? Do you leave everything on the field, or nothing on the field? The expression I’m used to is Leave everything on the field or Leave it all on the field. And in fact, this is the original phrasing. In a thread on the American Dialect Society email list, Ben Zimmer linked us to this post by etymologist Barry Popik, who wrote:

To “leave everything on the court/ice/field” is to give total effort, to the point of exhaustion. Nothing is held in reserve for a future contest.

“It was evident the Giants had left it all on the field” was cited in print in 1961.

“After the game, if you can say that you left everything on the field and if you had it to do over again tomorrow, you couldn’t have done it any better—then and only then is there no disgrace in losing,” a high school football coach said in 1966.

“Our kids gave everything they had. They didn’t leave a thing off the field, they left it all on the field,” a college football coach said in 1969. The now-common expression is not known to have any particular author.

The first example of leave nothing on the field that I’ve been able to find is from November 10, 2000:

South River left nothing on the field in final loss

Hits are kind of scarce after that, but pick up again from 2007 onwards. I wondered if it might have been spread by a book by Tim Irwin called Run with the Bulls without Getting Trampled, published in 2006, which had this passage:

…the head coach of the opposing team walked across the field directly toward us. He turned to me and said, “Sir, may I speak with your son?”

I moved away as he put his hands on my son’s shoulders and looked directly into his reddened eyes. Barely audible to me, I heard the coach pay this young player the supreme compliment. “Son, tonight you left nothing on the field. You gave it your all, and it was an honor to play against you.”

However, I think the increase in nothing-variants probably had more to do with a 2007 Nike TV commercial called “Leave Nothing”, brought to my attention by ADS-L contributor Wilson Gray:

So how did we get from leaving everything on the field to leaving nothing, without even a stop at 75%, or 33%? My suspicion is that it’s an idiom blend between leave everything on the field and hold nothing back, or maybe leave nothing in the locker room, which I’ve found as early as 2005. Alternatively, it could be some confusion with the business expression leave money on the table, which you don’t want to do. That seems to be this blogger’s understanding, except that he thinks leave money on the table is related to poker.

How can this expression and its complete opposite both express the same idea? As far as my family members are concerned, they could care less.

Posted in Politics, Sports, Syntactic blending | 6 Comments »

FAFSA Metathesis

Posted by Neal on October 16, 2016

One of the posts from my first year of blogging talked about Doug’s acquisition of the last few difficult pieces of English phonology (his interdental fricatives) as he was closing in on his sixth birthday. This post is about an information session the wife and I attended on how to apply for financial aid for college, since Doug is now in his senior year of high school. I can’t believe he’s been with us for 18 years now; it seems like only 15 or 16.

As the speaker talked about need-based aid, merit-based aid, personal-quirk-based aid, gift-aid, self-help aid, COA and EFC, I kept noticing one thing. In an ultimately unsuccessful attempt to keep myself awake, I tweeted about it:

That’s right; our expert speaker kept referring to the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) as the “FASFA”. Even when she was warning us to beware of the scam sites that awaited us if we went to, and carefully spelling out, she said, “That’s F-A-F-S-A, fasfa, dot G-O-V.”

As you may have gathered from my tweet, I found this puzzling. Aside from failing to sound out a pretty straightforward piece of English spelling, the speaker (and many of the audience members, too, including my wife) were behaving in a phonetically perverse manner, it seemed to me. Usually, changes in pronunciation make a word easier to say, by reducing the number of “gestures” that need to happen to pronounce it (i.e. the number of repositionings of the tongue, lips, or other articulators). As written, FAFSA has the advantage of having both /f/ sounds near each other, separated only by a vowel. Once you get your teeth and lips in position for that first /f/, you can leave them mostly in position while you say the /æ/ vowel, then bring them back together for the next /f/. Only then do you need to move the tip of your tongue into position to say the /s/, and after that, there are no more consonants to get into position for. On the other hand, to say /fæsfɑ/ requires you to move your articulators from /f/ position to /s/ position, and then back to /f/ position. Two repositionings as opposed to one.

If the /fæsfɑ/ pronunciation isn’t due to ease of articulation, maybe it’s due to frequency effects. In other words, maybe words or frozen phrases in English that contain the sequence /sf/ just occur more frequently than those that contain /fs/. More fas(t) forwards, hemispheres, and asphyxiating misfits than offseason games and Rafsanjanis.

Actually, I think that’s not a bad explanation, but in the past few days, another one occurred to me. I was giving Doug the highlights of the meeting his mother and I had been to…

“So,” I said, “You’ll need to fill out the FAFSA, which stands for ‘Free Application for Financial–‘ uh…” What was it? Free Application for Student Financial Aid? No, that couldn’t be right, because that would make the acronym FASFA, which we have established is wrong. So what was it, then? Oh, right: Free Application for Federal Student Aid. The word financial isn’t even in there at all! The form that’s all about financial aid doesn’t have the phrase financial aid in its name! So it could be that people say FASFA because they expect the last part of it to stand for financial aid.

In researching this post, I’ve learned that FASFA is a common mispronunciation, so for all my USA readers, how do you say FAFSA? If you pronounce it FASFA, do any of the above three reasons ring true to you?

Posted in Acronyms, Metathesis | 5 Comments »

Classroom Debate

Posted by Neal on October 15, 2016

Me: So what did you guys do in history class today?

Adam: We had a debate on which was more effective, Progressives or Populists. I argued for Populists.

Doug: Why did you say Populists were more effective?

Adam: Because I was sitting on the left side of the room, and Mr. Ridgway said that people on the left would be–

Doug: Wait, what I meant was—

Me: Ha! An attachment ambiguity involving an extracted adjunct! Nice!

Doug: –what reasons did you give for why Populists were more effective?

Adam: Oh! Because they drew from a lot of parties: Socialists, Marxists, and others. Also, they paved the way for the Progressives like Woodrow Wilson…

While Doug and Adam continued their conversation, I thought about the question Doug had intended to ask Adam:


The WH adverb Why at the beginning of the sentence has a subscript 1, indicating that it corresponds to the GAP category on the other side of the diagram. This GAP category appears where it does because that’s where you’d expect an explanatory phrase or clause to appear, such as because they drew from a lot of parties: Socialists, Marxists, and others. A clause like that basically takes the entire sentence Populists were more effective and turns it into a bigger sentence, which is shown by the lower S node spanning Populists were more effective, and the upper S node spanning both that and the GAP category.

The connectivity between the WH words and the gap is informally called extraction. I’m deliberately avoiding calling the gap an adverb or adverb clause, though, because I’m reserving the term adverb to refer to words such as confidently, never, and fortunately. To refer more generally to adverbs, adverb phrases, prepositional phrases and subordinate clauses that modify verb phrases or sentences, syntacticians typically use the term adjunct. Hence my appreciative remark about an extracted adjunct.

Anyway, here’s the question Adam took Doug to be asking:


The words are the same, but this time the GAP category takes the inverted sentence did you say Populists were more effective and make a larger Sinv out of it, as you can see by the stacked Sinv tents. It’s looking for an answer to the question of why Adam said what he said; in this case, the answer was that the teacher just divided the class down the middle and had one side take one position and the other take the other.

Although in English, extracted adjuncts can give rise to ambiguities like this one, some languages mark the difference overtly. For example, if we had conducted our conversation in the Mayan language Kaqchikel, instead of containing an inaudible gap, the question would have had the particle wi to show where the adjunct took scope, kind of like this:

  1. (Doug’s intended question) Why did you say Populists were-wi more effective?
  2. (Adam’s interpretation) Why did you say-wi Populists were more effective?

Alas, we weren’t speaking in Kaqchikel, so we just had to rely on context, which in this case gave insufficient clues.

Update, Oct. 16, 2016: Added some clarifying details.

Posted in Adam, Attachment ambiguity, Doug, Fillers and gaps, Inversion | 1 Comment »

Bibi and Koka

Posted by Neal on September 10, 2016



Every now and then, I’ll come across a mention of the bouba/kiki effect, a classic study of sound symbolism that has been revisited several times over the years. The procedure involves showing presenting experiment participants two shapes and two nonsense words, and asking them which word goes with which shape. One of the shapes is always spiky, the other bulbous, such as those shown here. One of the nonsense words consists of voiceless velar or coronal consonants and unround vowels, such as /kiki/. Variants have included the original /takete/, as well as /keiki, kʌte, kʌtiti,/ and /tite/. The other word consists of round vowels and voiced bilabial (usually) consonants, such as /buba, bamu, mabuma, maluma/, and the original /baluma/. As you have probably correctly guessed by now, most speakers tend to put the kiki-type word with the spiky shape, and the bouba-type words with the bulbous shape. “Right, because of the sounds of the word,” you may be saying. But how, exactly, because of the sounds of the word? Maybe it seems obvious to you, as it does to most people, that kiki just sounds like it belongs with something sharp and angular, and bouba with something balloony, but why, exactly?

I wondered: Are people taking their cue from the voiced or voiceless consonants? From the round or unround vowels? From the combination of unround vowels and voiceless velars, or round vowels with voiced bilabials? What would happen if I took kiki and bouba and just swapped the vowels in the two words, to get bibi and koka? What would people do then?

For the past few weeks, I’ve been finding out, running this experiment on my wife and sons, co-workers, fellow parents of members of the high-school marching band, and anyone else as opportunity arose. I’ve presented them with the shapes, drawn on a scrap of paper, and told them to imagine a previously undiscovered tribe of people, with no prior contact with any other civilization, and a language that seems to be unrelated to any known language. They have these two objects or shapes in their culture, and call one of them a bibi, and one a koka. Which is which? If you suspect that the consonants are the deciding factor, then the spiky shape should be the preferred koka, just as it is for kiki, and the globby shape should be the preferred bibi, just as it is for bouba. On the other hand, if you think it’s all about the vowels, then the spiky shape should be favored for bibi, and the rounded one for koka.

I’ve varied the order in which I presented the words, and the orientation of the paper when I show the shapes, to avoid bias based on order of presentation. Unfortunately, there are other sources of bias. After running my first three subjects (my wife, Doug, and Adam) by presenting the words on slips of paper, I realized that the angles of the letter k and the curves of the letter b might be a source of bias. Even now, this could still be a source of bias for literate participants, since they may imagine these words written down, but I couldn’t do much about that. (For a study involving pre-literate participants, see Maurer, Pathman and Mondloch (2006). I found it in the references for the Wikipedia article I cited above). In addition, by taking the most-popular words for this experiment, kiki and bouba, and making the minimal change of swapping their vowels, I’ve ended up with two words that actually do mean something in English. /koka/ can be a leaf, a carbonated drink, or of course, the Corpus of Contemporary American English. /bibi/ is a famous blues singer, an Israeli prime minister, a lovable droid, or the ammo for an official Red Ryder, carbine action, 200-shot, range model air rifle, with a compass in the stock and this thing that tells time. Any of these could provide associations that lead a subject to choose one shape or the other, but hopefully with a large enough sample size, they won’t matter.

So what happened? So far, my sample size is 27. Of them, 15 participants (55%) mapped bibi to the rounded shape, and koka to the angular one. The other 12 (44%) mapped bibi to the angular shape, and koka to the rounded one. So it looks like the consonants have a slight edge, but not much of one. In fact, if I throw out the data from my wife and sons, who were looking at written representations, only 12 participants mapped bibi to the rounded shape, and it’s now a 50-50 split. So maybe it’s the combination of vowels and consonants that produce the well-defined bouba/kiki effect, since it mostly disappeared when I flip-flopped the vowels.

There are other possibilities, too. Maurer et al., who hypothesized that the roundness or unroundness of the vowels was the important factor, mentioned that it could be that English or other languages have a detectable pattern whereby real words with rounded vowels (or spelled with round letters) denote round things, and real words with unround vowels refer to pointy things. For support, they point out that there has been one study where the kiki/bouba effect did not show up, involving the Songe people of Papua New Guinea. Maybe, they note, this language doesn’t have the same kind of previously existing sound/shape correspondences. This was why Maurer et al. wanted to do their experiment on very young children, who hadn’t had as much exposure to their native languages.

More intriguingly, Maurer et al. suggest that “the effect is stronger for some consonant/vowel pairings than others” (p. 320). They suggest this because in just one out of their four pairs of nonsense words, one word contained voiced velars and round vowels–in other words, the same combination I had in koka that I didn’t think other researchers had looked at. Their word was /goga/, and for the pair /goga, tite/, they did not get the clean mapping that they got with the other words. (They also suggested that it could have been a problem in the story that they told their toddler subjects for this particular pair of words.)

So that’s my bibi/koka experiment. If you try it on your friends or family, let me know how it goes.

Posted in Phonaesthemes, Phonetics and phonology | 6 Comments »