Linguistic commentary from a guy who takes things too literally

Sending Out Shouts

Posted by Neal on July 10, 2007

A few years ago my wife and I rented the DVD of Holes. I was scrolling through the extras, and found something called “The Shout-Out.” That sounded intriguing; was it footage of the cast doing some kind of trust-building exercise that involved a lot of shouting? Dancing to “Shout” by Otis Day and the Knights? (Or Tears for Fears? No, you can’t dance to that.) Or maybe just having fun pre-treating their laundry with Shout ™ stain remover?

Come to find out, it was just the cast sitting around talking. And not even about particularly interesting stuff, either. Mostly they were just complimenting each other or the director about how great they were to work with, what an awesome experience making this movie had been, things like that. That was my introduction to the noun shout-out, defined at Urban Dictionary as “A public expression of thanks or gratitude” or “A kind mention of a homey.” Synonyms include props and big ups.

Now that I knew about the word, I wondered how it had been created. The hypothesis that occurred to me was that it was a case of reanalysis. I imagined that shout had been occurring next to out in sentences like:

I want to send a shout out to my friends.

The font colors indicate that a shout is one logical, natural chunk of the sentence (a constituent, in other words), and out to my friends is another. More specifically, a shout is the thing being sent, and out to my friends is the destination. Of course, you could identify the destination with just plain old to my friends. This phrase is a constituent, too, but in my example it’s contained in the larger constituent out to my friends, for a somewhat more emphatic effect. In case you’re wondering by now what wouldn’t be a constituent, out to wouldn’t be one; nor would to my or, at this point in the story, shout out.

The reanalysis comes in when some speakers take the sentence to be bracketed this way:

I want to send a shout out to my friends.

Out has now been interpreted as part of the direct object constituent, and the destination is indicated by plain old to my friends. Post-reanalysis, we can expect shout out to show up in sentences other than those where it follows verbs like send, as in:

He has made a Shout Out about a blogger by the name of Divya Uttam and her blog entitled Blogging to Fame. (link)

…and even in phrases that aren’t entire sentences, like the title of that extra on the Holes DVD. It should also be possible for out to appear twice in a row, one associating with shout, and the other with to my friends; for example:

I’d like to send a shout out out to my boys C, Linds, and Justin. (link)

So are the earliest uses of shout out with this meaning actually sentences like I want to send a ~ to my friends? To find out, I asked lexicographer and frequent blogger Ben Zimmer. Here’s what he had to say:

OED has a draft entry for “shout-out” with cites back to 1990, but it doesn’t give any indication of that sort of reanalysis:

shout-out, n. colloq.
A mention, acknowledgement, or greeting, esp. one made over the radio or during a live performance; a namecheck. In the United States, esp. among performers or fans of rap music; in the United Kingdom, particularly associated with dance music and club subculture.
1990 Newsday (Nexis) 8 Feb. II. 15 There were Mardi Gras anthems and a
shout out to Africa, and plenty of spare, angular funk.
1991 Source Dec. 36/2 Big fat shout outs and congrats to the Black Rock Coalition
on the release of their compilation album.

But when I search on early examples of “shout out” on the alt.rap newsgroup from 1991, there are a lot that fit the frame you’re talking about:

Let me get a shout out to the MAINE posse. (4/13/91)
Please send a shout out to them for me because I can’t get that newsgroup. (4/13/91)
They are also giving a shout out to Kool Moe Dee, late of the Terrible Three. (6/21/91)

So about as far back as shout out is attested, it shows up phrases in which the putative reanalysis has occurred (the OED examples), and in examples where it need not have (the alt.rap examples). If the reanalysis scenario is true, then it had already come to pass by 1990, but I can’t conclude much beyond that.

But there is another line of evidence that I hadn’t considered until recently: plurals. Let’s suppose my hypothesis is wrong, and that from the start, in a verb phrase like give/send a shout out to my friends, the collocation shout out has been a constituent. If that’s true, then when someone’s talking about more than one shout out, we should expect the plural shout outs. If on the other hand, out was originally associated with to my friends, then we’d expect the plural shouts in the earliest attestations, and occasionally even now, for speakers who haven’t (yet) reanalyzed the construction. Zimmer confirms that shouts out does exist back as far as 1991, providing some more early citations from alt.rap:

Quik gives a few shouts out to those who helped him with the album. (9/30/91)
Treach sends shouts out to the entire Flavor Unit as well as all the members of D.U. (3/24/92)
But what I want to know is why so many rappers give shouts out to the Awesome 2 in the credits. (4/6/92)

And I know shouts out is still around, because I heard someone say it on the radio a couple of weeks ago. There’s another complication, however. Even though we could still expect the occasional shouts out, my reanalysis hypothesis predicts they should occur only in frames like give/send ~ to (someone). In fact, they appear as stand-alone nouns, too, just like shout out does. For example, the title of this 2007 blog posting is simply “Shouts Out.”

Now it could be that this is a case of hypercorrection: The writer started off with shout outs but changed it by analogy with other head-inflected nouns such as mothers-in-law or courts martial. But even though this is possible, I have the uncomfortable feeling that I’m grasping at straws to save my hypothesis. So for now, I’ll just say that shout out may have arisen by reanalysis of give/send a shout out to, but the evidence is inconclusive. And of course, send mad props and big ups to Ben Zimmer for his help with the research.

11 Responses to “Sending Out Shouts”

  1. Kip said

    What about the phrase “shout outs”, was it pretty common in the 1991 alt.rap forums too?

    Also, it may be incorrect, but I would say “court martials.” I also insist on saying “cul de sacs” even though I know it to be technically incorrect.

  2. Neal said

    Good question. Let’s see… well, there are a couple from 1992, and that’s as early as they seem to go. FWIW, they all postdate the 1992 attestations of shouts out. Here’s one:

    yeah it’s onn a track called MVP’s where he’s basically giving shout outs to everybody. (Sep 9 1992)

  3. […] story about reanalysis is just my best guess, which might not be correct. I had a similar story for the origin of shout out, with it arising (now I can use that verb) from phrases like send a shout out to my friend, where […]

  4. Dutch said

    This goes back much further than 1991… check Ralph McDaniels Video Music Box… In my opinion he is most responsible for the phrase’s popularity. In the 80s he would interview the general public @ parties and have them give “shout-outs”.

  5. […] as having the noun shouts with a postnominal adverbial complemen, and indeed Neal Whitman has argued on his blog that the composite shout-out (however spelled) arose from the noun + adverbial […]

  6. jimludwig said

    Neil: Fairly early on in your post, you interpreted that the “out” of “shout out” was derived from a complete phrase that contained that preposition. Here is a different point of view,one that goes beyond this particular verbal phrase: My sense is that it has somehow become “cool” to add gratuitous prepositions, esp. “out” and “up”.

    Certainly language changes with time, and those of us who are older will have perspective on such changes. For example, it is now common to say “I need to change UP my schedule.” For the life of me, I don’t recall people importing “up” into this context 30 years ago (I am 56.) Certainly “up” adds no MEANING to the sentence….?

    Here are a few other examples that have puzzled me:

    *We need to finish OUT the year.

    *The prisoner is serving OUT his time in prison.

    *We are going to change OUT the promotional material.

    *The patient was bleeding OUT.

    *Let’s switch UP their responsibilities.

    Maybe I just getting forgetful, but I can’t recall these sentences necessitating such prepositional use in my youth. : ) And I repeat that upon examination, they appear to add no linguistic value to the sentences.

    As further testimony to the “frivolous” nature such usage, note that in some cases, after arbitrarily adding prepositions, it then becomes fashionable to dump them. Consider:

    *He really freaked (out).

    *We’ll hang (out) together next week.

    *Chill (out).

    *I didn’t think you would show (up).

    There is no question that verbal phrases can be a very creative way to communicate, where a preposition adds a whole new meaning to the verb (work out, come up with, make it up, bring something up, put up with, put off by, etc). But to me, the examples given earlier in my comment seem to hazard into a new zone of verbal indulgence; they seem “fashionable” while adding no meaning per the addition of the preposition! : ) Jim

  7. […] get to that, but while I’m delivering shout-outs to friends who recently got their PhDs, here’s a belated one for Yusuke Kubota, who graduated […]

  8. John Schmidt said

    The hosts and guests on the rap shows on WBAU, Adelphi University’s radio station used the term all the time from when they first started in, I think, 1981. I was the technical director, and was present when many of these shows were on the air. If you contact Bill Stephney ( (he was the fist rap show host), he might be able to shed more light on the subject.

  9. […] know, I really liked the first film I saw Shia LaBeouf in, and the second one wasn’t too bad. I was always a bit bugged by the clear misspelling of his […]

  10. J said

    DEVO. ” Space Junk “. Listen to it. First shoutout I’ve heard in the music. 1977-1978

  11. Tony jones said

    I believe the phrase “A big shout out to…” Came into usage in the UK during the acid house/hardcore years of 1988-1993,it was used during the chat of an MC to give mention to somebody present at the rave,and has grown in popularity since then.So much so that it is commonly used on BBC Radio 2 when saying hello to a listener.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

%d bloggers like this: