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.