Linguistic commentary from a guy who takes things too literally

Archive for the ‘Music’ Category


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 »

Don’t Believe Me Just Watch

Posted by Neal on March 12, 2016

I’ve been thinking about “Uptown Funk,” the song b Mark Ronson and Bruno Mars that spent fully one quarter of the year 2015 at the top of the US Billboard chart. You’ve heard it, of course. There was no escaping it two years ago. But if you need a memory refresher, it went like this:

The hook consists of Mars singing (in this order) the five words don’t, believe, me, just, and watch. But which of the following three structures is the one that Mars has in mind?

  1. [If you] don’t believe me, just watch.
  2. {You] don’t believe me? Just watch.
  3. Don’t believe me; just watch.

We could answer the question easily with a look at the official sheet music, couldn’t we? Of course we could, but do you want the easy answer or the fun answer? That’s what I thought.

[If you] don’t believe me, just watch.

When I first heard the song, I interpreted the hook this way, without questioning it. I took it as a heavily elliptical conditional sentence, which has suppressed not only the if, but also the subject you. Kind of like how if you snooze, you lose became you snooze, you lose, and ultimately the telegraphic snooze you lose. Or maybe a better example would be Mess with the bull, get the horns, where the main clause get the horns has also lost its subject.

The more I thought about it, though, the less certain I was about this interpretation, because just watch is pretty clearly a command, but in all my comparable examples, the main clause was a declaration. You lose is a declaration. Even in Mess with the bull, get the horns, where there’s no explicit subject for get the horns, it’s clearly a statement. It doesn’t mean that if you mess with the bulls, you’re obligated to get the horns; it means you will get the horns.

Don’t believe me? Just watch.

That’s when it occurred to me that what I might be hearing was an elliptical yes/no question. These abbreviated questions can omit the auxiliary verb if it’s clear from the context (as in 1-4 below), or the auxiliary verb along with the subject, if the subject is you (see 5 and 6). Negative elliptical questions like this are interesting because in them, you omit the subject you while keeping the negated auxiliary verb, which has to be contracted (see 7-9).

  1. [Does] anybody want to play cards?
  2. [Has] everyone used the bathroom?
  3. [Is] Kim sitting here?
  4. *[Can] anyone give me a hand?
  5. [Do you] like it?
  6. *[Does anybody] want to play cards?
  7. [You] don’t believe me?
  8. *[You] do not believe me?
  9. *[You do] not believe me?

This question-plus-command structure is essentially an imperative conditional, functionally equivalent to If you don’t believe me, just watch. To comply with the command, you have a choice. You can believe Mars, thus negating the if clause, or you can watch him. You could even take the “trust but verify” option of doing both: believing him and watching him.

Don’t believe me; just watch.

Unless, of course, Mars had our third option in mind, and is saying, “Don’t take my word for it–see the evidence for yourself!” In this interpretation, Don’t believe me is neither an elliptical conditional missing an If you, nor an elliptical question missing just a you. Instead, it’s just an ordinary imperative, like the second clause. To comply with these two commands, you no longer have the option of simply believing Mars and being done with it. He’s ordering you not to do that, and to watch him as well.

So which is it?

During the four-and-a-half minutes of the song, Mars sings the DBMJW refrain a total of 18 times. Ruling out the first interpretation for the reasons I stated above, that leaves the question/command combination and the double command. Based on science, I conclude that the first through fourth utterances, the eleventh and twelfth, and the fifteenth, seventeenth, and eighteenth are question/command combinations, and the remaining instances are pairs of commands.

Don’t believe me … ?

Posted in Ambiguous song lyrics, Music | 1 Comment »

Getting on the Bae Train

Posted by Neal on January 5, 2015

Last March, while prowling through my son’s and his friends’ social media timelines (this is called “creeping,” by the way), I noticed the word bae starting to appear. “How long have people been saying that?” I wondered, and whenever I wonder that, it means I might have a good topic to write about for Visual Thesaurus. So I pitched the idea to Ben Zimmer; he gave the go-ahead, and over the next week or so, also provided helpful leads to follow up involving bae in several internet memes. When Ben published my column, he gave it the title I wish I’d thought of, “Bae Watch“. And having satisfied my curiosity, I moved on to other topics.

As it turns out, though, other writers on language were just beginning to get interested in bae, and Ben watched the developments with interest. In July, he sent me an email:

It’s funny … your column still gets widely shared (I think because it appears near the top of Google search results for various “bae” searches)…

He included a link to a column in Time magazine by Katy Steinmetz, who went over in much less detail both the almost certainly bogus origin of bae (it stands for “before anyone else”), and the more boring and more likely origin (it was just shortened from babe), inspired by the release of Miley Cyrus and Pharrell Williams’s song “Come Get It, Bae.” Although we covered some of the same ground, it was Steinmetz, and not me, who was targeted for criticisms like this one:

It wasn’t enough to determine the gist from the context of the sentence. Nah, she had to take it three steps further, starting with an etymology and ending with an example and her ability to use it in a sentence. With extra credit. … TIME needn’t covet, claim, or break “bae” down for us, though. We already use it, so let us have it. We got this.

Similar sentiments were expressed in this post by Yesha Callahan in The Grapevine, which went on to say

Next up, Time will attempt to explain the term “turnt up” by explaining that it’s not actually something you do to your thermostat in the winter.

A later piece in The Root took this thought and expanded it into a whole list of slang terms that Time should take on next. It was clearly a sarcastic list, but to tell the truth, I’d be interested in learning more about the origin and spread of several of these. In fact, turnt was the subject of my April Visual Thesaurus column, and I may yet write a piece on or nah?

Two days later, Ben emailed me again to tell me, “Everybody’s getting on the ‘bae’ train…” (another play on words, which I’ve stolen for this post), this time with a link to an article by Natasha Zarinsky on the Esquire website. This article was annoying. It spent a lot of time speculating about the origin of bae and concluding that no one really knows, when, it seemed to me, she could have just read my column and had her answer. So I left a somewhat ungracious comment, to which Zarinsky and some others responded:

I'm not particularly proud of this comment, but there it is.

In addition to the comment by Jacob Difiore, an earlier comment that seems to have been deleted asked me, “Sarcastic much?” before observing that I didn’t have a copyright on an idea. True enough, but I still say that after Zarinsky found and read my column, it would have been better to change the tone of her piece from “We just don’t know” to something else. (As an aside, it’s interesting that Difiore called me “that big of an asshole” instead of just “that big an asshole”. This was one of the first topics I blogged about.)

Things died down for a few months, until Steinmetz revisited bae in November to include it in a list of nominees for words to be banned, which was called racist and sexist. (The winner was feminist.)

Last month, Ben emailed me again, saying, “Your piece is still generating heated discussion!”, linking to some tweets that took me to an article in by Rhodri Marsden in The Independent, complaining about the word bae. After his article was published, Marsden got into a pissing match with a guy named Larry Fisherman (handle @eynahK) on Twitter. Fisherman seems to have removed his tweets on the matter, but from what I remember, he took issue with Marsden’s failure to do even the minimal research that would have told him that bae was an acronym for “before anyone else.” Looking for support, Marsden tweeted Fisherman a link to my column, to which Fisherman responded that that was just one source, compared to the many people who say otherwise. Then Marsden came back with two more tweets, which basically said “Oh, yeah?” and “So there!”

Next came the Dec. 27 entry for bae in the new online resource The Right Rhymes, “a historical dictionary of hip-hop slang based on a corpus of rap lyric transcriptions.” This is a great source for hip-hop slang, even better than Genius (formerly RapGenius), because it has better date citations. Their earliest is from 2007, in Kanye West’s “Flashing Lights”:

Hey, bae, lately, you been all on my brain

Most recently (to my knowledge) are two pieces from last week, both on Dec. 30. First, there’s James Hamblin’s article in The Atlantic, which declares bae to have become so popular, and its meaning to have become so diluted, that it is effectively dead. Hamblin cites both Steinmetz’s and my articles, and links to an August YouTube video by William Haynes that’s still promulgating the “before anyone else” story. It’s hard to say if Haynes is serious about the origin, since the rest of the video is tongue-in-cheek.

Finally, there’s Katy Waldman’s post on Slate’s Lexicon Valley blog, talking about the Twitter feed @BrandsSayingBae, which collects all the tweets from corporations that are trying to be hip on social media by using slang such as bae.

So that’s the year in bae. Have I missed some sources? Leave a comment!

Posted in Music, Uncategorized, Variation | 5 Comments »

Seldom Is Heard a Discouraging Word

Posted by Neal on August 2, 2014

The wife has spent numerous hours planning the itinerary for a trip we’re going to take out west later this summer. She has tricks up her sleeve that I never would have thought of for finding the best prices for airfare, car rentals, and hotels, so I bow to her travel-savvy. But all our discussions about the American West did get me to do some intense thinking of my own.

So you know the song “Home on the Range”? When I first heard it sung, on Captain Kangaroo when I was probably four or five years old, there were two lines in it that nagged at me. One was Where the skies are not cloudy all day, with its strange scope interaction between the negation of not and the universal of all. (Only cloudy some of the day? Uncloudy all day?) The other was the line that came right before it:

Where seldom is heard a discouraging word

Seldom was not in my vocabulary yet, but whatever it meant, it apparently must be a real bummer of a word to hear. Why might that be? And why would you be so likely to hear it? Were people out west in the habit of just walking up to one another and saying this particular discouraging word? “Hey, guess what!” “What?” “Seldom! Ahahaha!”

Some years later I learned what seldom meant, and eventually plugged the meaning into the “Home on the Range” lyrics. Then I was able to parse the line as a kind of negation inversion along the lines of Never have I ever…, Only rarely is he in his office, or Not a word did she speak. Mystery solved!

Or was it?

Let’s start off by taking out the seldom, an dputting this line into non-inverted, ordinary English word order of subject verb complement:

(no inversion) A discouraging word is heard.

If the line in the song were the same kind of negation inversion as in my examples, I’d expect the negative-like word first, then the auxiliary verb (which in this case is also the main verb, is), and then the subject and any complements, like this:

(Negative inversion) Seldom is a discouraging word heard.

…instead of what we actually have:

Seldom is heard a discouraging word.

Compared to the typical negative inversion, the subject and the complement have swapped places. This seems more like copular inversion, where a subject and a complement connected by a finite form of be switch places. This is the kind of inversion we get in utterances like Of greater concern is the fact that you lied, or Absorbent and yellow and porous is he. But this doesn’t get us our desired output, either. If we take a discouraging word as the subject (as we’ve been doing), and take the phrase seldom heard to be the complement (instead of just heard, as we’ve been doing), we get this:

(Copular inversion) Seldom heard is a discouraging word.

To sum up: two kinds of inversion, and neither of them produces the relevant line in our classic American folk song. At least, not individually…

Together, copular inversion and negative inversion can get us what we want, if we just assume that seldom doesn’t get into the picture until step 3:

  1. (no inversion) A discouraging word is heard.
  2. (copular inversion) Heard is a discouraging word.
  3. (negative inversion) Seldom is heard a discouraging word.

I find it interesting that this negative inversion can do its work on whatever appears in the typical subject position, whether or not it’s a subject. Does this really happen in other examples? Let’s try another one:

  1. (no inversion) The man who finds wisdom is happy.
  2. (copular inversion) Happy is the man who finds wisdom.
  3. (negative inversion) ??Seldom is happy the man who finds wisdom.

That one doesn’t work so well, so now I’m not sure I’ve identified what’s going on in “Home on the Range.” Maybe there’s some locative inversion with the where going on as well, like what Robert Burns has in his poem “Tam O’Shanter”. The poem is about how this guy and his friends like to have fun drinking together, and don’t worry about how late they’re going to arrive home,

Where sits our sulky sullen dame.
Gathering her brows like gathering storm,
Nursing her wrath to keep it warm.

I’ve tried locative inversion, though, and haven’t found a satisfactory combination of moves to get the desired output yet. Now isn’t that a discouraging word?

Posted in Inversion, Music | 8 Comments »

Nae Nae, Nini, No-No, Noo-Noo

Posted by Neal on March 22, 2014

Soon after Mercer College’s amazing upset of Duke University in the NCAA March Madness tournament, both Slate and the New York Times published articles about a dance that the Bears’ team member Kevin Canevari was doing on live national TV while his teammates cheered. The dance, Slate explained, was

the Nae Nae, a dance created by Atlanta fivesome We Are Toonz. As Billboard pointed out a couple of months ago, it’s loosely inspired by the character Sheneneh, played in drag by Martin Lawrence on his popular eponymous sitcom from the ’90s.

When I read that, my first reaction was, “Aha! Another entry!”

A few weeks ago, Mignon Fogarty ran a guest script that I wrote for her Grammar Girl podcast, on the history of “Little Bunny Foo Foo”. That was an excerpt from my book-in-progress, whose working title is The Babbler’s Lexicon, a phonetically organized book of word histories, with words having one thing in common: That they consist of a reduplicated consonant-vowel (CV) syllable. I got the idea when I heard Grant Barrett and Martha Barnett discussing the word juju on an episode of A Way with Words, and got to wondering how many words in English consisted of a single reduplicated syllable.

I decided to narrow the search to reduplicated CV syllables containing any of the vowels /a, e, i, o, u/, the vowels in bot, bait, beat, boat, and boot. The crossproduct of English consonants that can begin a syllable and {a,e,i,o,u} gave me 115 possible words, which I’ve listed at the bottom of the post.

In researching these possible words, I’ve learned that almost any of them can be used as a nickname, especially those that sound like the names of letters, because they can be people’s initials: J.J., C.C., DeeDee, etc. Also, a surprising number of them have also been used as euphemisms for sexual anatomy. (Given the way I organized my list phonetically, I considered calling the book From Papa to Hoo Hoo, but realized that just wouldn’t do.) Anyway, the /n/ series consists of /nana, nene, nini, nono, nunu/. Here are the entries I have at present:

/nana/: Nothing. I’m not including single words, such as nah, that are said twice for emphasis.

nene /ˈneˌne/, n: The endangered goose Branta sandvicensis that is the state bird of Hawaii. The name was borrowed from Hawaiian in the early 20th century.

Photo by USFWS, licensed by Creative Commons

Photo by USFWS, licensed by Creative Commons

Nae Nae /ˈneˌne/, n: See above.

nini /ˈniˌni/, Spanish slang, n: A young person who just wants to party and have a good time. According to an entry on Urban Dictionary, this comes from the Spanish ni estudia ni trabaja (“neither studies nor works”). This definition is backed up by the existence of “The Nini Anthem”:

no-no /ˈnoˌno/, n, adj: Something forbidden. The OED has this from 1942, and gives an interesting usage note: It’s usually with the indefinite article. That is, you can say something is a no-no, but even after that, you won’t refer to it as this no-no or the no-no. And I mean it!

Noo-noo /ˈnuˌnu/, n, adj: The animate vacuum-cleaner creature on the late 1990s BBC children’s TV show Teletubbies. Clever Noo-noo!

If you have other N words that belong in this set, leave a comment. I have just learned, for example, that there is a hair-removal device called the No-No, and that in South African English, nunu refers to a big, creepy insect. Other words that belong in The Babbler’s Lexicon at large are welcome, too.


/p/ /f/ /t/ /z/ /ʒ/ /k/
/b/ /v/ /d/ /ɹ/ /ʧ/ /g/
/m/ /θ/ /n/ /l/ /ʤ/ /h/
/w/ /ð/ /s/ /ʃ/ /j/

Created with the HTML Table Generator

Posted in Music, Phonetics and phonology, Pop culture, Sports | 7 Comments »

Sara Squint

Posted by Neal on February 21, 2014

In an issue of Entertainment Weekly a few weeks ago, I read an article about Sara Bareilles, a name I recognized from a music video that used to play on the overhead TVs at the gym, back when I used to go to the gym. The song was called “King of Anything,” and aside from having a good hook, it piqued my interest with the mismatch between its title and its lyrics. The title suggested “free-choice anything,” as in “I can do anything I want!” But in the song, it turns up in a line in the chorus: “Who made you king of anything?” Bait and switch! This is negative polarity anything! I even considered blogging about it at the time, but never got around to it.

However, this article wasn’t about “King of Anything.” It was about “Brave,” a song Bareilles released last year, and which was nominated for a Grammy. I found it, listened to it, and bought it. Not only is it a great tune with inspiring lyrics, but as a bonus, there is linguistic commentary to be made on it.

First of all, there’s the Lehrer-worthy rhyme in the first verse:

You can be amazin’, you can turn a phrase in-
to a weapon or a drug.

Love that enjambment!

As you can tell from the title, the theme of this song is bravery, but it always appears (as in the title) as the adjective brave, even in this line, where Bareilles shamelessly turns brave into a noun:

Show me how big your brave is!

By itself that’s not worth a blog post, but since I’m blogging anyway, there it is. The main things I wanted to comment on were from the chorus, which goes like this:

Say what you want to say
And let the words fall out
I want to see you be brave!

The first time she sings it, she leads into it smoothly from the last line of the previous verse, like this:

I wonder what would happen if you
Say what you want to say

I was just talking to my ESL students about open and remote conditionals last week, after having them watch my video about them. What tense is would, I asked them? Right, past. And what time is this sentence talking about? The future. So what kind of conditional is it? Remote: We’re talking about something that’s not likely. Since what would happen is the main clause of a remote conditional, we also expect a past tense in the if clause, to continue showing this remoteness. What we get, though, is say what you want to say, in the present tense: an open conditional. Why did Bareilles say that instead of said what you want to say? The students came up with several good answers:

  1. The way Bareilles does it, you get the repetition of say at the beginning and end of the line.
  2. It’s easier to put emphasis on say, with its open syllable, than on the closed syllable said.
  3. Maybe it’s a stand-alone sentence, not part of an if-clause. (This is definitely true for the later repetitions of the chorus; for here, it’s probably done for consistency.)
  4. In addition to all that, maybe she’s aiming for the semantic difference, starting with a phrasing showing that something is unlikely to happen, and then changing her mind and ending with more confidence that it can and will happen. (OK, that one was mine.)

Finally, let’s look at the Honestly in the chorus. It’s a squinting modifier! Or as I like to call these constructions, a forwards-backwards attachment ambiguity. Should we parse it as

And let the words fall out honestly

or as

Honestly, I want to see you be brave!

Both parses make sense. The song is about telling the truth, so you could easily take honestly as a manner adverb to modify let the words fall out. However, honestly also works as a sentential adverb, like frankly or seriously, so the second parse works, too. In fact, this is the first squinting ambiguity I’ve seen in which the adverb works as both a manner adverb and a sentential adverb.

So which one is it? You don’t get a clue from timing, because in the song there’s a pause both before and after honestly. Of the few written versions of the lyrics that I looked up, most don’t have punctuation there, but they do break the lines so that honestly goes with I want to see you be brave, so I suspect they’re going with the sentential-adverb parse. But honestly, I think the manner-adverb parse is better.

Posted in Ambiguous song lyrics, Attachment ambiguity, Conditionals, Music | Leave a Comment »


Posted by Neal on August 18, 2013

This is a sub!These are limes!

“What’re you listening to, Holt?” Ken asked as Holt climbed into the back of the van.

Longtime readers may remember Doug’s friend Holt from this one post back in 2008. You may also remember Ken, who once told Doug “I’ma kill you!” and played the straight man in Doug’s impromptu bit of lunchroom comedy involving the lost-and-found. Now all three of these guys are going into high school, as members of the marching band, and have spent the last couple of weeks of summer break going to practice and rehearsal from 8:00 until noon. I was the morning car pool guy for them and one other friend who isn’t relevant to this story, so we’ll just ignore him.

Removing his earbuds, Holt said, “Sublime.”

“It’s ‘Sublime,’ not ‘Sublime,'” Ken told him.

This sounded interesting. “Uh, what’s your complaint, Ken?” I asked.

“It’s ‘sub-lime,'” Ken said. “Not ‘suh-blime.'”

“So when he pronounces it that way, it sounds like he’s saying ‘Blimey!’ or something?”


Actually,” I said, “that’s what we linguists call the Maximal Onset Principle at work. It’s a phonological rule of English. When you have a consonant cluster, you put as much of it as you can at the beginning of the next syllable, instead of at the end of the last one. Since you can start a syllable in English with B-L, you get blime. If the word had been sudlime instead, then he’d have pronounced it ‘sud-lime,’ because dlime isn’t a good English syllable. That’s why we say that someone’s taste in music is ‘e-clectic’ instead of ‘ec-lectic,’ even though that’s how the word roots break down.”

“That,” said Holt, “is exactly what I meant to do.”

Posted in Music, Phonetics and phonology | 5 Comments »

How Bad Girls Get

Posted by Neal on June 25, 2013

Last night I got to meet Bill Walsh, the Washington Post copy editor and book author, whom I’ve mentioned in several blog posts. He was in town promoting his latest book, Yes, I Could Care Less, and had a reading and Q&A session at the home of his colleague Mark Allen. During the talk, Walsh mentioned the ambiguity in this line from “Don’t Stand So Close to Me” by the Police (you can hear it at about 1:17 in the video at the end of this post):

You know how bad girls get.

I knew instantly what he meant. First, there’s the “Girls can become so bad!” reading:

Those girls can get so bad!

Then there’s the “Those bad girls–you know how they can be!” reading:

Bad girls; you know how they are.

I’m surprised I never got around to blogging about this line before, what with ambiguous song lyrics being a recurring theme here. Heck, I’ve even written about another ambiguity in a song by the Police somewhere here. Where is it? … Really, where is it? I know it’s here somewhere? Why isn’t it showing up in my search?

Oh yeah! It was the subject of my very first blog post, back on my brother’s blog, Agoraphilia! Back before I discovered how to put pictures in a blog post. Back before I made nifty syntax diagrams for you to read, and just used nested brackets. Wow.

But back to the current ambiguity. This one reminds me of a joke I read in a joke book back in second or third grade. It went like this:

Do you know how long cows should be milked?

Find the answer below the fold:

Read the rest of this entry »

Posted in Ambiguous song lyrics, Attachment ambiguity, Music | 5 Comments »

Very Frightening

Posted by Neal on January 12, 2013

Life, as we know, is full of tough decisions.

Participles are often described as “verbal adjectives,” but recently I was called on to be more specific with a participle: was it a verb, or an adjective? (Sorry, I can’t tell you why I had to do that; it’s TOP SECRET.)

In high school, I was unconflicted: Participles were a kind of adjective, end of story. Even in a sentence like The kids are frightening the cats, I considered frightening to be an adjective, and frightening the cats to be an adjective phrase, just as proud of themselves is an adjective phrase in The kids are proud of themselves. I was annoyed to lose a couple of points over it in a quiz. However, I wasn’t looking at the bigger picture. I wasn’t considering the other properties of adjective phrases that frightening the cats didn’t have, such as these that I read about in CGEL.

First of all, you can’t make the head participle comparative or superlative, the way you can with typical adjectives. You can’t modify it with very, either:

  • The kids are prouder/proudest of themselves.
  • *The kids are more/most frightening the cats.
  • The kids are very proud of themselves.
  • *The kids are very frightening the cats.

It’s for reasons like these that frightening the cats is considered to be a participial phrase — i.e., more verby than adjectivey.

On the other hand, with frightening by itself, you can make comparatives and superlatives and use very:

  • The kids are more/most frightening.
  • The kids are very frightening.

So by itself, frightening can be considered simply an adjective.

In fact, frightening can even be an adjective inside an adjective phrase. The key is that you can’t just go putting a noun phrase complement (such as the cats) after it, the way you’d do with a verb. Instead, you give it a complement more suitable for an adjective; namely, a prepositional phrase. Here’s how it shakes out with the PP to the cats:

  • The kids are more/most frightening to the cats.
  • The kids are very frightening to the cats.

Frightening is actually an unusual case: It’s a participle that in one guise has completely crossed over to become an adjective, but in another still works as a verby participle in progressive tenses. Other participles like this are loving, (for)giving, disturbing, and amazing. In contrast, participles such as running never pass the comparative/superlative/very adjective tests: Sam is more/most/very running.

So with all that said, now we can talk about what the fictional kindergartner Junie B. Jones has in common with the glam rock group Queen. From Junie B. Jones and the Yucky Blucky Fruitcake, by Barbara Park:

The creamy filling was very squishing between my toes. (p. 25)

From Queen, of course, we have this line from “Bohemian Rhapsody”, with our much-discussed participle frightening:

Thunderbolt and lightning, very, very frightening me! (~3:18 in the video)

In both examples, the very tells us to take the participle as an adjective, but other factors force us to take it as a non-adjectival participle. In the Junie B. Jones example, it’s the context of a progressive tense that does it; in the Queen example, the NP complement me.

I wonder why I’ve never heard anyone complain about this aspect of Junie B. Jones’s grammar, when these books have certainly been criticized for daring to have a six-year-old over-regularize her past tenses and use accusative pronouns where nominatives are called for. Probably it’s because the other grammar complaints are so easy to make, while this one requires some analysis in order to put your finger on the problem. (JBJ uses very with other non-adjectival participles, too, such as watering and practicing, also from JBJ:YBF.) As for “Bohemian Rhapsody,” that song is weird in too many other ways, I think, for people to have focused on the grammar of that one line that comes just between the “Scaramouche” and “Galileo” bits.

There’s more to come about participles, adjectives, and even gerunds, in my next post!

Posted in Books, Gerunds and participles, Kids' entertainment, Music | 3 Comments »

Lay Down and Throw Up Your Arms

Posted by Neal on June 24, 2012

In my last post (so very long ago!), I said that the song “Twenty One Guns” by Green Day was linguistically interesting to me for two reasons, one of them being the pronunciation of twenty one guns. The other was that it reminded me of writing chapter 2 of my dissertation. Now, over a month later, I’ve finally pulled myself out from under a pile of teaching and grading obligations and am here to finish what I had to say about “Twenty One Guns”.

So as you’ll recall, the refrain went like this:

Twenty-one guns
Lay down your arms
Give up the fight.

Twenty-one guns
Throw up your arms
Into the sky.

First of all, a correction: The chapter I was remembering was chapter 1, not chapter 2. In chapter 1 of my dissertation, I was writing about diagnostic tests for whether you have a pair of homonyms or a single word whose meaning is vague enough that it can cover the meanings you’re interested in. I summarized some of these tests from a classic work by Arnold Zwicky and Jerry Sadock (which itself was a summarization of various ambiguity tests they had seen in the literature), and one of them they called the crossed-senses test. Take a sentence like

Doug and Adam both like rock.

This could mean that my sons both like rock music, or that they are both geology enthusiasts. But how about this: Could it mean that Doug likes rock music, while Adam likes igneous, metamorphic, and sedimentary pieces of the Earth’s crust? If it can, then rock passes the crossed-senses test for these two meanings, indicating (according to the theory) that musical rock and geological rock are not homonyms, but a single word with a meaning vague enough that it encompasses both meanings of rock.

As it happens, I can’t get this crossed-senses reading, except as a joke. For comparison, if I said Doug and Adam both read a book, it could certainly be true if one read a hardback and the other a paperback. If you can’t crossed senses for both like rock, then for us at least, musical and geological rock are homonyms: separate words that happen to sound the same (and be spelled the same too). Since they’re separate words, you see, the single utterance of rock can only be one or the other.

Years after Zwicky & Sadock, a paper by Alex Lascarides, Ann Copestake, and Ted Briscoe observed that failing the crossed-senses test wasn’t enough to conclude that you had a pair of homonyms. Why? Because you get the same kind of goofiness even when you repeat that word with the two meanings. Using the rock example again:

Doug likes rock, and Adam likes rock.

Can you get the crossed senses now? I can’t. So at this point, whatever is blocking the availability of both meanings of rock, it’s not that they are homonyms instead of a single, vague word. If they’re homonyms, there should be no problem with having the geological one in the part of the sentence about Doug, and the musical one in the part about Adam. There must be something else going on, and whatever it is can also explain why Doug and Adam both like rock fails the crossed-senses test, too. For what it’s worth, LC&B argue for a pragmatics-based explanation.

Anyway, that’s what I was thinking about recently when I listened to the chorus of “Twenty-One Guns”. The plural noun arms has two meanings. In the phrase lay down your arms, it refers to weapons. In the phrase throw up your arms, it refers to the body parts between your shoulders and your hands. Now suppose we had a sentence with just one token of the word arms, but with both meanings needed; something like…

Lay down and throw up your arms.

Does it pass the crossed-senses test? No way. For me, it cannot mean to surrender your weapons and then quickly raise your arms above your head. It could mean to lie down (with the nonstandard usage of lay) and then quickly raise your arms above your head. Or it could mean to place your body-part arms on a table in front of you before raising them in the air. Or it could mean doing the same thing with your weapons. Of course, throwing up your arms could also mean vomiting them up, whether you’re regurgitating weapons that you’ve eaten, or your own arms that you previously chewed off in an act of autoanthropophagy. So the three meanings multiply out to six, but in no case can I get arms referring first to weapons and then to one’s upper limbs (or vice versa).

But unlike the example with rock, which fails the test whether you say Doug and Adam like rock or Doug likes rock and Adam likes rock, this one improves greatly when you say the word arms twice. I’d been listening to the song for a couple of years before I ever took note of the two meanings of arms coexisting in the same refrain. How does that happen?

Actually, arms doesn’t pass the crossed-senses test so easily in a sentence like this:

Lay down your arms, and throw up your arms.

I can get the crossed senses, but not as easily as I do when listening to the song. The context helps: The idiom lay down your arms always refers to surrendering your weapons, and more figuratively to “giv[ing] up the fight”. The phrase throw up your arms doesn’t have an idiomatic meaning that I’m aware of (beyond that of vomiting, as noted earlier), so that would nudge listeners toward the more literal body-part meaning. Maybe the typical hip-hop exhortation to “throw your hands in the air” (usually in a manner so as to suggest that you just don’t care) helps a bit, too. Even so, the meanings rub against each other enough to make me think about the other possible interpretations, and smile to myself.

So once again, how did the song lyrics manage to slip these two meanings of arms past the crossed-senses barrier without my noticing for all that time? My only guess at this point is that in addition to the context cues, you have those extra words in between, giving more space for the first arms activation in your brain to die down before the second one comes along. That, and the fact that Green Day sing this chorus so very slowly!

Posted in Ambiguity, Music | 6 Comments »