Linguistic commentary from a guy who takes things too literally

Archive for the ‘Potty on, dudes!’ Category

Steaming Piles

Posted by Neal on February 13, 2012

Once upon a time, Doug and Adam and I were sitting in the waiting room at the vet’s office. I don’t even remember which cat we had brought in that day, although it was probably Nick, with his chronic nasal problems. What I do remember, and what Doug and Adam remember, is a terrier with curly black fur, a terrier they now refer to simply as Smelly Dog. Smelly Dog was agitated, whining and restlessly shifting side to side while his owner tried to calm him down. Then, suddenly…

Maybe you’ve seen fountains of blood spurting from severed arteries in some of the gorier videogames, or in the Black Knight scene in Monty Python and the Holy Grail, or in real life. That’s what it was like in the vet’s waiting room, except that the blood wasn’t shooting out of a brachial, femoral or carotid artery, but Smelly Dog’s rear end. And it wasn’t blood. It squirted, and squirted, and squirted. As we watched in disgusted fascination, the smell reached us.

“Aww, do you feel better now?” Smelly Dog’s owner cooed, while Doug and Adam scrambled for the exit.

Every now and then Doug or Adam will remember that story and reminisce with his brother, or me. The last time it happened, I was busy heating up a serving of chana masala for the wife, who’d gotten home after we’d had supper.

“… until there was just a big, steaming pile of liquid!” Doug said as I pulled the bowl out of the microwave.

“More like a puddle,” I said.

“That’s why I said ‘of liquid,'” Doug answered. I didn’t pursue it, because I was busy getting a napkin and a spoon for the chana masala. As I handed it to my wife, I said, “OK, here’s your hot, steaming pile of–“

“Oh, don’t be disgusting!” she blurted out.

“What are you talking about? Here’s your hot, steaming pile of chana masala!”

So did my wife have a point? Is the string steaming pile of enough to warrant disgust? Clearly, it was for her, but that was with some vivid priming from Doug and me. The association was strong enough for Doug to forgo the word puddle to call the spreading brown mess on the waiting room floor a “steaming pile of liquid.” In a thread on the online Word Reference Forum, one participant asks what steaming pile means, and another, “In many situations the ‘steaming pile’ alluded to is a steaming pile of bullshit, horseshit or just shit,” and another adds, “If the author of that had only said My life is a steaming pile, I’m fairly sure that most native English-speakers would have easily been able to supply the missing [of shit].”

A COCA search for “steaming [pile] of”, looking for the most common words within four words to the right, brings in only about two dozen hits, but seven of them are guano, excrement, scat, poop, dung, and shit. COCA will let you sort results by mutual information, which is a statistical measure of how closely associated with each other two words are. In the extreme case, if the probability of word B appearing after word A is no different than the probability that word B will appear anywhere, then these words’ probabilities are independent, and their mutual information will be 0. On the other hand, if word A always occurs with word B, and word B always occurs with word A, their mutual information will be much higher. According to the COCA tutorial page, a mutual information score of above 3.0 generally indicates “semantic bonding”.

Steaming pile(s) of and shit within four words of each other have mutual information 9.48. Pretty good, given the 3.0 threshold, right? But in fact, there’s only one example with shit:

They’ve left a steaming pile of dog shit on my desk, and now it belongs to me.

The word that yielded the highest mutual information score was actually another singleton hit, roadkill, at 15.87. Guano followed closely, with 15.85.

For comparison, I did a search with a string that I thought would have higher mutual information with shit, namely lying sack of, limited to words that occurred immediately to the right. That got eight hits, four of them with shit, one with manure, one with (censored), and two left incomplete. The mutual information with shit was 14.18, more than the 9.48, but still less than the score for steaming pile(s) of followed by guano. It just goes to show you can’t jump to conclusions.

But back to our steaming piles, I found that the steaming pile of chana masala I served up to my wife was not without precedent in the Corpora of Contemporary and Historical American English and in Google Books:

  • His last meal was more than twenty-four hours behind him, and all he could think about were steaming piles of roast boar and warm ale, right from the goat’s teat. (2009)
  • there was a steaming pile of peas and a casserole of sweet potatoes with broiled marshmallows on top. (1995)
  • The pot had been drained of water and dumped on its side; they sat close to the steaming pile of potatoes, hunched over, ripping off the salt-stained skins with small knives. (1957)
  • They returned to the tent just as the last streak of daylight disappeared from the western horizon and at once set about the consumption of a steaming pile of boiled mutton and huge bowls of dough strings floating in mutton broth. (1918)
  • Isidora saw that Bill had the food he liked best for breakfast; a steaming pile of buckwheat cakes trimmed round the edges with crisp brown lace, and oozing syrup at every pore. (1910)
  • It was not the time — just after tea — to eat an immense dish of coos-coosoo, or a steaming pile of hot mutton and raisins, cooked in oil,
  • “Naw, Amy ain’t took wid no spell no sich a thing,” interrupted Caroline, as she placed another steaming pile of eggs on Sam’s plate. (1886)
  • he will hereafter be held in grateful remembrance around many a steaming pile of Saur-Kraut and Speck. (1869)
  • they rushed upon the steaming piles of meat like half-famished wolves.

I also found, in the first half of the 20th century and earlier, steaming piles of rubble:

  • in no more time than it takes for a tangle of tubes and drums to fly up and fall down again, the whole plant is a steaming pile of brick, mortar (1937)
  • The wall crashed down, demolishing the office completely and leaving nothing but a steaming pile of bricks and debris. (1917)
  • the lovely mother, who had led him to behold her son as he slept, at this moment a blackened corse under the steaming pile [of a burned-down house] before him. (1832)

The earliest example I’ve found in which steaming pile refers to excrement is from 1890, in Light on the Cloud, or Hints of Comfort for Hours of Sorrow, by Minot Judson Savage:

It is not the fault of the sunlight that, beneath its shining, a bed of flowers lifts up its fragrance to God, and that, beneath the same shining, a steaming pile of filth reeks offence and disease in all nostrils.

And on that inspirational note, I leave you to your own steaming piles, whatever their composition.

Posted in Doug, Potty on, dudes!, Taboo, The wife | 7 Comments »

Ass/Fucking Intensification

Posted by Neal on January 19, 2012

Several years ago, when Randall Munroe’s xkcd web comic still consisted mostly of scanned images of doodles from his graph-paper notebooks, I got a laugh out of this one:

It’s funny because it’s true: I do the same thing.

In September 2010, Munroe revisited the topic of obscenity-based intensifiers with this diagram:

Although Munroe didn’t include ass in this survey, I’d say the same adjectives that you don’t find intensified with fucking or as shit, you also don’t find intensified with ass. A lot of the discussion on the xkcd forum focused on which adjectives could and couldn’t be intensified in these ways, but as I thought about these three obscenity-based intensifiers, it occurred to me that even one and the same adjective can’t always be intensified by all three of these intensifiers. In fact, I discovered that the rules for how to use fucking, ass, and as shit are pretty subtle.

For comparison, let’s look at the intensifier really. You can use really to intensify a predicative adjective (i.e., an adjective that comes after the linking verb be), as in

This car is really sweet.

You can also use it to intensify an attributive adjective (i.e., one that modifies a noun), as in

He has a really sweet car.

Fucking can intensify both predicative and attributive adjectives, too; you can substitute fucking for really in both of the example sentences with no problem:

This car is fucking sweet.
He has a fucking sweet car.

So can as shit, although as we see below, it starts to get a little awkward before an attributive adjective. That’s probably due to long adjective phrases in general not sounding so good before the nouns they modify.

This car is sweet as shit.
?He has a sweet-as-shit car.

Ass, however, can intensify only attributive adjectives. Put it with a predicative adjective and it’s just silly:

*This car is sweet-ass.
He has a sweet-ass car.

By the way, if someone says something is as “nasty as shit” or “disgusting as shit”, you might be able to interpret as shit is an ordinary comparative phrase. But when they say “sweet as shit”, you know as shit has now become completely grammaticalized as an intensifier. Come to think of it, the same goes for pissed as shit, something I actually heard a dormmate say in college.

So anyway, as I was saying, it looks like two of the obscenity-based intensifiers, fucking and as shit, can go with either predicative or attributive adjectives, while ass is limited to attributives. This peculiarity of ass may be a relic of its origin. Patricia O’Conner writes on her Grammarphobia blog that the original ass-suffixed adjective was big, and at first it was written big-assed, and referred to people that had big asses. She cites the Oxford English Dictionary‘s first attestation, from 1944:

The marines’ chosen name for their female aides is bams, from big-assed marines.

O’Conner continues:

An extended use of this literal meaning—applied to airplanes with big rear ends—was recorded in the military beginning in 1945. Both the OED and the Random House Historical Dictionary of American Slang have citations from that time, when a plane with a large tail section (especially the Boeing B-17 Flying Fortress) was referred to as a “big-ass bird” or “big-assed bird.”

The phonetic simplification from big-assed to big-ass is unsurprising; it’s exactly the same change that took place in ice(d) cream and is ongoing in ice(d) tea (which with the right accent can even sound like “ass tea”). The semantic shift from something with a big ass to something that is itself big is understandable as well. The OED‘s earliest example of that is from 1945, referring to a policeman’s “big ass nightstick”.

But the complications don’t end with the limitation of ass to attributive adjective modification. With fucking and as shit both able to modify predicative adjectives, there is the possibility of using both in a single predicative adjective phrase, as in

(That’s) fucking annoying as shit.

You can get a similar doubling fucking and ass with attributive adjectives; for example,

a fucking sweet-ass car

This kind of double intensification is much less natural with other intensifiers; for instance, ?his really very expensive car is questionable. You can also pair fucking with really or very, but there’s a condition: fucking gets to be closer to the noun:

a really/very fucking expensive car
*a fucking really/very expensive car

(You might be thinking that a fucking really expensive car sounds fine, but what’s going on there is that fucking is modifying the entire nominal really expensive car, the same way as it could to with car all by itself: His fucking car is parked across the sidewalk! If you put in some other adjectives and separate fucking from the nominal, the phrase is questionable at best: ?/*a totally awesome but fucking really expensive car.)

I’ve paired fucking with as shit, and fucking with ass, but what about ass with as shit? Sorry, no can do:

*This car is sweet-ass as shit.
*He bought a sweet-ass as shit car.

It’s no surprise that predicative sweet-ass as shit is no good, given that predicative sweet-ass is no good, either. Attributive *sweet-ass as shit may be ungrammatical simply because it’s a long adjective phrase coming before the noun it modifies–the same thing that happened with ?sweet as shit car, but made worse now with the addition of ass-intensification.

Another wrinkle turns up when it comes to comparative forms of adjectives; i.e. their -er or more ___ forms. Fucking, like really and very, can’t modify comparative forms, whether they’re predicative or attributive adjective. The same goes for ass with its attributive adjectives:

*This car is really/very/fucking sweeter.
*He has a really/very/fucking sweeter car than me.
*He has a really/very sweeter car than me.
*He has a sweeter-ass car than me.

So early in 2011 when the question came up on Twitter on what the proper comparative of bad-ass should be, the answer should have been not worse-ass, bad-asser, or even badder-asser, but none of the above.

Once again, though, the obscenity-based intensifiers are different from ordinary intensifiers. They can modify comparatives after all, provided they get introduced by a lot:

This car is a lot fucking sweeter.
He has a lot fucking sweeter car.

(There’s also the question of why it’s not *an a lot fucking sweeter car, but that’s another story.)

But wait a minute! What about as shit? It has complications of its own. I said above that it has been completely grammaticalized into an intensifier, but I lied. It still has some of its original meaning–not in the shit part, but in the part that compares some property of the modified noun with that of shit. Sure, to be dumb as shit means to be really dumb, but if we’re talking even dumber than that, we don’t just say *dumber as shit; it has to be dumber than shit.

Intensification with fucking, ass, and as shit: a taste of syntactic anal-ysis.

Posted in Comics, Morphology, Potty on, dudes!, Syntax, Taboo | 10 Comments »

The Pot That We Have to … Get Off Of

Posted by Neal on July 1, 2011

One of my dad’s favorite expressions is Shit or get off the pot! I like it, too, and use it regularly. (Ha, ha.) But I’ve never used it quite in the way it’s used in this line from the 2009 movie Beyond a Reasonable Doubt:

This is the proverbial pot that we have to shit or get off of. (link)

(Hat tip to Wilson Gray, who posted a message about this line on the American Dialect Society email list.)

The relative clause that we have to shit or get off of is interesting, for reasons other than its use of a colorful expression of questionable taste. For one thing, I’ve never heard get off of the pot in the more typical use of this idiom. It’s always been just off the pot, a phrasing copy editors would appreciate, since it eliminates (ha, ha) the needless of. But in this relative clause, the stranded preposition at the end is not off; it’s the double preposition off of. Maybe without the of, the verb phrase get off sounds too sexual. Shit, or get off? Which would you choose?

However, that’s not what I wanted to talk about. This relative clause contains a compound verb phrase, consisting of two verb phrases joined by or: shit, and get off of. To see what’s different about this, take another relative clause containing VPs joined by or:

This is the shirt that I have to return or exchange.

Notice that it’s still grammatical even if we have only of the conjoined verbs:

This is the shirt that I have to return.
This is the shirt that I have to exchange.

But try splitting shit and get off of into separate relative clauses, and only one of them is still grammatical:

*This is the proverbial pot that we have to shit. [Assuming we’re not talking about passing a pot through one’s digestive tract.]
This is the proverbial pot that we have to get off of.

Only one of those VPs contains a gap: get off of __, where the blank is understood to refer to the pot. The VP that doesn’t contain a gap, shit, can’t make a good relative clause, unless we do decide to take shit as a transitive verb (as it is in shit a brick, for example). I’ve written before about coordination of phrases that contain gaps with phrases that don’t, but usually when this happens, the conjunction is and. I’ll list a few examples below, with the coordinated VPs or clauses bracketed, and gaps indicated with __:

  • tears I’ve [sat here] and [cried __]
  • words you [look back on __] and [cringe]
  • crimes he’s [committed __] and [not gotten caught]

So far, though, the only other example I’ve found with or as the conjunction is these two that I blogged about in 2006:

  • Is there a criteria, you know, a list of things that [a star has to pass __ ] or [it sort of gets eliminated]?
  • Chomsky’s importance as a linguist lies in the fact that he regards the limitless abundance of language its most important property, one that any theory of language must [account for __], or [be discarded].

Both of those or examples had the same kind of relation holding between the coordinated clauses or VPs: a kind of cause/effect relation, such that the first event not happening causes the second event to happen. I also saw another example a few years ago, which I don’t seem to have written about. I’ve forgotten the exact wording, but it was from Bob Seger, when he was talking about doing concert tours. He said something like, “There are songs [we have to play __] or [the audience feels cheated].” Again, the same kind of cause/effect relation. And in all of these examples, the gap occurs in the first VP or clause.

In the potty example, the gap is in the second VP, get off of __. Is it the same kind of cause/effect relation? It could be, I guess. If you don’t shit, you will have to get off the pot; if a theory doesn’t account for some property, it will have to be discarded; if you don’t play the songs, the audience will feel cheated. But it also strikes me as a sentence primarily about the pot. In the Chomsky example, there’s an indirect relationship between the property to be explained and the gapless clause about a theory being discarded. In the Seger example, there’s an indirect relationship between the favorite songs and the gapless clause about an audience feeling cheated. In contrast, there’s a very direct relationship between the pot and shitting. It’s so direct, you could even make it explicit by adding a single preposition, in. The other examples need a few more words than that to make the relationship clear.

In fact, the current example looks to me more like the “Occasion” relation that holds in the tears I’ve sat here and cried example. That example describes a single situation, of sitting at a bar and crying over your lost love. This example describes a single situation of sitting on the toilet. The difference is that the sitting and crying are concurrent actions, while the shitting in the pot of getting off it are alternative actions. (Or consecutive ones, if the pot-sitter is successful.) And notice now that both coordinations have the gap in the first element, not the second — another way in which the sitting/crying and shitting/getting-off-of examples match up.

I can construct other examples of this kind of gapped/gapless coordination with the “alternatives” relation holding between the coordinated phrases; the test you have to give a presentation or take, etc. I’m more interested in seeing if others occur in the wild. If you’ve heard them or read them, leave a comment! (And for any literal-minded readers out there, not just any comment; a comment telling us about the example.)

Posted in Non-ATB coordinations, Potty on, dudes! | 9 Comments »


Posted by Neal on November 17, 2010

One morning I stood at the sign-in sheet for late arrivals at Doug or Adam’s (not saying which) school office. “Time in,” the first column read. I entered 9:15. “Child’s name.” I entered that. “Reason for tardiness.” I looked at the entries for other late students: “dr’s appt”, “orthodontist”, one “overslept”. That last one came close to what I had in mind, but it still didn’t quite fit. I’d woken up my son in plenty of time to get ready for school. I wrote in the slot, “Dawdling”.

That’s not what I call it at home. There, the term is farting around, a term I learned from Dad years ago when he would tell people (I don’t seem to recall exactly who) to stop doing it.

The Oxford English Dictionary‘s earliest attestation is from 1900, although instead of farting around, it’s farting about, from the English Dialect Dictionary:

Go bon tha! thoo’s allus farten aboot, thoo’s warse ner a hen wi’ egg.

Fart around has been around since at least 1952, when it appears in from Leon Uris’s novel Battle Cry:

If the Army wants to fart around for six weeks, it’s their business.

I got this citation from the Wordwizard Clubhouse forum on word origins and meanings, in a post from just last month by Ken Greenwald, who attributes it to the Historical Dictionary of [American] Slang. Ken’s post was actually even more useful, because it also talked about our back-yard neighbors’ variant of fart around, the longer and alliterative fiddle-fart around, attested from the early 1970s. I assumed it was an idiom blend of fiddle around and fart around, and that’s what Greenwald’s sources say, too. (He cites HDAS and three other sources, but it’s unclear which one(s) offered this etymology.)

I said that at home I used the phrasal verb fart around, but actually that’s not entirely true. I use fart around when my wife isn’t present. She hates the word fart; it’s another of her word aversions like the one she has to the word pee. So out of necessity, I came up with circumflatulate as an alternative. I’m not claiming to have invented the word. A Google check confirmed that the word’s been around for a few years before I independently created it. One attestation on Google Groups is from 1994.

Having the verb circumflatulate at my disposal, I can certainly say, “Stop circumflatulating!”, but what would be even more useful would be a way to a noun form so that I can tell the boys before they get dressed in the morning, or go to brush their teeth at night not to circumflatulate. Don’t circumflatulate would work, but I wanted something that would fit in the template No __________! There’s always the gerund, of course: No circumflatulating!. But for variety, I’ve sometimes said, “No circumflatulation!” Circumflatulation? Why not circumflatulence, to fill out the analogy of flatulate : flatulence :: circumflatulate : _______? I find hardly any hits for circumflatulence. I guess it’s because flatulence is a personal characteristic, and so I would think of circumflatulence as a tendency to circumflatulate. Circumflatulation is the act of circumflatulating.

Having these Latin roots to work with not only has allowed me to tell Doug and Adam to quit farting around without offending my wife’s sensibilities; it’s allowed me to talk about farting around with greater precision. Not just because where Anglo-Saxon-derived English has just farting around, Latin-derived English has circumflatulating, circumflatulation, and circumflatulence — also because fart around doesn’t easily allow for an adjectival form: *He’s a really {farting-around, around-farting} dude. With the Latinate verb, I can easily generate an adjectival form, and tell you that Doug and Adam are rather circumflatulent at times. And with that, maybe I’ve succeeded in creating a word after all!

UPDATE, Nov. 17, 2010: The same goes for agentive nouns. The best you can do with fart around is the graceless farterarounder, but with circumflatulate, the easy and obvious choice is circumflatulator


Posted in Lexical semantics, Morphology, Potty on, dudes!, Syntactic blending | 6 Comments »

Dickheads, Buttheads, and Assholes

Posted by Neal on July 23, 2010

In his “On Language” column this Sunday (available online already) Ben Zimmer talks about the language used in Mad Men, and at one point has to use the circumlocution “a scatological slur for a person’s head”. In a companion post at Language Log, where he can write more candidly, he reveals that the actual word was shithead. He adds:

On further reflection, I’m not terribly fond of the phrase “a scatological slur for a person’s head.” After all, shithead is a slur for a person, through a metonymic reference to that person’s head (or the contents thereof).

OK, that’s it. It’s time for me to dust off my post from Sept. 17, 2004, the post that my brother was kind enough to call “Best. Linguistics. Post. Ever.” At the time I called it “Endocentric and Exocentric Insults,” and gave only a disclaimer followed by a link (which I later removed) to the actual post elsewhere. The post stored elsewhere had the title you see here, with a handful of images illustrating possible interpretations of the insult dickhead. It was primarily the pictures that persuaded me to keep the main post off the blog, but now I’m putting it on, minus the pictures, and slightly edited for clarity.


Years ago, someone called a close friend of mine a dickhead. It just so happened I was there when he did it, and I was reminded of a question I’d had about this word. So I asked the guy, did he mean to say that this good friend of mine was:

    someone whose entire being consisted of the head of a dick?
    someone who had a dick for a head?

I received the pitifully uninsightful (and patently false) answer: “It doesn’t mean either! It’s just an insult!”

It doesn’t mean either? Of course it does! The fact that it has one of the above meanings, figuratively applied to a person, is what gives the insult its sting. That’s why it’s more cutting than, say, nerd. When you call someone a dickhead, you’re saying that you find this person as offensive as a walking, talking head of a penis! Well, either that or a creature that looks like a human being from the neck down, and like a penis from the neck up.

Perhaps comparing dickhead to a few other model insults would shed some light on its meaning. If dickhead the insult means “head of a dick”, then it is an example of an endocentric compound noun — that is, a noun made up of words X and Y, where Y is a noun, and XY denotes a kind of Y. Y is said to be, no pun intended, the head of the compound. For example, in doghouse, X = dog, Y = house, and a doghouse is a kind of house. Similarly, in dickhead, X = dick, Y = head, and a dickhead is a kind of head, specifically the kind you find at the end of a dick. (The end without a man attached, that is.)

Are there other insults that are endocentric compound nouns? Asshole comes to mind. In its literal sense, asshole is a compound noun, with hole as its head: An asshole is a kind of hole. Figuratively, an asshole is someone offensive and obstinate enough to be compared to an anal sphincter. (And just to reiterate that asshole is not “just an insult,” the expression tear [someone] a new asshole is proof that the literal meaning is still there, to be enjoyed by those who take the time to experience the word as if for the first time. I’ll never forget hearing Igor Iskhakov burst out laughing when he first heard this strange new English word and parsed it out.)

On the other hand, if dickhead the insult means “having a dick for a head,” it is an example of an exocentric, or headless, compound noun. In this kind of compound, it is not true that X is a kind of Y (or for that matter, that Y is a kind of X). In other words, neither X nor Y is the head of the compound. So if dickhead means “having a dick for a head,” then a dickhead is not a kind of head. It’s a kind of person.

Are there other insults that are exocentric compound nouns? Yes again: butthead. Since butts, unlike dicks, don’t have heads, the ambiguity seen in dickhead doesn’t arise here. A butthead is not a kind of head; it’s a kind of person: someone who (figuratively) has a butt for a head.

Since both readings of dickhead have precedents, the analysis so far hasn’t given a definitive answer. It’s time for some empirical evidence. Now I could have surveyed 100 people on what dickhead means to them, but I imagine most would have said it’s an insult, just like the guy who put the label on that good friend of mine. So instead, I did a Google image search, and got 400-some hits for the word. Many of them were just pictures of ordinary people who evidently were dickheads in someone’s opinion. But 18 of them provided clear evidence. For the endocentric reading (parallel to asshole), I found no images at all. For the exocentric meaning (parallel to butthead), I found six images of people whose heads consisted of a penis or penises.

So the exocentric meaning clearly more prevalent than the endocentric one. But wait, there’s more! The other 12 images I collected illustrated meanings for dickhead that I hadn’t thought about.

Four of them were pictures of people with penises on top of their heads. This meaning looks to be almost as prevalent as the “dick for a head” meaning, but I was surprised by it. It really had never occurred to me. It’s a little tricky deciding if this is an endocentric or an exocentric meaning. It’s true that dickhead as an endocentric compound doesn’t have to mean “head of a dick”; it just has to denote a head that has something or other to do with a dick, and a head with a dick on top of it would certainly qualify. But referring to an entire person as a dickhead because they have a dick on their head seemed a bit strange to me at first. However, that’s starting with the word and imagining a referent. If you start off with a referent, the word comes naturally. If you want to talk about someone standing right there with a dick on their head, what other word would you use? There is precedent for this meaning, too: Google image searches for butthead, shithead, and meathead all returned more images of heads with butts, shit, or meat on them than of heads consisting of a butt, shit, or meat. And of course there are also cheeseheads. I’m calling this as an exocentric meaning, since these dickheads are still a kind of people, not a kind of head. To capture both meanings — someone who has a dick (or dicks) for a head and someone who has a dick (or dicks) on their head — we have to think of the exocentric compound as having a more general meaning: “someone whose head has something to do with a dick,” whether by being one or possessing one. (Or more.)

This “for a head” vs. “on a head” dichotomy appears in the last eight of the images I found. Two of them pictured people with dickheads for a head, and one of these two went further in having not only the person’s head as the head of a penis, but also the body as the shaft of the penis. The other six images pictured people with dickheads on their (regular) head. I have to tell you, I don’t think dickhead should have this “someone whose head has something to do with a dickHEAD” meaning. I think the word that is called for here would be dickhead-head, but probably nobody who hits upon that word likes having the two heads in a row.

So to conclude, dickheads are more like buttheads than assholes, and there are more kinds of dickhead than you’d probably care to imagine.

Posted in Compound words, Lexical semantics, Potty on, dudes!, Taboo | 4 Comments »

Hate to Poop the Party…

Posted by Neal on October 12, 2009

Every party has a pooper; that's why we invited you.Regular reader and Beatles fan Gordon P. Hemsley had a question:

I just came across the phrase “poop the party” (as in, “sorry to poop the party”). I’ve never heard this phrase before, but it appears to be a back-formation (of sorts) from “partypooper”. Google gives me ~55,000 hits, but many of them appear to include punctuation like colons and hyphens within the phrase.

Perhaps you could do better research?

There would seem to be a need for a verb denoting what a party pooper does. As I’ve written before, compound nouns of the form [Noun]+[Verb]+er/ing often give rise to backformed verbs, such as rollercoast, sightsee, arm flap, problem solve, serial kill, fence sit, and peoplewatch and underage drink.

Read the rest of this entry »

Posted in Compound words, Diachronic, Potty on, dudes! | 5 Comments »

Hards On

Posted by Neal on May 20, 2009

After washing my hands in the grocery store restroom today, I was glad to see that their electric hand dryer had a feature I really liked: It had a paper towel dispenser next to it. (Glen likes this kind of hand dryer, too.) As I pulled out paper towels, I noticed that the hand dryer was the kind that you activate by pushing a button, not the kind that starts automatically when you put your hands under it. Even so, there were no instructions on the machine starting with “1. Push button” for someone to turn into “Push butt“. But as if to show that when one door closes another one opens, the brand name on the dryer was Hands On, and someone had invested some time and energy in gouging away part of the n with a sharp object, turning Hands On into … well, let me show you:

What was I doing in the men's room with a digital camera? Well, naturally, I went home and got it and came back so I could get this picture, what did you think?

Ho ho! Very witty: Hands On is now Hard Ons! Wait, no — it’s now … Hards On?

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Posted in Diachronic, Morphology, Potty on, dudes! | 10 Comments »

Heard the Word? The Word Is …

Posted by Neal on January 18, 2009

Doug has been taken aback to find that some of his latest spelling words require actual study. When he was making the same mistake on the same words on three tests in a row, I spoke with him about studying his graded tests, and we’ve seen improvement. Doug will still sometimes misspell a word on three tests in a row, but now he’ll misspell it in more than one way.

It brings me back to Doug’s first grade year, when his class was learning to spell the days of the week. Saturday was giving him trouble. Satterday? Sadderday? I wrote Saturday on a paper for him, and observed that it contained the word turd right in the middle. He never misspelled Saturday again, and for a few weeks afterward, he would always pronounce Saturday as “Saa-turd-ay”, or in IPA, [sæː ‘tʰrd eI]. Since it was helping him with his spelling, I didn’t explain to him that the word Saturday really didn’t contain the word turd phonetically. Phonetically, Saturday is [‘sæDrDeI], with the turd part corresponding to [DrD] — a flap, a syllabic /r/, and another flap. (In fact, the flap is written [ɾ] in the IPA, but I find this symbol too small and too much like [r] to use in this format, so [D] it is. I’m also not bothering with the dot under the [r] to indicate it’s a syllabic [r].) This sequence can’t even stand alone in English, much less be confused with [tʰrd] — an aspirated /t/, a syllabic /r/, and a [d].

A word that’s a little more suitable for scatological reinterpretation came up on last fall’s October 16 episode of The Office. The character Jan had had a baby girl, whom she brought to the office and introduced as Read the rest of this entry »

Posted in Phonetics and phonology, Potty on, dudes!, The darndest things | 7 Comments »

Ex-Haustion and -Crement

Posted by Neal on October 8, 2008

“I’m pooped!” Doug said as he flopped into the chair.

“Did you say am, or have?” I asked.

Am,” Doug said.

So that was OK. But now I wonder: Under the right circumstances, could one say, “I am and have pooped”?

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Posted in Potty on, dudes!, Zeugmatic | 7 Comments »

Getting Testy

Posted by Neal on March 2, 2008

I was flipping through the latest issue of Entertainment Weekly today, and came across an ad for a show on the Travel Channel called Bizarre Foods. I’d paste it in here if I could find it online, but the best I can get is this page on the Travel Channel website. In the middle (at least as of this writing) there is a looping video that begins with the caption “What is Andrew putting in his mouth?” A couple of pictures later you’ll see the ad that I saw in the magazine. The host of the show, Andrew Zimmern, is standing in front of a vending machine stocked with:

  • Lamb’s Head
  • Heart, All Beef
  • Fish Head, Complete With Eyeballs
  • Tarantula
  • Baby Mice
  • Curried Cockroaches
  • Bull Teste
  • Scorpion
  • Sour Cream and Onion flavored crickets
  • Cheddar Cheese flavored mealworms
  • Mexican Spice flavored mealworms
  • Bugs N Things
  • Worms & Flies
  • Eye Balls
  • Crispy Fish Head
  • Grubs
  • Mealworms

Did you spot the backformation in the list? Yes, that’s right, it was teste, formed by naively removing the -s from the plural testes to get the putative singular.

Often I have to remind myself that just because I can understand how some piece of the language has changed, it doesn’t mean I have to like it. The singular of testes is not teste. It’s testis, just like the singulars of crises, hypotheses, parentheses, and feces are crisis, hypothesis, parenthesis, and fecis.

Whoops. Scratch that last one. Back when the plural was still faeces in Latin, the singular was faex, but that form didn’t make it into English. If you just have to have a singular form of feces and don’t want to resort to suppletion by saying turd, backformation is your best bet: fece. According to Urban Dictionary, this singular form already exists.

Anyway, back to the Latin third-declension nouns ending in -is. I never hear people talking about one crise(e), or one hypothese(e), but I have heard some people refer to one parenthese(e), and now of course, one teste. I guess it’s to be expected, since parentheses, like testes, tend to come in twos, so that speakers are less likely to have heard the singular form and stored it in their memory when they need to use it.

Posted in Backformation, Food-related, Potty on, dudes! | 17 Comments »