Literal-Minded

Linguistic commentary from a guy who takes things too literally

Archive for the ‘Taboo’ Category

/(h)ej(ː)o/

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:

Hey-O
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:

Hiyo
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?

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

Trucha Affrication

Posted by Neal on November 28, 2015

If this were a fried chicken restaurant in the US, it would probably call itself "Motherpluckers."

Doug spent last summer in Ecuador at the Tandayapa Bird Lodge, where he doubled his life list by seeing 345 species of birds that he’d never seen before. He also ate a lot of good food, saw a volcano, and spoke mucho español. He got to speaking it pretty well, apparently. But some of the other guests that he heard there had a little bit of trouble with their accent.

He told me about one British guest, who really enjoyed a trout dinner that they served one night, and said so: “¡Me gusta la trucha!

This really amused the cook and one of the guides. One of them asked the guest a couple more times whether he liked la trucha. The guest said yes he did, and wondered aloud to Doug, “Why do they keep asking me that?”

Before I go further, I’m going to have to do a little bit of phonetic housekeeping, specifically with regard to the R sound in the International Phonetic Alphabet. On this blog, I’ve written the English pronunciation of the R sound with the IPA symbol [r], but that’s actually the IPA representation of a Spanish or Italian rolled R, as in the Spanish perro, or the American English edited (sometimes, for some speakers). The IPA representation of an ordinary Spanish R, as in pero, is [ɾ], which also happens to be the English “tapped” T or D (as in thataway). Of course, some UK speakers roll or tap their R’s, too, such as this Scottish guy. But today, I’m talking about the non-rolled pronunciation of R in American English and the English spoken by the British guest who so enjoyed the trout. That’s a “postalveolar R,” represented as [ɹ]. OK, on with the post.

Do you remember when I was writing about how in English, a /t/ is often pronounced as [ʧ] (the “CH” sound) when it comes before an /ɹ/? Sure you do!

However, that’s an English phonological rule. Do it in Spanish, and you just give yourself away as a non-native speaker (assuming you haven’t already done so by inappropriately aspirating, voicing, or devoicing your stops). You might even embarrass yourself, as this British tourist did. Trout in Spanish is trucha, pronounced [tɾuʧa]. Note the tapped R [ɾ]. The British guest was pronouncing it as [ʧɹuʧə], with a postalveolar [ɹ] and an affricated /t/. This, as it turns out, is uncomfortably close to another Spanish word, chucha [ʧuʧa].

Doug, being such a polite young man, declined to translate this word for me, but did offer that it was part of an expression of frustration or anger that he sometimes heard from the speakers there: ¡chucha madre!. Wikipedia tells me that in other Spanish-speaking countries, the expression is ¡chucha de tu madre!. De tu madre means “of your mother” — “your mother’s” something. I’ll just leave it at that.

Posted in Affricates, Taboo | 1 Comment »

The Flesh-Presser

Posted by Neal on August 16, 2015

“So you’re going to be at the Tomato Festival?” Doug asked me. That would be the Reynoldsburg Tomato Festival, our own addition to the list of small-town festivals celebrating odd things. In nearby towns we have the Circleville Pumpkin Show and the Millersburg Sweet Corn Festival, but here in Reynoldsburg we honor the tomato.

In any case, yes, I was going to the Tomato Festival, not so much because I’m a big fan of tomatoes (they’re OK in a salad or sandwich, or chili or spaghetti sauce), but because like many such festivals, it’s an opportunity for political candidates to get out and meet a lot of people, and during the teacher strike in our school district last year, I decided to run for a seat on the Board of Education.

campaignphoto

In elementary school it was Neal the Banana Peel

“Yep,” I said. “I reckon I’ve got to get out there and press the flesh, as they say.”

“What?!” Doug said. “What do you mean?”

“You know, going out and shaking lots of people’s hands,” I answered.

“Ugh, don’t say that. It sounds obscene!”

“Really?” I asked. I searched for the term on my phone, and the first hit that came up was an Urban Dictionary definition. If there really was an X-rated meaning for press the flesh, this would be the place to find it. But the most popular definition read:

To meet people in person, particularly at an event where you can network with other people. The actual pressing of flesh here refers to shaking hands with people.

All the other definitions said essentially the same thing. Later, at the Tomato Festival, while Doug was off with his girlfriend and some of their friends, I saw her mother and father and told them the story. Her mother laughed. “Just because his mind’s in the gutter…!”

The girlfriend’s father, whom I”ll call Mr. J, just chuckled and wished me well as I went to continue my flesh-pressing.

Or at least, that’s all he did in my presence. When he caught up with Doug and his daughter later that night, he made sure to say to Doug, “So your dad’s off pressing the flesh, huh?” I learned this when we were all back home, and Doug asked, “Dad, did you tell Mr. J. to use the expression pressing the flesh with me?

Nice going, Mr. J.! Now I’ll just have to push it a little further by morphing the idiom into a gerund (flesh-pressing), or an agentive noun (flesh-presser), or maybe really mess with Doug by turning it in to a backformed compound verb, and saying things like, “I flesh-pressed a lot of potential voters out there last week!”

Posted in Backformation, Doug, Ohioana, Politics, Taboo | 2 Comments »

Mental Masturbation

Posted by Neal on August 10, 2012

Last November, I blogged about the title of one of the books in Grammar Girl’s “101” series: 101 Words to Sound Smart. A commenter with the handle of Palavering2U wrote:

Why do many grammarians sound so full of themselves? I’m sure that you know your grammar, but most of the articles you offer are excercises in mental masterbation [sic].

I wasn’t sure what he meant by mental masturbation, but putting on my “Let’s tackle some non-literal language” hat, I concluded he must mean something like, “pontificating about things to no purpose but your own pleasure.” Urban Dictionary confirmed: Out of 14 user-submitted definitions, 11 agreed in essence with mine. Here are a few:

Intellectual activity that serves no practical purpose.

the act of engaging in intelligent and interesting conversation purely for the enjoyment of your own greatness and individuality. Subjects range from obscure lp’s to cultural movements in preindustrial societies. Either delivered through grand monlogues or subtle conversation orientation, it links large words and random references resulting in nothing acually being communicated.

The act of engaging in useless yet intellectually stimulating conversation, usually as an excuse to avoid taking constructive action in your life.

However, when I searched for the term in the Google Books archive, I learned that mental masturbation can refer to something much more insidious. Here’s a passage that according to Wikipedia is from Margaret Sanger’s What Every Girl Should Know, published in 1916, but according to Google Books is from Humanity; or, What every father, mother, boy and girl should know, by Louis L. Krauss, published in 1915:

In other words … sexual fantasizing? Here’s an entry from a year later, in Sex Knowledge for Women and Girls, by William Josephus Robinson:


This passage is also entertaining because of the retronym manual masturbation. Once you have electric guitars, wireless phones, and mental masturbation, you need to specify when you’re talking about what used to be the only kind of guitars, telephones, and masturbation. Etymologically, manual masturbation is funny, given that the word masturbate itself may ultimately come from the Latin root manus, too. It reminds me of the kind of situation I blogged about here.

Anyway, this next example is from 1919, in The Psychoanalytic Method, by Oskar Pfister and Charles Rockwell Payne:

I’ve found examples of this evidently common and accepted meaning for mental masturbation as late as 1950 through Google Books, but it’s definitely dormant now. Of the remaining three definitions from Urban Dictionary, two agree with the earlier meaning, but neither is well-liked by the readers. First, there’s

v. the act of masturbating with and only with your mind, totally not sexy

When I checked, this definition had 16 thumbs up, 73 thumbs down. Furthermore, I can’t tell whether the definition writer intended the definition seriously. The other concurring definition doesn’t actually define it, or even make much sense, but the sample dialogue using the term makes things clear enough. This definition writer is pretty clearly out for laughs, so it’s again hard to say whether the definition is to be taken seriously. It had 1 thumb up, 7 thumbs down.

This is usually announced or thought of after seeing a girl who is distractingly attractive. The act of explaining you like the looks of a girl enough to masturbate too.
See, she’s hot dude I’m going to ask her out.
Yea I’m masturbating in my head to her.

I’m still masturbating in my head to her. Still not done, not done, Alright I’m done. I’m going to go make a sandwich. Good Mental Masturbation. Actually, you want to go to Chipotle?

The earliest attestation I’ve found of the much more prevalant nonsexual modern meaning of mental masturbation is from 1921, in Transactions on the Section on Nervous and Mental Diseases, published by the American Medical Association. It occurs in an article about stuttering:

So both meanings have been in use for about as far back as I find the term in print, but there’s been a big shift in which meaning is prevalent. In any case, with both meanings still available to one extent or another, now it’s time to have some fun with the phrase and run it through the crossed-senses test (remember that from a few posts back?):

Lee and Kim both engage in mental masturbation.

What do you think? No, I don’t think it passes the crossed-senses test, either, but it was fun trying to make it pass.

Posted in Diachronic, Taboo | 8 Comments »

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,
    (1903)
  • “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.
    (1848)

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 »

Dip Your Card

Posted by Neal on December 9, 2011

Over at Visual Thesaurus, I have a column talking about how diphthong (or dipthong) has joined a family of dip-based insults, including dipstick, dipshit, and just plain dip. When I researched the column, I was surprised to learn that my imagined chronology for these insults was backwards. I first heard dipstick in the early 1980s, as my peers picked it up from Rosco P. Coltrane in The Dukes of Hazzard. When I later heard dipshit, I figured it was some kind of folk-etymology/eggcornization of dipstick by people who didn’t understand what was so insulting about the stick part, and figured it ought to be something legitimately taboo. Then when I started hearing dip in the mid-1980s, I thought it was simply a clipped version of (depending on the speaker) either dipstick or dipshit, done by speakers who were too embarrassed to say either of the longer words. But I’ve come to find out that dip probably originated in the early 1930s; dipshit came next, in the 1960s, and at about the same time or a little later came dipstick. At least, in its insult sense. The literal meaning was in use for quite a while prior to that.

But I could still be right, you know. I really never did hear dip as an insult until after dipstick and dipshit, so I think it’s at least plausible that the dip of the 1930s died out, only to be reinvented as a clipping of one of the dip compounds.

All this writing about dips reminded me of something I saw during our family trip to New York City during the summer. We stayed in Jersey City, where we went out to eat one night with Ben Zimmer’s family, and Doug and Adam played Cut the Rope with Ben’s son on Ben’s iPad. The next morning, we took the subway into Manhattan. At the station, we were buying a fare card at an automated dispenser, and paid with a credit card. When it was time to pay, the instructions on the screen said, “Dip your credit card.” But the slot to put the credit card into wasn’t vertical; it was horizontal! At gas stations where I live, this instruction is usually rendered as “Insert and withdraw credit card in one smooth motion.” In my lexical semantics, that meaning can only go with dip if the motion is vertical. The same goes for the programmers of the credit card readers, too, I think. Otherwise, why wouldn’t they opt for the four words of Dip your credit card over the eight words that I usually see? Is this a New York thing? A generational thing? Who else has noticed this semantic broadening?

Posted in Diachronic, Lexical semantics, Taboo, Variation | 4 Comments »

The Douche Totally Kicks Back

Posted by Neal on August 12, 2011

Last month, the wife and boys and I saw Super 8, the aliens thriller from J.J. Abrams and Steven Spielberg. Despite its cheesy ending, we liked it enough that we took Mom and Dad to see it when they came to visit a few weeks later. In fact, the movie was entertaining enough that it wasn’t until my second viewing that I noticed what should have been some glaring language anachronisms in a story that’s set in May of 1979. There were other anachronisms, too, which you can find (along with other goofs) on various websites.

The smallest temporal dislocation comes in a scene in which a character named Jen is flirting with a stoner dude named Donny. She tells him that her brother has told her Donny is a cool guy (or something along those lines), and then suggests that the she and he could “kick back”. Kick back meaning “relax” is only an anachronism by five years or so. I recall hearing it in 1984 or 1985, and its first attestation in COHA is from 1986.

In that same conversation, Donny responds to the comment about his being a great guy, “I totally am.” To the suggestion that he and Jen kick back, he says, “We totally could.” Also, in an earlier scene, the characters of Alice and Joe have an intense, emotional conversation. She asks him if he feels the same way she does about something, and he says, “I totally do.”

Totally, of course, can modify verbs, but until recently, only in its literal sense of “completely”. It’s hard to say when its sense of just “truly” or “definitely” developed, because in many cases either meaning works. Nevertheless, when totally began to be used with this sense, it was primarily with adjectives, most notably awesome. I don’t think it began to modify verbs that are incompatible with a “completely” meaning (such as kick back) until the 1990s or so. What’s more striking about all three examples in Super 8 is that they all modify an elliptical verb phrase, i.e. one with just an auxiliary verb. We’ve got a nice variety in these few examples: a modal (could), a form of be (am), and a form of do. All that’s missing is have. In both COHA and COCA, this only starts to happen in the 1990s.

The most jarring of the language anachronisms comes from Donny. Actually, Jen can’t stand him, and the only reason she’s flirting with him is to persuade him to give her brother and his friends a ride back into their evacuated town, where they plan to break into their school to look for top secret stuff. (It’s a government cover-up evacuation, of course, so the scene of Donny and the kids driving against a flow of outgoing traffic into a danger zone is probably deliberately reminiscent of Close Encounters.) Donny objects to the boys’ demand that he stay outside the school while they conduct their search, and says something like,

So what, I just wait here like a douche?

Like a douche? It’s only been in the last couple of years or so that I’ve gradually become aware of the insult douche. Other people noticed this anachronism, too, like the guy in an online movie forum who wrote,

One character says something like ‘I’m supposed to sit here like a douche?’ Douche and douchebag didn’t become ubiquitous insults until pretty recently. (And aren’t you glad they did?)

and the one who wrote,

I wasn’t aware that “douche” was ’79 slang. I thought that was a more recent thing.

This obvious hater was called out by another participant, who wrote,

I am utterly amazed at the depths to which people in the forum are willing to stoop, just to try to find something to criticize about this film. … Oh, and “douche” as a pejorative has been around since at least the 1960s, and probably a lot longer than that.

No, I don’t think so. Douchbag, yes; douche, no. I first came across douchebag in Pat Conroy’s book The Lords of Discipline, which was set, if I recall, in the 1960s. Of course, Conroy could have been using some anachronistic language himself, but a search through COHA turns up this 1951 attestation in From Here to Eternity:

“The trouble with you, Pete,” the voice … said savagely, “is you cant see any further than that douchebag nose of yours.”

It also shows up as a derogatory (I assume) nickname in the 1939 novel Ninety Times Guilty, for a character called Jimmy Douchebag.

But as for douche, the earliest definition submitted for it in Urban Dictionary is in February 2003. Three months earlier was the original airdate of an episode of South Park titled “The Biggest Douche in the Universe“, and that’s the earliest I’ve been able to antedate douche as a term referring to a person. I totally could see South Park popularizing a new piece of obscene slang, and maybe even inventing it, but can’t say for sure yet. If you heard it earlier than November 2002, or find an earlier attestation, leave a comment. (And not just any comment; a comment giving that attestation.) As for Donny’s line, a more era-appropriate insult would have been dork, but since he uses that one at least twice at other times in the movie, maybe J.J. Abrams wanted something else. Something else beginning with D. In that case, since The Dukes of Hazzard began airing in January 1979, my humble suggestion would have been dipstick.

Mar. 2, 2012, UPDATE: Had I checked the Random House Historical Dictionary of American Slang, I would have found out that douche as an insult is attested in at least one population from the 1960s, as I learned from this

Posted in Diachronic, Music, Syntax, Taboo | 7 Comments »

I Fruck Out

Posted by Neal on August 13, 2010

If you’ve clicked over here after reading my guest script for Grammar Girl on swearing, thanks for visiting! You might enjoy browsing the categories Taboo and Potty On, Dudes!

It’s funny that that episode should have gone out today, in light of a turn the conversation took at lunch today. Doug was telling Adam about making his way past some guards in a videogame, and mentioned how he “snuck” past them. That reminded me of various discussions I’ve read about the word snuck, like this one at Language Log, and this one from Sentence First (which I linked to a few months ago). The interesting thing about it, I told Doug and Adam, is that it’s a verb that started out with a regular past tense, sneaked, and recently developed an irregular one, instead of the more usual opposite direction.

“The subject came up on Twitter,” I said, “and one guy said something like…”

Turns out ‘snuck’ is a relatively recent Americanism. When I learned that, I totally fruck out.
(From dbarefoot)

“That sounds too much like the F-word,” Adam said.

“You’re right. Maybe that’s why it hasn’t caught on,” I said. In writing the Grammar Girl episode, I wanted to say something about this phenomenon of taboo words contaminating phonetically similar but semantically and etymologically unrelated words, such as feck, niggardly, or Uranus, but had to cut the material for length considerations. It’s interesting that taboo can have such an effect, but it doesn’t always take, as attested by the continued use of words such as ship, sheet, puck, fact, fax, flack, flak, and fleck. (Although the phonetic resemblances have certainly served as the basis for taboo-related puns, like “Let’s make like a hockey player, and get the puck out of here!”) As far as I know, no one has a good explanation for the occasional absence of this taboo effect.

In the same vein, if a word’s multiple meanings include a taboo meaning, that meaning can come to drive out the non-taboo meanings. This can happen whether the word in its taboo sense is actually considered vulgar (for example beaver), or socially acceptable (for example, arouse). Linguistics textbooks will sometimes point out the case of cock and ass, whose jobs had to be taken over by rooster and donkey. But on the other hand, hello, dam, damage and damp haven’t suffered.

The ironic thing is that even people who have no problem with using actual cuss words will often avoid taboo-contaminated words. Are there words you won’t use because they sound too close to an obscenity, a profanity, or even an acceptable word for a taboo topic?

Posted in Adam, Doug, Irregular verbs, Taboo | 10 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 »