Ch-ch-ch-changes.

Many of you who were regular readers surely noticed the radio silence on As a Linguist in the past six months. Some who follow me at A Modern Day Dinosaur know that part of the reason for the silence was the Project 365 challenge I gave to myself. For those who don’t know, Project 365 is a commitment to post (at least) one picture a day for an entire year. I started on the 1st of January, 2013 and finished on the 31st of December. If you haven’t seen it already and are interested, you can find the posts here.

But it was more than just photography that kept me from more extensive writing. I’m also trying to orchestrate a career change, and that has been eating up mental and emotional resources that I previously had devoted to this blog. I haven’t stopped this process and am in fact going to be busy with classes and an internship this semester, but I also have missed writing too much. I felt the absence of that spark, that rush that writing gives me.

The writing I like to do for this blog tends to require time and research, so I can’t say that I will be posting the 2-3 times a week that I had been maintaining a while back; I simply won’t have the time. But I will certainly be going for more consistency than once every six months.

In the meantime, I thought it was time for a face lift. For the blog, of course! Though I am a creature of habit and enjoyed the theme I originally chose for As a Linguist, I felt that it was time for yet another change, so welcome to the new theme!

Fun with the blues.

There is much written about how the Internet has enriched our lives and our language. Just last month, the Guardian ran this article about the authors 10 favorite words created because of or made popular by the Internet.

Another hot topic is texting and whether it is actually a great source of linguistic innovation rather than a source of the disintegration of writing skills. That, my friends, is a can of worms to be opened on another day.

As is my contrary wont, when the world is obsessing over some new technology and what it can do for us, I turn my attention elsewhere. Has technology created linguistic innovation? Sure. Is it the only thing that does? A resounding hell-to-the-no.

The New York Times recently reported on research that shows how young women are quite often the source of new linguistic trends, at least when it comes to speech patterns. This was true long before the Internet. I also wrote a post a while ago about the lexical innovations of military groups. And let’s not forget how many sports terms have become commonly-used metaphors (if I hear one more person speaking of ‘stepping up to the plate’, I will toss my cookies!)

The original Lucille (image from Wikipedia Commons)

The original Lucille (image from Wikipedia Commons)

Today’s source of fun words comes from the music world, specifically the blues. I’m a big fan of the blues and have been for a while. I even named my car Lucille after B.B. King’s guitar. The blues have inspired musicians across the world, feeding incredible musical innovation over the years. What people may forget is that it also introduced quite a few terms into the English language.

A few years ago, author Stephan Calt published Barrelhouse Words: A blues dialect dictionaryIt came into my possession as a Christmas gift from a very thoughtful Buzz who knows all too well what a word nerd I am.

My Lucille

My Lucille

Using this dictionary, I’ve come up with my Top 5 words that the blues (or at least blues era) have given to English. All definitions come from the dictionary, and the first song reference is listed in parenthesis after the definition.

boogie-woogie: Ostensibly the name of a dance, it was generally considered to refer to either sexual intercourse. Because we can now refer to sex more directly in music and television without more stringent censorship, the term boogie-woogie seems to have survived more in its sense of dancing enthusiastically rather than doing…um…something else enthusiastically.

There’s also the shortened version, boogie, which is both a reference to sexual intercourse and to male or female genitals. There are many song references for the various usages:

  • “They Call It the Boogie-Woogie: (Tampa Red, 1931)
  • “Alley Boogie” (Lucille Bogan, 1930)
  • “I Wonder Who’s Boogiein’ My Woogie Now” (Oscar’s Chicago Swingers, 1936)
  • “Feels So Good” (Kokomo Arnold, 1935)
  • “Pine Top’s Boogie Woogie” (Pine Top Smith, 1928)
  • “Rubbin’ On That Old Thing” (Lovin’ Sam Theard, 1934)

cryin’ shame: an extremely unfortunate occurrence. This seems to be particularly suited to sarcasm. “Oh, Chris Brown and Rihanna are ‘off again’? Well, ain’t that a cryin’ shame.” (“Sealskin Black Woman” -  Lee Green, 1937)

the man: the people in power. Originally referring to the police (the man in blue) and used mainly by convicts, the man became associated with those who hold power over disenfranchised populations. In the Jim Crow south, white employers were the man. During the Civil Rights movement, people talked about ‘sticking it to the Man’ or ‘resisting the Man.’ It can be used in specific context to refer to an entity that seems to hold a monopoly in that context. For example, a few months ago, I told my sister that I didn’t want an iPhone because I was ‘resisting the Man.” (“Sloppy Drunk Blues” – Leroy Carr, 1930; “Outside Woman Blues” – Blind Joe Reynolds, 1930)

mojo: The first thing that comes to my mind is Jim Morrison yowling, “Mr. Mojo rising!” at the end of “L.A. Woman,” presumably referring to himself and/or his penis. The term was also made popular by the Austin Powers movies, especially in the second film in which he lost his mojo. There’s certainly a sexual connotation to mojo, though it could also refer to extreme luck or ability in a certain area.

Originally, however, it was an actual object – a small cloth bag shaped into a hand and sometimes hung between the legs of gamblers for good luck. The mojo hanging between a person’s legs seems to have given the term its sexual connotation. Also, according to Calt, “Mojo on one of the few blues locutions with an apparent African pedigree; the similar moco, a Gullah term for witchcraft and magic, was derived from a Fula term (moco’o) for medicine man (Turner).” (p.162) (“Low Down Mojo Blues” – Blind Lemon Jefferson, 1928)

raggedy-ass: This is one of my favorite adjectives in the whole world. It means worn down, messy, careless. It’s clearly got a negative connotation, but it’s very playful and fun as well. “Keep those raggedy-ass shoes off of my coffee table!” (“Go Ahead, Buddy” – Casey Bill, 1934)

Fun links for Friday and beyond.

For the past few weeks, I’ve spent a lot of time reading. As much as I love to read, not all of the material in front of me was pleasurable. This is partly my fault. In the writing classes I teach, I assign a lot of homework. I have to. I can’t expect my students to improve their skills if they don’t practice them.

I really don’t let up on them until the bitter end. This means that I don’t really let up on myself, either. I reckon I will have graded 250 rough and final draft essays, and 135 short reaction papers by the time this semester is put to bed. And that is with only 2 classes, one of which is very small this semester (12 students) and the other of which has a bunch of slackers who aren’t handing in all of their work.

But it does all pay off. This last batch of grading that I finished yesterday contained essays that are far better than they were in January. Sure, the students who don’t put as much effort into their writing are still handing in mediocre work, and this makes me quite frustrated. For others who have stuck with me, however, and have read my feedback, written everything I asked, asked questions and paid attention, things are finally starting to fall into their place. And this is the light at the end of my tunnel. This is what I’ve been waiting for all semester long.

But I need breaks even from the good essays, and this often comes in the form of reading things that I want to read just for the hell of it. Here are some of my favorite things I’ve read about language over the past couple of weeks:

What great things have you read lately? Share in the comments!