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)

2 thoughts on “Fun with the blues.

  1. Well, isn’t that interesting. Two nations yet again divided by a common language. ‘Boogie-woogie’ and ‘mojo’ are the only 2 of the ‘blues’ words you mention that have made it into mainstream Brit-speak I think. Then I turned to the article on young women and linguistic trends, which was also, like, very interesting. ‘Like’ seems to have been round about twenty years now and drives me insane, but uptalking, which seemed to appear at round about the same time seems almost dead. I’m very hopeful, anyway. I’m aware I might not be at the cutting edge of vernacular English any more (was I ever?), what with living in France and all. But I can do – to some extent – French text-speak. What an achievement, non?

  2. Very interesting! I didn’t know mojo had anything other than figurative or abstract meanings. I think I came across it first as the title of a music magazine.

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