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)

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Language is a loose cannon of fun!

Yesterday in my writing class, I found occasion to teach the word schadenfreude (the feeling of pleasure at other people’s misfortune.) They were all quite fascinated with the word – not only its meaning but that it’s actually a German word, not English. One student remarked, “But there’s really no word to say that in English?”

Well, no there isn’t. Not until we borrowed it from German. And really, who are we kidding? We didn’t borrow anything. We stole it.

We steal a lot, actually. And there’s no one to stop us. The French have their Académie Française, the Germans have their Rat für deutsche Rechtschreibung, and even Tartar has the Institute of Language, Literature and Arts of the Academy of Sciences of the Republic of Tatarstan. I don’t even know where Tartarstan is.

But English? Nothing. No regulating body to scold us for stealing German words (or Polish, Turkish, Russian, Chippewa, Navajo, Japanese…you get the idea). No learnéd council to tell us our follies or charge us fines for not choosing proper Anglo-Saxon words like leave instead of relinquishask instead of inquire; or drink instead of imbibe.

We are free to say what we want.

Or are we? What, or who, else is trying to control language?

This question has arisen anew in the past few weeks, starting with a scuffle over what the Swedish can or cannot (officially) say. The Language Council of Sweden was all set to add some new words to its official lexicon, among them such words as “…emoji, emoticons used in instant messages; drinkorexi, an eating disorder involving barely eating while drinking alcohol instead; and conversesjukan, or Converse disease, bad feet or posture caused by wearing trendy trainers.” (The Guardian)

It was also going to include the word ogooglebar, which translates as “ungoogleable” and would be defined as “something that cannot be found on the web using a search engine.” However, the word hasn’t become official yet because someone opposed it: Google.

You don't hear Kleenex complaining. Oh, except that you do. Click the picture to find out more.

You don’t hear Kleenex complaining. Oh, except that you do. Click the picture to find out more.

Google wanted the Council to change the definition to “something that cannot be found on the web using Google,” and also to include the fact that Google is a trademarked name. In response, the Council announced that it would not give in to Google’s demands and instead would simply drop the word from its official vocabulary. In a statement given on Wednesday, 26 March 2013, the Council’s director, Ann Cederberg, said, “Google asked the Language Council to amend the definition of the word. Today, we instead are deleting the word, marking our displeasure with Google’s attempts to control the language.” (The Guardian)

This, of course, is not the end of the story.

There is apparently yet another word in Swedish: Bloggbävning: “in Englisha blogquake, or “the process by which a topic explodes in the blogosphere and is then picked up by more mainstream media outlets.” (CBC NewsOgooglebar became an Internet darling, adopted by Twitterers everywhere and making it a trending topic. The Atlantic even suggested that we immediately add it to our own English language. For example,

Used in an English sentence: “I’m going on a date tonight, but he’s totally ogooglebar! What are the odds he’s an axe murderer?”

Anyone who has older brothers or sisters who liked to tease their young siblings would know that the surest way to get teased even harder was to insist that they stop teasing. When I was just a wee lass, I couldn’t say /r/ properly. It came out as a /w/ instead. Knowing this, my sister would ask me questions such as, “Who is your favorite on Happy Days?”

“Wichie.” I would say.

“Who?”

“Wichie! WICHIE!”

“Who?”

I should have just said Fonzi. He was cooler than Richie anyway.

I should have just said Fonzi. He was cooler than Richie anyway.

This continued until I was near tears, knowing I’d been once again duped into being teased. (It occurs to me that this might have been a pivotal moment in my decision to be a linguist.) I begged, threatened, cajoled, bribed…I did anything my 5-year-old self could conceive of to get her to stop. This, of course, only ensured that she would continue her torment. The only thing that eventually stopped her was when I just shut my damn mouth. That and speech lessons in the first grade.

So what I’m essentially saying here is that in this situation, Google is acting like a 5-year-old girl with a speech impediment.

Ogooglebar may be officially disavowed, but it has been embraced by the Internet and we all know what that means. Game over.

So much for language regulation by anyone, official or otherwise.

English, as I’ve said, has no official regulatory body to control its usage by its speakers. There are many reasons for this, but if nothing else, we can almost guarantee that as long as the Internet exists, it will serve to mock and render useless any decree such a body would attempt to make. And who likes to be mocked?

A collection of facts.

Goose tracks in the snow on the first day of spring.

Goose tracks in the snow on the first day of spring.

Spring is in the air.

Apparently.

Two days ago was the vernal equinox – the first of two days this year in which we have equal amounts of sunlight and darkness. From here, the days keep getting longer until we hit the summer solstice, or the longest day of the year.

The advent of spring makes a lot of people happy. We talk about spring cleaning, spring fever, April showers and May flowers. It’s often a symbol of new life, of new beginnings, and of new spring fashion colors.

Pantone Emerald

But there’s another use of the word spring that has nothing to do with leaping or rising or gushing or darting or beginning.

A long-known oddity of English is its use of different terms for a group of collective nouns, one of the more famous of which being an exaltation of larks. We enjoy these possibly because the noun used for “group” is often so descriptive, even playfully so. Not to mention we often become familiar with more vocabulary than we did before: I never knew that a cony was a type of European rabbit, but now I also know that a group of them is called a bury of conies.

No, not this teal, though it is awfully close to the Emerald, which IS a spring color.

No, not this teal, though it is awfully close to the Emerald, which IS a spring color.

Many of the lists of collective nouns are dominated by birds: the aforementioned exaltation of larks; a band of jays; a watch of nightingales. Here is where we find our other use of the word spring: a spring of teals. A teal is a type of duck that is found in various varieties around the world. Here is a blue-winged (teal-winged?) bird found in North America.

These collective nouns can be a bit obscure at times:

  • a rout of knights
  • a sord of mallards
  • a drift of swine

They can also be playful or satirical:

  • a converting of preachers
  • a neverthriving of jugglers
  • an ostentation of peacocks
  • a number of mathematicians
  • a conspiracy of ravens
  • a ponder of philosophers

And some can be a little mean:

  • an ugly of walruses
  • a murder of crows
  • a gaggle of gossips (or woman – not misogynist at all!)
  • an abominable sight of monks

A more exhaustive and quite amusing list of 15th century collective nouns can be found here. In addition, here is another list, created for English language learners, that includes first a long list, and then a very interesting reorganized list by term and reference.

So what’s your favorite? (So far, I’m going with a superfluity of nuns.)

A spring of teals in flight. (photo via Flickr)

A spring of teals in flight. (photo via Flickr)