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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A linguist in the rough?

Joey Barton

Joey Barton is a soccer player from England. He’s played for Manchester City (always overshadowed by its flashier cousin, Manchester United), then Newcastle United, and until very recently, the Queens Park Rangers. He got into a bit of trouble during this past season for allegedly attacking three other players. He was not given a place on the team for the upcoming season. The latest news is that he’s contracted with Marseille.

In the meantime, Mr.Barton has started a website, which includes a blog. It’s only been live for a few weeks, and he’s written on a number of subjects. A friend sent me a link to his latest post, which he thought I might find interesting.

He was right. Continue reading

Can’t we all just get along?

For the past week and a half, there has been a lot of fuss over the idea that the British don’t like the way Americans speak. This is not a new phenomenon. In fact, it’s a horse that has been well and truly flogged. The latest round of this game started on 13 July when the BBC posted an article about Americanisms that annoy speakers of British English. The author asked readers to send in their own examples.

While that was happening, plenty of others were weighing in on the issue. On the same day as the original BBC article, Dan at “The Blog Formerly Known as @SFX” posted a reply. Then, on 16 July, Mark Liberman wrote a post over at Language Log about how 4 out of 5 of the examples in the article were actually of British origin, not American.

On 19 July, the BBC published the 50 most emailed examples of hated Americanisms. The very next day, the Economist’s language blog, Johnson, posted responses to some of the examples that appeared on that Top 50 list. The author pointed out something that many of the examples have in common: Continue reading