A nother norange, please

I was just writing an email, and when I reread it, I was surprised to see I had written, “In an attempt to bring some levity to another wise sad topic…” What I meant to write, of course, was “an otherwise sad topic.”

Another is interesting. First, it’s a composite of an and other that forms a discrete word meaning ‘one more’. This marriage lends itself to misparsing or reanalysis, reflected in the phrase which most English speakers use unconsciously “a whole nother” as in “that’s a whole nother ballgame,” or “I ate a whole nother piece by myself,” etc. Rarely, if ever, do you see it written, but you hear it (or say it) all the time.

In the case of my error above, other is so tightly associated with an in my brain that it told my hands to keep them together and amputate wise. But that, of course, would change the meaning – “another wise, sad topic,” that is, an additional topic that is wise and sad? Not what I meant.

Back to “a whole nother.” This isn’t terribly strange when you come to learn that the indefinite article ‘an’ can be fickle. It’s dumped its ‘n’ on more than one occasion as with a nickname and a notch; likewise, ‘a’ has stolen it away from nouns like an apron and an umpire. This reanalysis occurs because nouns that start with a vowel trigger an appended ‘n’ on the indefinite article a leaving the brain room to confuse which word the ‘n’ belongs to. So if these reanalyses hadn’t occurred at some point in the history of English we might see a sentence like this: A foodie at heart, the retiring numpire had to poke a new otch in his belt after he traded in his baseball gear for a chef’s napron, earning him the ickname Plumpire.

Indeed, nickname comes from ekename, notch from otch, apron from napron and umpire from noumper. The reanalyses occurred in this way:

  • an ekename > a nickname
  • an otch > a notch
  • a napron > an apron
  • a noumper > an umpire
  • (and perhaps most recently) another > a nother

Curiously enough this happened with orange, too – but before it even got to English. Orange comes from from Arabic naranj. Spanish preserves word-initial ‘n’ in naranja, but French and Italian do not with orange and arancia respectively. The loss of the ‘n’ probably occurred in French and Italian in a very similar fashion as the English examples above: the ‘n’ in the indefinite articles une and una absorbed the ‘n’ from narange and narancia in the phrases Fr. une narange and It. una narancia. By the time Fr. orenge was borrowed into English, the ‘n’ was long gone.

In Portuguese, orange is laranja. So where’d the ‘l’ come from? This time most likely from the definite article in Arabic al-naranj. Maybe it has to do with the fact that Portuguese sailors brought sweet oranges from India to western Europe centuries after the loss of ‘n’ would have occurred in French and Italian, and with newfound interest in the fruit along Arab-Portuguese trading routes, the ‘l’ from the Arabic article al- was reincorporated into the Portuguese word for orange. The original word-initial ‘n’ is notably absent from Pt. laranja, making me think it actually was aranja at one point, and the ‘l’ was appended later. How Spanish managed to maintain the ‘n’ is intriguing.

Here’s a cool etymology dictionary. Look up nickname to see more about eke-name, eke’s origin and it’s modern-day representation in the phrase “eke out”.


Punny Fun

An exchange on Facebook with my phonetics and phonology professor from college who teaches in the UK. (Boroughs in NYC refer to the 5 districts: The Bronx, Brooklyn, Manhattan, Queens and Staten Island.)

 A nail polish released in conjunction with one of the Shrek movies. N.B. many New Yorkers rhyme donkey with monkey, which at least from an orthographic perspective is not insane…

Which parts of NY? I’ve never heard anyone pronounce donkey that way in the 5 burros.

Indefinitely changing, indefinitely cool

“Today the evidence of linguistic change, like climate change, is all around us.”
The Prodigal Tongue, Dispatches from the Future of English* by Mark Abley

My last post got me thinking about trendy lingo, its origin and journey to either becoming mainstream or joining the linguistic pantheon of dated slang. Groovy! More broadly, how are words and phrases created, and how do they spread? That’s a question linguists and sociolinguists have grappled with for ages.

It’s very rare to be able to trace the true origin of a word – that is, that moment of genesis when it first rolled off of someone’s tongue. Who was the very first person to use “cool” to describe something as praiseworthy and not cold? Who knows. Through reconstruction** we can trace the evolution of words and language from predecessors, e.g., Spanish, French and all the other Romance languages derive from Latin, but we can’t with any degree of certainty pinpoint the time and place a word was first produced – an exception being words coined in literature and other media (example to follow).

How words are propagated is another story. Social influencers of the day play a large role in popularizing new words and sayings; so musicians, actors, leaders, athletes – those people in the limelight that have our ear – are all instrumental in making lingo go mainstream. “Fo’ shizzle,” Snoop would concur.

As would one of George W. Bush’s communication advisors, Frank Luntz.

Early in W.’s administration, Luntz strategically coined the phrase climate change to mitigate the harshness of the more candid global warming which until then had ruled the day. In what seemed like one fell stroke of this cunning linguist’s pen, the American media and masses, conservative and liberal alike, abandoned global warming opting for the kinder, gentler climate change. Mark Abley used it unironically in the quote at the beginning of this post.

Coinage aside, there are many ways that words are organically created, often a result of the linguistic gymnastics our brains perform with the grammatical rules we acquire inherently as humans. Here are examples of words that have entered our lexicon, some more mainstream than others, categorized by the linguistic phenomenon responsible for their creation.

Backformation – the process of reanalyzing (essentially misparsing) a word to create a new one

  • orientate < orientation
  • conversate < conversation
  • commentate < commentator

Reanalysis – the process of misparsing a word to create new stems, prefixes and suffixes

  • shopaholic
  • workaholic

These came about because alcoholic was reanalyzed as alc+oholic, yielding -oholic as a nominalizing (= noun-making) suffix that was then appended to verbs like shop and work.

Blending – merging two words to make one

  • smog = smoke + fog
  • flustrated = flustered + frustrated
  • crunk = crazy + drunk; some claim this derives from chronic (the noun, not the adjective) + drunk
  • bromance = bro + romance

Borrowing – words incorporated into one language from another

  • sushi (Japanese)
  • yoga (Hindi)
  • vamoose (Spanish)
  • voilà (French)
  • uber (German)


  • fridge < refrigerator
  • diss < disrespect
  • jel < jealous
  • bellig < belligerent


  • urban myth < urban legend

Coined by a professor at the University of Utah, urban legend has experienced a significant shift toward urban myth. Climate change, as discussed above, could also be considered a paraphrase of global warming albeit contrived. Phrases, idioms and refrains are prone to paraphrasing.

I once listened to a co-worker lament being the victim of “reversal prejudism” instead of reverse discrimination. I’m not claiming prejudism will sweep the nation anytime soon, but this is a great example of paraphrasing, reanalysis and nominalization all in one: prejudice is reanalyzed as prejude+ice, the backformed verb stem prejude gets appended with the nominalizing suffix, -ism; and voilà prejudism.

But for the better part of a century, no other source of American slang or word creation has been as prolific as black urban culture. Hip words have hopped from black ghettos and hoods to white suburbia with increasing rapidity since the 1930’s when “cool” was supposedly first used in jazz circles to describe something as fashionable. (It’s not just lingo that has migrated, but a general black urban aesthetic that has become mainstream especially among today’s youth. Think Justin Bieber and his incongruous skinny jeans with a saggy seat. But back to words.)

Following is a list of those that have essentially gone mainstream, a euphemism for “used by white people”. Some are dated, and some quite recent. Feel free to add more in the comment section below.

You’ll hear these on the playgrounds and in the halls of white suburban schools all over Middle America and not think twice.

bail – take off, leave high and dry
biyatch – bitch (often gender neutral)
bling (bling) – shiny jewelry, ostentatious adornment
chill – relax(ed)
cool – this word will never not be cool, or so it seems
diss – criticize; truncation of disrespect
down – with it, in the know
game – skill, expertise
hate / haters*** – to speak or think ill of
ho – whore
hood – neighborhood
mo’ fo’ – mother fucker
my bad – my mistake
peeps – people
player – promiscuous guy with positive connotation
props – compliments, kudos
sick – cool (not sure if this comes from black urban slang; seems to be a favorite among white skaters, skiers and surfers)
the man – the authorities, those who hold power
yo – hi, hey

Urban Mainstream
You’re more likely to hear white people use these in bigger cities.

all up in your grill – in your face, in your business
baby mama/daddy – the mother/father of a man’s/woman’s child
baller – cool (guy)
benjamins – hundred dollar bills
boo – gender neutral term of affection usually for a significant other
bust (a move e.g.) – go, leave, depart, make a move
dope – cool
fly – cool
fresh – cool
front – to pretend, lie
hit it / hit that – to have sex with
hold up – hang on, wait a second
ill – cool
ish – shit
kickin it – hanging out
mad – very, e.g., mad cool, mad sexy, etc.
mang**** – This actually doesn’t come from black urban slang but from imitating Latinos with Hispanic accents saying “man”. Word final ‘n’ in Spanish is often velarized meaning the back of the tongue raises toward the velum creating a slight ‘g’ sound.
off the hook – cool
peace out – bye
phat – cool; competing derivations are from various acronyms including “pretty hips ass and tits” and “pretty hot and tempting”
pimp – adj. cool, stylish; v. to make cool or stylish
son – like dude, e.g., Whattup son?
straight up – downright, honestly
tight – cool
trippin – worried, going crazy
vibe – to get along with, to hit it off with
whack – crazy, messed up, not cool
word – yes, affirmative agreement

Not Mainstream
These are rarely used by white people or used facetiously.

crib – house
crunk – crazy/the chronic + drunk
fiddy – fifty
fo’ sho’ – for sure
‘Naw mean? / ‘Nawm sayin’? – Do you know what I mean / I’m saying?
po po – police

Never heard these used by white people:

bladee blasé (also blasé blasé) – blah blah blah, yadda yadda yadda
bugaboo – a stalker
It’s brick (outside). – It’s cold.
jawn – thing
type – very; the new mad, e.g., That’s type crazy/cool/weird.
this that and the third – a filler phrase like ya know, et cetera, blah blah blah
What’s good? – the new ‘Sup / Wassup?
whatever the case may be – used as a filler like ya know
Ya feel me? – the new Ya know whaddime sayin’?

* If you find any of my posts remotely interesting, Mark Abley’s The Prodigal Tongue, Dispatches from the Future of English is a fun book full of linguistic tidbits.
** For more on reconstructing language and the comparative method, see here.
*** You’ll notice I used this in a previous blog post, and didn’t think twice about it.
**** The first time I came across this was in an instant message at work from a young white guy originally from Texas and a Pepperdine graduate who moved to Utah to ski. He wrote it “mang.” Shortly after, I heard it crop up on the ski slopes. Indeed, much urban slang is used by young ski bums and snowboarders. I call it skibonics.

Cool links:


I like like

I like like  After my last post, this one could be construed as contradictory, but that’s part of the point – which I’ll get to. But first: I like the word ‘like’ in all of its forms, whether it’s as a verb, like its first usage in this sentence; as a conjunction, as in its second usage in this sentence; or as, like, a relatively meaningless filler, as in the way I just used it.

But there are so many like-as-filler haters out there. They generally claim how dumb or uneducated it sounds without really understanding why they think that way, like in this fluff piece. (Here’s the highbrow version, equally as fluffy, just with fancier words.) And this is the very crux of what distinguishes productive linguistic inquiry from analyses that incorporate social judgments about language.

The reason people think ‘like’ (or ain’t or creek pronounced /crick/) sound dumb is because we’ve been socially conditioned to. Not necessarily in any overt or deliberate way, but because often the people who use those terms or speak a certain way occupy a lower rung on the social ladder.

There’s clear evidence of this with features that in one context – being delivered by one group of people – we find perfectly acceptable if not downright elegant, but that in another context – being delivered by a less savory group of people – we find distasteful. Consider r-less speech, that is, when English speakers don’t pronounce their r’s at the end of words for example. In Boston or New York if someone says “car” /cah/ we immediately pass judgment if only subconsciously. But in London, we Americans swoon at a similar pronunciation (and probably think the person is smart). Same goes for the word ‘reckon’. In the dirty south it sounds dirty; in England, delightfully jolly.

Judging language based on a prescribed set of grammatical rules constructed by educators and the linguistic influencers of the day is called prescriptive grammar. As the study of language has evolved, linguists have come to realize that no matter how many rules about language are imparted on young minds, no matter how many grammar books are published, no matter how many knuckles are rapped for saying “Me and my friend” instead of “My friend and I” that language changes – and at just as quickly a rate as in eras gone by.

That’s because language isn’t learned, it’s acquired. We don’t think when we speak our native tongue, we just produce it. The interesting questions are how do we acquire it, and what is the underlying structure hardwired in the human brain that allows us to do so with ease. To start this investigation, modern linguists factor out social judgement and constructs of language, and describe the state of language as it exists in its real-time, non-written form, that is, the way people actually speak it. This is called descriptive grammar. And the end goal, as noted above, is to explain how we acquire it; this is called explanatory grammar.

This is a theme that will be revisited throughout my posts, and I figured discussing my like of like was a good place to start.

So after my last post, you might be thinking, “Really?…Really? You’re a hypocrite!” I recognize the contradiction. But that’s rather my point: linguistic judgment is inherently subjective because it’s colored by myriad social factors and personal tastes. It’s not necessarily that the people I’ve heard use really-really are dumb – in fact, I’ve heard plenty of smart people use it – but personally I have an aversion to certain kinds of trendiness; and as I stated in my post, the pitchy intonation is simply grating.

Time is also a factor that weighs into linguistic judgment. ‘Like’ has become so enmeshed in our speech that it’s almost imperceptible and therefore acceptable. With enough really-really being thrown around, eventually the pitchy intonation would fall on deaf ears, and I’d cease to  even notice – and more importantly, probably start using it.

The “me and my friend” backlash that has caused all of our grammar teachers to inculcate us with the “my friend and I” correction has had an unintended consequence – people have extended that construction to the object position of the sentence and think that “He invited my friend and I,” is proper when in fact it’s technically “He invited my friend and me.”* You don’t say, “He invited I,” unless you’re Bob Marley and speak a dialect of English where that’s normal. With time, the object form of pronouns (e.g., me) very well could disappear because of this, and we might all be speaking like Bob. The point is, a critical mass of usage and time affect what is deemed proper and acceptable in language. (I’ll never forget the first time I heard a newscaster say “diss” on the nightly news.)

Who really knows the origins (etymology) of ‘like’ as a filler**. At the end of the day, who really cares? The fact is we use it, the educated and uneducated masses, and it’s akin to the more accepted um’s, uh’s and ya know’s of common speech. To be sure, even descriptive linguists adhere to social norms, and would try to avoid using such semantically vacuous fillers if they were giving a speech or being interviewed on TV. But in less formal and rigid contexts, there’s nothing wrong with using like, like, to fill the gaps.

* The phenomenon of incorrectly extending a grammatical rule to another word or syntactic structure is called hypercorrection.
** I think some rhetorical or idiomatic questions like these sound and look better with a period. But the question in the sentence immediately after feels better with a question mark.

Really, really annoying

Over the last few years, people have started saying, “Really?…Really?” when expressing disbelief or frustration about something, akin to the Seriously‘s?, For real‘s? and Are you kidding‘s? of yore. It seems this idiomatic trend has taken 20- and 30-somethings by storm, especially in the last year. It’s even cropped up on a Verizon commercial I’ve seen way too many times on Hulu. It’s kind of annoying. Okay, it’s super annoying.

I think it’s the second “really” that does it for me with that inflected pitch and whiney tone, like a valley girl on speed. I’ve thought about where this came from and how it spread so quickly. I wonder if the bit on Saturday Night Live’s Weekend Update called Really? has been instrumental in its propagation, but they use a very different intonation when they deliver it – and it’s only one “really” sans its annoying, pitchier twin.

At least one person agrees with me, and also notes the potential SNL influence.

Anyway, I hope it fades fast.

Sporks and Foons

When I was 7 and sitting at the dinner table, I asked my mom who was busily shuttling plates of food from stove to table if she could please hand me a spork and foon. She and my dad chuckled, but I guffawed after realizing my error. “How did that happen?” I thought to myself. “And why is it so funny sounding?” I wondered what exactly a spork or a foon would look like. (This was long before I learned that the term ‘spork‘ actually existed, coined likely in the early 1900’s and eventually patented as a bona fide utensil* in 1969.) To my 7-year-old ears, those words just sounded hilarious, and I marveled at how I managed to produce them without any effort – they just came out of my mouth.

This was just the beginning of my love affair with language. Around the same time I found myself ruminating on** why some people pronounced ‘often’ /off.tin/ and others /off.in/, but more intriguingly why they both sounded acceptable to my ear. Why hadn’t my English teacher ever pointed that out?

It wasn’t more than a year later that I taught myself how to roll my r’s Spanish-style in an attempt to imitate my Mexican-born father who had a rather heavy accent in English. I discovered that if I said the word ‘dad’ over and over, rapidly tapping and releasing my tongue on the last d against the ridge on the roof of my mouth, I was getting closer and closer to trilling my r’s just like my dad-d-d-d. In no time flat, I was producing a pretty decent Mexican r.

Spork and foon stuck with me through adolescence, and when I was about 13 my best friend and I started transposing the initial consonants of two words in this fashion for amusement. We became quite adept at this – my friend (to this day) more so than I*** – to the point that we could complete entire sentences flipping pairs of words fluidly and with little effort. It wasn’t until English class my junior year of high school that I learned this linguistic device/phenomenon is called a spoonerism, named after an Englishman, William Spooner. My teacher at the time told us that Spooner’s favorite was apparently “the queer old dean” for the “dear old queen,” which stirred a chuckle in me because my teacher was a dear old queen himself, but I digress. I made him laugh in kind when I blurted out, “That’s what that’s called? I love oonerspisms!”

Henceforth my little game with words that my buddy and I had been playing for years had a name. That was 20 years ago. We live on opposite ends of the country now; but to this day, when we get together, talk on the phone, text, email or Facebook we spook in speenerisms. And man have we produced some funny ones over the years. This is a place for me to record and share them, as well as other linguistic oddities, observations and musings.

* The best spork on the market, and a must for backpackers.
** “ruminating about” sounds okay, too. Prepositions tend to be unstable, especially idiomatic or figurative ones.
*** ‘me’ just sounds so much better here