. . . American language

. . .

Haitian Kreyol: "My idea doesn't tell me to..." means "I don't want to." "We" and "you plural" are expressed by the same word ("nou"): the plural involved in the conversation as opposed to the plural outside it.

. . .

While I had insomnia, I played Dean Martin. That's the game where you truncate an Italian celebrity's name as many syllables as needed to Americanize it. For example, movie producer Dean De Loren. My best effort this morning was the famous film couple Fed Felon and Juliet Mason.

. . .

Ich bin ein Berlitzer: Tor Kristensen, who's responsible for some of the nicest Shockwave projects around, pointed out that I mistakenly allowed a German's claim to be Danish to pass without comment:

In danish you'd say:

"Jeg er Dansk."

For the phonetically inclined: Yai air danceK.

Tor also confirms the European-wide reputation of "Berliner":
I can go buy some (lovely) berliners at the bakery right by my house. suger frosted doughnutty things filled with jelly. It's fairly common here for cities to have a pastry or specific bread-thing associated with them. There's also "Weinerbrød" (Veen-er-bro-choking noise-d), which literally means "Vienna Bread".

+ + +

Italiana como ella e dice: Walking through the aisle of the plane to Rome, I overheard the following language lesson:
"If you were going to say 'I'm a tree,' here's how you'd say it."

. . .

The New Diversity: Some of the darkest checkers of my checkered college career were supplied by Mr. T, a math teacher with a head like a pyramid and a voice like a Korean cappucino machine (link via Obscure Store). No one would call mathematics a universal language after sitting through one of Mr. T's lectures. Only his blustering protest "But you have this in algebra!" was parsible -- and that only through repetition, since it was his answer to any request for clarification.

Although most of his students flunked most of his tests, Mr. T realized that our grade security was closely linked to his job security, and so every student passed his courses satisfactorily enough to muffle protest.

Since I was a very bad math student, I should probably feel more grateful towards Mr. T than I do. OK, then: Mr. T, all is forgiven!

. . .

The Conservation of American Slang: "High and wide" (as in the "Rawhide" song's "Soon you'll be living high and wide") is exactly equivalent to "dope and fat."

. . .

There's no way for I, you, one, and we to all have the same single experience. But one single experience might be described equally well by using any of the pronouns I, you, one, or we:

"I/you/one/we read this item and ask myself/yourself/oneself/ourselves: what the --?"

. . .

Spoken, this is a very short story: The nicest father-and-son event I can remember was during my 1981 visit from college when we drove together to see Sam Fuller's war movie The Big Red One. When we got back home, my mother asked us, "So how was 'The Big Red One'?"

In print, it needs some explanation. Fuller's title refers to the numeral on the insignia of the First Infantry Division, and so each word carries equal weight: "the BIG, RED, ONE," like "the hootchie kootchie man" or "the solid gold Cadillac." Whereas my mother rendered its "one" more generically, swallowing it, as in "they're all very nice but I think I'll take the big red one."

When I told this story to Earl Jackson, I figured he'd say something about the Phallus, and then I'd say something about not talking that way about my mama, and so on. Instead he said, "That's evidence that English is a tonal language."

Juliet Clark has since pointed out another tonal moment in movie history: RKO's making Nicholas Ray change the title of his adapation of the novel Thieves Like Us (as in "all those judges and politicians are just thieves like us") because the audience might misread it as "The law-abiding public can't stand to watch this thing, but thieves LIKE us."

. . .

Movie Comment: It's not surprising that the best parts of Topsy Turvy ("IT'LL MAKE YOU FEEL LIKE WATCHING A BUNCH OF EXTRAS STAND UP AND CHEER!" - NY Film Critics) are the backstage-verité scenes -- given his working methods, rehearsals are probably pretty much all Mike Leigh sees of life nowadays -- but even some of those seemed a little queasy. Like the orchestral runthrough where an undisciplined fiddler refers to superstar conductor-composer Sullivan as "Dr. Sullivan" and is heartily corrected ('cause I guess it's supposed to be "Sir Arthur") by a fellow orchestra member, earning appreciative chuckles from the elderly Berkeley audience, who undoubtedly have their own problems with uppity underlings.

Man, I was with the sloppy guy: the only really proper title for a musician is "Perfesser." "Doctor" was already pushing it!

As Nature's Nobleman, H. L. Mencken, pointed out in The American Language: Supplement I, us Americans don't get a lot of practice when it comes to English titular grammar like "Lord before His Grace except after Excellency." Since it was clear that his copyeditors were never going to get titles right, in 1942, Robert R. McCormick, editor of the Chicago Tribune, decided it wasn't worth the trouble to print them at all. But then the English Disapproval Chorale (lead tenor the London Daily Telegraph, owned by Baron Camrose of Long Cross, né William Ewett Barry) turned out not to like that either.

Mencken quotes McCormick's response:

Obviously there would be no confusion in any one's mind if we omitted the Sir from Gen. Sir Bernard Montgomery. Nor would any one be in doubt about the identity of the person described as Gov. Windsor of the Bahamas. These changes in style would promote the idea in American minds that our allies, like us, are fighting for democracy....

So far as this country is concerned it will make considerable sacrifices to preserve a British democracy, but it doesn't find any great satisfaction in fighting for an aristocratic Britain. In deference to American opinion we should expect the British to abolish their titles and the privileges that go with them. After all, the deprivation wouldn't amount to much; it isn't as if Camrose didn't have another name that sounds less like soap to fall back on.

. . .

The widespread confusion between "obtuse" and "abstruse" puzzled me until I realized that it maps to the double meaning of "dense" in "dense writing" and in "dense reader."

When we want to point out inefficiency in the transmission of information (via peterme), we find it more idiomatic to point to the receiver or to the transmitter than to the wire between them. Since it doesn't really matter which of the two we point to, we end up using the same adjective for both.

. . .

Neuraesthetics: The Poetic

Many disciplines implicitly assume a distinction between literal and figurative language, with the figurative posited as secondary and "poetic," a hoity-toity exception to the common run of the tongue. However, working language doesn't make much of that distinction. Rather than being treated as optional ornamentation, metaphor and simile are essential aspects of normal speech.

  1. Timing tests show that listeners don't wait until a literal meaning has been discarded before processing for metaphoric meaning. There are no clear differences in pauses or hesitations between literal and figurative speech.

  2. The ability to use figurative language develops long before the ability to rephrase it in terms of "literal" meaning.

    First comes use of figurative language ("my truck died"); then recognition of the correct paraphrases for figures of speech; then the ability to paraphrase; and finally the ability to explain the figures.

  3. Spoken language is richer than literary language.

    Speakers produce an average of 15 novel and 34 cliched figures of speech per 1000 words. One study of 500,000 words of American literature found only 3 novel figures per 1000 words. (A study of English Renaissance literature or hip-hop lyrics might show different results....)

Logical-minded philosophers are pretty much at the same level as folk etymologists when it comes to explaining cognitive processes, which I guess is why the pre-neural-net generation of AI research was such a flop. Doing the research always beats common-sense thinking in these games....

(Data from "Figurative language and cognitive psychology," Pollio, Smith, & Pollio, Language and Cognitive Processes, 1990)

. . .

Earl Jackson, Jr., sends these addenda to our notes on English as a tonal language:

I like the link to tone languages a lot but they are misleading when they turn to Japanese. They should be making a clear consistent distinction between tone and pitch. Japanese has relative pitch contours. Chinese and other actual tone languages have absolute pitch. So in Japanese the difference between hasi desu "it's chopsticks" and hasi desu "it's a bridge" is clear because of the different relative pitch between the first and second word. If you were to walk into a room and say an unaccented Japanese word and walk out, there would be no way of determining whether you meant the fully unaccented word or a homonym that has its accent fall on the last syllable. Without a following word, they would sound identical. But if a Chinese person walked into a room, said "ma," and walked out, native speakers would instantly know whether it meant "horse," "hemp," or "mother."

I used to do the following test to my classes. I would write something on the board but cover it up and then say when I reveal the line on the board I will call on people at random and I want that person to read it aloud without thinking about it. I always called one woman and one boy. What was written on the board was the following line:

boys like me

This is a Gary Newman song. I deliberately write without a period or caps so that there is nothing determining the choice. I found that generally speaking women read this line as a sentence and boys as a noun phrase.

. . .

Distribution of English Words in Diary of a Shinjuku Thief
30 "nonsense"
8 "sex"
2 "American"
1 "why"

. . .

How to Read the Hotsy Totsy Club (Aloud)

. . .

Word of the Day

I may be a pig-ignant redneck, but by gum I ain't gonna have what meagre tools I got grabbed outa my draggingly-knuckled hands. Like, here's an inspiring elaboration (link via BookNotes) of the many uses of "like" in current American speech, which somehow is supposed to convince me that I should avoid the word. Will such a concise and adaptable bundle of usage be discarded out of fear of offending John Simon? Unlikley.

While still twitching in this fit of grammar rebellion, I noticed another justification (via Ecologues) for the singular-gender-neutral "they" (not that it really needs any more):

"A crucial theme of the book is how, in order to create something 'in the name' of Sappho, a writer must also 'forget' something about her -- almost wilfully blind himself to some critical aspect of her legacy."
(Also contra the otherwise delightful Terry Castle, I like the sound of "candid maidenhood." Only the sound, I hasten to add, only the sound -- the "n"s and "d"s are so nicely arranged....)

. . .

Those who've wondered whether the world would be a better place if this site was updated less often should have sufficient data by now, I reckon....

Being neither a Bush, a tobacco company, nor a gun purchaser, I have no secrets. It's just that my list of delays offers little in the way of instruction or entertainment -- save perhaps the following:

2001-11-22 - Better to dive than to crash
A seal's head emerges, facing shore; it pivots 180 degrees and spots the oncoming swell -- an exclamation mark sproinging into existence overhead -- and the seal ducks straight down, its tail waving in the air for a dubba-duh-dubba-duh instant before disappearing.

2001-12-05 - Consumer report
The much-linked-to but underreported-on hardware vendor turned out to be another front for "Florida Computers" (aka USBGear aka QualityCables): a professional-looking ecommerce site in which no links worked except those directly related to taking money. Phone calls weren't returned, the "online order tracking" form simply reloaded the page, and email was either unanswered or (in the case of "") bounced back. My order eventually showed up, but the experience could only be recommended to the hardiest of online shoppers.
Update - On January 28, 2002, APDrive's Rad Rozycki finally sent a response to my queries of December 5 and December 6, 2001, with the following added note: "I do not appreciate the link you gave us and would kindly ask for removal of this information!" The next day, he sent eleven more vehement emails ("Last time I checked if someone accuses you of something they better have some proof or a very good lawyer!") and posted a denunciation of me on his company's website. I can't say that this tardy outburst of attention has improved my opinion of his customer support, but Your Reaction May Vary.

2001-12-09 - Beginning of an era
On this day, I encountered the exclamation "Gosh all hemlock!" in two completely separate sources: email from Joseph Whitehill to me and a letter from Jonathan Williams to the London Review of Books:

In her article about J.R.R. Tolkien, Jenny Turner (LRB, 15 November) mentions that 'Tolkien was immediately and enduringly popular, unlike the writers of OuLiPo or the Black Mountain School.' I don't know what OuLiPo is, but I must yell out as one of the few Black Mountain writers left on foot. I read The Hobbit in 1940, at the age of ten, and Lord of the Rings in my twenties. The other great fan in our circle was the poet Robert Duncan. Charles Olson, Robert Creeley, Ed Dorn and Joel Oppenheimer wouldn't read stuff like this. Leave it to the fruitcakes! It puzzles me to read Turner (and Philip Pullman on several occasions) going on about Tolkien's 'dreadful prose style'. Tolkien is even taken to task for using the word 'noisome'. Gosh all hemlock, as people used to say. Philip Sidney used 'noisome'. And a decade or two before Tolkien, H.P. Lovecraft used 'noisome' like there was no tomorrow. I have reread Lord of the Rings maybe five or six times over the past forty years and every time I am thrilled by the language. The style is direct, transparent and unadorned, making it perfect for all the descriptions of the landscapes, while the characters say affectionate and modest natural things to each other. What could be better?

Jonathan Williams
Highlands, North Carolina

2001-12-15 - Better to dive than to crash, cont.
From L. A. Weekly's "Woman Seeking Man" personals:

EX-VEGAS DANCER, with full moon eternally lit, has tattoos and hip hop
body, seeks wild man from surfworld; intensely funny, hard worker, hard
lover. Please be pretty like me. P.S. Lost legs in surfing accident.
(Pasadena) Call Box 3009.

. . .

Although my usually beloved readers were of no help in tracing the origins of "Is dis a system?" and therefore are, per threat, to be smote again with the jawbone of a Betsy lyric:

  I'm just the mother type,
  You want no other type,
    And I'll be very chummy with the stork.
  All babies charm me, dear,
  You'll have an army, dear,
    And we'll make London smaller than New York.

de Fox witt de Crow witt de Chizze

and another (SMACK) for luck (SMACK!!):

  At the Saskatchewan,
  We will not scratch you on
    Your race
    Or on your face;
  We'd let Lon Chaney in.


and, what the heck, I'm starting to enjoy this:

  If you don't understand my language
    You must be a big dumb Dora.
  My people make the Bronx and Brooklyn
    Look like Sodom and Gomorrah!
  We are here two million strong,
    Not counting the Assyrians
  And many Christian Scientists
    And several Presbyterians.

Ho K.

...anyhow, never mind, it doesn't matter, 'cause the mysterious unseen (and probably unwashed) hand of the American muse has already hooked my snoot in the right direction. While trying to use up some trade at Moe's, I found a copy of Nize Baby, prose mitt illustrations from Milt Gross yet. What I really wanted was a pure collection of comics from Milt Gross, but I never get what I really want, so I brought the book home anyway: at least it was Milt Gross, and for a high-low-brow waggler the pages' surface resemblance to contemporaneous work by John Dos Passos and William Carlos Williams was irresistable:

     First Floor —So it was a socksess de hoperation?
     Second Floor A whole night long I couldn't slip.
     First Floor —Wos boddering you maybe de — efter-defects, ha?
     Second Floor —No was cerrying on in de next bat from me a patient someting tarrible. So I made a complain to de head sturgeon from de hospital. So he explained wot he was soffering from attaletic fits!
     First Floor —So you came home.
     Second Floor —Hm. I went for a copple of wicks to rest in a cemetarium so den I came home.
     Third Floor —So, Isidor! (SMACK) Wid a paddler you ronning arond to paddle de hepples, ha? (SMACK) De huss from de paddler you got to fid yet, he should bite you off maybe a feenger, ha? (SMACK) To de dalicatassen store you wouldn't go, when she esks you de momma, ha? (SMACK) De lassons wot you got to stoddy you don't do it, ha? (SMACK) Benenas you should paddle better, ha? (SMACK) A hockster you should grow opp maybe yet, ha? ( SMACK.)
     Fourth Floor —Oohoo nize baby, itt opp all de mosh witt milk so momma'll gonna tell you a Ferry Tale about De Dug in de Manager. Wance oppon a time was seeting a dug in a manager. So de manager was full from hay wit hoats. So it came along a cow so he said, "I'm filling a leedle hongry —I tink wot I'll goin' in de manager und have a leedle bite hay maybe." (Nize baby take anodder spoon mosh witt milk.) So it came in de cow but dot doidy dug was sotch a crenk witt a minn ting wot you wouldn't billive it could exeest. So he stodded in to bok —"Gr-r-r-rrr! Gerraderhere, you cow!!" So de cow went away like a gantleman so de naxt day he came beck so dot doidy dug sad. "Grrr-rr-rrr! Gerradahere, you cow!!" So de cow sad, "Wot's de metter? You don't want me I should itt it opp de hay??" So de dug sad, "NO!!" So de cow sad, "You want maybe you should itt it opp yourself de hay?" So de dug sad, "NO! I don't want I should itt it und I don't want you should itt it." So de cow sad, "Hm, you don't want you should itt it und you don't want I should itt it. Is diss a system???" (Oohoo, sotch a dollink baby ate opp all de mosh witt milk!)

The undoubtedly perspiring reader who made it to the end of Fourth Floor's Ferry Tale will have noticed our prey at bay. (The more reasonable reader who gave up early on is directed to the next-to-last sentence.) In fact, our prey is all over the dang place! So here's why, failing counterargument from R. Crumb or someone like him, I think Milt Gross is the ultimate source:
  1. You need a catchphrase to make it in this wicked world, and Milt Gross gives the peculiar catchphrase "Is diss a system?" the blanket coverage of an assured trademark -- it's in pretty much every other column. (His claim to "Banana oil!" seems more contestable, though he's still two years earlier than the first OED attestation, P. G. Wodehouse in 1927.)
  2. It fits for Hart to be making a topical reference: the original "Gross Exaggerations" columns were running in the New York World in 1925, the Nize Baby collection was a 1926 bestseller, and Betsy flopped onto the Broadway boards like a suicidal inedible fish on December 28, 1926.
  3. Internet research at its finest: two guys on Usenet credited it to Gross in passing.
Hm! See, is de law from gratification!

. . .

The Public Language of Cats


The intersection of cat and English consists of three words: the query "Well?", the imperative "Now," and the rarely used "Yeah." Our results replicate observations of other classes of paranoid needy tourists, finding irritatingly insistant reliance on this limited shared vocabulary due to unrealistic expectations of communication via nuanced variations in prosody.

. . .

Software Pirate Eggcarrrhn

for Doug Asherman
"By scope creep I mean that the feature enhancements reach a critical point at which they threaten changing the project's core mission. Your word processor is boarding on an office suite. Your text editor is boarding on an operating system."

Note how neatly this extracts the connotation of "encroachment" from the more ambiguous "bordering". It's got my vote in the Accepted Usage 2024 primaries.

. . .

In Search of Beezark

Into Me and My Gal's 19 days of shooting and 79 minutes of footage Raoul Walsh and team crammed comedy, romance, suspense, melodrama, sex both obsessive and healthy, a mute quadraplegic war vet, a lot of drinking, a cafe straight out of Thimble Theater, and a startlingly ahead-of-its-time caper sequence, and still maintained a relaxed keep-the-cameras-rolling kind of mood.

But that's not the point. The point is that Spencer Tracy and Joan Bennett keep using the word "beezark" (or "beezok") the same way they use "dope", as a roughneck endearment.

They really love that word. It's kind of infectious.

And, according to pre-Code ace Juliet Clark, in 1933's The Mayor of Hell, Jimmy Cagney addresses a reform school guard as "Ya screw... ya beezok" (or "beezark").

The "beezark" spelling is fairly well attested on the web:

It doesn't appear, however, in the OED or Webster's or the Random House Historical Dictionary of American Slang, or in any of the several dozen reference works at UC Berkeley except one goddamned thesaurus where it's listed bare-assed as a "Term of disparagement", or in the archives of American Speech.

The last time I asked my readers for slang origins, it worked out pretty well. (I found the origin myself, but that's still pretty well.) This time the challenge is so great that I feel compelled to ask non-readers even. Any idea where this comes from?


beezark, n. : from the Old Norse 'baresark' or 'berserker'; one who is sufficiently incensed in battle to remove his upper garment (the sark or bearnie) and run amuck. Hence any lunatical or foolish fellow, ne'er-do-well, nincompoop or ragamuffin.

Thanks, Anon, our source for all good things. As a reader of Celtic and Icelandic sagas and a resident of Berkeley, that coincidence came to my mind as well. But "ber" to "bee" seemed a wide unattested leap to take across centuries of intervening North American immigrations, and so I didn't trust my instincts. Do you have a reason to? I'm just folk, and you know how people talk about folk etymology.

UPDATE: Language Hat, that wonderful wonderful Hat, to the rescue:

You may be having problems because you're spelling it "wrong" (though of course the spelling of slang terms isn't exactly set in stone); my reference books have it as "bezark." The Historical Dictionary of American Slang says:

bezark [orig. unkn.] an odd or contemptible man or woman. ca1925 in D. Runyon Poems for Men 15: This bezark... was once so quiet that we called him Silent Sam. 1929 in R.E. Howard Book 64: At this moment some bezark came barging up to our table and... leaned over and leered engagingly at my girl. Ibid. 78: Add to this the fact that he frequently shoved me against the wall, and you can get an idea what kind of a bezark I was fighting. 1932 AS (June) 329: Bezark -- a person [at Johns Hopkins Univ.]. 1942-49 Goldin et al. DAUL 259: Don't crack to that bezark (girl) of yours about touches (robberies).

(You can read an excerpt of the Robert E. Howard story here.)

And Cassell says:

bezark n. [1920s-40s] (US) an eccentric or unpleasant person. [? SE berserk]

I checked "beezark", I checked "beezok", I checked "bizok", but, dang, I must not have checked "bezark".

I mentioned this to one of your non-readers this afternoon, and he said they don't like it when you talk about them. He said they had a file, some charts, a graph or two. That it came up at meetings. And that's all he'd say about it.

How irksome.

Cobra Libre writes:

I don't actually have anything useful to add to "In Search of Beezark," but, by happy coincidence, my nighttime reading has recently taken a detour into Icelandic sagas, and so last night I opened up my new used copy of "Egil's Saga" to read:

"There was a man called Ulf Bjalfason. His mother was Hallbera, daughter of Ulf the Fearless, and she was the sister of Hallbjorn Half-Troll of Hrafnista, father of Ketil Trout. Ulf was so big and powerful that there was no one to match him. As a young man he used to go off on viking trips looking for plunder, and his partner in these was a man of good family called Berle-Kari, strong and full of courage. He was a berserk."

I'd like that last sentence on my tombstone, but I'm far too shy to run around amuck shirtless.

Me, I'd like the second sentence on my tombstone.

In fact, I'd like so many things on my tombstone, I may have to die more than once. Luckily, I'm a coward!

I happened to be re-reading 'The Thirteen Gun Salute' by Patick O'Brian just before checking in here, and there was an amusing (short) exchange between Jack and Stephen on the subject of 'running amock' 'or amuck?', Jack wonders; the subject comes up because of a couple of beserkers in Malaya who are, well, running amok, cutting people up. 'What a fellow you are, Stephen!' - Renfrew

UPDATE: In June 2005, the American Dialect Society Mailing List treated the subject. One poster noted many instances of "Bezark" as a surname. I'd noticed that myself, guessing that it's a corruption of the even more common family name "Bizok". And, as I had, he wondered whether the slang term might be a derogatory generalization. No evidence so far, though.

On firmer ground, Ben Zimmer moves the word's first printed attestation back to May 25, 1919:

"THE BUGS have no use for the beezark who carries a picture of himself in the back of his watch. It's a crippled loving cup that only has one handle." - "Two and Three: Putting the Next One Over" by Bugs Baer, Atlanta Constitution

Zimmer cited some more examples from Baer's column, and asked "Did Baer coin it, or just popularize it?"

UPDATE: A year later, and reader john l adds:

I stumbled across your reference to Thomas Thursday and the use of the word "beezark." Thursday used this term frequently in his humorous pulp stories. The first instance I know of occurs in "Missed in Missouri" (Top-Notch Magazine, May 15, 1920): "We put half of the side show on the bally doing all kinds of stunts, but didnít succeed in getting more than five beezarks to squander a dime." "Beezark" is one of many comic invectives he employed, e.g. yamneck, yapbean, dilbo, boobist, hickwah, etc. Thursday's publishing record is thin prior to 1920, but there's a remote chance he predates your 1919 refs, but it wouldn't be by much.

UPDATE 2010-10-21 : Terence O'Connell adds:

Another movie instance, which started my search: near the end of Sailorís Luck, a 1933 Raoul Walsh movie, James Dunn is quarreling with his girl friend Sally Eilers, whom he suspects of infidelity, and says something that sounds like "All you beezoks are alike."

UPDATE 2012-05-26 : Justin Patton adds (much to my embarrassment, since I bought the source text back in the 1980s):

Stumbled across “Beezark” in a Thimble Theater strip from October 12, 1929, and when looking it up online I found your site. Popeye and Castor Oyl are scammed into buying a “brass mine” in the Beezark Mountains, and then travel there to find that it doesn’t exist. The Beezark Mountains, or Beezark Center as it is later referred to over the next few months in the strip, are the primary location of the story arc that lasts until 1930, and are referenced several times. The residents of the Beezark area seem to be poor, naïve, farmers with large numbers or children, and many of them are represented sporting long beards and of advanced age (the police officer, fire chief, etc.). It seemed as though they might have been roughly based on residents of the Ozark Mountain area of the time.

October 12, 1929 – “Popeye and myself are going down to the Beezark Mountains and locate our brass mine.” – Castor Oyl

February 13, 1930 – “It happened about a month ago – I was strolling along the beach near Beezark Center in America.” – Fanny Foster

There are many other references between these two and afterwards, including a misspelling at one point of “Bezark”.


Copyright to contributed work and quoted correspondence remains with the original authors.
Public domain work remains in the public domain.
All other material: Copyright 2015 Ray Davis.