Lexicon Valley
A Blog About Language

Dec. 29 2015 4:08 PM

Bob Dylan Can’t Even

For Bob Dylan connoisseurs, the release of The Cutting Edge 1965–1966: The Bootleg Series Vol. 12 is a momentous occasion. It encompasses the studio sessions that gave us the albums Bringing It All Back HomeHighway 61 Revisited, and Blonde on Blonde, and it's available as a 2-CD sampler, a reasonable 6-CD version, and an ultra-comprehensive 18-CD collector's edition for the true Dylan obsessives. The collector's edition, which compiles every outtake from those crucial 1965–66 sessions, may have been released by Columbia primarily for copyright reasons, but for those willing to slog through the 19-hour runtime, there are some unexpected pleasures.

For Billboard review, Chris Willman listened to the whole 18-CD set in a marathon session. Here's how he describes one track:

Dylan grows increasingly frustrated by how he feels the Hawks are mangling "She's Your Lover Now." "Aw, it's ugly," he says. "I can't. I can't even." Did Bob Dylan just invent the 21st century catchphrase "I can't even"? I think he did!

Some background: The Jan. 21, 1966, session took place as Dylan was putting together the songs that would become Blonde on Blonde. He was recording in Columbia's New York studio with a group that included members of the Hawks, who backed him up on his first "electric" tour and would soon find fame on their own as The Band. Dylan was dissatisfied with how "She's Your Lover Now" was turning out—although a nearly complete full-band version of the song, first compiled on The Bootleg Series Vol. 1–3sounds awfully good. After the rehearsal in which Dylan "can't even," he dismissed the band and tried doing the song on his own, accompanying himself on the piano. That sounds awfully good too. (Elvis Costello says it's his favorite track on The Cutting Edge, telling Esquire, "The whole clambake is worth that one performance.") But Dylan would ultimately abandon the song, leaving it off Blonde on Blonde, which was mostly recorded by studio musicians in Nashville, Tennessee, after Dylan moved down there in February 1966. (See the Sean Wilentz essay "Mystic Nights" for more on these sessions.)

So was Dylan half a century ahead of his time because he couldn't even? For more on "I can't even" and recent elaborations like "I've lost the ability to even," see:

I like Gretchen McCulloch's characterization of "I can't even" and its kin as "stylized verbal incoherence mirroring emotional incoherence." When Dylan complained, "I can't… I can't even…", he was certainly experiencing emotional incoherence, and in his verbal expression of it, he was perhaps trying to convey something like, "I can't even get through this song (or this sentence)." Of course, that's a long way from the stylized incoherence of modern-day can't-eveners, as spoofed not too long ago on Saturday Night Live.

A version of this post appeared on Language Log.

Dec. 16 2015 1:50 PM

Want to Call BS? Use This Fun Derivative of the F-Word Instead.

This post originally appeared on Strong Language, a sweary blog about swearing.

I wrote a book about words for bullshit this year, but I missed some words. I think my most egregious omission was fuckery. That’s a damn popular word for unadulterated bullshit.

Fuckery has been around for more than 100 years, and Jesse Sheidlower’s The F-Word records several meaningsThe first two are pretty literal—a fuckery has been a brothel since at least 1901, and the act of making sweet whoopee since at least 1961. But the third meaning is the one that’s in the realm of bullshit: “despicable behavior; (also) treachery.” The first known use, from Stephen King’s 1978 novel The Standhas more than a whiff of BS: “That was an act of pure human fuckery.” A 1998 use in Colin Channer’s book Waiting in Vain is even closer to malarkey and hooey: “He’d even asked her to marry him … and she’d said no. Said some fuckery like, Only if we’re allowed to see other people.”

A major spreader of the word seems to be Amy Winehouse’s 2006 song “Me & Mr. Jones,” which included the word in lines such as “What kind of fuckery is this?” and “What kind of fuckery are we?” Green’s Dictionary of Slang lists fuckery as meaning nonsense since at least the late 1990s, sometimes in plural form as fuckeries. He also records examples of it as an adjective: “some fuckery social study” and “all that fuckery stereotyping and media shit.”

While fuckery as BS seems to have evolved from the treacherous sense of the word, I wonder if it was influenced by a variation of mindfuck: namely, mindfuckery. Mindfuckery sure sounds like come kind of Jedi malarkey trick.

Here are some recent examples of fuckery in use, showing the range of this useful word. As you’ll see, fuckery can describe professional wresting shenanigans, ghastly hair choices like the man bun, holiday horseshit, and online dating. Everything is fuckery to someone.

“John’s mother says, ‘It’s a funny story born of tragedy,’ and filmmakers Bryan Carberry and J. Clay Tweel nimbly tell this tale of what one interviewee calls, ‘fuckery and shenanigans.’”
Dec. 11, Salon

“There’s also this intense responsibility I feel to make sure the other person has a good time when I ask them to do something. Otherwise, I’m like, we could’ve stayed in the house. And I feel guilty for subjecting them to fuckery.”
Dec. 9, Madame Noire

“Wear the perfume, because it’s fun, and it washes off easy, unlike that ill-advised tattoo or the shock of blue you put in your hair after a crying jag but before you go to bed. Wear it as a safeguard against fuckery, as an olfactory shield against the horror of the world.”
Dec. 9, the Frisky

“This is starting to get really dangerous and not the least bit funny. Kids are now starting to attack schoolmates for their religious affiliation because of this poor excuse for a man. The fuckery needs to stop NOW.”
Dec. 8, the Daily Banter

“I get what they did there, they want it to look like Reigns can win heading into the PPV and further prove that Sheamus won only because of fuckery.”
Dec. 7, 411mania

“We’d touch on celebrity deaths and the tragedy of them – we’d talk Robin Williams – Whitney Houston –  James Gandolfini – and Casey Kasem – you bet we’d talk about the clusterfuck of fuckery that surrounded that poor sap’s end.”
Dec. 4, Chicago Now

“ ‘Love For Breakfast’ is kind of a shout out to the new dismal dating environment brought on by dating apps. So much fuckery—just tell me you love me, right?”
Dec. 3, Thump

“Because it’s the damn holidays and in a world filled with infinite, everlasting fuckery, I’m lucky enough to write about records for a living.”
Nov. 25, Nashville Scene

“At one point Rae chides how Fif’s ‘haircut game is fucked up’; this was a time long before the widespread fuckery of the man-bun.”
Nov. 23, the Concourse

Shameless plug alert: If you’re looking for more words for “infinite everlasting fuckery,” check out Bullshit: A Lexicon, 100% hooey and poppycock, guaranteed!


Dec. 16 2015 11:11 AM

Anadiplosis Uses Repetition. Repetition Confers Emphasis. Emphasis Creates Great Power.

Remarked many have on the ouroborotic properties of Yoda’s language, the way it forces listeners to circle back on his meaning like an R3 droid in reverse. But the Master also favors another rhetorical device: anadiplosis, or the “repetition of the last word or phrase from the previous line, clause, or sentence at the beginning of the next.” For instance, in The Phantom Menace, Yoda cautions Anakin Skywalker: “Fear leads to anger. Anger leads to hate. Hate leads to suffering.” The device confers emphasis, emphasis in the service of interconnection, interconnection flowing into escalation, escalation intimating endlessness, endlessness begetting—look, once the anadiplosis gets rolling, it’s hard to stop.

The word anadiplosis means, literally, a doubling or folding up. It is one of our most common rhetorical gestures, woven into the Bible (“Then, when lust has conceived, it bringeth forth sin. And sin, when it is finished, bringeth forth death”), political discourse (George W. Bush in an address to Congress on Sept. 20, 2001: “Our grief has turned to anger, and anger to resolution”), poetry (“The mountains look on Marathon—And Marathon looks on the sea”), and the classics (From Gladiator: “They call for you: The general who became a slave; the slave who became a gladiator; the gladiator who defied an Emperor.”)

The device must owe some popularity to its satisfying, musical repetitions. We love variation within logical structures; the If You Give a Mouse a Cookie children’s series depends on the delight of consequences unspooling rhythmically from a single action: If this, then that. If that, then THAT. But anadiplosis isn’t all singsong and counting games. Milton used it to announce the presence of a rarefied poetic force ordering words to heightened effect. “Lycidas is dead, dead ere his prime,” he wrote in his most famous elegy, the bell-like toll of dead less description than metaphor, suggestive of the way a grieving mind can worry terrible truths. At the same time, anadiplosis stitches clauses together, melting contiguity into continuity. The pathos of letting it extend the thought “Lycidas is dead,” so otherwise final, could not have escaped Milton.  

If registers of speech were dress codes, I’d clothe anadiplosis in “poetic-formal.” Poetic-formal because anadiplosis is stately—stately, in part, because it forces the prose to slow down. Back to the Bible: Peter urged his disciples to “make every effort to support your faith with goodness, and goodness with knowledge, and knowledge with self-control, and self-control with endurance, and endurance with godliness, and godliness with mutual affection, and mutual affection with love.” The care and time implied in the construction of the sentence echoes the conscientiousness of Peter’s followers as they arrange their virtues into an edifice, an unshakable moral frame. Anadiplosis is about grand conclusions wrung from small beginnings. In so transparently revealing how ideas build on each other, the device offers something rare: the technique—the mechanics—of thought captured in language. It’s at once spontaneous and powerful: an organic crescendo. Intelligence refining itself as it goes.

Anadiplosis also carries a lot of momentum. Consider a DirecTV ad from 2012:

When your cable company keeps you on hold, you get angry. When you get angry, you go blow off steam. When you go blow off steam, accidents happen. When accidents happen, you get an eye patch. When you get an eye patch, people think you’re tough. When people think you’re tough, people want to see how tough. And when people want to see how tough, you wake up in a roadside ditch. Don’t wake up in a roadside ditch: Get rid of cable and upgrade to DIRECTV.

As Ron Burgundy might say, that escalated quickly. In addition to winding (straw) arguments about with incantatory force, anadiplosis is the Kevin Bacon game of rhetorical flourishes. Watch it connect past and future in a poem by Yeats, “An Irish Airman Foresees His Death:

I balanced all, brought all to mind,
The years to come seemed waste of breath,
A waste of breath the years behind
In balance with this life, this death.

The supreme and otherworldly suspension of the lone pilot in the clouds finds an analogue in the stanza’s perfect balance. He weighs the years to come: a waste of breath. He weighs the ones that have fled: the same. And between past and future, an anadiplosis, a sense of redundancy and gathering, potential motion. Someone using this device is both stalling and building, careening forward and standing still. That duality of experience—inhabiting a frozen moment while being, tragically, a slave to time—is one subject of Yeats’ poem. Anadiplosis helps it land, even if the airman doesn’t. 

Dec. 14 2015 4:09 PM

Researchers Have Figured Out Why the Word Snunkoople Is Funny

Caltsio. Filisma. Snunkoople. Though they’re all made-up words, you probably found one funnier than the others. But why? A group of linguists from Canada and Germany explore that question in a new study with a dense title that belies its enswarm-ment with such undignified coinages as himumma, suppopp, and pachang.Telling the World’s Least Funny Jokes: On the Quantification of Humor as Entropy” seems unpromising from a comedy standpoint, containing in its name as it does two of the English language’s unfunniest terms, “quantification” and “entropy.” But what the study loses in dissecting the delicate butterfly of humor it gains back in gremsev, sanybon, and insights into what we expect words to look like.

The study’s lead author, Chris Westbury, wanted to develop a mathematical model to predict a word’s ludic potential. Aside from context, is there a reason why Dr. Seuss’ nonsense terms (wumbus, yuzz-a-ma-tuzz) are funny and George Orwell’s (Ingsoc, yp) aren’t? Westbury and his colleagues presented more than 900 people with a total of 6,000 nonwords (“NWs”) to learn which ones made readers laugh. Using that data, they constructed a set of formulae to predict the funniness of a given string of letters.

The model built, the researchers showed 56 fluent English speakers pairs of nonsense words and asked them to rank which one tickled them more. What’s funnier, rousent or throvic? Mempise or chanywa? Bomysta or dockles? (The researchers made sure to discard from the experiment any coinages that accidentally recalled smirky slang terms: dongl, focky, clunt.) NWs with improbable letters—z’s and k’s—as well as relatively uncommon doublings—oo, rr—inspired more mirth, just as the computer predicted.

Dec. 11 2015 10:36 AM

A Brief History of Fiddling and Diddling

This post originally appeared on Strong Language, a sweary blog about swearing.

When you’ve already started saying fuck but realize you’re within earshot of delicate sensibilities, fiddle (or fiddlesticks!) is a convenient last-minute mincing. An old word, from fidula in Old High German, fiddle has, since its birth as the name of a stringed instrument, taken on a host of meanings that semantically overlap with fuck to a surprising degree.

Dec. 9 2015 11:46 AM

English Needs a Word for the Relationship Between Your Parents and Your In-Laws

My parents and my wife’s parents have a good relationship. It’s nice. It’s rare. And they use a word to describe each other: machatunim. We hear it a lot. My wife’s dad, at home: “I spoke to the machatunim today.” My wife’s mom, in an email to my dad: “I’m so glad we’re machatunim.” My wife and I roll our eyes at this. Here we have a classic case of secular American Jews deploying a Yiddish word as a little secret handshake, sharing their delight that both their kids married Jewish. Machatunim: The word even contains that satisfying, throat-clearing chhh—machhhh-ah-tun-um.

But there’s another, more pragmatic reason they use this word: It’s super convenient. The word means “the parents of my child’s spouse.” There’s no English equivalent, which makes describing this relationship otherwise kind of challenging. What else would they say? Co-inlaws? That barely makes sense. My parents would have to say something clunky like, “our son’s wife’s parents.” Machatunim is way better.

It’s such a useful word, in fact, that it’s worth wondering: Why doesn’t English contain a word for this very common relationship?

Dec. 8 2015 8:00 AM

Congrats, America! “Active Shooter” Used to Describe a Sportsman. Now It Means a Mass Killer.

Before the details of their identities were made clear, when Syed Farook and Tashfeen Malik opened fire on a social services center in San Bernardino, California, the county’s sheriff department tweeted a warning to residents:  

An “active shooter” means something very specific in law enforcement. A 2008 pamphlet from the Department of Homeland Security (written one year after the Virginia Tech shooting) defines him or her as “an individual actively engaged in killing or attempting to kill people in a confined and populated area; in most cases, active shooters use firearms and there is no pattern or method to their selection of victims.” Unlike a serial killer, the active shooter takes many lives within a compressed timeframe. In a 2013 paper, the psychologist Daniel Modell further differentiated him—he is almost always male—by noting that he often seeks notoriety, rather than the serial killer’s anonymity. The active shooter, Modell speculated, wishes to fuse his identity with the attack—to go out in a blaze of glory.

The more we learn about them, the more Farook and Malik depart from the traditional “active shooter” script. (Malik is female. Both attackers seem ideologically motivated, and neither turned their guns on themselves.) But that script itself diverges wildly from what “active shooter” used to mean: a hunter or sportsman. In the 1970s, for example, the magazine Pennsylvania Game News published an essay in which a man reminisced that his father “monitored every activity” at his rifle club but “was physically unable to be an active shooter.” The American Rifleman used an ad to thank “the more than 1,100,000 active shooter-hunter-sportsmen who are every month readers.” In 1979, the appellation made it onto the Senate floor: A hearing about a section of the Federal Firearms Act referred to “the active shooter who”—unlike the “casual shooter”—“is highly interested in either competition or hunting. This type of person usually has a high investment in reloading equipment and has a large supply of privately owned arms.”

Dec. 2 2015 8:00 AM

“Teachers! Please Do Not Make Your Students Use Synonyms for Said,” I Blurted

My fourth-grade English teacher employed a list of words he called “D.N.U.’s,” for “do not use.” It was about a dozen words long and included get, nice, very, and thing. If he saw one in our papers he would flag it and make a tutting sound, although he didn’t always notice. The point, I assumed, was to make us think about the words we were using—to elevate our writing above the leaden defaults of a 9-year-old’s communicative needs.

According to the Wall Street Journal, this reasonable pedagogical technique has spawned a movement. And as with so many essentially humane causes before it, that movement has metastasized into a perverse and deadly totalitarianism. Its chief proponent is California middle school teacher Leilen Shelton, whose manual Banish Boring Words has, according to the Journal, sold 80,000 copies. Among the words Shelton has declared dead: said.

“You might use barked,” she said. “Maybe howled. Demanded. Cackled. I have a list.” She certainly does. On the cover of Banish Boring Words—Amazon’s No. 1 best-seller in the Elementary Education category as I write, although that might reflect a surge of interest from the Journal story—is a crude cartoon of a boy thinking, “Instead of said I could use ... snarled, professed, argued, cautioned, remarked, cried.” A Canadian school district similarly offers a list of 397 “verbs to substitute for ‘said.’ ”

Nov. 25 2015 2:29 PM

Merry Thoughts, Naughty Bits: Putting the “Bone” in Wishbones

This post originally appeared on Strong Language, a sweary blog about swearing.

At the Strong Language table this U.S. Thanksgiving, we’ll be having none of that euphemistic white or dark meat first served up in the polite speech of 19th-century American English. No, we’ll be piling our plates high with turkey breasts and thighs.

But there’s another part of the turkey that may be a bit naughty if we look to its linguistic history: the wishbone.

Nov. 23 2015 9:00 AM

It’s Out of Africa meets Pretty Woman! The Art and Science of Mixture Descriptions

Capturing the essence of a movie is tricky work, especially when you’ve only got a few minutes to pitch your idea in front of a high-powered executive. It’s Out of Africa meets Pretty Woman! Ghost meets The Manchurian Candidate! These classic “elevator pitches” are examples of “mixture descriptions”: characterizations that liken a target document to blends of other documents. Mixture descriptions also appear on Amazon reviews, which prize brevity and limpidity. Because they do such a beautiful job distilling and transmitting nuanced information, researchers have begun to examine them more closely

According to library scientists Peter Organisciak and Michael Twidale, a typical mixture description can have up to three parts. There’s the mixture itself, which frequently names something a “cross between,” “a mashup of,” a “combination of,” or “the offspring of” X and Y. (“Empire is a mashup of King Lear and Hustle and Flow.”) Sometimes, there’s also a qualifier—“Empire is a better [mixture]” or a [mixture] without the charm”—meant to “subjectively realign a listener’s expectations.” Finally, there can be a twist, or a modifier that offers further thematic or stylistic adjustments: “…in space.”

Voilà. Empire is a much better cross between Glee and As the World Turns, but with black people.