Lexicon Valley
A Blog About Language

June 5 2015 10:57 AM

Why We Be Loving the “Habitual Be”

Who be eating cookies? That’s the question that the University of Maryland at Baltimore’s Janice Jackson asked children in a now-famous study on “the habitual be.” Have you heard of this creature? Though it sounds like the yellow jacket perpetually hard at work on your hydrangea, it is not. It is but one way in which African-American English (AAE, to linguists) adds nuance to traditional verb forms, and it is the reason that “she be walking the dog” signifies differently to different listeners.

If you are speaking so-called white English, “Mara be walking the dog” means the same thing as “Mara is walking the dog.” If you are communicating in AAE, “Mara be walking the dog” says that Mara customarily walks the dog—that dog-walking has some definitional sway over her daily existence. It doesn’t guarantee that she is out walking the dog at this moment.

In that 2005 University of Maryland at Baltimore study, groups of black and white children were shown images from Sesame Street. In the crucial picture, a sick Cookie Monster languished in bed without any cookies, while Elmo stood nearby eating a cookie. “Who is eating cookies?” Jackson asked her test subjects, and all of them indicated Elmo. “Who be eating cookies?” Jackson then asked. The white kids replied that it was Elmo, while the black kids pointed to Cookie Monster. After all, it is the existential state of Cookie Monster to be eating cookies, while Elmo just happened to be eating a cookie at that moment. Cookie Monster, to those conversant in AAE, be eating cookies, whether he is eating cookies or not. The kids in Jackson’s experiment picked up on the subtle difference when they were as young as 5 or 6.  

Other features of AAE—a dialect individuals might move in and out of at will—include copula absence (the omission of certain forms of “to be,” as in “they angry” instead of “they are angry,” or the currently vogueish Twitter declarationit me”) and the deletion of S’s after third person singular verbs. (Think “Hulk smash,” not “Hulk smashes.”) But the meaning of such variations is relatively transparent regardless of your comfort level with AAE. The habitual be seems slyer, not just a simple signifier of black speech (though it’s been used to that purpose) but a separate, specialized verb tense masquerading as a “standard” one. Gaelic, Jackson pointed out, also uses verb forms that distinguish between habitual action and currently occurring action. The habitual be be reminding us of the richness of English’s many dialects.

Video Advertisement

June 1 2015 12:49 PM

Clusterboinks and Clusterfornications

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

I love the word clusterfuck. It’s a perfect word for, as Jesse Sheidlower defines it in The F-Word“a bungled or confused undertaking or situation.” That sums up approximately 91.3 percent of life.

Much as I dig the original, I’m also a fan of variations. Here are some rare cluster-alternatives I’ve spotted over the years: the children of clusterfuck. Like a lot of children, most are less offensive than the parental unit. But they’re all signs of verbal creativity—and the omnipresence of clusterfuckery.

May 25 2015 10:15 AM

Sacré Bleu! Why Is Blue the Most Profane Color?

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

Blue humor, blue movies, blue talk—what’s so obscene about the color blue?

Nobody really knows, as it turns out. The origin of blue in the sense of lewd, coarse, or pornographic has been tough to pin down: Etymologists have put forward a bunch of theories but haven’t found anything conclusive.

May 22 2015 11:23 AM

The Kick-Butt World of Cutthroat Compounds

The following post was excerpted from Sentence First: An Irishman's blog about the English language.

A houseboat is a type of boat; a boathouse is a type of house.

This illustrates a common pattern in English morphology: The rightmost part of a compound (houseboat) is usually the “head.” In other words it’s the center or larger category, functionally equivalent to the overall compound, and what precedes it (houseboat) modifies or specifies it. So we say English is “right-headed.”

May 12 2015 9:58 AM

Mother Love: The Many Euphemisms for Our Most Obscene Polysyllable

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

By their euphemisms shall ye know them.

I am hardened—how not?—but I gather that motherfucker, that “Oedipal polysyllable,” remains the most (least?) popular of all the so-called “obscenities.” The dirtiest of the dirty, the least permissible among all the tabooed. Rivaled only by cunt, and of course far, far younger as a coinage, it is presumably the innate incestuousness that gets everyone’s knickers in a twist. This is not just to have sex, but to have sex with your, omigod, mother. It seems to have been an African-American coinage, of the 1890s, and it may even be that the extra distaste it elicits offers a smidgeon of racism. Like the impetus for America’s earliest cannonades in its war on drugs—the fact that cannabis was linked to Mexicans and cocaine to blacks was justification enough to condemn the products—the word may be double-damned by association.

May 11 2015 6:22 PM

Will Words Soon Be Replaced by GIFs? A Debate in Words and GIFs.

Recently Adam Leibsohn, the COO of the GIF platform Giphy, made his case that GIFs are superior to words as a medium of communication. Could this possibly be true? Slate asked words correspondent Katy Waldman and Internet correspondent Amanda Hess to debate. The rules: Waldman could only use words, and Hess could only use GIFs. Ready … set … GO!

Waldman: Hello, Amanda.

May 11 2015 10:16 AM

Did Bill Simmons Get Fired for “Testicular Fortitude”? Where Does the Phrase Come From?

The long and contentious relationship between Bill Simmons and his employer, ESPN, came to an end on Friday, and the last straw may have been his use of a two-word phrase: testicular fortitude.

On Thursday, Simmons blasted NFL commssioner Roger Goodell on The Dan Patrick Show over the release of the Deflategate report. “He knows the results before the report is released to the public,” Simmons said, “and yet he doesn’t have the testicular fortitude to do anything until he gauges public reaction.”

May 5 2015 9:59 AM

Bitch, I’ll Tell You Why This Sentence Construction Is So Effective

Here’s the setup for the one indelible line in the so-so Tina Fey–Amy Poehler comedy Baby Mama. Fey’s uptight yuppie confronts Poehler’s South Philly bigmouth with evidence of her habit of depositing used chewing gum on the furniture. The exec begins sarcastically spinning out a fantasy in which she, the exec, comes home from work, chews “a big wad of Bubblicious gum and stick[s] it under my reclaimed barn-wood coffee table,” because, ho ho, that would never happen in the real world. At which point Poehler ricochets up from the designer couch and yells: “Bitch, I don’t know your life!” 

It’s a mic drop: The conversation, and the scene, is over. But in 2008, Baby Mama was the first flowering of a linguistic trend now in full bloom across all media: that of prefacing a statement with bitch for rhetorical effect. These days, proemial bitches have staked out turf with Rihanna’s new single “Bitch Better Have My Money” Kendrick Lamar’s “Bitch, Don’t Kill My Vibe,” and the Nicki Minaj–Madonna collaboration “Bitch, I’m Madonna.” They’ve inspired two songs called “Bitch Please,” the first, by Snoop Dogg, addressed to a female bitch, and the second, by Jessi Smiles, pitched at a male bitch, as the prefatory bitch transcends gender. They frequent hip-hop lyrics, equally adroit at conveying playful hubris (“bitch, I’m a don”), unhinged menace (“bitch, I’m a monster, a no-good bloodsucker”), and scoffing antagonism (“bitch, you wasn’t with me shooting in the gym”). And then there’s the meme-osphere, aswirl with such bitch-headed catchphrases as “Bitch, I’m fabulous,” “Bitch, you guessed it,” and—because such things are not always obvious to bitches—“Bitch, I’m a bus.”

April 29 2015 5:01 PM

Is Baltimore Beset by Protests, Riots, or an Uprising?

What do you call the situation in Baltimore this week? Riots? Protests? An uprising? As the city responds to the death of Freddie Gray, and the police respond to the city, the hashtag #BaltimoreUprising is ascendant among those with a left-leaning point of view. For these participants and onlookers, it is starting to replace #BaltimoreRiots as the verbal symbol of the past few days’ unrest. On Twitter, the #BaltimoreRiots feed contains a lot of “rule of law”–themed tweets:

April 27 2015 10:00 AM

OMFG! Sweary Abbreviations FTFW!

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

That’s Oh my fucking god and for the fucking win, for the uninitiated. Sweary acronyms and initialisms are a BFD (big fucking deal) on the Internet. It’s hard to imagine everyday online discourse—especially on social media—without frequent encounters with, or use of, WTF (what the fuck)FFS (for fuck’s sake), and their semi-encoded ilk.

Concision is an obvious advantage: STFU and GTFO take far fewer keystrokes than the full phrases shut the fuck up and get the fuck out, saving the (ab)user time, effort, and—perhaps most importantly—the appearance of giving a shit. Sweary abbreviations also play a role in signaling group identity, expressing personal style, and so on, FYFI (for your fucking information). And they are extremely meme-friendly: