Lexicon Valley
A Blog About Language

June 24 2016 10:58 AM

What Happened to All of Baby’s Articles and Pronouns?

“When it comes to breastfeeding,” author Shannon Payette Seip opens If These Boobs Could Talk, “people want to know: How is baby doing? Is she latching on? Is he eating well? How is baby’s weight gain?” Her wry lament continues: “Baby this, baby that. Baby, baby, baby.”

Baby indeed: Seip is onto something more than just the underappreciated toll nursing takes on a new mother. Note her usage of baby: “How is baby doing?” and “How is baby’s weight gain?” Not my baby. Not your baby. Not the baby. Not Baby with a capital B. Not even a baby with a name. Just the unmarked baby, a noun as naked as a newborn. What is going on with this – let’s call it “undetermined” – baby?


The undetermined baby is increasingly prevalent online. Take mom blogs. An article on Mom.me addresses “Why is Baby Crying? There’s an App for That.” Circle of Moms takes up this question on its forum: “When is baby old enough for juice or other beverages?” On social media, tweeters ask new mothers, “How is baby doing?”

In an extended example in The Huffington Post, Raquel D’Apice puts to rest patronizing queries about how she spends her days with baby as a stay-at-home mother. Here’s an entry in her punchy blow-by-blow:

10:05. Get bored of playing with baby. Attempt one of the things from overzealous to-do list. Baby immediately crawls out of my vision and begins eating dog food. I abandon list and pull the dog food out of his mouth. He becomes sad. I cheer up baby by pretending to eat his hands.

Surely all these babies have names. They belong to parents. They even have a sex. So is this plain baby an outgrowth of our digital shorthand, like the nuts-and-bolts telegraphy of a text message, the get-to-the-facts stenography of emails, the hashtagged, emojied cipher of 140-character bursts of communication? Does the modern, busy parent have no time or patience for grammar?

Perhaps internet language exerts an influence on it, but the undetermined baby isn’t purely motivated by the economy of tech-talk. For one, many users still drop articles and pronouns from baby in tweets well before they run up against any character limits. For another, longer texts employ the nominally nude baby as well. A section in a pressure cooker cookbook, for instance, offers advice about “when it is time to feed baby.” Your Baby’s First Year for Dummies notes how many hours “baby should be sleeping” each night. Plus, Google Books yields many examples that predate the internet, including one that reaches back into the late 19th century, well before a famous 1949 example from film, And Baby Makes Three.

Perhaps the undetermined baby is just cutesy baby talk? Infant-directed speech does feature a simplified grammar, including the omission of more complex parts of speech in favor of a sweet-voiced, streamlined SVO. And certainly many parents coo such utterances as “Time for baby’s bath” to their babies. Yet in the instances we’ve seen so far, adults aren’t directing their language at infants. They’re addressing each other, grownup to grownup.

So is this baby a term of endearment, a pet name? No doubt parents – and their friends and family – express intimacy when they post “Baby is happy” on Facebook. Some couples even display a similarly silly (or saccharine) baby talk with mommy, wifey, daddy, and hubby: “I love it when hubby brings home pizza!” But unlike these usages, baby is employed in far more (and far more serious) contexts. Here’s a passage on pregnancy from the Australian website Virtual Medical Centre:


In terms of routine tests there is an anatomy scan done at about 19 weeks or so and that is an ultrasound scan to have a look at how the development of the baby is going because by that stage baby is fully formed. Obviously baby is not fully grown, but is fully formed.

The author even switches between “the baby” and “baby” in the same sentence. This is significant, for it evidences that baby has its own subtle grammar.

Grammatically, the undetermined baby is acting like a proper noun – a name, which doesn’t require a determiner like an article or possessive pronoun. Say baby’s name is Caleb. Your mother could FaceTime you eager “to see baby.” We can substitute Caleb for baby and the meaning is unchanged. (I suspect the undetermined baby originates either as such a substitute, a way for parents and professionals to refer to the as-yet-unsexed, prenatal child in a humanizing manner, or as a shortened attributive phrase, e.g. baby boy or baby girl.) But say you are in the waiting room at your doctor’s office and you pick up a pamphlet. “So You’re Having Baby?” you read, furrowing your brow. We wouldn’t say this. We wouldn’t say “So You’re Having Caleb?” Because the undetermined baby refers to a very particular kind of baby.

The undetermined baby – if your childless male author can risk mansplaining the evidence – is the baby of the collective experience of infancy, that joyous tumult when a living, breathing, screaming, shitting being is completely dependent on the new parent to mind-read its every need. With the undetermined baby, parents can index their idiosyncratic efforts of managing a soon-to-be-born or newborn while simultaneously appealing to a broader community of baby whose parents survived it before them.

Compare, then, the different signals each of these baby usages might send out in an online message board. When is a baby ready to eat solid food? This has the generic abstraction of a Wikipedia page. When is my baby ready to eat solid food? This depends on your baby. But when is baby ready to eat solid food? This sounds a communal note, inviting dialogue, identification, and, as ungrammatical, infantilizing, or internet-y as the undetermined baby may feel to some, the wisdom of experience. The undetermined baby, it turns out, is quite determined.

June 22 2016 9:00 AM

Donald Trump Is Really Maybe Dependent on This Verbal Cartwheel 

Donald Trump is not a master of oratory. Within speeches, he meanders. From speech to speech, he repeats himself. Nobody cares. The point of his performances is that you can see him thinking, acting, in real time. You can see the struggle and the exertion.

There’s one word, in particular, that he uses as a walking stick as he clambers up the rocky face of cognition: maybe. Nine times out of 10, he uses it like a normal person (well, a normal fascist person). It’s often placed at the beginning of a sentence, where it seems conversational, like the reply to a question. It can carry an air of mischief, provocation, or heresy. “Maybe he should have been roughed up.” This is a Level 1 Maybe. Many (nowhere near all) of Trump’s most heinous accusations, over the years, have been leavened with such a maybe. “He doesn’t have a birth certificate. He may have one but there’s something on that, maybe religion, maybe it says he is a Muslim. I don't know. Maybe he doesn’t want that. Or he may not have one.”


A Level 1 Maybe is premeditated. A Level 2 Maybe may be—or not. After the shooting in Orlando, Florida, Trump suggested, as he often does, that Obama was soft on terrorism: “There are a lot of people that think maybe he doesn’t want to get it. A lot of people think maybe he doesn’t want to know about it. I happen to think that he just doesn't know what he’s doing. But there are many people that think maybe he doesn’t want to get it. He doesn’t want to see what’s really happening.” We’re still in the realm of the normal, but there’s something maybe a little anxious about these maybes. They are maybe a little cautious. They reflect the uncertainty of inventing fake thoughts and ascribing them to “many people.”

Which brings us to the rare Level 3 Maybe, my favorite maybe in the world. This maybe is so weak, so unexpected that it often requires an additional modifier to prop it up. It erupts in the middle of sentences, without regard to the surrounding syntax. It is a verbal fart. At the first Republican primary debate, Trump told Megyn Kelly, “I’ve been very nice to you, although I could probably maybe not be, based on the way you have treated me.” It was like watching someone almost fall off a bicycle. Earlier this month, as he felt around in the dark for an opinion on whether people on the terror watch list should be able to buy guns, Trump said that he would talk to the NRA. “I understand exactly what they're saying. You know, a lot of people are on the list that that really maybe shouldn’t be on the list and you know their rights are being taken away so I understand that.” And at a rally in West Virginia, in May, he addressed coal miners: “I think your industry has probably been hit harder than maybe anybody.” In all these cases, Trump seems to be possessed midsentence by uncertainty.

And yet there is something graceful about the Level 3 Maybe. For one thing, it is so inept that is has a kind of sprezzatura. It is powerful in its condescension. That’s why it feels so threatening and mobsterish when he uses it against Megyn Kelly. Conversely, it can signal humility, reasonableness. At a March rally in Janesville, Wisconsin, Trump said that his political success was “something that has—maybe never happened and they’re saying it’s a phenomenon.” He wants to say that it has “never happened,” tout court, but he also wants to project modesty and caution. (He goes on to say that he’s not a phenomenon, it’s not about him, he’s just a “messenger.”) You can see the beast thinking. And in appearing to move forward and backward at the same time, he conducts a kind of oratorical moonwalk.

Trump is cognitive chaos. He’s careless. And he will lose in November—probably. Maybe. Really.

June 21 2016 9:00 AM

It’s Time We Got a Handle on Circle Jerks

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

Today we’re going to answer the question “What the fuck is a circle jerk?” so you don’t end up like Melissa Rauch’s parents.

To begin with, what’s the difference between a circle jerk and a clusterfuck?

That’s a reasonable enough question. They’re both sexual references applied more often to organizations than to orgasms. They have the same rhythm; they have rhymes or near-rhymes on the stressed syllables; they have (dare I say it) liquids—/l/ and /r/—and fricatives—/s/, /f/—plus two /k/ sounds each, one at the end. But clusterfuck doesn’t literally refer to a potential real-world occurrence—it just replaces a literal bomb with a figurative fuck—and it’s unpleasant for everyone involved, whereas circle jerk refers to something that various texts and anecdotes assure us that some people literally do, and at least some of those directly involved in it may find it pleasant. Which is why circle jerks exist in the first place.

June 14 2016 1:06 PM

You Don’t Care if Someone Is Black, White, Green, or Purple? You Should!

Last week, Fox sports reporter Emily Austen received an official reprimand for her “insensitive and derogatory” remarks during a live Facebook video. “I didn’t even know Mexicans were that smart,” Austen had marveled, reflecting on the undocumented Texas student who earned a full ride to the University of Texas at Austin. Then Austen issued the following disclaimer from her colorblind heart: “I don’t care if you’re white, yellow, brown, purple.”

It was the taunt about Mexicans that drew down Fox’s censure, but Austen (pale beige) was also participating in a tried-and-true tradition: The invoking of bizarrely hued people to demonstrate her tolerance. Rhetorical human Skittles are so widespread that comic Mitch Hedberg mocked them in a 2002 stand-up routine: “You know how when it comes to racism, people say: ‘I don’t care if they’re black, white, purple or green’? Hold on now—purple or green? You gotta draw the line somewhere! To hell with purple people! Unless they’re suffocating—then help ’em.”

The joke is funny, see, because well-oxygenated violet humans do not exist. Green humans do not exist. Yellow with polka dots on your head humans do not exist. When writers scroll through the rainbow in pursuit of ever more outlandish skin tones to assign to their hypothetical fellow man, they almost always end up equating minorities with aliens.

June 14 2016 11:18 AM

THIS. Why So Much This?

Recently in the New York Times, Alexander Stern posited an ontology of our rampant tendency to categorize even the most mundane minutia of our lives as “a thing.” For the paper’s Magazine, meanwhile, Jody Rosen examined our hyperbolic habit of extolling quotidian pleasures as “everything.” These two linguistic trends, which are particularly pronounced on the web, have company: THIS.

Take this: On Facebook, the Daily Kos posted “YES. THIS.” This prefaced a photograph of a protester brandishing a handwritten sign, “It Wasn’t About Water Fountains in the 60s and It Isn’t About Bathrooms Now. Stop the Hate.” Or this: On Twitter, @eobaltimore tweeted “Dear journalists: THIS,” quoting a tweet from Slate linking to an article on this very blog.

The internet is fluent in the grammar of this, in part because the internet is a visual and textual medium. On a functional level, this serves as a simple demonstrative. It points users to information that immediately follows: a link, photograph, video, tweet, GIF, meme. This bridges context and content, creator and user, sharer and surfer.

June 12 2016 5:51 PM

A Brief, Inglorious History of “Not Politicizing Tragedy”

In the wake of a horrific shooting—the deadliest in American history—at Pulse nightclub in Orlando, Florida, early Sunday, our eyes turned to the prominent politicians of the day. How would they respond? Would they make meaningless noises or outline transformative policy proposals? Conversely, would they offer words of sorrow and empathy, or would they make the catastrophe all about them and their agendas?

On one end of the spectrum, Trump justifiably came in for criticism when he used the massacre as an occasion to accept (nonexistent) congratulations on his perspicuity in matters of Islamic terrorism. (“Donald Trump Needs to Quit Politicizing Post-Orlando Shooting and Get His Priorities Straight,” admonished Bustle.)

On the other hand, in a deeply felt but circumspect and ultimately anodyne speech to the nation Sunday afternoon, President Obama seemed too cognizant of the pressure not to politicize tragedy. His most politically charged statements alluded faintly to past slaughter, reminding Americans “how easy it is for someone to get their hands on a weapon that lets them shoot people in a school or in a house of worship or a movie theater or in a nightclub.” Yet the President’s remarks focused on supporting the families and mourning the victims. 

June 9 2016 2:20 PM

King Lear: The Anti-Vagina Monologues 

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

Many extol King Lear as Shakespeare’s greatest play. Some even vaunt it as the very height of the Western canon. For their claims, they point, inter alia, to the strength of the tragedy’s language. Take the mad monarch as he roves the wild heath: “Blow, winds, and crack your cheeks! rage! blow!…Singe my white head!” (3.2.1-6). Or the broken father when he cradles his deceased daughter: “Thou’lt come no more,/ Never, never, never, never, never!” (5.3.306-07). The Bard’s language plunges us into the depths of Lear’s despair.

But King Lear doesn’t just feature some of Shakespeare’s strongest language. It also showcases some of his, well, strongest language. And when we give it a closer look, much of it is truly below the belt. Recall that King Lear descends into madness as he feels each of his three daughters rejects him, to put it simplistically. When his eldest, Goneril, objects to some of his post-regnal demands, Lear isn’t just indignant: He’s downright wrathful.

June 9 2016 9:00 AM

Irish Bards Could Kill Rats With Their Magical Poetry Powers

There is a bizarre moment in Shakespeare’s As You Like It when the heroine Rosalind finds little love poems for her scattered in the woods. “I was never so berhymed,” she remarks in surprise, “since Pythagoras’ time that I was an Irish rat.” Huh? Things only get stranger in the Norton Shakespeare’s footnote for the line:

I was never overwhelmed with rhyme since the days of the ancient Greeks, when I was an Irish rat. Alluding to Pythagoras’ doctrine of the transmigration of souls and to the popular belief in England that Irish bards were capable of rhyming rats to death.

Wait, Irish bards killed rats with poetry? Apparently this was a thing in Elizabethan England. Two of Shakespeare’s contemporaries, Ben Jonson and Philip Sidney, also reference these rodenticidal rhymes. In Jonson’s Poetaster, a character muses: “I could do worse/…Rhime them to death, as they do Irish rats/ In drumming tunes.” And Philip Sidney notes in his Defence of Poesie: “I will not wish unto you … to be rimed to death as is said to be done in Ireland.” What is going on with Irish pest control?

June 6 2016 4:08 PM

Tronc Is Bad News for Good Journalism

Tribune Publishing Co.—the publisher of storied newspapers including the Chicago Tribune, L.A. Times, and Baltimore Sun—raised eyebrows last week when it announced that effective later this month it will change its name to the dubious neologism Tronc, which ostensibly stands for “Tribune online content,” and which you’re not supposed to capitalize, though it looks unfortunate when you don’t.

I recently wrote about the perils of journalists using the word content to describe their work. The press release in which Tribune Publishing announced its name change is a master class in the inverse phenomenon of publishers treating their reporters as content creators: By my count, it uses the word content on a grueling 11 occasions and the word journalism only once.

That choice of language is neither incidental nor cosmetic. Going forward, in the hazy verbiage of the same press release, the publisher will become a “content curation and monetization company focused on creating and distributing premium, verified content across all channels.” To do so, it will apparently “leverage innovative technology,” and use “artificial intelligence” to “better monetize” the, uh, content.

June 4 2016 5:59 PM

“I Done Handcuffed Lightning”: The Exuberant Spoken-Word Poetry of Muhammad Ali    

Muhammad Ali, who died Friday at 74, inspired glorious prose from a murderer’s row of marquee writers: Norman Mailer, Robert Lipsyte, and David Remnick, not to mention a generation of hip-hop artists. “He had been a splendidly plumed bird who wrote on the wind a singular kind of poetry of the body,” rhapsodized sports journalist Mark Kram in 1975. In 2006, ad guru George Lois gathered the mantling colors of the fighter’s verbal ephemera into Ali Rap, a book in which he proclaimed the boxer “the first heavyweight champion of rap.” Who could argue? With quicksilver rhyming dexterity and the braggadocio of a Homeric hero, Ali spoke the language of Compton long before Kendrick Lamar resurrected his floating butterfly as a symbol of black creative expression.

Boxing and talking were Ali’s one-two punch. About six months before his career skyrocketed with a world championship title—and before he converted to Islam and dropped his “slave name” Cassius Clay—he released an album of spoken word poetry, 1963’s I Am the Greatest. (His co-composer was the humorist Gary Belkin.) Featuring couplets like “Here I predict Mr. Liston’s dismemberment,/ I’ll hit him so hard, he’ll wonder where October and November went,” the record showcased Ali’s wit, whimsy, and irrepressible ego. The poet Marianne Moore penned the liner notes, observing, delightfully: “He fights and he writes. Is there something I have missed? He is a smiling pugilist.”