Dr. Goodword’s Language Blog

Archive for August, 2009

Scrooch Down and Scooch Over

Monday, August 31st, 2009

I expected the feedback on the distinction I recently made between scrooch and scooch to be rougher than it actually was. The most interesting comment came from Lenn Zonder and runs thus:

“I don’t remember ever hearing the word scrooch, and I am now sixty-nine years old. And maybe it is also important to point out I was a newspaper reporter most of my life, talking to and interviewing a great many people, many of them first or second generation immigrants, who spoke slang and colloquialism, and never the King’s English.”

“However, I do recall hearing and using the word scootch many times as a schoolboy. Apparently, without knowing or realizing it, we used scootch to mean both, “scootch over,” or to “scootch down,” as to hide. But the use of the word, at least in the greater New Haven, CT area, seems to have died out. I cannot recall hearing the word or phrase in the past 30-40 years. Maybe it’s an effect of living in a community of learned, Ivy League scholars.”

Well, scooch and scrooch are words  slangy enough that learned scholars would tend to eschew them, certainly not master with any sense of pride. The reason I ran them as Good Words is that they are fading in many dialects and are frequently confused in others. As connoisseurs and scholars of American slang (click here for evidence), I wanted to make sure that when our readers are slinging slang the slang they sling is true.

Both scrooch and scooch have been around for hundreds of years and I’m sure every generation confuses, conflates, or mispronounces them given nothing more than that tiny curl of the tongue (R) that separates them. They are separate words, though, with separate origins and distinct meanings.

I wouldn’t be surprised if they shortly meld together but down South, where I come from, I heard them both fifty years ago and still retain a pretty good sense of the distinction. Southern dialects are much more conservative in terms of developing and changing. Moreover, I still hear scooch emerge from the lips of very well-educated people here in Pennsylvania from time to time.

Language and Age

Sunday, August 30th, 2009

Sorry I haven’t been updating this blog. I’m in the final throes of editing The 100 Most Beautiful Words in English on top of a very busy work schedule. Generally Lexiteria’s business drops in July and August but this year it actually increased over May and June, just as the book requires my full attention.

It goes to press Monday, so I will have more time to think about language more generally and return to trying to keep up with the US media’s assault on the language. In the meantime, I received a chain e-mail with a routine by George Carlin that all those interested in language and ageing should enjoy. Carlin’s eye for the humorous in language was uncanny. Here is what he noticed about the way we speak of getting older.

George Carlin on Aging

Do you realize that the only time in our lives when we like to get old is when we’re kids? If you’re less than 10 years old, you’re so excited about aging that you think in fractions.

‘How old are you?’
‘I’m fourand a half!’

You’re never thirty-six and a half. You’re four and a half, going on five! That’s the key.

You get into your teens, now they can’t hold you back. You jump to the next number, or even a few ahead.

‘How old are you?’
‘I’m gonna be 16!’

You could be 13, but hey, you’re GONNA BE 16! And then the greatest day of your life!

You BECOME 21. Even the words sound like a ceremony. You BECOME 21. YESSSS!!!

But then you turn 30. Oooohh, what happened there? Makes you sound like bad milk! He TURNED; we had to throw him out. There’s no fun now, you’re just a sour-dumpling.. What’s wrong? What’s changed?

You BECOME 21, you TURN 30, then you’re PUSHING 40. Whoa! Put on the brakes, it’s all slipping away. Before you know it, you REACH
50 and your dreams are gone…

But wait!!! You MAKE it to 60. Whew! As if you didn’t think you would!

So you BECOME 21, you TURN 30, you PUSH 40, REACH 50 and MAKE IT to 60.

You’ve built up so much speed that you HIT 70! After that it’s a day-by-day thing; you HIT Monday, you HIT Tuesday, you HIT Wednesday!

You GET INTO your 80’s and every day is a complete cycle; you HIT lunch; you TURN 4:30; you REACH bedtime. And it doesn’t end there. Into the 90s, you start going backwards; ‘I WAS JUST  92.’

Then a strange thing happens. If you make it over 100, you become a little kid again.

‘I’m 100 and a half!’

May you all make it to a healthy 100 and a half.

Idioms and Slang

Sunday, August 16th, 2009

We seldom utter a sentence that does not contain an idiom, yet much less than they deserve is written about them. I was reminded by a recent article in the Lewiston, Maine Sun-Journal, “Idioms add color to our language“.

So, what is an idiom? An idiom is a phrase that cannot be analyzed into separate words but makes sense only as a whole. For example, “Jill flew off the handle when she saw lipstick on Jack’s collar.” Jill, of course, must be a woman here and not the family canary, so she cannot fly. However, taken as a whole, “flew off the handle” simply means “got mad”.

Because they are treated as wholes and cannot be semanticallly analyzed into parts, idioms are stored in the right side of the brains of 98% of us, the side of holistic thinking. (Our knowledge of grammar and vocabulary is located on the left side, the side that analyzes sentences into their parts and relationships.)

At the end of dictionary entries, the major idioms in which the word occurs are listed. At the end of the entry for jump, we find the idiom jump the gun listed as meaning “start too soon”. Under shirt we find give the shirt off one’s back, meaning simply “be generous”.

Idioms should not be confused with metaphorical usage. Idioms are phrases of two or more words. We might think that window of opportunity is an idiom. In fact, though, window may be used in this sense with other nouns, such as a window in a tight schedule or a window in the development of an organism. Here, window is simply being used metaphorically to mean “opening” because, well, windows open. The meaning of window in these cases is not totally removed from the literal meaning of the word.

One of the greatest tricks of the comedian is to find situations where an idiom may, in fact, be analyzed, leaving the listener in a quandary—does the comic intend the idiom or the literal meaning? In an episode of the TV series Mash, hearing that a soldier has been dishonrably discharged, Hawk-eye asked, “Why? Was he rotten to the corps?” Now, when you hear this, it sounds identical to the idiom “rotten to the core”, which means simply to be extermely bad. Which did Hawk-eye mean, corps or core?

On our Punny Pages, we have many examples like this: She criticized my apartment, so I knocked her flat. The humor in this rides on the interpretation of knock as well as the ambiguity of flat. Flat may be an adjective meaning, well, “flat” or it can be noun meaning “apartment”. Knock means, literally, “to hit, strike” but it has an idiomatic sense, totally removed from the literal sense, of “to criticize”. To literally knock someone flat is to knock them down, hit them hard enough that they fall to the floor. However, in the idiomatic sense, to knock a flat means “to criticize an apartment”. (Great joke if you just laugh and don’t analyze it.)

The last example is based on the idiomatic meaning of a verb. As you can see, words with idiomatic meanings may also be slang. In fact, many consider idiomatic phrases slang and slang dictionaries usually contain idioms as well as slang. I remain unconvinced that the two are one and the same, however. Knock in the sense of “criticize” may be both slang and idiomatic, but many if not most idiomatic phrases may be used where slang would be avoided. Fly off the handle, go overboard, jump the gun are all OK in situations where we would not want to use gussied up, gum shoe, the pokey. However, there is overlap and the issue is not a settled one.

The important point is simply that a string of words may be a logical sentence or an illogical one which is still meaningful if the string is memorized along with a single meaning as a whole. When we are aware of this distinction and listen carefully to each other, life can be much funnier.

Central PA Weather for Tomorrow

Tuesday, August 11th, 2009

According to my left knee, the temperature will approach 80° Fahrenheit tomorrow with a humidity around 80, winds no more than 15 mph from the Southwest, and the chance of rain 43.19%. I haven’t heard from my lower back, yet; stay tuned.