Epithets in contemporary English: the case of -o

Recently over on the social media hellsite, I offered the following puzzle:

What do the following words have in common? SICK, WINE, RANDOM, WEIRD?

The answer, which a couple people got, is that they all are used to form negative epithets ending in -o. This morpheme is actually somewhat productive: pinko, weirdo, wino, dumbo, sicko, wacko, lesbo, fatso, rando, lameo, maybe also psycho, pedo, and narco if you don’t analyze them as abbreviations.

There are of course a bunch of other words formed using -o as a suffix that aren’t insulting nouns: ammo, camo, repo, demo, aggro, combo, promo, etc. Again, some of these are analyzable as shortenings but others, like ammo for ammunition, have something else going on. But these are different insofar as the role of the -o is not to create a noun describing a person.

Having looked around a while, I can’t find a single one of these epithets ending in -o that’s positive or even neutral. You can’t describe a smart person as smarto or a fun person as a funno (I think?).

The Google Ngram chart for these forms shows them to be largely a late 20th-century phenomenon; wino is the earliest and most popular through the early 90s, now overtaken by far by weirdo, but most of these words seem to emerge in the 1980s or later:

https://books.google.com/ngrams/chart?content=pinko%2Cweirdo%2Cwino%2Cdumbo%2Csicko%2Cwacko%2Clesbo%2Cfatso%2Crando%2Clameo&year_start=1900&year_end=2019&corpus=26&smoothing=2&direct_url=t1%3B%2Cpinko%3B%2Cc0%3B.t1%3B%2Cweirdo%3B%2Cc0%3B.t1%3B%2Cwino%3B%2Cc0%3B.t1%3B%2Cdumbo%3B%2Cc0%3B.t1%3B%2Csicko%3B%2Cc0%3B.t1%3B%2Cwacko%3B%2Cc0%3B.t1%3B%2Clesbo%3B%2Cc0%3B.t1%3B%2Cfatso%3B%2Cc0%3B.t1%3B%2Crando%3B%2Cc0%3B.t1%3B%2Clameo%3B%2Cc0#t1%3B%2Cpinko%3B%2Cc0%3B.t1%3B%2Cweirdo%3B%2Cc0%3B.t1%3B%2Cwino%3B%2Cc0%3B.t1%3B%2Cdumbo%3B%2Cc0%3B.t1%3B%2Csicko%3B%2Cc0%3B.t1%3B%2Cwacko%3B%2Cc0%3B.t1%3B%2Clesbo%3B%2Cc0%3B.t1%3B%2Cfatso%3B%2Cc0%3B.t1%3B%2Crando%3B%2Cc0%3B.t1%3B%2Clameo%3B%2Cc0

The OED and other major dictionaries don’t identify these distinctly as creating insults; the OED does have an entry for -o, suffix but doesn’t really distinguish these senses in terms of their negative sense or treat them as a class – rather, it distinguishes those that derive from adjectives (weirdo) from those that derive from nouns (wino) which is valid but doesn’t capture what I really think is going on here. Also, many of the -o forms were earlier -ie / -y nouns: dummy, weirdie, fatty.

I think little mini-word classes like these are interesting in that they show linguistic change and productivity on a small scale and in a way that doesn’t really show up in reference grammars and dictionaries. They’re a little aesthetically rich fragment of English informal speech that really, all languages have, but don’t get well-captured in some kinds of formal analysis. And as a language weirdo – or wordo? – I think that’s pretty cool.

Lexiculture (word list + class project)

Once again this year, my students in my undergraduate Language & Culture class will be writing original research papers on the history of individual English words. I’m teaching online but the project is completely portable to that format. I’ve always found this to be a great way to introduce students to doing their own research on sociolinguistic / social-historical / lexicographical topics, and this year’s list of words for them to choose from is (he says not-so-humbly) pretty awesome. What are your favorites?

  • all in
  • all out
  • Amerindian
  • amp up
  • anymore
  • baloney
  • bejesus
  • bespoke
  • booty
  • brain trust
  • bruschetta
  • burnout
  • business end
  • buzzkill
  • call dibs
  • car phone
  • card-carrying
  • centric
  • challenged
  • childfree
  • coed
  • columbused
  • conversate
  • deja vu
  • disinterested
  • doggone
  • donut
  • drama queen
  • druthers
  • endgame
  • fast forward
  • finalize
  • frenemy
  • get-go
  • goner
  • grassroots
  • halfsies
  • hardcore
  • hardwired
  • has-been
  • hiccough
  • highfalutin
  • hyphenated
  • impersonator
  • impostor
  • Information Superhighway
  • jailbait
  • jinx
  • jock
  • Judeo-Christian
  • kewl
  • lavender 
  • lit
  • majorly
  • man cave
  • Mohammedan
  • moonshot
  • next-level
  • NSFW
  • nth
  • nuke
  • nutjob
  • octoroon
  • often
  • outro
  • peopling
  • phase out
  • porridge
  • pronto
  • pussyfoot
  • rando
  • realtime
  • reboot
  • recap
  • restroom
  • runner-up
  • shoo-in
  • shout out
  • slider
  • snuck
  • stalemate
  • stalker
  • stat
  • suntan lotion
  • suplex
  • swiff
  • tailgate
  • tardy
  • thunk
  • tinfoil hat
  • touchless 
  • trump
  • underprivileged
  • upside the head
  • upsize
  • vibe
  • wannabe
  • white trash
  • whodunit
  • whole nother
  • widget
  • workshop
  • yea big

Back from the dead?

Welcome to the latest and perhaps the last in a series of self-flagellatory blog posts in the post-blog era of Glossographia, apologizing for a lack of content here! Ahhh … but this time I have lots of exciting things to come in the next few months.

Most notably I want to draw your attention to my forthcoming book, Reckonings: Numerals, Cognition, and History, coming out in late fall from MIT Press: Reckonings: Numerals, Cognition, and History. Lots of new publications and content and such to be coming out this fall.

In general, though, to keep up to date on whatever doings are transpiring, follow me on Twitter @schrisomalis where I will surely post more regularly than here.

Language and Societies abstracts, vol. 11 (2019)

The abstracts below are summaries of papers by junior scholars from the 2019 edition of my course, Language and Societies, posted at the course blog of the same name. The authors are undergraduate and graduate students in anthropology and linguistics at Wayne State University. Comments and questions are extremely welcome, especially at this critical juncture over the next two weeks, when the authors are making final revisions to their papers.

Kate Blatchford: Redefining Urban Space: Language in the City Beautiful Movement

Dina Charara: Islamophobic Discourse Beneath the Façade of Liberalism and Atheism

Amanda Diaz: To stage manage or not to stage manage

Josh Linden: Contrastive Focus Capitalization: Nonstandard Usages of Capital Letters in Web-based English and their Capital-I Implications

Sam M: Comparing nineteenth century literature portrayals of AAVE by black and white authors

Justin Mazzola: A Ghost of a Tale: Discerning Evidentiality Among Ghost Narratives on Reddit

Shannon Mckeown: Fake News, Crooked Hillary, and Bad People: A Linguistic Analysis of Donald Trump’s Twitter Insults

Jahnavi Narkar: The Promise of Fairness: A Linguistic Analysis of Skin Lightening Advertisements in India

Jennifer Reed: Linguistic Landscape of Japanese in Novi

Zachariah Shorufi: The linguistic legacy of British colonization in Iraq

Tabitha Trembley: The Dichotomy of Gender in Relation to Honor as Shown in the Language of Irish Fairy Tales and Folktales Printed After 1800

Michael T. Vollbach: Historical Influences on the Odawa Language

Li Zhang: Navigating internet censorship in China

 

 

Language and Societies abstracts, vol. 10 (2018)

The abstracts below are summaries of papers by junior scholars from the 2018 edition of my course, Language and Societies, posted at the course blog of the same name. The authors are undergraduate and graduate students in anthropology and linguistics at Wayne State University. Comments and questions are extremely welcome, especially at this critical juncture over the next two weeks, when the authors are making final revisions to their papers.

Yen-ting Chang: “Found My Best Self”: Women’s Fitness and Body Transformation Discourse

Asa Choate: French Naming Practice of Assimilating English-based Internet Terminology

Grace Fusani: Languages in Dreams: A Look into the Influencers of Bilinguals & L2 Learners in the Dreamworld

Ashley Johnson: Language, gender, and uncertainty in writing about sex identification in Maya bioarchaeology

Robert McCallum: Tensions, Power and Words: The Use of Authoritative Brand Identity Language on Ad Agency Websites

Andrew McKinney: Sorrow, shame, and lament in Irish folk lyrics

Kelsey McKoy: The Interpretation of African American Vernacular English in Museums

Craig Meiners: Metaphors in Branding and Design of Professional Basketball Players’ Shoes

Haley Scott: Melancholia, A Lover’s Rejection, and Fortune Teller’s Reading: A linguistic analysis of suicide obituaries in a historical newspaper

Carly Slank: Dogespeak: a Heckin Good Descriptive and Contextual Analysis

Samantha Spolarich: The magical discourse of Harry Potter: how spells came to be

Cory Taylor: The Language of the Time Lords: A linguistic study on the effect of invented languages on the social hierarchy of fandom communities

Jami Van Alstine: Voice in postcards related to the woman’s suffrage movement in the United States in the early 20th century

Anna Zabicka: “Rigvir, Anyone?”: A Discourse Analysis Of Oncolytic Virotherapy Medication Websites

 

Suggestions needed: a good linguistic ethnography

Linguistic anthropologists (et al.): I’m looking for a suggestion for  a different ethnography for my undergrad Language and Culture class.   I’ve been using Basso’s Portraits of “the Whiteman” and while it’s  great, it’s almost 40 years old now.  What I need:

– (Relatively) short (<200 pages of text)
– In print and for sale for <$20 or so (or widely available used, or a good ebook edition)
– Ideally, focus on a non-English context
– Accessible to and of interest to juniors/seniors
– Appeal to both anthro and linguistics majors (could be more  sociolinguistic, or more linguistic anthro, but needs to have something  that looks like linguistic data)
Thoughts?

Language and Societies abstracts, vol. 9 (2017)

The abstracts below are summaries of papers by junior scholars from the 2017 edition of my course, Language and Societies. The authors are undergraduate and graduate students in anthropology and linguistics at Wayne State University. Over the next few weeks, some students will be posting links to PDF versions of their final papers below their abstracts. Comments and questions are extremely welcome, especially at this critical juncture over the next two weeks, when the authors are making final revisions to their papers.

John Anderson: Symbolic Meanings of the “Rune Poems”

Bridget Bennane: A Woman Ran for President: A Political and Gender Discourse Analysis on Hillary Clinton

Kaitlin Carter: Ubermess: Corporate Social Responsibility Responses as a Dialogue through Social Media

Lynn Charara: Portraits of The Orange Man

Rebecca Cornejo: Identity at 70 MPH: The crafting, meaning, and importance of personalized license plates

Nadine Duchaine: Native American Code Talkers: Life before the Code

Katilyn Gerstner: Differences in opportunity teaching styles between multiparous and uniparous chimpanzee mothers suggest that experienced mothers are better teachers

Michael Henson: Critical Discourse Analysis of Media: A Systematic Approach to Analyzing Child Welfare Representation in the Media

Miriam Jacobs: Metaphors of Poverty

Kelsey Jorgensen: Displaying the Dead: Assessing Agency Through Museum Linguistic Practices

Travis Kruso: Updating the Fashion System? Using Language to Create and Maintain Authenticity in the Online Avant Garde

Colleen Linn: Legitimatizing the right to water in Michigan’s post-industrial cities

Emily K. Lock: Gettin’ Fit to Push a Bit: Medical advice about exercise during pregnancy (1900-present)

Stacy F. Markel: Power Play: gender, power, and language of nurses and doctors

Kailey McAlpin: Analyzing Detroit’s Racialized Public Discourse of Urban Renewal through Metaphor

Luke Pickrahn: The language of extreme metal

Terri Renaud: Language Construction and Cultural Representation in Fantasy Video Games

Elizabeth Riedman: The discourse of Detroit: A critical look into the use of language within Detroit documentaries

Rebecca Sawyer: Beisbol and Tostones: Constructing Narratives of Puerto Rican Identity in Secondary Level, First Year Spanish Textbooks

Maria Schell: Discipline or Domestic Violence: Distinctions in discourse about interpersonal violence

Jasmine Walker: Lexical and Performative Cues for the Provocation of an Altered State of Consciousness in the American Evangelical Church

Hannelore Willeck: 18th Century Advertising Language and the Shift from British Colony to New Nation

Josh Wolford: Anishinaabe Toponyms in Michigan: A History of Colonized Folk Etymology and Anishinaabe Cultural Renaissance

Athena Zissis: Memories of Unrest: Placing the Detroit 1967 Project within the Riot vs. Rebellion Debate

Public lecture: Renewing a dynamic cognitive philology of numerals

For any of you in the New York City area this coming week, I’ll be giving a public lecture ‘Renewing a dynamic cognitive philology of numerals‘ at the Heyman Center for the Humanities at Columbia University, Friday 02/24, 5:00pm.  All are welcome.

And for those of my readers who are in the Detroit area / part of the Wayne State community, have no fear: I’ll be reprising this talk at the WSU Humanities Center brownbag series, Thursday 03/23, 12:30 pm.  Again, this is a public lecture.