Lexiculture redux: new adventures in teaching linguistic anthropology

Just about three years ago, while teaching my undergraduate Language and Culture course, I ended up poking around the etymology of the word honk and turned up some neat things, leading to the germ of an idea for a student project that I ended up calling Lexiculture.    That term, I did a test run with my students, using the word ‘chairperson’ as a really interesting in-class exercise, and then got to work putting it together as a full class assignment in the fall of 2010.   This was considerably advanced about a month later at the Language, Culture, and History conference in Wyoming, organized by Leila Monaghan, and discussions I had with many of the participants there about how to think about the linguistic anthropology of English words: moving beyond lexicography and etymology towards a real integrated approach to language and culture using words.

When I ran this in 2010, I introduced Lexiculture using an in-class exercise where we jointly researched the surprising history of the local term Michigan left.   I then put together a list of projects for them to choose from (or let them choose their own) and set them to work. I was working under a few impediments: I had never done this before, so I was sort of muddling along.  I didn’t give the students quite enough guidance to undertake research projects with good results.  At the time, I couldn’t find a good text to help the students conceptually or methodologically.  So it turned out to be OK, and we got some good results (I especially liked student papers written on the words wife-beater, bitchin’and ketchup/catsup) but it wasn’t a complete success.    In 2011 I was on sabbatical so I didn’t teach that course, and in 2012 (my last year prior to submitting my tenure file, which is happening now), I decided to focus on some research projects (wisely, I think), and to make the course a bit more traditional.

Well, now it’s 2013, and my tenure file will be set in stone by September, and instead of kicking up my feet and phoning in the last 30 years of my teaching career, I figure it’s time to dust off the notes and put Lexiculture back together.    I’ve had the great fortune to have found a wonderful short, inexpensive text: How to Read a Word by Elizabeth Knowles, which has some good, not-yet-outdated methodological suggestions but more importantly is conceptually critical to get the students thinking about how the history of words intersects with sociocultural change in the English-speaking world.   So using that text, and a revised set of topics, and a stronger methodological introduction to the subject, I’m at it again this fall.

So here are a few of the words / topics on my list for this year:

Information Superhighway: I want to know how this transformed from an index of the speaker’s technological knowhow in the early 1990s, to a sign of outmodedness a decade later.

Stalemate: I want to know by what process this chess term became figuratively adopted for a situation where victory is impossible.

Uppity: What is the metalinguistic discourse surrounding the use of this word in, by, and around African Americans, both in the 19th century and today?

I have a longer list, but I need more, and here’s how you could help.  I’m looking for more English words or phrases  that students could research and that could help illuminate something of social significance.  Some basic requirements:

– The topics need to relate to the last 200-300 years, with a heavy emphasis on post-1900 material. Prior to 1800, the full-text searchable databases / corpora that the students will need are relatively few and inaccessible.
– While the papers will focus on single words or short phrases (i.e. the sort of things that can be researched readily without too much training), I’m not just interested in etymology, but rather, in words or phrases that have cultural significance or whose contextual importance has changed over time.
– The words/phrases could be primarily analyzable quantitatively (using corpora, Google Ngram Viewer, etc.), qualitatively (broader social analysis or close reading of specific textual examples) or both.
– The words/phrases can’t have been over-researched – e.g., tweet and LOL and cool have been researched in such detail that there’s too much risk of plagiarism and not much interest in it for me.

Any ideas for suitable words or phrases would be appreciated in the comments below.  So tell me: do you have a great idea for some lexiculture?

Author: schrisomalis

Anthropologist, Wayne State University. Professional numbers guy. Rare Words: http://phrontistery.info. Blog: http://glossographia.com.

7 thoughts on “Lexiculture redux: new adventures in teaching linguistic anthropology”

  1. Similar to “uppity”, maybe “niggard(ly)” and its conflating with the obvious raqcial slur/epithet? Or would that be too controversial?

    1. I had considered it as well (also ‘Aryan’, while we’re on the subject). I might include all three of those, or maybe just one or two. I agree that depending on the student, any of these can be done extremely well or atrociously.

      1. Oh, and the characterization of “ax” (for “ask”) as a (stigmatized) African-American dialectal form may make a good subject as well. (If you need source material, I’m pretty sure that The Canterbury Tales is on the Project Gutenberg website, among others.)

  2. Hi Stephen, this sounds like a great project! We’ve done something similar – but not nearly as well fleshed out – in undergrad semantics classes at Melbourne uni. In previous years students have looked at the semantic bleaching of ‘extreme’ and the semantics of ‘deceptively’ when used in Real Estate brochures (www.superlinguo.com/post/8102577419/deceptively-deceptive).

    My suggestions probably give away my own interests a bit too much.

    The rise of the cappuccino as a way of serving coffee, and its now unclassy connotations (this may just be a feature of it in Melbourne, which breeds coffee snobs like nobody’s business).

    The use of the label ‘indie’ for music – transitioning from being a designation of being on an independent label to a specific sound and genre (see also ‘indie’ films). This is how I interpret it, but I’m not sure if there is actually a historical shift or there has always been a dual sense.

    I hope your students will be kind enough to share their research with us!

    1. Lauren, those sound really neat. ‘Deceptively’ is a weird one, I grant you, and it sounds like a great investigation. I recall having a similar semantic debate with someone over the term ‘conservative estimate’. Does “I estimate conservatively that only 7% of the populace reads books” mean that probably many more than 7% do, but I am keeping my estimate purposefully low, or is this a high estimate because I suspect that an even more extreme value, say 2%, do? Hope this makes sense, haven’t had my morning coffee yet.

      Speaking of which, I think that in this region, cappuccino is still relatively trendy (I wouldn’t know, as I take my coffee black like my heart), but ‘indie’ is definitely one of those terms that has taken over in some weird ways from its original sense of ‘independent’, and might work well for this project. I’ll add it to my long-list.

  3. What a neat project!

    Based on a very small amount of poking about in the online OED, I’d venture to say that the word “access” seems to have been almost exclusively used as a noun, prior to the 1950s-1970s, when it began to be used as a verb meaning “to gain access”. A coworker in the late 1990s & early 2000s used to scold me for using “access” as a verb — until I’d had enough, cracked open American Heritage Dict of Engl. Lang., and read her the definition of the word as a transitive verb.

    One exception — late 19th & early 20th century uses of the word “access” as a verb to mean “accession,” as in “the museum access[ion]ed the painting.”

    This is probably not as interesting, as a semester project, as “uppity” would be; I wonder if computer-related uses of this word (“accessing data” or “accessing the file”) as a verb may appear to have influenced non-computer-related uses of the word.

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