Drinks by the jillion

My most recent publication, ‘Umpteen reflections on indefinite hyperbolic numerals‘ (American Speech 91(1), 1-33) defines and discusses a category of words: indefinite hyperbolic numerals.  These are words like umpteen or skillion, which look and act like numerals, but don’t have a definite numerical meaning: they’re always indefinite, and almost always refer to some exaggerated quantity.  One of my main arguments is that while we think of words ending in -illion as random alterations of the first consonant of million or billion, their history is rooted in specific speech communities, and in particular, American speech communities of the late 19th and early 20th century.  I show that in the 1920s and 1930s, almost all of the instances of zillion are in African American publications, and almost all of the instances of jillion are from Texas and the southern Plains states.  Jillion almost never appears in African American publications and zillion almost never appears in the Plains.  After the start of World War II, these regional numerical traditions disappeared for the most part, and the words’ specific communities of origin were lost.

One thing that had bothered me was that I hadn’t been able to figure out what happened where those two communities intersected.  What about the African American communities of Texas, Oklahoma, Kansas, and Nebraska?  Did they use jillion, zillion, or both?

Too late to add to the article, but not too late to share here, I’ve now found one instance of jillion in an African-American newspaper, the Negro Star of Wichita, Kansas:

jillion-1937-06-11-negro-star-wichita-ks-p2

Negro Star, Wichita, Kansas, June 11, 1937, p. 2

Wichita had (and still has) a large African American community, and the Negro Star was published there from 1908 to 1953.   But it’s worth noting that this is an ad, placed by the Kansas Gas and Electric Company (now Kansas Gas Service), which was the energy provider for the whole state, so there’s a likelihood that the ad was written by white copywriters (from whom we would expect jillion).  On the other hand, I haven’t been able to find another copy of this same ad in any other paper, so maybe this was a one-off ad written specifically for the Star by a black writer.    Regardless, within a few years of its publication, jillion and zillion would intermix freely in American English.

 

The strange case of the Urinal Smoothy

My wife Julia Pope, who is the archivist for the Henry Ford Health System in Detroit, came across an unusual item in her collection the other day, an anonymous bawdy poem entitled “Urinal” Smoothy:

urinal

The source is the 1933 edition of the program of the Galens Smoker, a yearly student comedy show put on by the University of Michigan Galens Medical Society since 1918 and still going on today.  The poem is hardly a masterwork, though clever enough.

The word smoothy (or more often, smoothie) to modern English speakers is a blended thick drink made with fruit.  A ‘urinal smoothy’ is downright disgusting, whatever it is.  Something had to have changed for this to make sense.  And indeed, a look at the Oxford English Dictionary revealed a different, now-obsolete meaning of smoothie:

A person who is ‘smooth’; one who is suave or stylish in conduct or appearance: usu. a man. Occas. with unfavourable sense: a slick but shallow or insinuating fellow, a fop.
The earliest quotation in the OED is from 1929 from the Princeton Alumni Weekly:
1929   Princeton Alumni Weekly 24 May 981/3   Smoothie..indicates savoir faire, a certain je ne sais quoi… Clothes do much to make the smoothie.

This is a sense of smoothie that at least makes a little sense, and fits with the period, but it hardly explains why a poem glorifying the penis would have a title referencing a smooth fellow.  But the second quotation in the OED shows us the solution:

1932   B. G. de Sylva et al. (title of song)    You’re an old smoothie.

It turns out that “Urinal” Smoothy is just a rather ridiculous pun involving a famous song title from the time.  The quotation marks give it away. You’re an Old Smoothie is now largely forgotten, although it was eventually recorded by Ella Fitzgerald in 1958.  Here’s an original recording from 1933:

Unfortunately, I don’t think the rhythm of the song fits well with the scansion of the poem, but I like to think that “Urinal” Smoothy was sung to the tune at the Galens Smoker.  Of course, it may just have been a poem read aloud.

Smoothie (the stylish man) hangs around for the next several decades but never really takes off.  Smoothie (the drink) is first attested only in 1977 but takes off rapidly thereafter and is now widespread, as this Google Ngram attests:

https://books.google.com/ngrams/chart?content=smoothie&year_start=1900&year_end=2000&corpus=15&smoothing=1&share=&direct_url=t1%3B%2Csmoothie%3B%2Cc0

In either case, smoothy with a Y is less common than smoothie.  In fact, “Urinal” Smoothy appears to be the first attestation of the less-common spelling smoothy.  Google Ngram Viewer won’t help us much here because there are hundreds of optical character recognition errors for smoothly among the results.

I looked around for any additional evidence as to its authorship, but could only find one reference online from an untitled 1943 US Marines songbook containing the poem in its entirety, along with other songs and poems of similar ilk.  The poem has been retitled, boringly, The Penis, with “Urinal” Smoothy reduced to a mere parenthetical subtitle.  On the other hand, the hit song was a decade old by that time, and the title didn’t make that much sense in the first place.   The preface to the songbook mentions several contributors by initials only, including one K.C. from Ann Arbor, Michigan (home to the University of Michigan).  Other than a few typographical alterations, the text of the 1943 version is identical to the 1933 one, so we’re presumably dealing with a situation where someone had access to a copy of the text.

So have no fear. The urinal smoothy is neither a new form of frat-boy hazing nor the latest health craze, but the result of a strange confluence of lexical change and 1930s pop culture.  Drink from the fountain of knowledge instead!

Language and Societies abstracts, vol. 8 (2016)

The abstracts below are summaries of papers by junior scholars from the 2016 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 week, when the authors are making final revisions to their papers.

Kayla Hurd:Trepanning Medical Latin: The language barrier between doctor and patient

Melissa Moore: Kamen Rider vs. Fansubbing

Matthew Ashford: Who Carries the Water? An Analysis of Online Disputation Regarding the Flint Water Crisis

Amber Golembiewski: Negative and Positive Comment Discourse Analysis on a Popular Pornography Website

Allison M. Hebel: Hee-Hees, Giggles, and Titters, Oh My! English Lexical Laughter Grades, Associations, and Histories

Caitlin M. Cassady: Language Ideology in Discourses on Physician Assisted Dying: Untangling Threads of Discord in the Case of Brittany Maynard

Adelaide Gillham: Social Invisibility and Dehumanization of Asexuals and Aromantics through Language Policing

Kyle Dunn: Race, Agency, Blame and Gender: Narratives on Police use of Force in a South Carolina High School

Daniel Mora Argüelles: (Sad Beep): Eliciting Meaning from the Interactions between Pragmatics and Non-Linguistic Utterances

Kathleen M. Hanlon-Lundberg: Delivering Agency: Online Birth Stories in the US

Beau Kromberg: My Partner and I: Commitment Terminology within Evolving Heteronormative Linguistic Contexts

Natasha Modi: Examining the Use of Language in Promoting Hindu Patriarchy by Using Vedic Texts

Aaron Taylor: ‘I know words…I have the best words’: A Critical Discourse Analysis of Donald Trump’s Face-saving Tactics

Mallory Moore: A Pirate’s Life for Me: A Comprehensive Analysis of What it Means to “Talk Like a Pirate”

Kristy Estabalaya: Tagalog-English Codeswitching in Scripted Television Shows

Gavin Swantick: Latin, Metalinguistics, and the Society of St. Pius X

Andrew Eppens-Gross: Pass the Gaudy Dutchie to the German Side: An Examination of an Early Language Community in Nineteenth Century Detroit

Crystal Mitchell: Echolalia within Children with Autism

Ashlee Jed:Linguistic Norms and Expectations in Gyms with Different Social Spaces

D. Castagna: The Commoditization of Values in the Marketplace: Linguistics Utilized in Marketing Discourse

Debbie Leggett: Speaking Craft Beverage: Building Power, Status, and Economy with Linguistic Capital in the Craft Beverage World

New publication: Talking about Impact

Over the past couple of months I’ve been putting together a new project, a brief handbook aimed at pre-tenure faculty members in the humanities and social sciences. It actually started as a blog post here, then expanded well out of control, and now here we are.

Today, I’m pleased to announce the open-access publication of Talking about Impact: a handbook for pre-tenure humanists and social scientists, through the Wayne State University Digital Commons.   My own work straddles several disciplinary realms, and it’s been fascinating, over the past decade, to speak to colleagues from disciplines as far afield as Semitic philology and cognitive neuroscience about what they value, and why.  Being on the tenure track is extremely stressful, and nearly everyone feels anxiety about the process.   When going up for tenure, your work will be read and evaluated by people who have no knowledge of your field, and often have very different ideas about how to evaluate scholarship.  It’s worth taking some time to organize some knowledge about how and why your work matters, to leave as little as possible to chance.  Talking about Impact is meant to serve that function for people across the humanities and social sciences, whether they’re tenured or not.

I’m making the handbook available for everyone, freely, under a Creative Commons license, in the hope that it will be of broad use.   I decided against traditional publication because it’s an article-length work, but hardly the sort of thing that a journal would publish, and in any case, any venue like that would have far too restricted an audience.   Please feel free to download and distribute widely.

Throughout history: a history

Throughout history, undergraduates have peppered the opening sentences of their term papers with a phrase.  That phrase, of course, is ‘throughout history’.  And no matter how much we (college instructors) may tell them that it is too vague and general to possibly be useful in almost any paper, we run into it again and again.  But where did it come from?

A quick search on Google Ngram Viewer reveals that not only has throughout history not been used throughout history, but it is of relatively recent origin, and increasing rapidly:

https://books.google.com/ngrams/chart?content=throughout+history&case_insensitive=on&year_start=1750&year_end=2000&corpus=15&smoothing=3&share=&direct_url=t4%3B%2Cthroughout%20history%3B%2Cc0%3B%2Cs0%3B%3Bthroughout%20history%3B%2Cc0%3B%3BThroughout%20history%3B%2Cc0

The first instance I’ve been able to track down of these two words in order is from 1761, in Henry Brooke’s The Tryal and Cause of the Roman Catholics (1761: 104):

Many and various, throughout History, have been the Mischiefs, the Miseries, the inexpressible Calamities, that attended the King-deposing and King-killing Doctrine.

After that, we get them in quick succession, with new instances in 1764, 1767, 1769, and 1774 (you can see the little bump on the left of the Ngram).  Thereafter it remains in rare but steady use for nearly a century, and then really starts to take off through the 20th century.   One wonders (though I wouldn’t want to make too much of it) whether it’s a product of Enlightenment thinking or the broader historical perspectives of Enlightenment and modernist thought.  Opinions on the course of history abound in 20th century thought, of course.

And, although Ngram viewer gets really weird after 2000, so I can’t extrapolate the curve, I am sad to say that even the most esteemed authors use it in recent works:

This study is a comparative analysis of all numerical notation systems known to have existed throughout history – approximately one hundred distinct systems, most of which can be grouped into eight distinct subgroups. (Chrisomalis 2010: 3)

Ahem.  Well, I can defend my use in that I really am talking about all the numerical notation systems used throughout 5000 years of written history, right?   I suppose the broader point is that this phrase is at least ten times more common now than it was 100 years ago, and we should hardly be surprised, then, that our students pick it up.  After all, they have to get it somewhere, don’t they?

 

Beyond Cargo Cult Science (Cafe Sci Colorado, 11/19, 7:30pm)

Are you attending the American Anthropological Association meetings this week in Denver?  Feel like hanging out with me, having a beer, and hearing about some big ideas?  Check out my talk, co-sponsored by Cafe Sci Colorado and the Society for Anthropological Sciences, ‘Beyond Cargo Cult Science: Reclaiming Anthropology from the Fringe‘, held at Brooklyn’s near the convention center (map) at 7:30pm on Thursday, Nov. 19.   Many thanks to the SAS (a section of the AAA) and the folks at Cafe Sci Colorado for putting this all together to help expose social-scientific ideas to a broad audience.  It’s an open event, free of charge, and if you’re already registered for the conference you can find it on the program here.

In his famous essay, Cargo cult science’, the physicist Richard Feynman used the anthropological concept of the cargo cult to illustrate the dangers of those who adopt the trappings of science without understanding the fundamental nature of the enterprise. The risk of self-delusion, he argued, was greatest when this form-without-function was followed mindlessly by scientists: ‘The first principle is that you must not fool yourself – and you are the easiest person to fool.’

Forty years later, anthropology’s own status as a science is in question. Pseudoscientific ideas abound – claims of ancient aliens and lost civilizations on the History Channel suggest that there are a lot of self-deluded fools. Feynman didn’t think much of social science, because of its annoying lack of laws, but he was wrong. We can and do scientific anthropology as long as we don’t fool ourselves. We only need to be able to ask What would convince me that I’m wrong? and Why should I believe I’m right? In this talk, I will show, using linguistic evidence, how non-specialists can think critically about pseudoscientific ideas in anthropology, and why it important to care about anthropological junk science in the media.

Linguistic anthropology is particularly open to spurious claims of cultural contact across thousands of years and kilometres because most people are not linguists, so it is possible to make superficially plausible claims with limited knowledge. Against this position, it is possible to show that with a little knowledge and a critical eye, we can separate verifiable long-distance similarities – the remarkable new discovery that Navajo is related to some languages of central Siberia – from wildly implausible claims, such as that the Maya were descended from Egyptians. Learning how to think about linguistic evidence for cultural contact is a powerful inoculation against bunk.

And, for those conference attendees who haven’t had enough strange science, you can then check out my panel, ‘Strange Science: Anthropological Encounters with the Fringe‘ on Friday morning, 10:15-12:00, in room 607 of the convention center.  Hope to see you there!

… or, you know, maybe October

Apologies for the long delay in posting – I have been juggling too many balls and this one has dropped.  But have no fear – perhaps it … bounced?  … and is now … coming back into my hand?  This metaphor needs to be taken out back and shot.

In the interest of actually giving you some real content, here are some brief musings on things I’ve posted recently to my Twitter feed:

Old (from 2012) evidence of a new (to us) medieval Viking settlement in Canada – this one on Baffin Island, probably Helluland of the Icelandic sagas.  This is becoming increasingly a settled matter – there’s too much European content in artifact assemblages from the eastern Arctic and sub-Arctic for anything else to be so.  Still no Vikings in Minnesota, though, except the football ones.

Nick Enfield, Mark Dingemanse, and Francisco Torreira at the Max Plank Institute for Psycholinguistics won a prestigious (to some) Ig Nobel Prize for their work showing that ‘huh’ is a universal word cross-linguistically.   In the spirit of ‘make you laugh and then make you think’, but this is one of the finest cross-linguistic comparisons I’ve read in a long time, with lots of methodological controls.

And in sad, but predictable, and actually, not all that sad news after all, Rome is abandoning the Roman numerals!  Or rather, addresses and street names that use Roman numerals will be replaced with Western numerals over the next few years.  Reminds me of the first time I used the Montreal metro and was momentarily baffled by the announcement for “pine oeuf” station, which is of course Station Pie IX (Pius IX).

Where I’ve been (and will continue to be)

image

For those of you wondering where I’ve been, here’s the stack of grading I just received on Tuesday. It took me the better part of an hour just to get it sorted out the way I like it. Staples removed, paper clips removed, binder clips added, collated with all of the previous comments I’ve made on earlier drafts. I also have the students write up a list of edits that made just as bullet points. 29 papers, ranging in length from 21 to 77 pages. So classes are done, but this stack is probably a good 30 hours of work and these are papers I’ve already read once before. Coffee mug included for scale ( coffee included for sanity). I’ll be back in May.

Language and Societies abstracts, vol. 7 (2015)

The abstracts below are summaries of papers by junior scholars from the 2015 edition of my course, Language and Societies, and presented at the course blog of the same name. 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 week, when the authors are making final revisions to their papers.

Kat Slocum: Greensky Hill Native American Methodist Church: the role of language in group identity

Nicole Lopinski:‘The Hobbit’: An Analysis of Popular Media Portrayal of Homo floresiensis

Kimberly Oliver: Voodoo in Popular Music: Linguistic Semantics’ Influence on Identity and Stereotype Formation

Laura Cunningham: #NotAllMen and the Blame Game: A critical discourse analysis of a Twitter hashtag

Krist Bollano: Word Frequency and Online Dating: Self Promotion Through a Text-Based Medium

Adam Bender: Is Intercultural Bilingual Education (IBE) Appropriate for Adapting Quechua to Modern Society?

Dovie Jenkins: Logically Speaking: Loglan, Lojban and the Search for a Logical Language

Erika Carrillo: Hoarding and the Material Accumulation of Time

Grace Pappalardo: Hausa Kinship Terminologies: Insights Into Culture and Cognition

Jaroslava Maria Pallas: From Little Acorns Big Oaks Grow: Exploring the nature metaphor in anarchist discourse

Kaitlin Scharra: Menstrual Authority: A Lexical Semantic Evaluation of Kotex’s First 20 Years

Sarah Beste: Pornography of Ruin: The Metaphor of Sensuality in Ruination as It Applies to Detroit

Mark Jazayeri: Arriving at a Cultural Model of Artificial Intelligence

Glenda Wyatt-Franklin: In Front of the White People: Black Speech, White Perceptions, and the Effects on African American Health

Samantha Malette: “Emerald Isle of the Caribbean”: Montserrat’s “Brogue” Examined

Kayla Niner: Don’t Stay Here!: An Analysis of Words Used to Describe One-Star Class Hotels

Madeleine Seidel: Retelling Snow White: The Tale and its Reflection of Western Culture

Michelle Layton: Creating an Image of Purity Through the Use of Metaphor: The Case of Pure Michigan

Theia Easley: Language of Inclusivity: Womanist Theological Thought in Addressing Issues of Social Injustice

Eduardo Piqueiras: Countering an Equitable Multilingualism with an EU English Variant: The Role of Language Policies and Translators in the European Union

Elizabeth Bonora: Identity and Ink: An Interpretation of Kanji Tattoos on English-Speaking Bodies

Wendy Hill: The language of the law: linguistic discord in the courtroom

Livija G. Marina: Serbian Heritage Language Maintenance and Language Shift: Identity of the ‘Voice’ from a Serbian Orthodox Church in Michigan

Andrés Romero: Testimonios of Violence: A Discourse Analysis of Colombian Demobilized Paramilitaries

S.M. Hamdan: Identity & Second Language Acquisition: International Saudi Students Studying Abroad

Kathryn Nowinski: Constructing Identity through Sound: Brand Naming Practices and Phonetic Symbolism

Richard D.H. Bridges: Catching It in the Net: Some Lulzy Acronyms

Jeff Rowe: Divergent Definitions of Food Justice: A Critical Discourse Analysis

Inger Sundell-Ranby: Use of the word ague by pioneers in the Midwest

Call for Papers: Strange Science: Anthropological Encounters with the Fringe

Call for Papers, 2015 American Anthropological Association Annual Meeting, Denver, Colorado (Nov. 18-22, 2015)

Strange Science: Anthropological Encounters with the Fringe

Anthropology has a long history of interactions with non-mainstream or pseudoscientific ideas. In our scholarship, classrooms, and public outreach, we are frequently confronted by advocates of ideas far beyond mainstream scientific understandings. Some of these ideas are directly challenged by anthropological data, such as ‘scientific’ racism, intelligent design, hyperdiffusionism, ancient aliens, 2012 millenarianism, pyramidology, and cryptozoology. Other pseudoscientific ideas are non-anthropological, but encountered in interaction with publics interested in medicine, the environment, or religion: homeopathy, climate change denial, biorhythms, dowsing, etc. What can – and what should – we do about them? What is our obligation to address (or not) these ‘strange’ sciences? And what tools does anthropology – as a ‘strange science’ itself, confronting challenges to its scientific status both from within and without – bring to bear that other disciplines lack?

Archaeologists have long been interested in addressing their publics about the value of scientific reasoning and in particular in countering mythical and often pernicious ideas about the past (Feder 2014). Similarly, biological anthropologists have done much to address the myth of biological race and to confront creationist ideas (Marks 2012). But our encounters with fringe ideas are more numerous and more complex than these, and cross all the subfields. We are also faced with different sorts of challenges: when these ideas come from our students or consultants, how do we maintain respectful social relationships while still making knowledge claims? How do we justify our knowledge claims in an environment ever more given to epistemological skepticism about the authority of science?

The goal of this panel is to address anthropological encounters with ‘strange science’ in the field, in the classroom, and in encounters with colleagues, from the perspective of scientifically-oriented anthropology across all subfields. Within a framework that posits that anthropology can, indeed, make verifiable truth-claims, abstracts are welcome that discuss any anthropological dialogue or engagement with non-mainstream scientific ideas, past or present, including but not limited to those mentioned above.

Please respond to this call by April 3, 2015 by emailing an abstract of no more than 250 words to Stephen Chrisomalis (Wayne State University) at chrisomalis [at] wayne.edu. A discussant slot would also be extremely welcome. Please feel free to distribute to any colleagues or students who may be interested. As with any AAA panel, all panelists must be registered AAA members and additionally register for the conference.