#ReckoningWith: diversity in notations scholarship

The #ReckoningWith project was an initiative on Twitter in conjunction with the publication of my book, Reckonings: Numerals, Cognition, and History, aimed at promoting a more diverse range of scholarship on number systems, writing systems, and notations, my core fields of study. There is a clear, almost inescapably obvious bias towards a relatively small coterie of very traditional (white, male, tenured) scholars in this area, and as someone who fits all three of those labels, I have surely been in workshops, conferences, and panels where the broader diversity of the field is absent. And because it’s such a strange and interdisciplinary area, it is very easy to not know about really interesting people doing cool work in some corner or other, and to just fall back on the same default set of citations, hiring practices, invite lists, etc. And that’s a problem of representation that a lot of folks have rightly been talking about – not only in scholarship on notations, of course, but across the academy.

#ReckoningWith aims to start / continue these discussions by highlighting recent work that hasn’t been or wouldn’t often be recognized in the field of notations (broadly understood). I aim especially (though not exclusively) to highlight work by women, untenured / contingent / early-career scholars, and members of minoritized groups in the academy. This isn’t to say that I agree with everything in all of these papers (how could that possibly be so?) but I think they’re worth reading and thinking about. I restricted myself to one article/paper per author, and to work that could be accessed digitally. One known restriction is that I decided to limit my initial selection to English-language material, but there is a case to be made that a more expansive range of languages would further serve these goals. Some of these links will require an institutional subscription, unfortunately – the burden of the paywall is another serious problem, for another day.

If you know of other work that fits these sorts of criteria, definitely let me know.

Here they are, as originally featured on Twitter, in no particular order:

Franka Brueckler and Vladimir Stilinović (2019) discuss the teaching of nondecimal bases in 18th and 19th century European mathematics textbooks. An Early Appearance of Nondecimal Notation in Secondary Education. https://doi.org/10.1007/s00283-019-09960-1

Jocelyn Ahlers (2012) discusses the now-dormant octo-decimal system for counting beads in Elem Pomo in relation to language revitalization. Two eights make sixteen beads: Historical and contemporary ethnography in language revitalization. https://doi.org/10.1086/667450

Paul Keyser (2015) discusses variation in the word order of tens and ones in classical Greek literary texts and its relationship to commercial numeracy. Compound Numbers and Numerals in Greek. https://doi.org/10.1353/syl.2015.0002

Alessandra Petrocchi (2019) compares the transmission of decimal place-value concepts in medieval Sanskrit and Latin mathematical texts. Medieval Literature in Comparative Perspective: Language and Number in Sanskrit and Latin. https://doi.org/10.1525/jmw.2019.120004

Rebecca Benefiel (2010) analyzes fascinating graffiti from Pompeii including ones with Roman numerals, tallying, and numerical play. Dialogues of ancient graffiti in the House of Maius Castricius in Pompeii. https://www.jstor.org/stable/20627644

Luis Miguel Rojas-Berscia @luiberscia and Rita Eloranta (2019) analyze numeral classifiers in South American languages that use counting devices. The Marañón-Huallaga exchange route:‘Stones’ and ‘grains’ as counting devices. https://doi.org/10.20396/liames.v19i0.8655449

Philip Boyes @PhilipJBoyes (2019) analyzes the early Ugaritic cuneiform alphabet as a vernacular resistance strategy to Hittite imperialism. Negotiating Imperialism and Resistance in Late Bronze Age Ugarit: The Rise of Alphabetic Cuneiform. https://doi.org/10.1017/S0959774318000471

Nina Semushina @feyga_tzipa and Azura Fairchild (2019) compare iconicity and handshapes in the numeral systems of sign languages worldwide. Counting with fingers symbolically: basic numerals across sign languages. https://core.ac.uk/download/pdf/228149921.pdf

Gagan Deep Kaur (2019) investigates the symbolic code used by Kashmiri carpet weavers and its linguistic encoding. Linguistic mediation and code-to-weave transformation in Kashmiri carpet weaving. https://doi.org/10.1177/1359183519862585

Rafael Núñez, Kensy Cooperrider @kensycoop, and Jürg Wassmann (2012) work with Yupno speakers to show that the number line is not intuitive and universal. Number concepts without number lines in an indigenous group of Papua New Guinea. https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0035662

Mallory Matsumoto (2017) proposes a new representational strategy, orthographic semantization, in Maya hieroglyphic texts to transform phonograms into logograms. From sound to symbol: orthographic semantization in Maya hieroglyphic writing. https://doi.org/10.1080/17586801.2017.1335634

Beau Carroll and co-authors (2019) discuss literate and inscriptional practices using the Cherokee syllabic script in an Alabama cave. Talking stones: Cherokee syllabary in Manitou Cave, Alabama. https://doi.org/10.15184/aqy.2019.15

Tareq Ramadan (2019) analyzes the origin of early Islamic epigraphic and iconographic conventions as a tool of political unification. Religious Invocations on Umayyad Lead Seals: Evidence of an Emergent Islamic Lexicon. https://doi.org/10.1086/704439

Jessica Otis @jotis13 (2017) shows that the adoption of Western numerals in early modern England was linked to increasing literacy. “Set Them to the Cyphering Schoole”: Reading, Writing, and Arithmetical Education, circa 1540–1700. https://doi.org/10.1017/jbr.2017.59

Joanne Baron (2018) analyzes the monetization of cacao beans and textiles among the Classic Maya as a numerate practice. Making money in Mesoamerica: Currency production and procurement in the Classic Maya financial system. https://doi.org/10.1002/sea2.12118

Karenleigh Overmann (2015) undertakes a massive cross-cultural comparison of grammatical number systems (singular/plural, e.g.) and numeral systems. Numerosity structures the expression of quantity in lexical numbers and grammatical number. https://doi.org/10.1086/683092

Xiaoli Ouyang (2016) outlines the origin of a hybrid sexagesimal (base-60) place value notation in an Ur III period cuneiform tablet. The Mixture of Sexagesimal Place Value and Metrological Notations on the Ur III Girsu Tablet BM 19027. https://doi.org/10.1086/684975

Melissa Bailey @MelissannBee (2013) uses evidence from Pompeii and Roman literary sources to discuss the link between Roman money and numerical practice. Roman Money and Numerical Practice. https://www.persee.fr/doc/rbph_0035-0818_2013_num_91_1_8413

Cheryl Periton @cherylperiton (2015) replicates and evaluates the algorithms of the medieval English counting table. The medieval counting table revisited: a brief introduction and description of its use during the early modern period. https://doi.org/10.1080/17498430.2014.917392

David Landy, Noah Silbert and Aleah Goldin (2013) show experimentally that respondents estimate large numbers relying heavily on the structure of their number word systems. Estimating large numbers. https://doi.org/10.1111/cogs.12028

Regina Fabry (2019) analyzes arithmetical cognition as an enculturated, embodied, adaptable practice. The cerebral, extra-cerebral bodily, and socio-cultural dimensions of enculturated arithmetical cognition. https://doi.org/10.1007/s11229-019-02238-1

Yoshio Saitô (2020) investigates the use of the Coptic/Egyptian zimam numerals in the Leiden Manuscript, a 14th century Turkic-Mongolic glossary. A Note on a Note: The Inscription in ‘the Leiden Manuscript’of Turkic and Mongolic Glossaries. https://doi.org/10.1163/1878464X-01101003

Jay Crisostomo @cjcrisostomo (2016) discusses Old Babylonian scribal education and copying practices to analyze text-building practices. Writing Sumerian, Creating Texts: Reflections on Text-building Practices in Old Babylonian Schools. https://doi.org/10.1163/15692124-12341271

John C. Ford (2018) analyzes variation in the use of Roman numerals and number words in the Middle English verse romance, Capystranus. Two or III Feet Apart: Oral Recitation, Roman Numerals, and Metrical Regularity in Capystranus. https://doi.org/10.1007/s11061-018-9567-7

Anna Judson @annapjudson (2019) examines orthographic practices in Linear B (Mycenaean) texts to analyze diachronic change and sociolinguistic variation. Orthographic variation as evidence for the development of the Linear B writing system. https://doi.org/10.1075/wll.00025.jud

Tazuko Angela van Berkel @TazukoVanBerkel (2016) investigates the rhetoric of oral arithmetic and numeracy in two classical Greek courtroom speeches. Voiced Mathematics: Orality and Numeracy. https://doi.org/10.1163/9789004329737_016

Piers Kelly @perezkelly (2018) shows that the literate practices of local Southeast Asian scripts serve as technologies of resistance. The art of not being legible. Invented writing systems as technologies of resistance in mainland Southeast Asia. https://doi.org/10.4000/terrain.17103

Ting Lan and Zhanchuan Cai (2020) propose a new use for nonstandard, complex number bases in encoding information for digital image processing. A Novel Image Representation Method Under a Non-Standard Positional Numeral System. https://doi.org/10.1109/TMM.2020.2995258

Perry Sherouse (2014) investigates how Russian numerals, rather than vigesimal Georgian numerals, became naturalized in the context of Georgian telecommunications. Hazardous digits: telephone keypads and Russian numbers in Tbilisi, Georgia. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.langcom.2014.03.001

Helena Miton @HelenaMiton and Olivier Morin (2019) show that more complex European heraldic motifs are more, not less, frequent than simple ones. When iconicity stands in the way of abbreviation: No Zipfian effect for figurative signals. https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0220793

Josefina Safar and colleagues (2018) analyze variation in the structure of number words in Yucatec Maya sign languages including unusual signs for 20 and 50. Numeral Variation in Yucatec Maya Sign Languages. https://doi.org/10.1353/sls.2018.0014

Bill Mak (2018) analyzes an expansive Greco-Indian astronomical text (jyotiṣa) to show the relationship of Indian and Hellenistic exact sciences. The First Two Chapters of Mīnarāja’s Vrddhayavanajātaka. https://doi.org/10.14989/230621

Lucy Bennison-Chapman (2019) analyzes Neolithic Mesopotamian clay tokens as multifunctional recording devices, not specialized counting tools. Reconsidering ‘Tokens’: The Neolithic Origins of Accounting or Multifunctional, Utilitarian Tools? https://doi.org/10.1017/S0959774318000513

Nerea Fernández Cadenas (2020) analyzes Iberian Visigothic-era slate inscriptions not as Roman numerals but as a local, community-developed numerical system. A critical review of the signs on Visigothic slates: challenging the Roman numerals premise. https://doi.org/10.1080/17546559.2020.1853790

Malgorzata Zadka (2019) outlines a theory that Linear B inscriptions are of mixed syllabic and semasiographic character, as part of an overall communication strategy. Semasiographic principle in Linear B inscriptions. https://doi.org/10.1080/17586801.2019.1588835

Andrea Bréard and Constance Cook (2020) analyze numerical patterns on Shang Dynasty and later artifacts to show continuity in divinatory practices. Cracking bones and numbers: solving the enigma of numerical sequences on ancient Chinese artifacts. https://doi.org/10.1007/s00407-019-00245-9

Zhu Yiwen (2020) discusses the counting-rod diagrams and notations of the 13th century Chinese Mathematical Book in Nine Chapters. On Qin Jiushao’s writing system. https://doi.org/10.1007/s00407-019-00243-x

Jeannette Fincke et al. (2020) discuss a Babylonian astronomical text with a previously undescribed way of representing zero. BM 76829: A small astronomical fragment with important implications for the Late Babylonian Astronomy and the Astronomical Book of Enoch. https://doi.org/10.1007/s00407-020-00268-7

Manuel Medrano (2020) discusses variation in Andean khipu reading in relation to colonial-era textual references. Testimony from knotted strings: An archival reconstruction of early colonial Andean khipu readings. https://doi.org/10.1080/02757206.2020.1854749

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

Lexiculture: feisty

Kathryn Horner

Wayne State University

Cite as: Horner, Kathryn. 2016. Feisty. Lexiculture: Papers on English Words and Culture, vol. 2, article 8. https://glossographia.files.wordpress.com/2014/03/feisty.pdf.

This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License.

(Download PDF version)

I’ve always had a special fondness for the word feisty because the word as an adjective in the current cultural context of which I am most familiar embodies all of which I consider myself to be; opinionated, aggressive, self-confident, and a myriad of other descriptors that pertain to (mostly) females.  As I set down to discover the origins of feisty I imagined the word having Germanic or Norse roots, with perhaps the “ty” ending being added within Old or Middle English times, because the oh-so-popular singer Feist doesn’t have the “ty”, therefore there must be a meaning or usage other than adjective form.  I set up my Google scholar search, and waited eagerly for the search bar to yield the results.  The page loaded and as I scanned a few sentences of each entry I was surprised at what they all had in common; the Germanic origin: “to fart”.  So when I’d been referring to myself as a “feisty woman” I was actually referring to myself (as my research led me to deduce) a “farting, small dog”.

Obviously the word has seen a semantic shift over the centuries, as most people do not use the word feist to refer to a small, dog[1] nor when a person “breaks wind” do they say, “I’ve just feisted”.  We’ve taken the word and shifted it according to the cultural times and as a descriptive word we can see where a feisty person perhaps does imitates a small, yappy dog.  If an individual thought about this rationally instead of being potentially insulted, we can see where the idea that a person who is aggressive, outgoing, loud, raucous, etc. has a lot in common with small lap dogs who tend to be those things.  Taking it further, if we again use a rational head to think how a small lap dog could become synonymous with the Germanic word fyst or fist, which has a basic meaning of “to fart or break wind” we only need take a moment and think of an encounter we may have had with a small dog and the correlation between “breaking wind” and the attitude, demeanor, and dare I say “wind-escapes” that the dog may have, we can see the synonymous nature of the two and it becomes understandable.

How and why did the word Germanic and Middle English word fist (fyst), which as we now know means “to break wind” shift to feist, meaning “a small lapdog”, to feisty which has been used since the 19th century in an adjective form to describe a person (usually a female) who bears resemblance to said antics of a feist?


Those feisty Germans: from fist (v.) to adj

I gave a rudimentary outline of the semantic shift above, however the individual words themselves need understanding in order for the question to be answered properly.

Like many words, there is usually a root word from the “parent”, and because of cross-cultural trade, wars, etc. there is the borrowing of words from one language to another, and feisty is not different.  As I stated above, the word has a Germanic origin in to fist, meaning “to fart or break wind”[2], and according to The Merriam-Webster New Book of Word Histories, “because fisting is attested as early as the year 1000, there was probably a verb fistan ‘to break wind’ in Old English” (175).  Now that a rough timeline of the word has been shown, context now becomes important.

As with many words that stem far back into time spelling is varied.  One could take every spelling of the word from Old English, to Middle English, to Norse, etc. and research the various cognates and contexts in which it was used to ascertain the meaning, however I’ve decided to settle on fist, feist, and feisty, those three being the most common amongst the sources I’ve found.

When I used the Google Ngram viewer to get a basic idea of the word’s usage in British English[3] I searched using all three: fist, feist, feisty.


Google Ngram of fist, feist, and feisty 1600-2000

I chose to use such a large timeframe to start with because of my initial research into the word and the mention of its Germanic origins, but also the culture dictated a change in Old and Middle English, so it’s important to consider that time and quantify it.  One difficulty with using the time frame I did, however, is that speakers and writers of Old and Middle English did not have a standardized way of spelling; this lack of uniformity thusly challenged my ability to analyze early data, simply because when I clicked on books in time periods offered by Google, I found them to be 1) religious in nature (which makes sense given the time) 2) the usage being closer phonetically to feast or first and 3) illuminated manuscripts or copies of books from the 1600’s show the “f” as an “s”.  Nonetheless, we can see fist saw tremendous usage changes from 1600-1700, with peaks and valleys mostly between 1600-1650 and feisty and feist not even on the radar.

Next I did a Google Ngram search for the same three words but this time changing it to American English, to see if there was a change.  The few dictionaries I’d consulted stated that feist was a term that was seen in American English, and the “ty” ending was added on to the noun to change it to an adjective.[4]

The difference in the three words can be seen in the red line, which is used to represent feist.  The word that has been considered “American” is used more frequently in American English, giving rudimentary credence to the thought that feisty then and now, is  “American made”.


From fist to feist: an American tale

Excerpt from “Our Southern Highlanders” by Horace Kephart (American, 1916)


The above is a passage from Horace Kephart’s book Our Southern Highlanders, which is part of a series of books he wrote about the rural peoples of the Appalachian Mountains.  What precedes this statement is a question posed to the character about why he was called “feisty” and what did it mean? The answer given to the young boy is that he is as feisty as a feist! That he has an excitable, assertive nature much like that of a small dog.  At the time of this writing feist had been an acceptable word to call a small to medium sized dog for over a century.  Now we must ask: “why?”

If you’ve ever been around a small dog, you know they have a very specific demeanor.  Most small dogs are bred for hunting, chasing small game, etc. but the main thing they are “wont to do” is to break wind.  A small dog breaking wind on your lap is something a person would notice, in fact a lot of people in the room would be able to notice it, so one can see how these small creatures were called fists or fisting hounds.

In his book The Complete Idiots Guide to Weird Word Origins, Paul McFedries explains that “when the word crossed the Atlantic to take up residence in the United States, the pronunciation had changed so that fist now rhymed with heist” (57).

So small dogs are now being called something analogous to “a fart”, and the New World-ers have done what they do well and changed the spelling and pronunciation, but how did the word itself transcribe into our modern lexicon as “an assertive, independent person”?


From farting to females: a woman’s worth

            I’ve already established feisty’s historical transformation in spelling and meaning, but when did it become a common, established adjective used to describe women? You don’t often hear a man being referred to as “feisty”, but a woman? Certainly.  When I was still in the beginning throes of my research and I saw that feisty had come from “breaking wind” and I considered how we use it now in relation to a woman, my first thought was “because women are so long-winded!” I was wrong.

Going back to Paul McFedries and his weird word origins book, the idea that a person who embodies the behavior of a small hound, is therefore considered to be feisty.  “The spiritedly aggressive nature of a feist was also a trait seen in humans, so by the end of the nineteenth century, folks were describing such people as feisty” (57).  Not to be outdone: “Since such dogs tend to be nervous and temperamental, feist gave rise to the adjective feisty, which was applied to lively, fidgety, or quarrelsome people.”[5] So there we have it.  Those who embody the spirit of a small, farting dog have the pleasured of being called feisty! The entries didn’t state a woman; they stated a person or people.  So how did the word end up being used in a mostly feminine context?

As I said in the beginning I tend to describe myself as feisty, and I don’t think it is a negative word to be associated with.  I see nothing wrong with being assertive, lively, or even quarrelsome (depending on the context, of course), but as I began this part of my research I found that the word’s usage, context, and whether or not it is demeaning is under current debate.  I cannot solve all the cultural and socio-linguistic questions of the universe, so I will have to leave that aspect out, but that debate is worth taking into consideration when looking at the Ngram viewer of the word and its usage, especially after 1970. 2-8-4

Google Ngram viewer timeline of feisty from 1900-2000 (American English)

I used the Google Ngram viewer to give myself a rough timeline of when the word became more involved in our vernacular.  I choose a smaller time window because my previous research showed that the word had entered the vernacular as being used to describe a person around 1895.  As the chart shows, the word has steady usage through the beginning of the 20th century, but it picks up in usage in the late 1960’s.  The 1960’s were a very historical point for America, specifically in relation to civil rights for women and minorities.  Taking our present day knowledge about the use of feisty and it being a word commonly used to describe an assertive woman, we can theorize about its usage becoming more popular because of the women’s movement.  Even someone with a rudimentary understanding of the 60’s can conjure up TIMES images of bra-burning feminists, and who better to embody the current context of the word feisty than those women?

For much of the 20th century women felt the need to be demure, respectful, yielding, quiet, and to play second fiddle to men both in the work place and at home.  Once the cultural landscaped shifted, and women were given a larger voice in political, social, and economic arenas the usage of feisty steadily grows.  We see that incline in the viewer: from 1970-2000 there is a continuous upsurge in usage and the variety of books that Google has within its corpus to support that this is a word that grew steadily after a very conflicting time in American society.

As I said above, feisty has become a word that is in a tussle between men and women as to whether it is appropriate or not.  Like some words, if one cultural group calls like members by it the word is acceptable; it is not acceptable for outsiders to use that word in relation to an insider, as that can be considered shameful and demeaning.  The modern-day sources and social media, (online magazines, Facebook, Instagram, etc.)  that I briefly looked at show that we are in the midst of this with feisty.  This new and emerging paradigm will be interesting to follow.

Feisty is a word that embodies and shows how cultural shifts take place amongst peoples.  From its humble origins as a word meaning to “break wind” to the current “a person who is aggressive, confident”, the word itself has undergone change in spelling, from a verb to adjective, as well as becoming slang within American society, as well as others around the world.  Those feisty Germans, Anglo-Saxons, Brits, and Americans have put their own spin on many words, but this word takes the proverbial cake.

[1] Online Etymology Dictionary

[2] Webster’s Dictionary

[3] I chose British English as a starting point because of the Germanic influence on the lexicon

[4] Webster’s Dictionary and OED both give dates of origin around 1806 with entry into said dictionaries being 1896.  Both have “American English”.

[5] The Merriam-Webster New Book of Word Histories pg. 175

Lexiculture: chipotle

Gabriela Ortiz

Wayne State University

Cite as: Ortiz, Gabriela. 2016. Chipotle. Lexiculture: Papers on English Words and Culture, vol. 2, article 7. https://glossographia.files.wordpress.com/2014/03/chipotle.pdf.

This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License.

(Download PDF version)


The purpose of this paper is to highlight how corporations appropriate words and concepts through trademark, branding and marketing, and systematically strip words and concepts of their original meaning.  Using the term “chipotle” as a case study, I will illustrate how the fast-food chain, Chipotle Mexican Grill, has essentially displaced the original meaning and history of the ancient Nahuatl word “chipotle.”  The appropriation of the term simultaneously perpetuates a culture of invisibility with regards to Mexicans and Mexican-Americans, whose indigenous words and emblems extinguished in society’s consciousness, and usurped by a corporate replacement.   Chipotle has essentially become synonymous with the fast food franchise, and nearly as American as the hotdog or hamburger.  This paper will provide historical context of the word chipotle and illustrate how the ancient Mexica, also known as the Aztecs, used chipotle chiles in their cuisine.  In addition, this paper will highlight the salient place the chile occupies in contemporary Mexican cuisine, culture, and national identity.  It is important to know the history of the chipotle chile and its consumption in ancient Mexico, as well as in present times, in order to understand the complexities linked to the appropriation of the term in modern popular discourse.

Keywords: chipotle, chipoctli, xipotli, chile, Mexica, Aztec, Nahuatl


A quick Google web search for the word “chipotle” pulls up a never-ending string of information about the fast food chain, Chipotle Mexican Grill. It is not until the second page of the search that one begins to find information about the smoke-dried jalapeño chile. This is quite interesting because the chipotle chile has existed for thousands of years — centuries’ longer than the Chipotle restaurant chain has been in business.  Therefore, if the smoke-dried jalapeño chiles have been in existence for so long, why is it that the American owned chain restaurant dominates the Google search database?  Branding and cultural appropriation comprise the primary explanation for this dissonance.

The term “chipotle” has distinct meanings to different people. For some, it automatically conjures up imagery of the smoke-dried chile.  For others, chipotle simply means the name of the fast-food Mexican restaurant, currently taking over the nearest college town, downtown corridor, or suburban strip mall.  However, even before the proliferation of the chain restaurants bearings its name, the chipotle chile has a rich and long history in the Americas, as well as in Europe.  But one would never know about this history unless they added “definition” to their Google search. The Chipotle franchise has managed to remove or conveniently omit any cultural factors of the word chipotle and its indigenous roots to the Mexican culture.  In short, the restaurant has functionally sought to monopolize the term, “chipotle,” and unroot the term from its indigenous soil.

Chilpoctli, Xipotli or Chipotle?

The chipotle chile gets its name from the Nahuatl, a people indigenous to modern-day Mexico. “Chilpoctli” or “xipotli”, meaning, “smoked chili,” or “humo de chile” in Spanish, is a word coined by the Nahautl (Leander 1972).  There are alternative ways of spelling chipotle, as noted above.  However, over time, the common spelling has become chipotle, dropping the “l” before the “p” and replacing the “I” in favor of the “e’. No reasons were discovered for this preferred spelling, except for perhaps ease and convenience.  Furthermore, the popular dictionaries do not often include each form of spelling, but most etymology references do, with Merriam-Webster including the year it was first used. The Merriam-Webster dictionary places chipotle to have first been used in the 1950’s, which corresponds with the Ngram viewer.  The chart below illustrates that prior to 1948, there was no mention of the word chipotle, then a sudden spike in the 1980’s.


Chipotle in Everyday Mexica Life

When we think of the staple foods of the Mexica, we think of maize, beans and squash — the three sisters.  But chiles were just as important to the Mexica’s cuisine as maize (Ortiz de Montellano, 1990, p. 113).  Previously regarded by the Europeans as a useless addition in terms of caloric intake or nutritional value — or lack thereof, the chile pepper actually provides adequate quantities of vitamins A and C.  But because the Mexica ate it on a daily basis, research demonstrates that the consumption of chile served as a supplement to the Mexica diet. The table below taken from Ortiz de Montello’s Aztec Medicine, Health and Nutrition, illustrates the possible total grams per serving in a typical Mexica diet with the supplemental nutrition of chiles and tomatoes (p. 101):

Diet Cal Protein CA Vit A Thiamine Riboflavin Niacin Vit C FE
Corn (500g) 1,790 42 55 0.75 2,4 0.5 0.5 7.5
Beans (100g) 343 22.7 134 0.008 0.47 0.15 2.09 1 7.1
Squash (50g) 10 0.6 14 0.06 0.2 0.05 0.5 11 0.2
Chili (20g) 23 0.93 7.3 1.62 0.06 0.09 1.1 93 0.3
Tomato (50g) 11 0.6 7.0 0.13 0.03 0.02 0.4 12 0.3
Total 2,177 66.83 217 2.57 3.16 0.81 13.6 117 15.4


Note: Units are g for protein and International Unites (IU) for vitamin A. All others are mg.

Of particular relevance to a consideration of Aztec foods is the nutritional value of the staple diet of Mesoamerica—corn, beans, and squash, supplemented by chilies and tomatoes. This triad has been the basis of the Aztec diet since antiquity, and the addition of chili and tomato as condiments covered most culinary situations

Chiles are arguably a staple of Mexica diet.  However, the chipotle chile occupied a particular distinction.  Due to the process by which the jalapeño pepper is transformed into a chipotle chile, the Mexica took advantage of the pungent and irritating qualities of the process to advance specific social and strategic aims.  For instance, mothers would use the smoke of the chiles to punish their poorly behaved children, and there are even accounts of the Aztecs using the chipotle smoke as a form of chemical warfare against the Spanish, “chile smoke was used as fumigant, as well as a means of chemical warfare, and the Aztecs disciplined their recalcitrant offspring with it (Coe 1994 p. 63).  Many Mexican mothers (mine included) continue this tradition of threatening with chiles as punishment for cursing or backtalk, or as a means to rid the child of a nail-biting habit or sucking of the thumb.


Picture shows parents punishing their children by placing their face near the smoke of chiles.

Without a doubt, the love of chipotle chiles, and chiles in general have been a part of Mexican cuisine since the pre-Columbian era, and that love has remained in present time.

A Love Affair with Chiles

Mexicans love chile. Mexicans love chile so much that the food is incorporated in popular songs, sprinkled on a diverse milieu of foods, and revered as if a national symbol.  The many musical odes to the chile, however, illustrate the country’s deep love affair with the pepper.

The Mexican group Banda Sinaloense includes the chile in the hook of their song “Cahuates Pistaches.” The lyrics include “con sal, limon y chile”, or “with salt, lemon and chili,” which is repeated a number of times throughout the song. The song also calls for a special dance to go along with the song—a quick thrust of the pelvis as the word “chile” is uttered. It is an interesting choice for a dance move given the phallic shape of the chile pepper.  Esther Katz asserts that in Mexico, along with Hungary and Calabria, the chile pepper is a symbol of virility, which is why it is found that men in Mexico consume more chile peppers than women (2009 p. 222).  In addition to its attractive shape, chiles also make you hot, with some cultures regarding the chile as an aphrodisiac (Katz, 2009, p. 222).

A trip to any part of Mexico will attest to the fact that Mexicans do love chile, especially chile chipotles. Mexican cuisine has been using these hot fruits since the pre-Columbian era, and have even retained some very indigenous dishes such as mole, atole, tamales, all of which may include the use of chipotle chiles. So to the Mexican culture, the chipotle chile is a symbol of national identity and marker of a very proud history.  Although the use of chiles is pervasive throughout Latin America, non-Mexican dishes are not as spicy or hot.  In other words, the chipotle chile is most prominent in, in frequency and degree, in Mexican cuisine.  If a Mexican visited the countries beyond Guatemala, the food would not be spicy enough, even though pepper is consumed there in nearly the same manner (Katz, 2009, p. 223).  Given the reverence for the chile in both Aztec and present day Mexican life, it should come as no surprise on the mixed attitudes towards the fast food franchise Chipotle Mexican Grill. In a world of globalization and instant-everything, the commodification of Mexican culture and history while ignoring and marginalizing the very people who hail from its country of origin is quite hypocritical.

The Chipotle Restaurant Chain: A Case of Appreciation or Appropriation?

Many would contend that until the emergence of the chain Chipotle, a great number of individuals did not know what or who a chipotle was. By virtue of Chipotle Mexican Grill using the word “chipotle” as the name of their restaurant, they single handedly introduced — or reintroduced — the chipotle to the mainstream.  Does Chipotle serve as a cultural bridge and push its consumers to “Google” chipotle? Perhaps, but a simple Google search only triggers pages upon pages of the restaurant and no word of the Aztecs.  It would appear that Chipotle has “Columbused” a part of Mexican culture.  To “Columbus” something implies that an individual or corporations “discover” something that has existed forever (not literally, that’s difficult to know for certain) outside of the dominant culture. Examples of “Columbusing” something would be the sudden hummus trend, coconut water, pita chips or yoga.  While Mexican cuisine has existed in the United States for as long as the United States has been an independent nation-state, the near obsession with the restaurant Chipotle has taken the appreciation of Mexican food into the nefarious realm of appropriation. To be sure, I am not assuming the worst of the chain restaurant, I emailed the media office of Chipotle Mexican Grill and posed two questions:

  • “What led the corporation to the choose this name? Is the company at all familiar with the historical significance of the chipotle chiles during the Aztec Empire?”
  • “Also, many restaurants contain large Maya figures as wall decoration. Is the company aware that the word ‘Chipotle’ is a Nahuatl word spoken by the Aztecs, and not the Maya?” This conflation of two distinct indigenous peoples was concerning.

Chipotle’s reply was prompt and concise:

“We didn’t choose the name for any specific cultural origin. Much of our food is seasoned with this trusty little pepper, and we, in turn, decided it would be a great name for the restaurant. Our art comes from a close friend of our co-CEO, Steve Ells, and he designed the first decorations for the first restaurant, and has continued ever since. I hope this helps a little bit, and I’m sorry that there aren’t any specific ties to language or cultural significance here.”

In essence, Chipotle has excluded Mexican history from their restaurant and deprived its consumers of a rich historical context while profiting from the culture. It should be noted that this is not the only example of appropriation and erasure. Recently, Chipotle came under fire for failing to include any Mexican or Mexican-American authors as part of their new campaign to include excerpts of literature on their cups.  Actually, Chipotle failed to include any Latino authors.  Further excluding Mexicans and Latinos from the dominant, mainstream formation of “chipotle,” and swinging the pendulum squarely toward appropriation.


Despite the long history of the chipotle chile and its multiple usages, the word chipotle is now synonymous with the American owned fast food restaurant, in turn stripping the word of its indigenous meaning, salience and significance.  The Mexica have been colonized for the third time.

One can say that Chipotle is responsible for the millions of Americans who “Columbused” spicy Mexican food and made it trendy.  So trendy, in fact, that Chipotle has taken over the microblogging and video service, Vine producing videos mostly satirical in nature.  But all of this points to a larger issue, which American chef and television personality, Anthony Bourdain so eloquently stated in one of his television episodes revolving around Mexican food. Bourdain asked why Americans love Mexican food, drugs, alcohol and cheap labor but ignore the violence that happens across the border. “Despite our ridiculously hypocritical attitudes towards immigration…we demand that Mexicans cook a large percentage of the food we eat, grow the ingredients we need to make that food, clean our houses, mow our lawns, wash our dishes, look after our children.” (Salinas, 2014).

Indeed our food and labor is cheap, at least to the American economy, but our history is long, diverse and rich. These are ingredients missing from the prevailing denotation of chipotle imposed by the chain restaurant.  However, it only takes a few more Google searches to set aside the fatty ingredients, and uncover this rich and healthy history.


chipotle. (n.d.). In Oxford Dictionaries. Retrieved November 14, 2014, from http://oxforddictionaries.com/definition/english/chipotle

chipotle. (n.d.). In Online Etymology Dictionary. Retrieved November 14, 2014, from http://www.etymonline.com/index.php?term=chipotle

chipotle. (n.d.). In Merriam-Webster Online Dictionary. Retrieved November 14, 2014, from http://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/chipotle

Leander, Birgitta. Herencia Cultural Del Mundo Nahuatl A Traves De La Lengua. Secretaria de Educacion  Publica, 1972. Print

Coe, Sophie. America’s First Cuisines. University of Texas Press, 1994. Print

Katz, Esther. Chili Pepper, from Mexico to Europe: Food, Imaginary and Cultural Identity. 213-232. Retrieved November 7, 2014, from

Townsend, Richard. The Family and Education. The Aztecs. New York: Thames and Hudson Ltd, London, 1995. Print.

Salinas, Brenda. (2014, July 06). ‘Columbusing’: The Art Of Discovering Something That Is Not New, National Public Radio. Retrieved November 10 2014, from http://www.npr.org/blogs/codeswitch/2014/07/06/328466757/columbusing-the-art-of-discovering-something-that-is-not-new

Soustelle, Jacques. A Mexican’s Day. Daily Life of The Aztecs. Stanford: Stanford UP, 1970. Print.

Lexiculture: octopi

Kayla Niner

Wayne State University

Cite as: Niner, Kayla. 2016. Octopi. Lexiculture: Papers on English Words and Culture, vol. 2, article 6. https://glossographia.files.wordpress.com/2014/03/octopi.pdf.

This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License.

(Download PDF version)

I. Introduction

Octopuses. Octopi. Octopodes. Octopus. How many plurals can one word have? Somewhere across the span of the last two hundred years, the word octopus has ended up with four mainstream pluralizations. Why are English speakers so obsessed with the plural form of an animal that they rarely encounter outside of aquariums and food? What makes octopi so special that people are willing to write entire blogposts dedicated to the discussion of what the correct plural form is? This paper seeks to explore these murky waters to see how long this whole squabble has been going on and what in the world is on the minds of the people who spend so much time trying to figure out the right answer.

In deep recesses of a cave
That cool and limpid waters lave,
Where human eye doth rarely pierce,
Sojourns a creature strange and fierce :
Not mine be it to sing its fame–
I only wish to find its name.
Octōpus has a formal sound,
Yet like my theme is full and round ;
But common parlance writes it thus,
And says it is the Oc’tŏpus.
So far if one ; –but if of more,
I puzzled truly am, and sore,
As Octopod ‘tis often writ
(In which I don’t believe a bit).
Sometime ‘tis spelt Octopidæ,
But that it surely cannot be ;
Nor Octopi, nor Octopes,
Less likely still Octopodes ;
And Octopods is too absurd–
A plural of a plural word !
I have it now–for all this fuss is
The way to spell the “Octopusses.”
(The Spelling Bee 1876:172)

In 1876, someone who called himself ‘The Spelling Bee’ wrote the above poem seeking the same answer that this paper had initially set out to find. Using Google Books’ NGram viewer, which searches a great number of English language books for the phrases typed into its search box, the terms ‘octopuses, octopi, and octopodes’ were searched and their frequencies over time mapped (Table A, Table B). Since the NGram viewer can only find words and not differentiate on whether the word was used as a plural or a singular noun, another plural form, ‘octopus,’ was omitted from the search. The results were clear on one thing: it appeared that octopi and octopodes were the oldest, with results showing up in the early 1800s (Table A). Octopi won this early battle it seems, as octopodes vanishes from the NGram viewer until its return briefly in the 1840s, then again in 1906. However, by the 1870, octopuses had made the scene and by 1920 had pushed octopi into second best. By 1930 octopuses made a clear leap into popularity. It continued on its way up in usage until 1963 when it reached a peak, and began to fall (Table B). However, as no other form begins to rise, this is likely due to less chatter about the eight-tentacled organism.


Table A


Table B


II. Early Appearances

The origins of these three plurals, which are by and large the most argued about, come from three different languages. The word ‘octopuses’ is a normal English plural: octopus ends in an ‘s’ so, like with other words ending in ‘s’ and ‘z,’ one should add an ‘es’ to pluralize it. ‘Octopi’ is how that word would be made plural if octopus were Latin, like syllabus and syllabi. Finally, ‘octopodes’ is a Greek pluralization. So how did the plurals from two different languages end up in the English language? According to Kory Stamper, an editor for Merriam Webster’s dictionary, ‘octopi’ was invented in the 1730s when there was a Latin revivalist movement going on (2014). It was around this same time that ‘octopodes’ entered the language, the response of a different group of people who realized that octopus was a Greek loanword, not a Latin one. She also states, contrary to the NGram, that the standard plural of the time was ‘octopuses’ (Stamper 2014). Of course, just because the word does not appear in the digitized literature of the early 1800s does not mean that it did not exist, or perhaps it disappeared for a while after the turn of the 19th century. The Library of Congress’ Chronicling America database turns up ‘octopi’ in newspapers as early as 1839, but ‘octopuses’ does not show up until 1881 (Library of Congress).What is known, is that in 1876 someone wrote a poem about the issue (The Spelling Bee 172) and in 1882 the word octopuses was listed in a manual called “Errors of Speech,” which cited that either ‘octopi’ or ‘octopuses’ would be appropriate plurals (Brewer 1882:742). The word ‘octopi’ has its own separate dictionary entry in 1889, listed simply as “plural of octopus” (Smith 4079). A little earlier than the poem was written, in 1872, a man who gave his name as Philologus Orthodoxus wrote into a journal called Medical Press & Circular. He wrote in stating that the word ‘octopi’ was “abominable” and that the whole word ‘octopus’ should be thrown out in favor of ‘octopod,’ which is easily pluralized as ‘octopods’ (106).

Thirty years later, in 1906, two men write in separately to a magazine called New Scientist to debate, once again, proper pluralization. The first man, E. L. Haste, is actually writing about the use of data vs datum. He brings in octopi as an example of a word usage that he is “shocked by” and states later that he would like it if all loanwords would adopt standard English plurals (41). The second man, H. D. Johnson is concerned solely with the plural of octopus and hippopotamus, which is also Greek. Johnson criticizes a Mr. Barlow who reportedly greatly dislikes the use of ‘hippopotamuses’ and would prefer the use of Latin ‘hippopotami.’ He asks if the man would prefer the use of octopodes for the plural of octopus since it’s Greek, but firmly states that he would prefer the plural of ‘octopuses’ since it is the English pluralization (1906:41). Johnson feels that using the Latin plural is showing a sense of superiority as he states, “No sir! “Octopuses” and “hippopotamuses” for me, and a little less damned superiority” (41). Another book from the same timeframe refers to ‘octopi’ as “an amusing fictitious plural” (Coll. 1904:93).

It is also the early 1900s when the word ‘octopodes’ makes its first and last appearance in Chronicling America’s newspaper database. Both instances appear in the San Francisco call of 1908. The first is on October 5 and the second on November 27. Neither have anything to do with actually referring to more than one octopus. The snippet from the first paper reads “What on earth or anywhere else are “octopi”? Is it possible our great and good friend mistakes “octopus” for a Latin word on account of its deceptive termination? It is Greek, and, “by right,” should be spelled octopous. If our friend wishes to be alarmingly and distressingly classical let him try octopodes for the plural, allee samee “antipodes.” However, octopuses is a good enough plural and is used by all who do not wish to be considered eccentric.” (Simpson, ed. Oct. 1908:6). Once again, ‘octopuses’ and its conformity to English pluralization rules seems to win out against the Greek and Latin based plurals. The next paper is contains a very peculiar article indeed. This article seeks to point out that ‘octopi’ is an incorrect plural and suggests that ‘octopodes’ is not used “in consideration of space.” It also refers to ‘octopi’ as an evil plural that has “infected the editor of Colliers’ Weekly” (Simpson, ed. Nov. 1908:4). There seems to be a metalinguistic view expressed here that says that people who use the Latin and Greek plurals are arrogant.

The mood changes later when, in 1964, someone by the name of Stephen F. Maron writes in to Boy’s Life to complain that in a previous article that the word ‘octopuses’ was used multiple times. This, he says, is incorrect. The correct plural is ‘octopi,’ which he was taught about in the third grade. The reply to this comment comes from “Pedro,” a donkey who is the mascot of the write-in page, who reports that actually there are three plurals to octopus: ‘octopuses,’ ‘octopi,’ and ‘octopodes’ and that they are all correct. This is the first time that it is suggested to not only use ‘octopuses’ and ‘octopi,’ but also ‘octopodes.’

III. Latin Revival and ‘Octopi’

So, for those who are in favor of ‘octopi,’ why is giving an English word a Latin plural so important? According to Anne Kingston of McLean’s, “Latin hones cerebral muscles” and is a “formal, stately language” (2013). Another article about Latin in Maine suggests that the study of this ancient language improves SAT scores because it helps kids to learn logic and understand English (Press-Herald 2007). Pushing Latin to the side for a moment, one should recall the numerous studies that tout these health benefits from learning any second language (NEA Research 2007). This love for Latin may be born out of popular views of Roman society, where the general public mostly learns about Julius Caesar, Virgil, and other well-known ‘good’ Roman figures. If instead people only learned about the slaves, dictators, and gladiators of Rome, it might become an ugly language based on context alone (Bauer and Trudgill 1998:91). Nonetheless, the importance of Latin in the minds of some has caused the octopi vs. octopuses war to rage onwards.

IV. Modern Uses

Many times, strange grammatical beliefs and pseudo rules are born out of grammar books and the things kids are taught at school. To see if this is true, the place to look is in children’s grammar books. Google books turned up three of these such books right away upon searching for ‘the plural of octopus’ in 21st century books. Amazingly, they all had a different thing to say about the answer. The first book, Primary Grammar Word and Study: Ages 7-8, clearly states that “the plural of ‘octopus’ is ‘octopuses’ but may also be ‘octopi’” (R.I.C. Publications 2008:46). The next book, Nonfiction Reading, Grade 5 contends that statement with an assertion that the correct plural is octopi (Foster 2011:61). No mention of the plural ‘octopuses’ is made. Yet the third book, Laugh and Learn Grammar, tells its readers that the plural form is ‘octopuses’ (Housel 2007:9)! What about octopus and octopodes? They are not in these grammar books. According to the Oxford English Dictionary, ‘octopodes’ is a rare usage (2006), so it is not likely to show up in a kid’s grammar book. As for ‘octopus’ (plural), it is not even mentioned in the Oxford English Dictionary. It does not mean the form is not out there, but perhaps simply more uncommon even than ‘octopodes.’

Another source from which many receive grammar help, although often enough incorrect, is Microsoft Word’s spellcheck. If one was viewing this document in its original Microsoft Word format, it would be easy to see which plurals Microsoft word prefers. Every time the word ‘octopodes’ appears in this paper, it is underlined with a red squiggly line telling the author that this word is incorrectly spelled (Microsoft 2010). Spellcheck suggests that it be shortened to ‘octopod,’ which according to some is yet another plural for octopus, although most dictionaries would say that octopod is “any of an order (Octopoda) of cephalopod mollusks (as an octopus or argonaut) that have eight arms bearing sessile suckers” (Merriam-Webster) which would include cuttlefish. Newspapers in Chronicling America confirm this, referring mostly to cuttlefish within the context of octopod (Library of Congress). Perhaps ironically, in the comments section on the Merriam-Webster online dictionary entry, one person states that they looked the word up because their daughter seemed to think it was the plural of octopus (Chester via Merriam-Webster).

For those that need grammar help later in life, or simply want to learn science or cleverness, there are books geared towards adults that seek to pluralize octopus in the “correct” way. Ben Pridmore, author of How to Be Clever (2008:67), agrees with Laugh and Learn Grammar’s octopuses. What makes this book so peculiar is that it has nothing to do with grammar. How to Be Clever is a book about doing things like multiplying long numbers, taking square roots, playing blackjack, and ironically, how to be creative. None of these things are grammar. The octopus footnote comes out of the blue. In fact, all of the footnotes in the book seem to be completely unrelated to the page’s subject. So why pick the plural of octopus? He has some very strong feelings on this matter, not just on the improperness of the word octopi, but on the improperness of ‘octopodes.’ People who use ‘octopodes,’ he argues, “…are just being silly” (Pridmore 2008:67). Verbal Advantage: Ten Easy Steps to a Powerful Vocabulary also agrees with the octopuses, although Elster tells us that ‘octopodes’ was used more in the past than it is now, which Google’s NGram viewer does show to be true, with its tiny flare of popularity in the 1950s and 1960s (Table A). However, they suggest that one should only use octopuses and that ‘octopi’ is improper (Elster 2009). A science book from 1987, Life of Southern California, is more liberal than its grammar book counterparts, suggesting that people choose any of the three plurals and use them, as they all work just fine. The author, Hinton, adds here one more plural: octopus (1987:122). Another science book about only octopuses, Octopus: The Ocean’s Intelligent Invertebrate, uses the word octopuses, stating, again, that ‘octopi’ is an improper pluralization of a Greek loanword. (Mather, Anderson, & Wood 2013). As a second language learner in Japan seeking to successfully make it through an interview, the correct plural is given as ‘octopi’ (Ishii 2008:174).

The discussion of whether or not to use ‘octopi’ has even invaded modern fiction. The most well-known of these modern fictional sources is the 1983 James Bond film, Octopussy. When James Bond is speaking to titular character Octopussy about the origin of her nickname, she states that her Uncle studied ‘octopi.’ While there is no argument between her and Bond about the word, its usage here is significant: the writers chose to use the word ‘octopi’ rather than ‘octopuses.’ In a film of the Bond series’ popularity, the word is sure to catch on even more. The other two sources are recently published fiction novels that appear to be relatively unknown, based on a complete lack of Amazon, Google Books, and Goodreads reviews. Their lack of popularity, however, does not discount the fact that the authors chose to mention this pluralization debate. The first book, Devil’s Tag, author John Schaeffer has his character wonder about the correct plural of octopus, among other things, eventually deciding that he preferred to use ‘octopuses’ despite the fact that he hated English and ‘octopi’ sounded more like pie and he liked pie (2012). The second book, Death in Pozzuoli, involves a man asking someone to check the plural of octopus for the title of a lecture titled “Octopuses in the mentality of Greece and Rome” as he believes the plural of octopus to be ‘octopi’ and he does not “trust psychologist practitioners with English grammar” (Evans 2009:53). Later, one of the characters mentions that he does not use ‘octopi’ because he does not want to “parade his learning” (Evans 2009:91). He is then introduced to speak by the same man who was conflicted about the plural earlier who proceeds to emphasize the ‘pi’ in octopi (92). One line conveys this perfectly: “Fordham sat down, having emphasized his grammatical point in a stentorian voice…” (92). In both its use in a James Bond film by a sophisticated woman and its clear preferential treatment in Death in Pozzuoli, the use of ‘octopi’ almost seems to be conveying a sense of elite-ness and superiority. In contrast, the use of ‘octopuses’ in Devil’s Tag seems to say that people who use it are less concerned with grammar than people who use ‘octopi.’ Obviously, the authors’ metalinguistic views about the plural of octopus are strong enough to warrant inclusion in fiction writing.

V. Outside of Literature

The word ‘octopi’ also seems to get a lot of use from people who would use it in a satirical or pun-like manner. One example of this come from 2012’s Occupy Wall Street Movement. Some people got creative with the sounds of ‘occupy’ and ‘octopi,’ and, upon finding the two words to be similar made a silly image with invertebrates seeking taxonomic equality (Image A, Dehavelle 2012). In addition to ‘octopi’ Wall Street, another person noted the ‘pi’ ending [read π] of the plural and the ‘octo’ [meaning eight] on the front of the word and combined the two to create ‘octo- π’ or an eight-legged version of the Greek letter ‘pi’ (Image B, ZeroGtees 2010). Octopi is seen almost as a ‘fun’ word that can be played with, more so than ‘octopuses,’ although the whole argument has been made fun of by Jon Wilkins who drew a fun flowchart detailing how to choose the correct plural. Only one path leads to ‘octopi’ and ‘octopuses’ and they both show up together to be used interchangeably (Image C, Wilkins 2012).


Image A (Dehavelle 2012)


Image B (ZeroGtees 2010)


Image C (Wilkins 2012)


VI. What People Use in Daily Life

So, do people actually use these plurals or is it all a lot of noise about nothing? Do their reasons have anything to do with being scientifically literate or obsession with grammar? Or perhaps the knowledge of Greek or Latin shapes their choice? Using Google Documents, a survey was sent out to about 50 Wayne State University students, 14 of whom replied (Table C). These students were told that a paper was being done on the plural of octopus. The majority, 50 percent, reported ‘octopi.’ Other answers included octopuses, with four submissions, and ‘octopies,’ ‘octopus,’ and ‘octopusi,’ each with only one submission. 3 out of 4 of the ‘octopuses’ here replied that grammar was only ‘somewhat’ important, while 5 of the 7 ‘octopi’ respondents replied that grammar was ‘very’ important (Table C). Perhaps, then, the importance of grammar has a bearing on which plural is chosen. This survey, with its small response size and large non-response bias can hardly provide answers for the Metro-Detroit area, much less the whole world, but it does offer some insight into what modern day people think about the issue.


Table C

Later, the same survey was posted publically on a deviantArt profile page, where anyone who viewed the profile page could view and complete the survey. No one was told what was for aside from school. It was also posted on two Facebook pages, where friends and family of the people who posted it could view and complete the survey. Since most of the deviantArt watchers are also known people, albeit from around the world, this survey was entirely non-random. This time the survey turned up 62.5 percent in favor of only ‘octopi,’ counting three entries that also read octopi but are spelled in a non-standard manner. 29.2 percent responded ‘octopuses’ (Table D). One person went so far as to list both octopuses and octopi and state that either is correct. Interestingly, of the three people who responded whose native language was not English (Dutch, Russian, French), two responded ‘octopuses,’ although one used the British English spelling of ‘octopusses.’ Largely, respondents did not know Greek or Latin. The two who did know Latin, however, responded ‘octopi’ and the one who knew Greek responded ‘octopuses.’ More data is needed to see if there is a real connection between the languages and choice of plural, but these three responses seem to indicate that there may be a connection. The other connection that this survey sought to find was whether or not the choice of plural had anything to do with how important people saw grammar. Half the people who said grammar was only ‘somewhat’ important to them answered ‘octopuses.’ Three answered ‘octopi,’ one of whom spelled it ‘octipi.’ The only other person to list grammar as ‘somewhat’ important answered that the plural was identical to the singular: ‘octopus.’ It appears, then, that there is not much of a connection between ‘octopuses,’ ‘octopi’ and grammar from this point of view. However, if instead the answers of the ‘octopi’ respondents and the ‘octopuses’ respondents to ‘how important is proper grammar’ are looked at separately, there is a different story. 13 out of 15 ‘octopi’ respondents answered ‘very important,’ while only 3 out of 7 ‘octopuses’ respondents answered ‘very important’ (Table D). While, again, more data is needed before a conclusion can be reached, it does seem that the answer to the question ‘how important is proper grammar’ is connected to a person’s choice of plural. Age appears to be completely unrelated. Upon making this survey another hypothesis was that people who had a science background would be less likely to pick ‘octopi.’ This proved to be untrue and again seemingly unrelated, as 40 percent of ‘octopi’ respondents were not in science related fields, while 60 percent are. It was almost split evenly with the ‘octopuses’ respondents (Table D). It may still be worth revisiting the issue, but instead separating each scientific discipline into its own category. This may yield clearer results.


Table D

VII. Opinions About the Various Plurals

Along these same lines, what do other people think about why people use the plurals they use, and what do the people who use them think about the words themselves? One blogpost had some very strong metalinguistic views about not only the plurals, but the people who use them as well. This blog was written in response to a video by Merriam-Webster about the correct plural of octopus, where the editor said it would be find to use any of the three: ‘octopuses,’ ‘octopi,’ and ‘octopodes.’ (heraclitus 2010 and Merriam-Webster). According to the blogger who goes by ‘heraclitus’ there are five kinds of people in the octopus plural world: “1. People who think octopuses is best because it comes naturally, like children think foots is an acceptable plural of foot, instead of feet. 2. People who like octopuses because it sounds like the Bond film Octopussy. 3. People who use octopi because it seems like the way we deal with words …[ending]… in -us, like alumnus/alumni. 4. People who use octopodes because they think it has a better historical basis (to be explained below). 5. People who think octopodes sounds silly and pedantic, and octopi is wrong, so they settle on octopuses. (Many dictionary and style guides go this route.)” (heraclitus 2010). Of all of these people, heraclitus argues, only those from reason two are right and that anyone who use ‘octopodes’ or ‘octopuses’ for reasons four and five are being arrogant. In addition, heraclitus says that since ‘octopus’ is a word coined by Carolus Linnaeus that there is no proper Greek or Latin plural since the word is neither Greek nor Latin (2010). They conclude, then, that the proper plural is ‘octopuses.’ However, according to the Online Etymology Dictionary, octopus is derived “from Greek oktopous, literally “eight-footed,” from okto “eight” (see eight) + pous “foot” (see foot (n.))” (Harper 2014). In response to this blog, a commenter named Joe mentioned that ‘octopus’ is a Latinized word that he believed may have been assigned to the third declination of Latin, which would make ‘octopi’ correct. Another commenter, C. Guerra said that using ‘octopodes’ does not make one smug. She or he uses ‘octopodes’ since they like the way it sounds and it saves them from arguing with those who will correct ‘octopuses’ to ‘octopi.’ Another person said based on the evidence provided in the blog that ‘octopi’ must be the correct plural since Linnaeus must have invented it for use with Latin (heraclitus, comments 2010).

VIII. Conclusion

In the end, people have a lot of different ideas about what the plural of octopus should be, and why. Many feel that ‘octopi’ and ‘octopodes’ are used by those who feel superior to others, while some would contend that with the beauty and formality of Latin or the historical basis for Greek. Whatever the reason, the word ‘octopus’ has begotten almost as many plural forms as legs. If, instead of trying to decide on one ‘correct’ form and forcing others to go along, people realized that there are thousands of different ways to say the same thing and that these ways are constantly changing there would be a lot less argument over a matter that seems rather odd to be arguing about in the first place. Besides, has anyone ever asked an octopus what it thinks?


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Lexiculture: Michigander

Jaime Baker

Wayne State University

Cite as: Baker, Jaime. 2016. Michigander. Lexiculture: Papers on English Words and Culture, vol. 2, article 5. https://glossographia.files.wordpress.com/2014/03/michigander.pdf

This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License.

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The word Michigander was coined among American elites in the mid-nineteenth century as a patrial, or name describing a resident of some place, in this case the state of Michigan. At first glance the word clearly makes no sense. It is seemingly a portmanteau of the prefix Michi– referring to the State of Michigan, and gander, a male goose. Yes, there are giant Canadian geese populations abundantly found in Michigan, but that does not connote anything about the people that live or settled here. We are certainly not known as the “Northern Geese People” (although there have been some violent geese-human interactions), but geese had nothing to do with the formation of this state. Or did they? What happened to all of the other variants of Michigander that group together the people of Michigan? Was Michigander used right from the start of statehood or was it coined later? Why is the most popular term for the people of Michigan such a ridiculously formed noun? My research has led me to ask all of these questions and the answers may be surprising.

Where did it come from?

According to the Google Ngram Viewer (Figure 1), the word Michigander emerged in 1850. That year, I found, is somewhat accurate but not entirely precise. The Online Etymology Dictionary places its origins in simply 1848 with no citation. However, the Oxford English Dictionary Online states its first citable roots lie in the Hampshire Gazette in 1838, with a quotation by Senator Abraham Lincoln a decade later.


(“Michigander, n.” OED Online 2014)

So which is the precise answer? Upon further investigation, I was unable to retrieve the original articles from the Hampshire Gazette or the Bellows Falls Gazette. There are, however, two pieces of evidence I was able to retrieve that may slightly antedate Lincoln’s speech. The first is from an 1848 United States Presidential campaign debate between General Lewis Cass of Michigan and John Parker Hale of New Hampshire but there is no precise date associated with it: “’Tell Hale,’ said Cass ‘that he is a Granite goose.’ ‘Tell Cass,’ said Hale, ‘that he is a Michi-gander[!]’” (Bungay 1854, 93). The second is a quotation from Hans Sperber of Ohio State University, citing an Ohio newspaper article, which came out on the same day as Lincoln’s speech in Congress. This signifies that Michigander must have been used before Lincoln’s speech since there were no telegraphic lines available for the Xenia writer to have any knowledge of it (Sperber 1954, 25)


The next question is with whom and where did it originate? As shown, Michigander was coined as a political slur for General Lewis Cass during the Presidential campaign for the election of 1848. As the timeline would have it, there is a high likelihood that it was later in 1848 when Lincoln notably used Michigander as a political attack against Cass’ campaign and his decisions as a General in the war of 1812. This was not the first time that a politician was personally attacked based on physical appearance and it was also not the first time General Cass had been mockingly related to an animal. His opponents also stated that he was like a donkey, apparent in this political cartoon referring him to as “Cass-ass.”(Dexter 1848, 184):


The name Michigander was not originally a partial given to the people of the state but rather a nickname directly for Cass himself and it remained just that for several years (Sperber 1954, 25). Cass reportedly hated the term and had good reason to. A quote from Mrs. Varina Davis attests to this; “Mr. Cass was testy sometimes, but it was the testiness of an over-worked man, not an ill-natured one. Nothing annoyed him so much as being called a Michigander; he said the name was suggestive.” (Shriner 1918, 104). Political cartoons, commercials and nicknaming still widely continue on in national politics today. Though, I have not come across a nickname since that has gained so much popular attention.

What Drove the Semantic Shift and How Long Did it Take to Assume its Current Fame?

Michigander has since taken a dramatic semantic shift from a derogatory slur to its place atop the list of acceptable patrials for the people of the State of Michigan, though it did not spike in popularity until 1860, the year that Abraham Lincoln was elected president of the United States, Cass left Washington, and the year before the Civil War began. Cass also stated in 1860 in opposition to any state’s secession from the union and in defense of his personal integrity; “I speak to Cobb, … and he tells me he is a Georgian; to Floyd, and he tells me he is a Virginian… I am not a Michigander, I am a citizen of the United States.” (Klunder 1996, 304).

Prior to Michigander, many terms were, and still are, acceptable when referring to the people of Michigan including Michiganian, Michiganite, and Michiganese. Slightly before Michigander emerged, Michiganian was the predominant term for the people of Michigan and still firmly holds second place among recent English literature (Figure 1). An article published in 1847 from the Detroit Free Press, originally taken from the Milwaukee Courier, praising the educational system of Michigan while the rest of the infrastructure was somewhat lagging behind, reads, “After reading it, what Michiganian will not feel proud of his home?” (Figure 2). Conversely, Michiganese never caught on as much as its supporter, David Dudley Field in 1888, desired it to when he presented before the congressional Committee on Territories (Marckwardt 1952, 204)

Michigander has no obvious place in the English language, referring to people or otherwise. It is a portmanteau, or combination of two existing words to form a new word with both meanings (for example: bodacious, edutainment, or frenemy). Therefore, the word Michigander literally breaks down to “the gander from Michigan” (Sperber 1954, 27). The logical thing to do when referring to a population or a person’s native land is to tack on an ending such as: –ian, -an, -ite, or -er. Ex: Pennsylvanian, Alaskan, New Hampshirite, and Detroiter. Following that, the noun Michiganian makes the most sense when referring to the people of the Michigan. Since the word already ends in –an, it was necessary to add –ian to make an easy transition from one word to the next (Marckwardt 204). Michiganian was first used in The Weekly Register by Hezekiah Niles in 1813, according to Albert Marckwardt and the OED Online. However, since the Michigan Territory was created by an act of Congress on January 11, 1805, the term may have been used before 1813 but was not as widely well known (Marckwardt 204). The State was admitted to the Union on January 26, 1837 and the patrials Michigander and Michiganian have been used interchangeably throughout our history. Though previously, Michigander was the “odd goose out” so to speak.

Michigander Today

Today Michigander, and its various forms, is the most widely used term to index and refer to people from Michigan, but some still prefer to use Michiganian and some prefer Michiganite. A poll taken by the Michigan Natural Resources Magazine in the July-August 1983 issue of relays that between Michigander, Michiganian, and Michiganite; Eighty-two percent of responders voted for Michigander, only fourteen percent voted for Michiganian, and just four percent voted for Michiganite. Many of the published comments in the poll were issues with the use of Michigander, mainly focusing around the term not being gender neutral. Though, some commenters defended its use as strong and inclusive. One even stated that it does have the ability to change by gender, “I’m a Michigander, my wife is a Michigoose, and our children are Michigoslins” (Michigan Natural Resources 1983). This comment in the article was the first time I had ever heard of the terms Michigoose or Michigoslins but further research reveals that the terms have also been in use almost as long as Michigander has been the preferred patrial.

The U.S. Government Printing Office Style Manual (GPOSM) is the official handbook for printed text released from the U.S. Houses of Administration. In the current GPOSM, updated in 2008, the official term for residents of the state of Michigan is Michiganians and that is what must be used in all official printings (Office 2008, 108). Though it appears that this may not have always been the case. In the Journal Michigan Alumnus Quarterly Review there is an article entitled Wolverine and Michigander By Dr. Albert H. Marckwardt. He writes, “Officially, of course, we are all “Michiganites,” for that is the term approved by the U.S. [GPOSM], in its revision of January, 1945. This particular edition undertakes to give an approved designation for citizens of each of the forty-eight states, and it appears to be the first to make such an attempt. At least none of the earlier editions I have examined have a comparable department.” (Marckwardt 1952, 206). Thus, in national capacities, the people of Michigan were Michiganites and are now Michiganians, not Michiganders.

Chapter seventeen of the book Language Myths by Laurie Bauer and Peter Trudghill is entitled They Speak really Bad English Down South and in New York City. The author of the chapter, Dennis R. Preston, describes a survey of language correctives that he took of people from Texas, New York City, Alabama, and Michigan. He refers directly to the Michigan responders as Michiganders six times in the chapter with no indication at all of any other patrials for the people of Michigan (Preston 1998, 142-47). This shows the common thought shared by many that Michigander is a neutral term perfectly acceptable for use when one needs to make reference to the people of the State of Michigan.

I also conducted my own poll using a non-random sample of friends and family (in-state natives and out-of-state non-natives alike) to evaluate what their primary word choice is for the patrial of Michigan natives and residents. Of a sample of twelve responses collected, here are my results. Eight respondents instinctively chose and relate with Michigander, three chose Michiganian, and only one chose the term Michiganite. The term Michiganese was not mentioned by anyone. When informed of this term, eleven of them accepted it as another possibility for a patrial and one of them said that Michiganese only makes sense as the dialect of English that the people from Michigan speak, using the example Portuguese. It is also of good note that one of the respondents to my poll was a part of Governor Rick Snyder’s 2014 campaign and he preferred the use of Michigander to any other cognate. (Interviewee 2014).


The term Michigander has emerged and changed drastically over the past one hundred sixty-four years or so. It began as a direct personal attack against one of the great founders of the State of Michigan and has drastically grown in popularity to far surpass any of its related patrials over its lifetime. Michigander is reportedly the preferred patrial noun by people of the State of Michigan according to the Google Books, a poll by the Michigan Natural Resources Magazine, and possibly Governor Rick Snyder. It is also safe to state that most residents of the State have no idea that the term has such a rich history dating back nearly to the time of Michigan’s admittance as a state, and did not come about naturally but instead was thrust into the American culture through the American democratic process. While it began as a very derogatory slur for one of the founding fathers of the State of Michigan and indexed him as a goose, it has since become the most widely accepted and unique patrial word among the fifty states. May the Great Michigander for whom it was created live on in our memory and respect for our Great State.


(Figure 1: Google Books 2014)


(Figure 2: (Democratic Free Press 1847, 2)



Bungay, George Washington. Off-hand Takings; Or, Crayon Sketches of the Noticeable Men of Our Age. New York: De Witt & Daventport, 1854.

Democratic Free Press. “Complimentary to our State.” Democratic Free Press (1842-1848), May 12, 1847: 2.

Dexter, George. “The John-donkey.” (George Dexter, Burgess, Stringer and Co.) 1 (1848).

Google Books. Google Books Ngram Viewer. 2014. https://books.google.com/ngrams/graph?content=Michigander%2CMichiganian%2CMichiganese%2CMichiganite&case_insensitive=on&year_start=1800&year_end=2000&corpus=15&smoothing=3&share=&direct_url=t1%3B%2CMichigander%3B%2Cc0%3B.t1%3B%2CMichiganian%3B%2Cc0%3B.t1%3B%2Cmichiganese%3B%2Cc0%3B.t1%3B%2CMichiganite%3B%2Cc0 (accessed October 25, 2014).

Harper, Douglas. Online Etymology Dictionary. 2014. http://www.etymonline.com/index.php?allowed_in_frame=0&search=Michigander&searchmode=none (accessed November 10, 2014).

Interviewee, interview by Jaime Baker. (October 2014).

Klunder, Willard Carl. Lewis Cass and the Politics of Moderation. Kent, Ohio: Kent State University Press, 1996.

Marckwardt, Albert H. “Wolverine and Michigander.” Edited by Frank E. Robbins. Michigan Alumnus Quarterly Review (The Alumni Association of the University of Michigan) 58, no. 18 (May 1952): 203-208.

Michigan Natural Resources Magazine . “”Michigander” Wins Landslide Vote of MNR Readers.” State of Michigan, July-August 1983: 9.

OED Online. “Michigander, n.”. Oxfoed University Press. September 2014. http://www.oed.com.proxy.lib.wayne.edu/view/Entry/117869?redirectedFrom=michi-gander#eid (accessed November 10, 2014).

—. “Michiganian, n.”. Oxford University Press. September 2014. http://www.oed.com.proxy.lib.wayne.edu/view/Entry/117870#eid37159864 (accessed November 10, 2014).

Office, U.S. Government Printing. “U.S. Government Printing Office Style Manual.” U.S. Government Printing Office. September 16, 2008. http://www.gpo.gov/fdsys/search/pagedetails.action?granuleId=&packageId=GPO-STYLEMANUAL-2008&fromBrowse=true (accessed November 10, 2014).

Preston, Dennis R. “They Speak Really Bad English Down South and in New York City.” In Language Myths, by Peter Trughill Laurie Bauer. London: Penguin Group, 1998.

Shriner, Charles Anthony. Wit, Wisdom and Foibles of the Great: Together with Numerous Anecdotes .. New York: Funk and Wagnalls , 1918.

Sperber, Hans. “Words and Phrases in American Politics: Michigander.” American Speech (Duke University Press) 29, no. 1 (February 1954): 21-27.



Lexiculture: cafeteria

Deanna English

Wayne State University

Cite as: English, Deanna. 2016. Cafeteria. Lexiculture: Papers on English Words and Culture, vol. 2, article 4. https://glossographia.files.wordpress.com/2014/03/cafeteria.pdf

This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License.

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Imagine you are planning a first date with the person you are interested in and are given three dining options to choose from: a restaurant, an old fashioned home-cooked dinner, or, a cafeteria. Correct me if I’m wrong, but I bet that a date to the cafeteria would be your absolute last resort. Not because a cafeteria is an inadequate place to eat, but because of the negative connotations associated with the word. The first association that comes to mind when I hear cafeteria is high school. I think of the 35-40 minutes of “free-time” in-between classes signifying that the school day is almost over, but more importantly, I also think of waiting in excessively long lines for subpar food. In relation to this, the word cafeteria has been reduced to becoming a term that is continuously swept under the rug. Usually found in educational systems, hospitals, major corporations, and even prisons, these institutions sometimes replace cafeteria with other phrases such as dining hall, buffet, lunchroom, or even food court; all words that are similar in meaning, but seem to sound “better” than simply calling the area a cafeteria. So my question is why? Why does this word, cafeteria, not only have a negative connotation, but also an unpleasant stereotype that goes along with it?

History and Etymology

The term cafeteria is an Americanized version of the Spanish word cafetería, meaning coffee-house or coffee store. First appearing in the Spanish language during the latter 1800’s, cafetería was a combination of the word café, meaning “coffee,” and the ending –tería, which translates as “a place where something is done”[1]. In this context the word, at that time, was known as a gathering place for patrons to sit and discuss business or personal matters over a beverage, such as coffee. However in 1923, the ending -tería took a shift in meaning and came to be understood as “help-yourself,” changing the overall meaning of the word to be known as it is today — a “self-service restaurant.” The actual context in which the U.S. adopted the word from Spanish in 1900 is unknown and has yet to be fully researched. However, in the Journal American Speech, Phillips Barry gives a brief overview of his notes on the history and derivation of cafeteria.

In summary, he discusses how the word has had a long history; beginning with the Greek word καφενείο, or “coffee-house,” it migrated into Turkish, near East, and Arabic contexts between the 1600-1800’s, before eventually reaching Spanish context in the mid to late 1800’s, and then finally being adopted by American English in 1900. Discussing the term’s uses and transformation over time, he adds that, unlike how the word is used today, the phrase “coffee shop” or “coffee house” referred to a “poor man’s club,” where coffee was actually used as a “stimulating drug.” This use of the word was seen as early as the 1600’s in Turkey, and eventually used in this same context in Mexico. Moving forward, Barry discusses the history surrounding the Spanish word cafetería. Dating back to 1862, the word appears in Cuban-Spanish as, cafetería la tienda en que se vende café per menor: “the shop where coffee is sold at retail.” Since the word was not picked up or used by Americans until the early 1900’s, there is no evidence to show its use outside of Cuba and Puerto Rico during the mid-1800’s, however, Barry explains the formulation of the Spanish term cafetería as “an analogy of the cuban-spanish bisuteria, or jewelry store, which, coincidentally, was a loan word from the French word bijouterie. With an intricate and complicated history, Barry closes his piece with the notion that the “story” behind cafeteria and its association with self-service is not complete, leaving anticipation for further research to be done in the future[2].

Even though the context in which cafeteria was adopted by American English is not known, we can still hypothesize until more work is done to find out. If we look at Spanish and American foreign relations during this time period of the mid 1800’s to early 1900’s, there are a few key events during which Americans may have discovered cafetería. For example, following the Mexican-American war in the 1860’s, the U.S. organized filibusters to go on armed expeditions to Mexico, Central America, and Cuba, in attempt to acquire territorial gains. Also, in the latter 1890’s, the Spanish-American war broke out as a result of American intervention on Cuba’s War of independence. With the signing of The Treaty of Paris in 1898, America was granted infinite control of Puerto Rico, Guam, and the Philippine Islands, and temporary control of Cuba from Spain[3]. With so much interaction between American English and Spanish speaking people in such a short time period, it is likely that cafeteria was borrowed and Americanized from cafetería in one of these contexts. However this is only an assumption and, similar to Barry’s point, there is not enough research to prove so. This leads to my own personal research of cafeteria and, more specifically, how the word has shaped this idea of self-service, and how the negative connotation became associated with it. But before we begin, we must ask the question: what exactly is so bad about a self-service restaurant? Looking at this concept neutrally, it is an efficient and productive method to serving food for large quantities of people, and should be praised, not bashed. I mean, we all like to eat, and we need food to survive. So why are cafeterias acquiring such a terrible representation?


Taking a closer look at how media and the entertainment industry has transformed the way food, in itself, has been viewed over the last several decades, it can be easy to spot where cafeterias have been hindered with this terrible rep. From popular children’s television shows and movies like Hey Arnold[4] and Mean Girls[5] to documentaries such as Cafeteria Man, and Lunch Hour, the entertainment industry highlights how kids are being served daily doses of mystery meat and nutrition-less garbage in cafeteria settings.







For example, the documentary Lunch Hour highlights how Americas National School Lunch Program essentially privatized the cafeteria system by establishing “factory farms,” a conventionalized system which makes it possible for schools across the nation to serve and feed roughly 17 million school children on as little as 90 cents per meal. By serving meals high in sugar, fats, dairy, and a side of “mystery meat,” this documentary shares how the worlds future generations are succumbed to eating lunch time meals that fail to administer any nutritional value. But these examples are just a taste of how our media culture visualizes, depicts, and showcases cafeterias. To show this negative image from the music industry’s standpoint, even “Weird Al” Yankovic expresses his opinion on the cafeteria in his two-version song “School Cafeteria.” In both versions he writes:

You know a school cafeteria believes in mass production

They buy those lousy soy beans by the keg

I don’t like to complain, but in a school cafeteria

You can get a taco and get bubonic plague

Based off of these few examples alone, the meals being served in cafeterias nationwide are definitely not going unnoticed; and just about everyone seems to have a negative comment about them. In fact, in addition to the documentaries that have profited off of bashing cafeterias and the TV shows or songs that add to the negative image, the news media further terrorizes the word cafeteria in its entirety.

Connecticut School Agrees to Changes After Students Boycott Cafeteria Food, Texas A&M Galveston Students Take Cafeteria Lunch Complaints to Social Media, Your lunchbox may be as unhealthy as the cafeteria[6] A quick search of cafeteria in the ‘News’ section of Google will bring up pages and pages of articles and news stories similar to these ones. The best part? These articles just mentioned were not written five years ago, a year ago, or even a month ago. Rather, they were published within the past 24 hours of the time of my search. In my opinion, the media’s insistence on consistently targeting the cafeteria and highlighting its not-so-great qualities seems useless after a certain point[7]. Not to mention that, as this problem of poor quality cafeteria food has seemingly been going on for decades, you would think that a better solution would have been addressed, or the media would eventually find something else to discuss.


What is interesting about the shows, documentaries, and news articles previously mentioned, however, is that they all seem to centralize their attention on one aspect of what the cafeteria’s central purpose is: food. Meaning, what all of these different sources have in common is that they all seem to solely bash cafeteria food; more specifically, its variety and quality. By drawing back to the initial Oxford English Dictionary definition of the word, a cafeteria is supposed to represent a self-service restaurant; it does not promise a selection of the finest and most-nutritious meals, but rather a way for the customer to pick and choose as they please in an efficient and satisfying manner. The underlying issue here is that the cafeteria as a whole is not giving itself a bad representation, instead, it’s the individual parts that make up the whole; such as the food, employees, etc. However, before we move on, since we have looked at what the media and popular culture think of the word, let’s quickly look at what the average American thinks.

To add to this negative stigma surrounding the word, a quick hop over to Urban Dictionary will give further insight into what America really think about cafeteria. The site defines the word in this manner:


Judging that since this entry is from 2006[8], it can most likely be implied that the negatively viewed articles I highlighted about cafeterias that have been written during 2014 would be very similar to what was written about cafeterias almost a decade ago; and a quick search in Google will show that it is exactly the case. As the top result is an article from the NY Times entitled A Cafeteria Food Fight Over Health[9], it does not take much to show how little things have changed over the past decade in a media sense. Back to what modern Americans think of cafeteria, it is interesting to see how the term is automatically associated with schools or universities. Rarely is the word being represented negatively while it is in connection with a hospital or company — two other institutions who are not strangers to implementing a cafeteria style eating plan for its patrons. For example, referring back to the ‘News’ section of Google, searching the phrase “hospital cafeteria” will showcase articles such as, Right place, right time: Thompson staff members save life in cafeteria (Henriette Post, Nov 10, 2014) and, Fairview Hospitals Rolling Out New, Healthier Food Menu (CBS Local, Nov 3, 2014). Whether it is because hospitals and companies need to maintain a positive reputation, or the fact that it is easier to point a finger at what could be behind child obesity, the reasoning behind the distinctively different representations of hospital and company cafeterias versus school cafeterias in our society remains to be unknown. Drawing on all examples mentioned, it is clear that the food being served in school cafeterias seems to be the contender to the negative representation of cafeteria. However, even in this context, the use of the term cafeteria, as I have come to find out, does not always have to be associated with food.

Alternative Contextual Uses

Referring back to the cafeteria entry on Urban Dictionary, on the bottom right-hand side of the page, a list of suggested words and phrases based off of my search of “cafeteria” were shown — which definitely caught my attention. Ranging from “cafeteria lady,” “cafeteria nazi,” and “cafeteria syndrome,” these entries targeted stereotypical aspects of the school cafeteria such as the female cafeteria “lunch ladies,” and the “craziness” experienced when you frequent the cafeteria too much. Let’s not forget about my personal favorite, “cafeterrhea,” which was defined as: “Diarrhea induced by eating food from a cafeteria, particularly school or work cafeterias.” Similar to the prior examples by the media, these entries on Urban Dictionary aggregate the same sense of negative stigma towards cafeteria by either targeting its food or employees[10].


However, if you take a closer look, the meanings of some “cafeteria” related entries such as “cafeteria religion,” “cafeteria speed date,” and “cafeterian” are distinctly different from the ones just mentioned. Meaning, instead of defining the cafeteria as being a one-way ticket to encountering mean female workers, disgusting food, and a trip to the toilet, rather, these phrases center around the behavioral aspect of picking and choosing, or refer to the act of “self-selection.” For example, take the phrase “Cafeteria Religion” which is defined as, “Selecting parts from a religion instead of accepting it as a whole with all its doctrines and customs”. We could even take this a step further and look at “cafeteria Catholicism;” which is, “[a] derogatory term referring to religious individuals who follow the Catholic faith and pick and choose which doctrines of the Church they wish to follow and which ones they don’t.” Are these uses of the word cafeteria referring to a “self-service restaurant?” Certainly not, but this new use of the term cafeteria as an adjective instead of a noun is definitely worth looking at. After conducting a little more research, I found that there are several other ‘cafeteria concepts’ that apply the notion of self-service to things other than the food industry: the cafeteria principle, cafeteria agile, and cafeteria insurance plans are just to name a few. What these concepts have in common is their dependence on selection, efficiency, and variety; words that correspond coincidentally with the original definition of the word cafeteria.

Taking the first example, the cafeteria principle, I can explain how the use of “self-service” or “selection” comes into play. Coined by the American linguist J.L. Dillard[11], the term cafeteria principle refers to the concept of language mixing, which is the creation of a new language by “selecting” certain features from various other languages. This term can also be applied to the word creole or the term creole language, as both are similar in meaning. As we can see in this context, cafeteria is being utilized for its meaning of selection. And, in keeping with the negative connotation of the word cafeteria, the cafeteria principle, or creole languages, are generally seen as “degenerate” and mainly associated with people of the lower class. In a different context, the cafeteria principle can also be used in a business setting. For example, “cafeteria insurance policy” refers to a type of plan where customers can select certain benefits and policies that best fit their needs. Going off of this idea on how cafeteria is being used in different contexts, we can also talk about how the word cafeteria, in itself, has inspired the creation of other words. Take the word pizzeria for example. Borrowed from Italy, the term pizzeria refers to a pizza restaurant where customers can “self-select” what they want. As the Online Etymology Dictionary puts it, a pizzeria is a combination of the word pizza and ending in –eria, “as in cafeteria.” Another example of a word that shares a –eria ending is groceteria. Commonly known as a grocery store or grocery, the word was first used in the mid-15th century, hundreds of years prior to the first appearance of cafeteria. The OED explains how “self-service groceries were a novelty in 1913 when a Montana, U.S., firm copyrighted the word groceteria (with the ending from cafeteria used in an un-etymological sense) to name them […] the term existed through the 1920s.” However, the usage of the word cafeteria can be defined as more than the Oxford English Dictionary’s single definition as a “self-service restaurant,” but rather, it can also be defined as a concept or modifier that stresses the sense of “self-service” or “selection” in other contexts outside of just food.


Dining hall, buffet, lunchroom, automat, smorgasbord, canteen; whatever you want to call it, you are probably referring to the cafeteria. For a word that has been utilized in American English for a little over a century, it has a historical background, connotation, and underlying meaning that is more significant and complicated than I had originally anticipated. As I began my research looking at how cafeteria is negatively represented by our culture, I found numerous examples that fit the criteria I was searching for, however, I never truly found a distinct answer as to my question of why. There are numerous possibilities, such as the outcomes that stem from regularly eating food that is coherently “bad” for you, or even the fact that school cafeteria food has, in a sense, become an industry in itself; but these still remain to be hypotheses or assumptions, with a lot more research to be done by people who are far more experienced on comparing media and food culture than I am. Despite this, I did manage to find some relevant and useful information pertaining to how cafeteria is used in other contexts, an idea that I had never thought of or considered before. Showing the versatility of the word and how its use of the meaning “self-service” can be applied to linguistics and business in the sense that an entire language or dialect can be formed by selecting certain words from other languages, or a business can create a “cafeteria policy” to adhere to the wide “selection” of different needs and desires of its customers, I began to understand how cafeteria is more than just a noun, but an adjective as well; creating a cafeteria of knowledge about the word, cafeteria.


A Bibliophile. “Cafeteria.” Urban Dictionary. N.p., 14 July 2006. Web. 4 Nov. 2014. <http://www.urbandictionary.com/define.php?term=cafeteria>

Barry, Phillips. “Cafeteria.” American Speech 3.1 (1927): 35-37. JSTOR. Web. 10 Nov. 2014. < http://www.jstor.org/stable/451402?seq=3>

Brason, Justine. “Annoying Things Your Hear From Cafeteria Catholics.” The Catholic Warrior. N.p., 18 Feb. 2014. Web. 10 Nov. 2014. <http://catholicworrier.blogspot.com/2014/02/10-annoying-things-your-hear-from.html>.

Harper, Douglas. “Cafeteria.” Online Etymology Dictionary. N.p., n.d. Web. 3 Nov. 2014.     <http://etymonline.com/index.php?term=cafeteria&allowed_in_frame=0>

Harper, Douglas. “Grocery.” Online Etymology Dictionary. N.p., n.d. Web. 10 Nov. 2014.     <http://www.etymonline.com/index.php?term=grocery&allowed_in_frame=0>

Harper, Douglas. “Pizzeria.” Online Etymology Dictionary. N.p., n.d. Web. 10 Nov. 2014.     <http://www.etymonline.com/index.php?term=pizzeria&allowed_in_frame=0>

Mel. “Cafeteria Catholicism.” Urban Dictionary. N.p., 30 Nov. 2005. Web. 4 Nov. 2014.          <http://www.urbandictionary.com/define.php?term=Cafeteria%20Catholicism>

Oxford English Dictionary. N.p., n.d. Web. 3 Nov. 2014

Tobias, Michael C. “School Lunch Movie Says Unhealthy Cafeteria Fare Is Everyone’s      Problem.” Forbes. N.p., 26 Oct. 2012. Web. 10 Nov. 2014. <http://www.forbes.com/sites/dadehayes/2014/03/12/school-lunch-movie-says-unhealthy-cafeteria-fare-is-everyones-problem/

Unknown. “Cafeteria.” Wikipedia. Wikimedia Foundation, n.d. Web. 8 Nov. 2014. < http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cafeteria>

Unknown. “Cafeteria Plan.” Wikipedia. Wikimedia Foundation, n.d. Web. 8 Nov. 2014. <http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cafeteria_plan>

Unknown. “Creole Language.” Wikipedia. Wikimedia Foundation, n.d. Web. 8 Nov. 2014. <http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Creole_language#Social_and_political_status>

Unknown. “Milestones: 1830-1860.” U.S. Department of State Office of the Historian. Bureau of   Public Affairs, n.d. Web. 11 Nov. 2014. <https://history.state.gov/milestones/1830-1860/territorial-expansion>

Yankovic, Weird Al. “”School Cafeteria – Version 1″ Lyrics.” AZ Lyrics. MusixMatch, n.d. Web.   11 Nov. 2014. < http://www.azlyrics.com/lyrics/weirdalyankovic/schoolcafeteriaversion1.html>

0ps. “Cafeterrhea.” Urban Dictionary. N.p., 29 July 2014. Web. 10 Nov. 2014. <www.urbandictionary.com/define.php?term=Cafeterrhea>.


[1] Online Etymology Dictionary and Oxford English Dictionary

[2] Data in reference to Cafeteria by Phillips Barry

[3] U.S. Department of State Office of the Historian

[4] Image: lunch lady from Hey Arnold

[5] Image: Quotation and still from Mean Girls

[6] All news headlines from Google; within 24 hours of November 11, 2014

[7] Image: Screenshot of popular Google searches of phrase, “why is cafeteria”…

[8] Text and image: Urban Dictionary entry for Cafeteria

[9] Google News, 2006

[10] Text and image: Urban Dictionary entry for Cafeteria

[11] Wikipedia – Creole language


Lexiculture: gnarly

Mallory Moore

Wayne State University

Cite as: Moore, Mallory. 2016. Gnarly. Lexiculture: Papers on English Words and Culture, vol. 2, article 3. https://glossographia.files.wordpress.com/2014/03/gnarly.pdf

This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License.

(Download PDF version)

Gnarly is a word that can show us a lot about the differences in society. By studying the word gnarly, we can clearly see how much of an effect different cultures have on the meanings of words. The original form of the word gnarly is an adjective meaning mangled and twisted, but it evolved to be a exclamation meaning awesome and cool. The real mystery is, how can one culture have such a major impact on the meaning of a word that is used by an entire nation of people?The word “gnarly” originated from the mispronunciation of the word “knurl”, which means twisted, deformed, rugged, and timeworn (alphaDictionary).  The word was eventually taken over by the Californian surfer culture in the 1970s and 1980s to describe intense and rough waves. Given the fact that surfers intentionally seek out these specific types of waves, the term eventually became synonymous with words like “awesome” and “incredible”.

This new definition was a very drastic change from the word’s original meaning. According to the website Urban Dictionary, “Gnarly is when you’ve gone beyond radical, beyond extreme, it’s balls out danger, & or perfection, & or skill or all of that combined”(Urban Dictionary). The original meaning of the word was not found on Urban Dictionary. This shows how prominent the words used by the surfer culture are to the other general members or society. According to the Surflibrary.com page, Surfin’ USA, “Among surfers (with whom the word is most commonly identified), “gnarly” may have first been used at a California surf spot where Torrey pine or Monterey cyprus trees grew (Picture to the left). Their gnarled roots and branches may have inspired comparisons with the waves. In California surfer slang, “gnarly” came to be used to describe complicated, rapidly changing surf conditions.”(Nguyen). It is very intriguing to find out just how this drastic change occurred. How could a negative, descriptive word, meaning twisted and disgusting, change so quickly to a slang word meaning awesome and intense from such a small group’s decision to use a word differently?


Batchelder, Steve, and Molly Batchelder. Under a Monterey Cypress Canopy. N.d. Magnificent Trees Photo Gallery, Point Lobos. SBCA Tree Consulting. Web. 5 Nov. 2014.

The base word for gnarly, knurl, in its noun form, is defined by the Oxford English Dictionary as “A small projection, protuberance, or excrescence; a knot, knob, boss, nodule, etc.; a small bead or ridge, especially one of a series worked upon a metal surface for ornamentation or other purpose.” (OED). When looking at this definition, it is not a far reach to the original definition of gnarly. In its verb form its definition is “To make knurls, beadings, or ridges (on the edge of a coin, a screw-head, etc.); to mill, to crenate.”(OED). When looking at the verb form of the word, it is easier to see both definitions of the word gnarly and how they relate to each other.  The verb form of this word appeared over 250 years after the noun appeared.


As shown in the chart above, the words “gnarl” and “knurl,” were used almost interchangeably for most of the years of their popularity. Between 1940 and 1960, the popularity of their use in American English began to plummet. After these uses declined, they remained pretty consistent until 1980, when the meaning of the word “gnarly” changed. At this point in time, there was a drastic spike in its use in American society. When the spike occurred, the use of the related words further decreased, and they have remained at a very low rates of use ever since.

The original form of the word “gnarly” was just used for descriptions. The use of the word in this form, can be seen through this excerpt from the article “Madame Brownie’s Mourning” by Mrs. Celestia Rice Colby in the journal, The Little Pilgrim. Here, it is clear that the word gnarly is meant to help the reader visualize the “boughs” in which they are describing. Other than the word “gnarly”, descriptive words in the sentence are old, torn, and discolored (Colby 80). Even if the reader did not know what the word “gnarly” meant, it is clear from the context that this is a negative term.


Colby, Celestia Rice. “Madame Brownie’s Mourning.” The Little Pilgrim. Ed. Grace Greenwood. Vol. 11. Philadelphia: n.p., 1864. 80-81. Print.

During the 1980s, the new definition was still unknown to most of society outside of the surfer culture. This can be shown by the excerpt below from the book Directions 1983 by Phyllis Rosenzweig. It shows the word “gnarly” being used to describe the hand position of Saint Louis of France in a work of art. The word “gnarly,” is written in quotes and given a definition in the book, which is that it means “wow, cherry, bitchin’, for sure, all that surfer, valley-girl type lingo” (Rosenzweig 47). The fact that in this book, the word “gnarly” is put in quotes is evidence that this definition of the word is not yet widely known and it was still necessary to provide the definition or else people would not understand.


Rosenzweig, Phyllis D. Directions 1983. Washington, D.C.: Published for the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden by the Smithsonian Institution, 1983. 47. Print.

When the term was adopted by the Californian Surfer culture after 1980, the use of the phrase “totally gnarly” came into use and became very popular as show by the Google Ngram Viewer chart below. Before 1980, this phrase did not exist. After the phrase was associated with the surfer culture, it’s popularity was drastically increased when words like “awesome, righteous, totally, and gnarly” were included in movies like “Fast Times At Ridgemont High,” which were set in California and were released in the early 80s. One of the tag lines for the movie was “It’s Awesome! Totally Awesome!” (Fast Times At Ridgemont High, Transcript). The actors who portrayed characters acting as stereotypical “surfer dudes”. The popularity of these movies in the early 1980s and 1990s had a major impact on the conversation style of many teenagers growing up during this period. Hearing these phrases in movies, brought them to the attention of the American public, and teenagers around the nation soon picked up the surfer language.


When the word “gnarly” became popular around the nation, it was picked up and evolved further by many other cultural groups. The word was picked up by the skateboarding and snowboarding subcultures and often shortened to Gnar. An example of the word “gnarly” being used in these subcultures, would sound like “It’s pretty gnarly out, Bro. It’s double overhead today!” (Stone). This form of the word is used in the same was as the surfer culture in phrases like “shredding the gnar” (Stone).  According to Will Mari, in his opinion column, gnar is “used by snowboarders and skiers to refer to snow, especially to the fabled fluff that is the ‘gnar gnar’.”(Mari). Mari goes on to describe the snow as being “the deepest of the deep. The driest of the dry. The powest of the pow pow” (i.e. powder): in other words, the best possible snow to ski, sled, and ride on.”(Mari). This form of the word has strong similarities to the word “gnarly,” the only difference is they are used by different cultural groups. Even though it may not be obvious to someone who is not involved in surfing, skateboarding, or snowboarding, the members of each group have their own individual linguistic differences.

In recent years, the popularity of the word “gnarly” has remained relatively steady, with a slight decline in its use. When the term is used in television shows, it is used in a comedic fashion, by a person who speaks in the surfer accent, and is only ever talking about surfing. This can be seen in television shows such as Spongebob Squarepants. The excerpt below, from an episode of SpongeBob called “SpongeBob Square pants vs. The Big One” shows the word gnarly as a way of mocking the surfer culture, as opposed to just using the word. You can also see the mocking qualities by the name and description of the surfer in this passage. The name “Jack Kahuna Laguna” is clearly meant to make fun of the language of the surfer culture. Another example showing how the surfer culture is portrayed in today’s society, through the character portrayal of “Kyle the Surfer Dude” is in the television show “The Amanda Show”. This character is meant to sound uneducated, which gave the viewers of the show a negative concept of the members of the surfer culture and their distinct linguistic aspects. This negative portrayal, in turn, gives the terms they use, like gnarly, negative aspects as well. The word “gnarly” in the form of surfer speak, is still in use today, but has acquired a negative connotation over the years.

SpongeBob: It’s JKL! Hail O great swami of the Gnarly Pounders! We seek audience with thee.

Patrick: Plus, we wanna talk to you.

SpongeBob: Will you teach us how to surf, O great one, so we may get back home? [JKL says nothing]


Squidward: Look, surf-boy, are you gonna teach us how to surf, or are we just gonna stand here and stare at you all day?

Patrick: I kinda like staring at him.

[Jack Kahuna Laguna jumps into the water with his surfboard. SpongeBob, Patrick, and Squidward stare at him. Dolphins jump near the back of JKL’s surfboard. SpongeBob and Patrick start to tear up]

SpongeBob: I’ve never seen anything more beautiful. Have you, Patrick?

Patrick: Not since I saw my first triple-layer cheese cake.

JKL:.. was your first lesson. [returns to his hut]

“SpongeBob SquarePants vs. The Big One (transcript).” Encyclopedia SpongeBobia. N.p., 17 Apr. 2009. Web. 10 Nov. 2014.

The word “gnarly” has evolved a great deal over time. It has changed from a physical attribute on the surface of a tree to surfer-speak for awesome and intense. It has gone from the standard teenage way of talking, to being a means of portraying a negative stereotype. It has even gone through drastic geographic changes from a strictly California origin to skateboarders and snowboarding to virtually the entire teenage American population in the 1980s. Television and movies were the driving force behind the popularization, as well as the slow decline of this word. Language changes, depending on what we hear regularly, and which cultural groups we choose to be a part of.


Batchelder, Steve, and Molly Batchelder. Under a Monterey Cypress Canopy. N.d. Magnificent Trees Photo Gallery, Point Lobos. SBCA Tree Consulting. Web. 5 Nov. 2014.

Colby, Celestia Rice. “Madame Brownie’s Mourning.” The Little Pilgrim. Ed. Grace Greenwood. Vol. 11. Philadelphia: n.p., 1864. 80-81. Print.

Fast times at Ridgemont High. Dir. Amy Heckerling. By Cameron Crowe. Perf. Sean Penn, Jennifer Jason Leigh, and Judge Reinhold. Universal Studios, 1982. Transcript.

“gnarly, adj.” OED Online. Oxford University Press, September 2014. Web. 10 November 2014.

“Gnarly.” AlphaDictionary * Free English Online Dictionary * Grammar * Word Fun. N.p., 2014. Web. 5 Nov. 2014.

“Google Ngram Viewer.” Google Ngram Viewer. N.p., n.d. Web. 5 Nov. 2014.

“knurl | nurl, n.” OED Online. Oxford University Press, September 2014. Web. 10 November 2014.

Mari, Will. “Will’s Word of the Week: “gnarly”” The Daily. N.p., 4 Jan. 2012. Web. 10 Nov. 2014.

Nguyen, Céline. “SURFIN’ USA.” Surf Library. N.p., n.d. Web. 10 Nov. 2014.

Rippa, Sandy’s. “Gnarly.” Urban Dictionary. N.p., 8 July 2003. Web. 3 Nov. 2014.

Rosenzweig, Phyllis D. Directions 1983. Washington, D.C.: Published for the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden by the Smithsonian Institution, 1983. 47. Print.

“Search Totally Kyle Images.” Imgfave. N.p., 2012. Web. 10 Nov. 2014.

“SpongeBob SquarePants vs. The Big One (transcript).” Encyclopedia SpongeBobia. N.p., 17 Apr. 2009. Web. 10 Nov. 2014.

Stone, Madeline. “12 Sayings Only People From California Will Understand.” Business Insider Australia. N.p., 6 Nov. 2014. Web. 8 Nov. 2014.


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

Lexiculture: dwarf

John Anderson

Wayne State University

Cite as: Anderson, John. 2016. Dwarf. Lexiculture: Papers on English Words and Culture, vol. 2, article 2. https://glossographia.files.wordpress.com/2014/03/dwarf.pdf

This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License.

(Download PDF version)

The word “dwarf” has a long and intricate history. The Oxford English Dictionary lists four different definitions for the noun form of the word. In order, they refer to humans of smaller than ordinary size, mythological creatures with skill in metalwork, small varieties of plants and animals, and stars with a small mass and a large density. Although each of these four definitions will be addressed on some level, the goal of this paper is to analyze the metalanguage surrounding the use of this word specifically in reference to people with one of the many medical conditions referred to as “dwarfism.” How do people feel about this word? What does it mean, and why do some find it offensive?

Etymology: Dwarfs, Dwarves, and Dwarrows

The English word “dwarf” comes etymologically from the Old English “dwergh.” It is possible that it came by way of the Old Norse “dvergr,” or that it comes directly from the Proto-Germanic “dwergoz” which derives from Proto-Indo-European “dhwérgwhos” (OED Online). The meaning of this word is unclear, although it possibly comes from a root meaning “to deceive.” In Germanic mythology and legend, dwarfs have a reputation as tricksters (Battles). Although generally honest, they follow after a folkloric pattern of supernatural creatures that give people what they ask for, rather than what they mean to ask for.

There is also some disagreement as to whether the plural form should be “dwarfs,” as the plural of roof is roofs, or “dwarves,” as in wolf to wolves. A refined search of Google Ngram, using only those instances of “dwarves” and “dwarfs” used as nouns and including works of fiction, shows that while dwarfs is uniformly more popular, the numbers are not as far apart as one might think:


Many attribute the origin of “dwarves” to J.R.R. Tolkien, who used this spelling in The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings. These charts show that, although he played an important role in its entering mainstream English, this spelling did not originate with him. Most of the usages of “dwarves” before 1940 are in books about Norse mythology, with a few references to human anatomy. In 1937, both The Hobbit and Disney’s Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs were released. Based on this data, the influence of the Disney film was more successful in codifying the spelling, at least until around the 1960’s, when Tolkien’s works became more popular. The usages of “dwarves” after 1980 are more varied, but many are fantasies in the style of Tolkien (Google Ngram). Interestingly, Tolkien himself considered his use of “dwarves” in The Hobbit to be a misspelling. “The real historical plural of ‘dwarf,’” he wrote, “is dwarrows anyway: rather a nice word, but a bit too archaic. Still I rather wish I had used the word dwarrow” (Tolkien). The Oxford English Dictionary lists this as the actual Middle English form of the word, although it provides no examples of its use, nor does it show up on Google Ngram. Today, both “dwarfs” and “dwarves” are commonly used, but the latter is most often used for creatures of myth or fantasy, and the former for humans with dwarfism, though this is not a hard and fast rule.

Mythology: The Origin of Dwarfs

The concept of dwarfs originates in Germanic folklore. The dwarfs of mythology bear a basic resemblance to the dwarfs of fairy tales: they are small creatures that dwell within the earth and have skill in working metals. Additionally, they were seen as a race created before humanity and were associated with ancient megaliths. They bring diseases such as warts and fever, but also are masters of healing. They shun sunlight, may or may not be spirits of the dead, and are reckoned alongside the gods and elves (Battles 32-37). While sometimes portrayed as comic figures, the race of dwarfs was envied by humanity for their wealth and skill, and they may even have been worshipped during the Viking age (Battles 70).

There actually seems to be some debate as to whether the Norse even thought of their dwarfs as small. This idea can be found in many places on the Internet, including Wikipedia (Talk:Dwarf). Proponents of the human-sized dwarf theory will call attention to the fact that dwarfs are never described as small until the thirteenth-century sagas. They also cite as evidence a carving in which the dwarf smith Reginn is shown next to the human hero Sigurd. However, there are two main pieces of evidence against this theory. First, while Reginn is a Norse dwarf name, the Reginn from this myth is not a dwarf at all. The Eddic poem “Reginsmal,” believed to be older than the sagas, describes him as a man – a mortal human – and only “dvergr of voxt”: a dwarf in stature (Battles 38). Why would the poem refer to Regin’s dwarfish height unless it was unusual? Reginn’s dwarf height was probably understood as being smaller than average, as the alternative is that he was unusually tall. Of these two interpretations, it is most likely that the image of a short dwarf persisted into the thirteenth century, rather than dwarfs went from giants to small creatures. Secondly, the carvings in question come from the Hylestad Stave Church, which was built in the late twelfth century at the earliest, and, even then, is a Christian church that cannot be said to accurately reflect the beliefs of Norse traditional religion (Giles). While the oldest sources, of which there are few to begin with, may never specifically describe dwarfs as small, they never give any indication that they are not. So it is safe to assume that when people used the word “dwarf,” they had a small creature in mind.


Reginn (left) and Sigurd (right); Hylestad stave church, 12th century Museum of Cultural History, Oslo University (Giles)

“Dwarf” as a Scientific Term: Animals and Plants, Stars and Planets

According to the Corpus of Historical American English (COHA), and Google Ngram, most of the collocates – that is, words used frequently along with the word in question – of “dwarf” are used in this sense. Some examples from COHA include “species” at number fifteen, “star” at number eight, “trees” at number two, and “white” in a clear first place. Google Ngram’s charts show that for more than fifty years, “white dwarf” has been two to ten times as common as the next runner up. It starts to come into common usage in the early 1920’s. This makes sense, as the term “white dwarf star” was coined by astronomer Willem Luyten in 1922 (Holberg).


Medical dwarfism has been known since ancient times. Images and even remains of human dwarfs have been found in Egypt, dating as far back as 4500 BCE. However, this was not seen as a form of physical handicap, and did not preclude one from holding positions of authority (Kozma). Even some gods were depicted as dwarfs. However, not every society was as accepting as the ancient Egyptians, and throughout much of history, people have alienated and persecuted those who are different. One of the ways this has happened is through the use of pejoratives and derogatory slurs. Could “dwarf” be considered such a word?

“Dwarfism” is the generally accepted common name for the group of over two hundred genetic disorders that cause an abnormal reduction of growth. The most common of these is achondroplasia, which prevents the long bones of the body such as those in the legs and arms from reaching their full size. This is what Google Ngram shows regarding the popularity of various terminologies for medical dwarfism:


Achondroplasia enters the English vocabulary in the early 1900’s, and doesn’t gain or lose much popularity over the years. This is not surprising for a scientific medical term, which would be used in only certain contexts. Dwarfism is about the same age, although it has been used in writing much more commonly, though in the past forty years or so it has been on the decline. This may represent the effects of a modern desire for political correctness. However, the generally most common term, as well as the oldest of these three, is “midget.”

The root of the word is “midge,” a variety of small, marsh-dwelling fly with a short lifespan. Naturally, this word is seen as unpleasant by many. Interestingly, the word midget was once used to describe “proportionate dwarfs,” that is, people who were less than five feet tall, but otherwise resembling healthy adults. During the late 1800’s, the era of sideshows and circuses, to call a little person a midget was to imply that they were well-formed. It was almost an affectionate term at the time. In fact the original reason why the Little People of America changed its name from “Midgets of America” was to be more inclusive to those dwarfs considered “disproportionate” (Kennedy). The connection of “midget” to this sort of physical hierarchy, along with its link to the sideshow era, contributes to its unpopularity.

In April of 2009, the New York Times manual of style made a rare revision, and declared, “that people of unusually (and medically) short stature should be referred to as dwarfs, not ‘midgets’” (Harris). For a long time, though, the Times freely used “midgets,” and only when deputy style editor Philip Corbett received letters from offended readers and did further research into the subject, uncovering its dark and problematic history, was the decision made to change. So it can be said, at least concerning the past several years, that the word “dwarf” is a perfectly acceptable term, and a welcome alternative to “midget.” However, what is considered acceptable terminology one day may not necessarily last long. One example is the various words used throughout history to describe people with cognitive illnesses, including “aments,” “cretins,” and even “idiots,” and of course, the still highly controversial “mentally retarded.” It is not at all uncommon for word meanings to change rapidly.

Portrayal in Media: Various Viewpoints

Google Ngram shows that between 1800 and 2000, “dwarf” was almost consistently used more often in works of fiction. The line graph shows that use of “dwarf” reached several peaks throughout the nineteenth century. This was the period in which the Grimm brothers published various editions of their collected fairytales, such as Snow White. Jacob Grimm was also a scholar of Germanic mythology, and he sought to revive interest in the folklore of his country. It was what Grimm found in legends that inspired both Disney and Tolkien to put dwarfs in the spotlight again in 1937, starting another rise in popularity that lasted until about 1960. But its long association with legendary creatures is what makes “dwarf” a potentially problematic term for referring to human people.


Peter Dinklage, an actor perhaps most well-known for his current role in the HBO series, Game of Thrones, explains his dislike for the way that dwarfs tend to be portrayed in works of fantasy:

“I try not to read too much into it, but there’s a bit of a bias, where you’re thought of as a mystical creature, which is a bit absurd…. I have a great sense of humor — and a dark sense of humor — about everything, but it is a bit narrow-minded sometimes, where if they have a dwarf character, the shoes have to curl up at the end, he has this inherent wisdom, he isn’t sexual, all of that. You look at something like ‘Snow White,’ and each of the dwarves is just one thing — this one sneezes, this one is angry, this one is tired. And that’s sometimes still true for modern-day stories. But it’s not just for dwarves, that could be the case for anybody, for women, for people of color. Right now it’s Middle Eastern people who are all playing terrorists. It’s short-sighted. But life is too short — no pun intended — to be interested in roles that haven’t got any meat to them.” (Vineyard)

Dinklage believes that use of the word “dwarf” serves to reinforce negative stereotypes. Still, while short actors will often find themselves typecast as one-dimensional fairytale characters, even average-sized actors are rarely able to choose what roles they want to play. And for Warwick Davis, an English actor possessing a rarer form of dwarfism known as spondyleopiphyseal dysplasia congenital, his unique stature was what allowed him to enter the field of his career to begin with. When he was eleven years old, his grandmother heard that short actors were needed to play Ewoks in Star Wars: Return of the Jedi. Today he runs an agency for actors under five feet tall or taller than seven feet. Davis does not mind the use of the word dwarf, or even midget, believing that it is better to use the wrong word than to simply avoid conversation and miss out on the opportunity to gather a better understanding of people who are different. He considers being short part of what made him who he is, and tries to handle adversity with a sense of humor. “If I’d been average height I don’t think I’d have been quite so outgoing… you tend to amplify your personality a little bit, just so as you’re not forgotten” (Gilber).

So, being short can get you a place in the theater. Isn’t this just a continuation of the Barnum-era sideshow? While many of the roles that dwarfs appear in can be trivial or downright insulting, many see them as a way of earning money in order to bring them closer to their life goals, whether that is acting, painting, or medicine (Harris).

Conclusion: It’s Not What You Say, But How You Say It

What are the alternative terms? “Midget” is clearly much more offensive. “Little People” has the same connotations of fantastic creatures, along with a sense of someone who is less important – as in “standing up for the little guy.” Nor does it fit well into every kind of usage. Matt Roloff, former president of the Little People of America, believes that “to an intellectual,” “Little Person” can sound more demeaning than midget (Kennedy).

“Most individuals,” says Dr. Betty M. Adelson, “prefer simply to be called by their given names” (Harris). Regardless of the phrasing, dwarfs are human beings, and those who search for a word to describe people of short stature must be careful to avoid defining them by their condition. This remains true for any person. A derisive tone can make even a generally accepted word sound offensive. Changing a word alone will do little to change people’s opinions. A change in metalanguage begins not in the lexicon, but within the culture.


Battles, Paul. “Dwarves in Germanic Literature: Deutsche Mythologie or Grimm’s Myths?” Published in: The Shadow Walkers: Jacob Grimm’s Mythology of the Monstrous, edited by Tom Shippey. Arizona Center for Medieval & Renaissance Studies. Tempe, Arizona. 2005.

Corpus of Historical American English (COHA). Created by MArk Davies, Brigham Young University. <http://corpus.byu.edu/coha/&gt;

“dwarf, n. and adj.” OED Online. Oxford University Press, September 2014. Web.

Gilber, Girard. “Size matters: Warwick Davis is no small talent.” The Independant. 22 October 2011. <http://www.independent.co.uk/news/people/profiles/size-matters-warwick-davis-is-no-small-talent-2372841.html&gt;

Giles. “Essay: Doors – Entrances and Exits, Liminality and Sacred Space.” UiO Museum of Cultural History. Published 18 October 2014, modified 19 October 2014. <http://www.khm.uio.no/english/research/projects/religion-and-money/religion-and-money-blog/posts/doors-–-entrances-and-exits-liminality-and-sacred-.html&gt;

Google Ngram. Jean-Baptiste Michel*, Yuan Kui Shen, Aviva Presser Aiden, Adrian Veres, Matthew K. Gray, William Brockman, The Google Books Team, Joseph P. Pickett, Dale Hoiberg, Dan Clancy, Peter Norvig, Jon Orwant, Steven Pinker, Martin A. Nowak, and Erez Lieberman Aiden*. Quantitative Analysis of Culture Using Millions of Digitized Books. Science (Published online ahead of print: 12/16/2010) < http://books.google.com/ngrams&gt;

Harris, Lynn. “Who you calling a ‘midget’?” Salon. 16 July 2009. <http://www.salon.com /2009/07/16/m_word/>

Holberg, J. B. (2005). “How Degenerate Stars Came to be Known as White Dwarfs”. American Astronomical Society Meeting 207: 1503.

Kennedy, Dan. “What is Dwarfism?” Big Enough. 2005. <http://www.pbs.org/pov/ bigenough/special_dwarfism_ety.php>

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“Talk:Dwarf (Norse mythology).” Wikipedia. last modified 17 January 2014. <http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Talk:Dwarf_(Norse_mythology)&gt;

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Vineyard, Jen. “Peter Dinklage Confirms Dominic Cooper For ‘My Dinner With Hervé'”. The Playlist. 10 November 2011. <http://blogs.indiewire.com/theplaylist/ 21acc530-0bc1-11e1-817a-123138165f92>