Lexiculture: ratchet

Jessica Hurst

Wayne State University

Cite as:  Hurst, Jessica. 2014.  Ratchet.  Lexiculture: Papers on English Words and Culture, vol. 1, article 7. http://glossographia.files.wordpress.com/2014/03/ratchet.pdf

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

(Download PDF version)

Ratchet:  it’s what Miley Cyrus was trying to be when she wagged her booty all over the stage during this summer’s Video Music Awards. Ratchet, a slang term, is loaded with nuance and entrenched in racial and feminist commentary. Ratchet first appeared in rap music in the late 90’s. Rapper Anthony Mandigo, of Shreveport, Louisiana is often credited with being the first to record a song-using ratchet as slang. From here, the word took off; Mandigo’s song was later recorded by a more popular rap artist, and since has made its way into pop culture through music and other media sources (Ortved).

So what does ratchet mean? Defining it can be a little tricky, as the term has made its rounds in the spotlight; it has taken on different shades of meaning. To some, ratchet is only negative.  To others, when used in a different context it can also mean something that isn’t entirely negative. Some reserve the term for women only, while others use it in a more all-encompassing way. Ratchet is used in a similar sense of words like ghetto and hood-rat, while also taking on characteristics of words like bitch and slut.

The meaning of the word ratchet diverges based on which speech community is using it. The first recorded definition of ratchet is as follows, “1. To be ghetto, real, gutter, nasty. 2. It’s whatever, bout it, etc.” (Ortved). Since this definition was written in 1999, ratchet has become a more and more widely used slang term, and as with any piece of language, it has continued to change over time. As we continue, we will explore how the use of the word ratchet has changed over time as it has taken on popular usage, and analyze how this word is used by speech communities to have both negative and positive connotations.

Most recently, the word ratchet has caught the attention of many people because of the antics of pop star Miley Cyrus. To understand what Miley, a former Disney Star, and daughter of country music singer Billy Ray Cyrus has to do with a slang term originating in southern rap scene, we must discuss her preoccupation with African American culture. Miley has been getting a lot of attention in the media for her cringe worthy quotes. Referencing her new album she said, “’I want urban, I just want something that just feels Black.’”(Platon).  She has also had questionable performances such as in her VMA appearance this summer. Many are up in arms about Miley’s selective and flippant use of ratchet culture as cultural exploitation.

As is pointed out in a Jezebel article by Doadi Stewart, there is not a problem between the exchanges of ideas between cultures. In fact, this is an inherent part of what happens whenever different cultures interact with each other; however, what Cyrus is doing is appropriating the ratchet culture, her particular brand of appropriation is considered by some to be cultural exploitation. Cultural exploitation is when a dominant culture appropriates elements of a subordinated culture in a way that treats it as a resource to be mined (Rogers, 486). It is important to note that appropriation in its essence is not determined by the intentions of those involved such as Miley, but instead by the social, economic, and political environment in which they occur (Rogers, 476). This means that culture politics and power relations matter very much when discussing the phenomenon around Cyrus, as this is the primary way one can categorize cultural appropriation.

So what does Miley’s portrayal of ratchet culture have to do with the overall perception of this word? A whole lot. In the 90’s, a similar word to ghetto similar to ratchet became very popular. Ghetto came into the everyday lexicon, and the word hit such a peak that it could be used to describe anything from a girl’s butt, to a broken blender (Bowen). Ghetto aesthetics became so visible in pop culture the girls on Sex and the City could be seen wearing ghetto inspired styles and accessories (Stewart).

Ratchet is going in the same direction; it is becoming a blanket term for, “all things associated with the linguistic, stylistic, and cultural practices, witnessed or otherwise, of poor people; specifically poor people of color, and more specifically poor women of color.” (Bowen). It is easy to be like Miley and borrow from the experiences of others, while discarding anything that may be unpleasant about it. Being ratchet is cool for play, not as a valid cultural practice from learned experience, that is the message Cyrus is sending (Stewart). Being thrust into more popular culture has turned ratchet from a nuanced term, to a blanket term, the original meaning discarded in popular culture for a more watered down, less sophisticated and offensive version of itself.

Ratchet originally appeared in a rap by artist Anthony Mandigo. His single, “Do tha Ratchet” was first released in 1999 (Ortved). When his rap was first recorded, it was not a particularly popular song.  People from Mandigo’s locale of Shreveport, in northern Louisiana had heard it; its popularity did not stretch much further than that. It wasn’t until five years later in 2004 when Mandigo collaborated with rapper Lil’ Boosie to produce a new version of, “Do tha Ratchet”, that the song came into wider play (Latin Rap). This later version of the song has an accompanying music video. In the music video clubbers are filmed doing the ratchet, a dance that goes with the song. While Mandigo states he got the word ratchet from his grandmother, he does not provide details on the context (Ortved). The dance however, many people point out, is akin to the movement of that socket wrench makes (Latin Rap). In this way, the word has a double meaning. When used as a verb, it is describing a dance move. For example, “I’m not very good at doing the ratchet, could you teach me how?” This usage of the word is not in flux, when used as a verb ratchet has a very straightforward meaning. It is when ratchet is used as an adjective that things get more complex. Today, most nouns can be described as ratchet. It is the development of ratchet as an adjective that has continued to change as it passes into greater usage.

When the term was first coined, it was supposed to be a word for just getting loose, and being silly. It was used to describe mainly what people did when they go to the club; dance, drink, be high energy, let loose and have a good time (Porter). This original meaning is pretty harmless. It was just a slang word used to describe partying in a small speech community in Louisiana. Earl Williams, producer of Lil’ Boosie’s version of, “Do tha Ratchet” suggests that it is tied to a proud working class mentality of being real, and unapologetically what you are (Ortved). It may not have been the original intention; however ratchet came to embody of a way of life for some in working class Louisiana.  Not something negative, just a way of saying, “I’m proud of what I am, I work hard to get by, now let’s get stupid and let off some steam.”

Southern native, and radio host Charlamagne sees ratchet in this way. He describes being ratchet as being young, wild, and free, letting loose. Charlamagne sees ratchet as having two forms, intelligent ratchetness, and ignorant ratchetness (The Root). The difference between the two can be very subtle.  Intelligent ratchetness still conveys the mentality of going hard. Ignorant ratchetness adds a level of negativity, such as a person who makes reckless or poor decisions, does things that are unsafe, or in poor taste. Filmmaker, and creator of Ratchetpiece Theatre, Issa Rae describes the difference as this, “Ratchet is a word that was intended to describe someone who is “all the way turnt up,” “buck,” “crunk,” or “hyphy”. It’s now plumbing the depths of “Hood Gone Wild” (The Root). It is this change in meaning, the turn away from intelligent ratchetness that has swung the word into a negative direction.

As ratchet left its original speech community and was introduced to a larger audience, the meaning began to change. Hurricane Chris, a local rapper from Northern Louisiana, was the first from the speech community using ratchet to reach a large audience with music using the term. Hurricane Chris was signed to a nationally known record label where he released a hit called, “Ay Bey Bey” which reached #7 on the US Billboard Hot 100 charts (The Root). This hit was released on his album 51/50 Ratchet, the remix for the song “Ay Bey Bey” is titled, “The Ratchet Remix”, and includes Lil’ Boosie as one of the collaborators. On his journey to becoming a nationally known presence on the hip-hop scene, Hurricane Chris brought the word ratchet along with him. In his remix for the song, “Ay Bey Bey” Hurricane Chris, Lil’ Boosie, and the other collaborators do a good job of representing ratchet without being negative. They merely rap about representing Shreveport, having a good time at the club, and being known in the club and hip-hop scene.  After the success of this song, and Hurricane Chris, ratchet had officially arrived on the hip-hop scene, and in the lexicon of many new users.

As ratchet gained popularity in hip-hop, it became commodified. Those who used it were not longer in tune with the roots of the word, or had an understanding of how it came to be in hip-hop culture, and what that meant. The form of ratchet that came into popular use is the one described by radio host Charlamagne as ignorant ratchetness. One of the more well-known takes on this form of ratchet is a spoof music video created by Emmanuel and Phillip Hudson called, “Ratchet Girl Anthem”. In their music video for the song Emmanuel and Phillip both dress up as, “ratchet women” on the club scene and rap about the ignorant and loose behaviors these types of women exhibit when they are out on the town (Hudson, Hudson). In their song, they describe ratchet girls as those who, “Carry outdated flip phones, go clubbing while pregnant, and try to punch other women in the face. “Ratchet is basically a lack of home training — being out in public and acting like you don’t have any sense,” (Ortved). While Emmanuel and Phillip’s song is just a parody, their descriptions bring to light the way the word ratchet is being thrown around in pop culture, and by popular artists.

Today, artists who represent the, “Ratchet Movement”, or ratchet music scene do not even always do Shreveport the honor or representing the root of ratchet. In fact, some even have begun to claim ratchet as their own word, and their own movement (Geezy). Dj Mustard, who is the producer of many club hits such as, YG’s, “B**ches Aint Shit”, and Tyga’s “Rack City” has claimed to be behind the ratchet sound. As ratchet has reached a new level of popularity, people such as DJ Mustard have been able to claim the word as their own. Those who do, don’t necessarily understand, or represent ratchet as Mandigo or Lil’ Boosie would have liked. They associated the term ratchet with pride from the place they had come from, as well as their penchant to have fun. Producers such as DJ Mustard have taken ratchet the, “Hood Gone Wild” level that filmmaker Issa Rae discusses. Mustard associated the, “ratchet movement” with artists from the west coast who are making party music (Geezy). The problem with this newer claim to the ratchet movement is not just the fact that this is not how the word was originally intended, but the fact that it has now acquired a more derogatory meaning.

Ratchet music is known today in popular culture as music that has vulgar and outrageous lyrics (Nathan). These lyrics are also often degrading towards women. The word ratchet is being used to describe things such as a woman’s genitalia, as in the Juicy J song, “Bandz That Make Her Dance”:

“She got friends, bring three, I got drugs, I got drinks
Bend it over, Juicy J gon’ poke it like wet paint
You say no to ratchet pussy; Juicy J can’t
Racks er’where, they showin’ racks, I’m throwing racks.”
-Juicy J (Prod. Mike WiLL Made-It)

In this song, rapper Juicy J is insinuating that ratchet women are attracted to a man who has drugs, booze, and money to spend at the club. This is not a very attractive portrait of a woman. Juicy J seems to realize this, stating that, “you say no to ratchet pussy; Juicy J can’t.” He sees that the appeal of ratchet women is not universal, but he finds something appealing about a woman who is attracted to and is down for a party.  The song “Bandz”, by Juicy J, is a prime example of how the word ratchet has been twisted in the spotlight.

This brand of ratchetness has also been exploited on shows such as, “The Real Housewives of Atlanta”, and “Flavor of Love”. Both shows highlight behavior between women that is uncouth, baiting the women into drama for television ratings. Women in these shows have been depicted as women that do not have moral and professional compasses (Jackson). It is these types of images that are getting the most radio and television play representing ratchet.

While ratchet may have reached a level of distaste and offensiveness in the public eye, it has not gone without notice. Movements such as writer Michaela Angela Davis’, “Bury the Ratchet” are taking a stand against this negativity towards women in the media. The aim of her campaign is to transform the ideologies that are being associated with the word ratchet (Membis). She considers herself an image activist, one who draws attention to the inequalities in image and works to correct them. Davis hopes that her campaign will spark a conversation among young women who are caught up in the ratchet image that in popular culture. Davis’ campaign seeks to reclaim the word ratchet, to highlight the success of women, rather than the negative stereotypes.

Davis’s campaign is not the only push back is popular media against the ratchet craze. Jay-Z, long time respected hip-hop artist has commented on the course ratchet has taken on his newest album, “Magna Carta Holy Grail”. In his song, “Somewhereinamerica” Jay-Z raps,

“They see I’m still putting work in
Cause somewhere in America
Miley Cyrus is still twerkin’


Twerk, twerk (Miley, Miley)
Only in America”


Jay-Z’s commentary may be more subtle than Davis’s Bury the Ratchet campaign, but the message is no less clear. He, as a major player on the hip-hop scene sees what is happening here. There are women, such as Miley Cyrus who are willing in ignorance to represent a negative image of women to earn money.  What’s worse is the image she is appropriating is from a culture that she is uneducated about and she does not respect in her public productions. Jay-Z rarely praises white women in his music as many other on the hip-hop scene do. In this way, it is obvious to those who are familiar the hip-hop scene that he is calling out Miley and those who are like her for misrepresenting, and profiting from this bastardized version of ratchet culture (Viera).

Fame really hasn’t been good to ratchet. While it was originally just a harmless slang term in hip-hop, just as, “jiggy” was for Will Smith, popularity left ratchet with a much less attractive image. Ratchet went through many changes as it climbed to fame. Beginning in Shreveport, Louisiana, ratchet was just a term for partying hard. As the public caught hold, it came to mean so much more, a music movement, a distasteful act, or most troubling, a distasteful woman. While ratchet is no longer contained by its original speech community, at least there are some who recognize where it came from.


Bowen, Sesali. “Let’s Get Ratchet! Check Your Privilege at the Door.” Feministing. N.p., 28 Mar. 2013.

Geezy, Nicky. “DJ Mustard Talks Ratchet Movement.” Sway’s Universe. MTV Music, 21 Apr. 2012.

Hudson, Phillip, and Emmanuel Hudson. “Ratchet Girl Anthem (SHE RACHEEET!).” You Tube. N.p., 16 Jan. 2012.

Jackson, Jenn M. “Michaela Angela Davis Gives Us “Bury the Ratchet”.” The Worth Campaign. N.p., 7 May 2013.

Latin Rap. “Ratchet Does Not Come from Wretched – Slang Word Origin History – See More At: Http://latinrapper.com/blogs/?p=8810#sthash.ItZRzsAu.dpuf.” Latin Rapper. N.p., 29 Sept. 2013.

Membis, Laine. “It’s Time to Bury the Ratchet.” Clutch Magazine Online. N.p., 10 Dec. 2012.

Nathan, Anthony. “‘Ratchet’ Is the New Fad in Rap Music.” The State Hornet. Sacramento State University, 20 Feb. 2013.

Ortved, John. “Ratchet: The Rap Insult That Became a Compliment.” New York Magazine. New York Media LLC., 11 Apr. 2013.

Platon, Adelle. “Miley Cyrus Asked For A ‘Black’ Sound For Single, Says Songwriters Rock City.” Vibe. Spin Media, 12 June 2013.

Porter, Terrance. “Let’s Get Ratchet: The Origin Of Ratchetness.” Nappy Afro. N.p., 23 May 2012.

Rogers, Richard A. “From Cultural Exchange To Transculturation: A Review And Reconceptualization Of Cultural Appropriation.” Communication Theory (10503293) 16.4 (2006): 474-503.

The Root. “The Origin Of The Word Ratchet : The Word Is the New “ghetto,” and It’s Everywhere.” Dallas Black. Washington Post Company, 16 Oct. 2012.

Viera, Bené. “Miley Cyrus and the Obsession with ‘ratchet Culture’.” The Grio. MSNBC, 13 July 2013.

Lexiculture: radical

Mohanned Darwish

Wayne State University

Cite as:  Darwish, Mohanned. 2014.  Radical.  Lexiculture: Papers on English Words and Culture, vol. 1, article 6. http://glossographia.files.wordpress.com/2014/03/radical1.pdf

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

(Download PDF version)

I regularly hear, on Arabic and Hebrew political talk shows, the word ‘radicali’, an Arabized/Hebraized form of the English ‘radical’, used in the same context as its English counterpart to refer, more often in a negative sense, to a fringe group/person of an extreme ideology. Arabic and Hebrew are certainly not without native words that carry the same meaning, so why some speakers of these Semitic languages opt to use the loanword instead has been a mystery to me. This made me wonder if the word ‘radical’ carries an intrinsic concept that can only be conveyed if the word itself or an altered form of it is used. Moreover, how did it acquire its negative sociopolitical connotations and maintain them through the many other languages that borrowed the word?

The first step in unraveling this mystery was to consult different English dictionaries. According to the Oxford English Dictionary[1], as a noun, radical has four main, yet very distinct definitions:

  • Politics: ‘is a person who advocates thorough or complete political or social reform; a member of a political party or part of a party pursuing such aims.’
  • Linguistics: ‘Any of the root letters that form a base word.’
  • Chemistry: ‘A group of atoms behaving as a unit in a number of compounds.’
  • Mathematics: ‘a quantity forming or expressed as the root of another.’

All these definitions point to the fact that the radical serves as a basic unit of something bigger and more complex.

According to the Online Etymology Dictionary,[2] the etymology of the word comes from Late Latin radicalis, ‘of or having roots,’ from Latin radix ‘root’.

As a political term meaning ‘reformist’, it had first appeared in English in 1802 as a noun and in 1817 as an adjective. This came as no surprise to me since this semantic shift had occurred during a period riddled withrevolutions and social change. The 18th century came to an end with the conclusion of the French Revolution, a decade of radical social and political upheaval in France, and the 19th century began with a rise in German nationalism, which fuelled the road to German unification and statehood.

In its political context, the idea of “radical” essentially starts with the French Revolution, which gave birth to the tripartite idea of “liberty, equality, and fraternity.” From this beginning, the radical idea spread to the east through several iterations. Put differently, the radical idea was met by the counterforce of “reaction,” creating wars and revolutions that, it can be argued, continue to this day. It is worth recalling that many radicals, including Robespierre, who was the preeminent exponent of the “virtue” of revolutionary terror, was himself sent to the guillotine. Additionally, Napoleon used the French Army to fire on the radical Parisian mob. This “whiff of grapeshot,” as many historians call it, effectively ended the French Revolution, and after Napoleon’s empire was destroyed, the French Monarchy was restored.

The pendulum swinging towards and away from radicalism never rests. Further revolutions occurred in France and in central and eastern Europe. The “bourgeoisie monarchy” of Louis Philippe was put into power by one revolution in 1830 and ended by another in 1848. It is that revolution of 1848, derided by the historian Lewis Namier as the revolution of the intellectuals, which showed, if further proof was needed, that ideas (radical ideas especially) divorced from power of arms are worthless. Or are they? The picture is far from static.

The Paris Commune of 1871, in the wake of a bitter and humiliating defeat in foreign war, delivered power into revolutionary hands of a Paris under siege and facing starvation. Radicals ruled, and it was a very bloody affair. And yet, it was the idea of the Paris Commune that fired the minds of the radicals in the Russian Revolutionary movement. Whereas it can be said that the French Revolution was more or less “spontaneous,” its Russian counterpart was probably the most anticipated event of the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Lenin, after taking power and feeling his hold on it tenuous, counted the days in the hope of achieving and then surpassing the tenure of the Paris Commune. What Lenin ensured at the same time was the use of revolutionary terror to maintain his grip on the state. Proponents of radical policies have not forgotten this lesson in the past 100 years.

The word’s negative connotation is also connected to the Progressive Movement that began in the 19th century, which asserted that advances in science, technology, economic development, and social organization can improve the human condition. Since progression entails refining our ideas about a particular subject matter, the more we progress in this regard, the less ‘root’ ideas become pertinent to our existing state of affairs. So by virtue of this, when one continues to adhere to what becomes regarded as rudimentary, that is, the ‘root’ ideas, one regresses and thus falls out of favor with the status quo.

Though a period of drastic social change is needed as a fertile ground for new ideas to grow, it is only after enough time has elapsed for these new ideas to fully develop that the contrast between ‘rudimentary’ and ‘progressive’ becomes wide enough for “root” ideas to be regarded as extreme. A consultation with Google’s Ngram Viewer[3] best demonstrates that.


It is only after the 20th century that the word ‘radical’ becomes more frequently used and mainly done so with political overtones as seen in the examples of ‘radical change’ and ‘radical reform’. This reflects that time is needed as a catalyst in societies to make more visible, when looked at in retrospect, the chasm between ideas that emerges with any sociopolitical change. Meanwhile, the word’s usage in any other sense declines like in the example of ‘radical cure’.


This phenomenon is also found in other languages, like Hebrew, that use the loanword in the same sense. It is worth mentioning that though the word in Hebrew carries the sociopolitical overtones found in its English equivalent, the factors involved in bringing about this semantic shift in Hebrew-speaking societies came at a later time than in English-speaking ones, hence the word’s frequency in Hebrew not picking up until the 1940s. For the Jewish world, this decade was preceded by a period of intense sociopolitical change that culminated in the formation of the State of Israel in 1948 and the modern Jewish identity that rose out of the ashes of the Haskalah, the Jewish Enlightenment movement of the 19th century from which came the founders of the Zionist state. It was then that the Hebraized term was used to distinguish the modern Jew from those refusing to migrate to the Holy Land, choosing instead to live in ghettos around the world. To the modern Jew, these people constituted a fringe group that held on to what is regarded as the ‘roots’ of their religion, which call for them to dissimilate and live in diaspora, a group that was not compatible with the new ideals of the modern Jewish state.


This table from COHA shows the 10 most common ways ‘radical’ as an adjective has been used in American English from 1810-1900.  This indicates that initially the talk about radical change was more of a domestic phenomenon, as it dealt with constitutional change, differences amongst national parties etc. This is best seen in the first American use of radical in a political sense, which dates back to July 1827 and comes from the North American Review[4], the first literary magazine in the United States:


The shift in the word’s usage from a local to a national level came after the Age of Globalization to describe those outside a particular mold who are viewed as a threat. From 1990-2010, ‘radical Islam’ becomes the most frequent use of the adjective, most notably during George Bush’s administration, under which the invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq took place. This period also witnessed an increase in anti-Muslim rhetoric from the Republican Party after the September 11 attacks.


Islam in the West, particularly in the United States, is thus perceived as a religion whose core beliefs promote backwardness and justifies violence, or ‘jihad’, against the ‘other’. The term ‘Islamic radicalism’ has been criticized by American orientalists like Bernard Lewis and John Esposito, who regard the expression as an antagonistic misinterpretation of Islam which attempts to denote that violence and backwardness are ‘basic’ attributes of the faith.

On second glance, the word radical seems far more neutral than it had perhaps seemed initially. For example, “radical surgery” to completely remove cancerous tissue, is a very positive usage of the word. In a different fashion, the notion of “radical chic,” as Thomas Wolfe has shown[5], conveys a type of playfulness among the social elite who are prone to dabbling among the fringes of radical politics in a purely vicarious way.

The journalist and social critic, H.L. Mencken, also saw the concept of the political radical in a positive light. He said, “The notion that a radical is one who hates his country is naive and usually idiotic. He is, more likely, one who likes his country more than the rest of us, and is thus more disturbed than the rest of us when he sees it debauched. He is not a bad citizen turning to crime; he is a good citizen driven to despair.”[6]

A variation on this theme centers around the cult of Che Guevara, the Latin American revolutionary, which exists in many academic and other social circles in America today. The community-organizing group, Acorn, virtually worships Che, and Breitbart and O’Keefe found posters of him in many Acorn offices while investigating Obama’s ‘roots.’[7] [8] The relative nature regarding the perception of “radical” is exemplified by the treatment accorded to Guevara. For supporters of revolution, he has become, literally, the poster face for leftist causes. For traditionalists, however, Che represents a self-absorbed destructivism that more than countenances murder.


The word “radical” is more neutral than I had assumed upon starting this project. It is actually a very flexible word that is used in many fields, as noted above. Thus, I have learned that my interpretation of it had been a reflection, quite possibly subconscious, of my own interest in politics, especially with regard to the Middle East, where important political news is made virtually every day and the word “radical” is used predominantly in a very emotionally charged way. However, my newfound realization that the word can also be used in positive contexts shows that many words, and even language itself, says something important about the conditioned nature of all human thought. Indeed, the words we use and the words we hear never exist in a vacuum. By trying to understand the social aspect of language, we understand ourselves better.

Lexiculture: punk

Michael Elster

Wayne State University

Cite as:  Elster, Michael. 2014.  Punk.  Lexiculture: Papers on English Words and Culture, vol. 1, article 5. http://glossographia.files.wordpress.com/2014/03/punk.pdf

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

(Download PDF version)

“‘Punk’ is a totally stupid word and I feel like I should be thrown in music jail for using it…one of the worst things about the word: It’s so fucking broad.” (Dan Ozzi, 2013).

Dan Ozzi, the columnist who wrote the above quote in an article for the blog Noisey, thinks that the word punk is “the grossest word in music” (2013). He says it is too broad, and that it is bordering on meaninglessness. He falls short of saying things like ‘punk used to mean something,’ but the gist of the article is clear: if punk were a word worth using it would point to something more concrete. He is not the only person to share this sentiment. A casual web search of “what is punk?” on Google will result in endless forum threads debating what punk is, whether it is or should be self-defined, or how it is a meaningless catchall category. This raises a few questions. If “punk” really is so broad that it is bordering on meaninglessness, why do people continue to use it, and what do they mean when they use it? Furthermore why do people who think it is meaningless, such as this columnist, have such strong opinions on it? How has punk gone from a generally derogatory word to a rather productive morpheme in cases like the word “steampunk,” “cyberpunk,” or any of the “-punk” musical genres in the late 20th century?

No good punks: origins as a derogatory word

The etymology of punk is unknown, but the historical meanings of it are clear. In the time of Shakespeare it was a synonym for a prostitute. He writes, “She may be a Puncke: for many of them, are neither Maid, Widow, nor Wife” (Mr. William Shakespeares comedies, histories & tragedies, 1623). In one of the first discernable semantic shifts, punk switched genders and social setting by the early 20th century to mean “a punk’s a boy that’ll…Give himself to a man,” (Berkman, A, Prison Memoirs of an Anarchist, 1912). Despite this shift, the old meaning did not fall out of usage, and the Oxford English Dictionary cites usage going up to the 1980’s, but it was very rare to find it in this form. Still, it is clear that the conception of a punk is tied to people who commit sexually deviant acts, male or female. Most of the semantic shifts throughout the 20th century work along these lines: it becomes a derogatory word for homosexual men, whether in a prison setting or not, a word for a tramp’s sexual companion, and eventually just a stand in for “a contemptible person,” according to the OED. The transformation of the word punk to a specific word about people to a word that generally meant ‘bad’ is apparent in print media. “Punk Pitching,” an alliterative way of saying ‘bad pitching,’ appears in a headline from the Oxnard Press Courier from August 31st, 1944 and a similar headline about a “Punk Fight” from 1946 appears in the June 20th Toledo Blade.



While these examples demonstrate some isolated meanings, some uses relied on every meaning of the word punk in order to evoke the image of a totalizing bad rather than a specific instance of it. Another 20th century newspaper article is a good example of all of “punk’s” constituent meanings in one instance. The headline from The Miami News in 1960 reads: “Did Punk Kill Women?” The article describes a possible murder suspect (the punk of the headline) as wearing “tight, worn blue jeans, a leather jacket, leather gloves, pink socks, and dirty white shoes.” It later describes him as “walking in a rather effeminate way.” Not only does it make subtle reference to the potential homosexuality of the “punk,” (since homosexuality was largely associated with acting opposite gendered in the 60s) it also attributes markers of youth culture to “punk.” Based on the description in the paper, the scene could have been a screen shot from a movie with Marlon Brando. Furthermore, the article repeatedly calls the suspect “the youth.” So not only does this particular quote illustrate a combination of femininity, homosexuality, and contemptible qualities, it also adds an association with youth culture. Whoever wrote the headline read the description and thought that “punk” was the best was to imply all of these characteristics. The inclusion of youth culture to the meaning of punk is somewhat new, but it certainly lasted at least into the next decade. To this day Google’s ngram shows words like “young,” and “little” as the two top descriptors of “punk.” “Young” was in the lead up to the 80’s.


Burning Punk

A Google Ngram search for verbs that appear before the word punk essentially lists all possible conjugations of the verb “to be” in the top. In this sense, the verbs “feeling,” “called,” and “feel” all make sense. For most of the 20th century, someone called another person a “punk.” They did not ascribe it to themselves until the association of punk subculture. But one verb in particular that was popular from the 1930’s to 1950’s does not quite fit these definitions: “burning”


The OED lists a second entry for punk as “soft, decayed or rotten wood” that one uses for tinder or to start a fire. One cited usage is “As the East-Indians use Moxa [in blistering], so these [in Virginia] burn with Punk, which is the inward Part of the Excrescence or Exuberance of an Oak.” This citation, from 1687, is contemporaneous with Shakespeare’s usage meaning a prostitute. Although this is a separate entry, looking at the world in total provides a more robust understanding of the word. Uses that the OED cites for either of punk’s entries, whether it refers to gay men, contemptible people, and prostitutes, or subpar wood used for tinder and fires, occur concurrently with one another, and on the whole mean “bad.” However, the additional entry about kindling taken with the connotations of homosexuality in other entries provokes a comparison to another word: faggot.

The connection here is provocative—and may be nothing more than that—but the possible connection seems worth pointing out. Punk could be throwaway, rotten wood, only good for starting fires, or when it was aimed at people it could connote homosexuality, passiveness, contemptibility, or femininity. Both forms of the word existing contemporaneously set up a linguistic structure in which people that are “punk” are akin to the types of wood that are “punk.” That is to say, both words denoted valueless things or people. While I found no data with ambiguous examples of “punk,” where the speaker may have been playing off of either definition, searching for this in particular may help explain why the punk subject became increasingly male in the latter half of the 20th century, and would further an investigation into movements like queercore and riot grrrl that took the punk as a straight male for granted.

It is important to note at this point that punk was not nearly as severe a term as faggot by the 1960s, if ever. In a 1963 edition of The Lewiston Daily Sun, a newspaper from Lewiston, Massachusetts, the editors felt that “punk” was an appropriate word to appear in print. Furthermore, as the article shows, politicians felt it was appropriate to call a colleague a “punk” in public. The above examples are not meant to frame punk as a word that is as direct and violent as the word faggot, nor are they aimed at proving that it is or should be considered as such. They do provide a starting point for more research into more ambiguous uses of the word punk to see if the presence of both definitions ever affected its social meaning, and whether the connection between one definition of “punk” and “faggot” is a coincidence of no consequence for the creation of a punk subject or not.

punk5“Wallace Labeled ‘Punk’ By Morse,” Lewiston Daily Sun, Sep. 5, 1963

Complicating the case for language reclamation

Sometime in the 70’s or possibly the late 60’s, punk underwent another semantic shift. This is when punk became largely associated with a musical genre and its respective subculture. The early citations of this semantic shift seem more or less understandable. L. Bangs, a writer for Creem Magazine describes a band’s music by saying “Man, that is true punk; that is so fucked up it’s got class up the ass,” (1972). Considering the past associations with youth culture in the 60’s and the generally negative connotations, this shift seems like a logical—but still inventive—use. To describe a type of music that was more technically aggressive and vulgar, and to associate it with a rebellious youth culture, people used the term “punk rock.”  There is a degree of linguistic play here. Uses of “punk rock” make sense by the invocation of “punk’s” negative connotations, and this linguistic play ends up being culturally productive. In the late 70’s and early 80’s “punks” become a definitive group in popular culture. Still, the newspaper clipping below from 1977 has the rather looming headline “the punks are coming,” and the clipping from 1980 still conjures up images of the former definition of punk in the way it describes their dress and associates them with violence and negative connotations.

punk6“The Punks are Coming,” The Deserter News, Dec. 31, 1977

punk7“Punk Violence,” The Evening Independent, Jul. 10, 1980

In order to fully investigate the nuance around “punk” and its reclamation, it is worth asking who reclaimed it. At least until 1980, coverage of “punk” or “punks” still evoked images of violent youth and made use of negative connotations that were present in decades earlier. So even though there was a subcultural group using the word as a cultural identity, it is not the case that the meaning simply “flipped.” Most uses in popular media use it as a descriptive word aimed at evoking older negative connotations, not as an identity people are swarming to adopt. Even if headlines using phrases such as “The punks are coming” or articles talking about “punk violence,” are referring to a particular subculture, it is not clear that this is devoid of all the historical social connotations of punks as contemptible people. In some ways one can understand the new uses of “punk” in the 70’s and 80’s to be just another linguistic shift, one that recognizes the appeal or intrigue of danger, badness, and vulgarity.

Looking further into the question of who exactly is reclaiming “punk,” it makes sense to look towards the LGBTQ community, given the word’s historical context. There is no attempt by the LGBTQ community to reclaim “punk” as their own. In fact, the word the LGBTQ community is best known for reclaiming is “queer” (hence the Q). There were certainly allusions to homosexual fetish-culture in punk fashion, even as reported by the media: leather, chains, and bondage pants all conjure images of gay fetish scenes, but there is no clear indication that these fashion styles were inspired by or meant to promote acceptance of non-normative sexualities. Plus, when one considers modern derivatives such as “punk-ass,” that draw very explicit and clear connections to punk’s history as a derogatory term for passive homosexual men, it is clear that despite the reclamation of punk by a subculture, its past meanings still persist, and the latest semantic shift had nothing to do with reclaiming the word for all of the people to which it referred.

Looking to the founders or prominent voices of the subculture can yield a mixed bag of results. The closest the Ramones come to defining punk appears in lyrics to the song “Judy is a Punk.”

Jackie is a punk
Judy is a runt
They both went down to Berlin, joined the Ice Capades
And, oh I don’t know why
(1976, track 3)

This is not exactly an example of clearly defining and owning a subcultural identity. Two years later, the British band Crass had proclaimed punk to be dead:

Yes that’s right, punk is dead,
It’s just another cheap product for the consumers head.
Bubblegum rock on plastic transistors,
Schoolboy sedition backed by big time promoters.
CBS promote the Clash,
But it ain’t for revolution, it’s just for cash.
Punk became a fashion just like hippy used to be
And it ain’t got a thing to do with you or me.

(1978, track 5)

Crass, a band that most would consider a classic anarcho-punk band, were not especially concerned with promoting themselves as punks, favoring instead to declare punk dead. However, the ability to declare it dead does demonstrate some sort of linkage to what punk is supposed to be or what punk was. In this passage it is clear that they equated punk to some sort of anti-capitalist or anti-corporate ethos, but they explicitly exclude the Clash from this definition, a band that is unquestionably a representative the punk subculture.

Rather than providing a clear and cohesive meaning of “punk,” the passage from Crass is an example of a usage of “punk” that aims to establish some sort of cultural identity or boundary. Similarly the publication of the magazine Punk in 1976 showed an intentional effort to align “punk” with a specific subculture. The magazine names the “first punk” as Marlon Brando, a clear reference to an image of youth culture that was imagined as dangerous in the 60’s.


The intriguing thing about this use and its attempt to establish “punk” as a cultural identity by reference to a proverbially ‘primordial’ punk is that it works on images of punks that were prominent decades earlier, such as the news clipping about the dangerous leather-cladded youth. Even in new or different uses of “punk,” all of its cultural connotations present themselves. In this way, the subcultural punk played off of the negative connotations of “punk” in order to produce a new meaning.  Ironically, because of the restrictiveness of the punk subject before the subculture, this new cultural identity was also predominantly straight and male during its subcultural reclamation (something that would become increasingly contested during sub-movements like riot grrrl, queercore, and anarcho-punk). How women punks made a claim to this identity is a provocative question that also escapes the scope of this paper.

So what exactly is it that Dan Ozzi, the columnist from Noisey, so upset about? “Punk” has always had a broad definition, and it has always been tied up in a number of cultural value judgments about people. The shift in the 70’s was originally an inventive descriptor of a new musical trend, and only clearly denoted a specific subculture later. On top of that, this shift did not dissolve the past meanings of the word.

The harsh reaction to punk’s broadness that is apparent in Ozzi’s column, or any number online forums dedicated to punk subculture, or Crass’ declaration that punk is dead, is borne out of an attempt to establish a hold on the cultural capital that punk has as a young, new, and cool cultural category. In earlier instances, such as those in Punk magazine or songs by Crass, setting a descriptive linguistic boundary was a way of establishing an identity that was part of a productive linguistic and cultural process. Ozzi’s column, on the other hand, is an extension of this, but it is a rather reactionary lamentation of the amount of linguistic productivity the word has, if not a call to control or restrict its linguistic productivity. Control or restriction of punk’s meaning would have barred the invention of words like “cyberpunk” and “steampunk.”[1] Both have nothing to do with the original subculture, but they play on connotations of youth-culture, inventiveness, and coolness, all of which are attributed to “punk” because of the subculture of the 70’s and 80’s. One could argue that its productive potential is the most punk thing about “punk.” Given these examples, it is ironic that “punk’s” linguistic productivity is what Ozzi identifies as the undoing of punk subculture. Further, movements within punk have generally condemned the restrictiveness of it, not the openness. The contradiction between needing to establish a cultural boundary and wanting to fall within it is the very thing that kept punk from becoming a simple synonym for rascal.


The word punk has had a colorful past, and it is easy to get lost in all of its constituent meanings, but two things about its social history are clear. The first is that despite its varied uses and meanings, they all worked off of each other and produced connections that reflect the social standing and conception of certain people. The use of punk as a type of throwaway wood, and its use as a derogatory word for a homosexual work in conjunction with dichotomies of morally pure and morally impure, or socially valuable and socially valueless, or dominant and submissive. This paradigm is applicable to any number of other English words. “Black” in comparison to “white,” or “queer” in comparison to “square” or “straight” are all examples of words that could have multiple meanings and interpretations depending on context. On one hand they are simply descriptors, and on the other hand they have implications about the social value of the things or people they describe.

Second, punk’s varied history is one of the main contributors to its productive capabilities. If it really were so broad that it is meaningless, then it would probably fall out of usage. But it is clear that any of the things that are considered “punk” have some sort of criteria that make them so, even if that criterion is confusing by nature of the word’s opposing definitions. Its reclamation by a subculture furthered the productive capabilities by shifting its connotations within the dominant cultural paradigm, which gave it the ability to play off of either positive or negative connotations. This in turn led to attempts of language control that hindered its productive potential by those who identify with the subculture. “Punk” demonstrates both the productive and restrictive potential of linguistic shifts resulting in the creation of a cultural identity.

Exploring the outline of punk’s history further, and considering the socio-historical relationship between “punk” and homosexual people, provokes another look at the word “faggot.” While it is still clearly an insult, and a very harsh one, it has experienced shifts similar to “punk.” According to the OED, “faggot” was once a term of abuse for women, is now a derogatory term for gay men, and at one time was a word for bundles of wood used to start a fire. But who would want to adopt the word as a cultural identity? Fittingly, an example of a potential shift comes from a punk band.

Fake fags on the radio don’t sing for me
metrosexuals annoy the shit out of me
fake fags in Hollywood don’t impress me
try to demonstrate how I’m supposed to be

(Limp Wrist, “Fake Fags,” 2006)

This usage is, of course, meant to be provocative, given the current cultural context. Arguably, so was the first use of “punk” to describe music. The lyrics here are also an attempt by Limp Wrist to declare that there is a social and cultural boundary for who is a “fag” and that “fake fags” do not represent those who take the word as their own, while simultaneously contesting the punk as a straight male and creating space for a queer subject in punk. This frames a “fag” as something that yields a boundary: something that someone may actually want to be, rather than an insult. Given the current cultural meaning, and despite Limp Wrist’s efforts here, it is still not likely that “fag” or “faggot” are about to undergo major semantic shifts that lead to the words denoting a celebrated cultural identity rather than a derogatory category. However, this use of “fag” does have two parallels with “punk:” the establishment of a restrictive linguistic or cultural boundary as an act of producing a cultural identity, and the linguistic play off of oppositional parts of social dichotomies.

That is to say, while linguistic structures may organize words into hierarchized social dichotomies, such as the one between a derogatory word and a self-proclaimed cultural identity, semantic shifts along these lines do not work solely within this framework, but interrogate it. Words that play off of or subvert social dichotomies may have some of the most productive potential. And that is pretty punk.


Author Unknown. (1946, Jun 20). Flock of Trouble Beset Jacob After Punk Fight. Toledo Blade.

Author Unknown, (1960, March 18). Did Punk Murder Women? The Miami News.

Author Unknown. (1977, Dec 1). The Punks are Coming. The Deseret News.

Associated Press, (1963, Sep 5). Wallace Labeled “Punk” by Morse. The Lewiston Daily Sun.

Bangs, L. (1972) Creem. From Punk n1 and adj.2 , Oxford English Dictionary online

Berkman, A. (1912). Prison Memoirs of an Anarchist. From Punk n1 and adj.2,  Oxford English Dictionary online

Clayton, J. (1687) Philosophical transactions. From punk n.3, Oxford English Dictionary

Crass, Punk is Dead (1978). On The Feeding of 5000 [CD]. Small Wonder Records: London, UK

Google ngram for “*_VERB punk,” and “*_ADJ punk.” Retrieved from: http://www.books.google.com/ngram

Holstrom, J. (1976). Table of Contents. Punk. Retrieved from: http://www.punkmagazine.com/vault/back_issues/01/toc-vol1no1.html

Limp Wrist, Fake Fags (2006). On Want Us Dead EP. Lengua Armada Discos: Chicago, IL.

Ohland, G. (1980, July 10). Punk Violence: Blood Flows as Rock Craze Swells in Southern California. The Evening Independent.

Ozzi, Dan. (2013, June 13) “Punk is the Grossest Word in Music,” Noisey. Retrieved from: http://noisey.vice.com/blog/punk-is-the-grossest-word-in-music

Punk n1 and adj.2, (2007) in The Oxford English Dictionary online.

Punk n3, (2007) in The Oxford English Dictionary online

Ramones, Sheena is a Punk Rocker (1976). On Ramones [CD]. Sire Records: New York, NY.

Shakespeare, W. (1623) Mr. William Shakespeares comedies, histories & tragedies. From Punk n1 and adj.2, Oxford English Dictionary online

[1] One could argue that “-punk” is describing “cyber,” or “steam,” and not the other way around. That is to say, “-punk” is denoting how these particular subgenres of science fiction, “steam” and “cyber,” have “punk” qualities.

Lexiculture: eleventy

Julia Connally

Wayne State University

Cite as:  Connally, Julia. 2014.  Eleventy.  Lexiculture: Papers on English Words and Culture, vol. 1, article 3. http://glossographia.files.wordpress.com/2014/03/eleventy.pdf

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

(Download PDF version)

The word eleventy originally referred to the number one hundred ten, and later achieved modest fame after it received mention in J.R.R. Tolkien’s trilogy of fantasy novels, The Lord of the Rings. Today, eleventy is used primarily for hyperbolic purposes and to refer to punctuation overuse, especially on the Internet. How and when did eleventy become a tool for exaggeration? Who uses the word and in which contexts?

Eleventy is composed of the number eleven and the suffix –ty, which represents multiples of the number ten in cardinal numbers. In arithmetic, cardinal numbers are primitive or “natural” numbers and answer the question “how many” (for instance, one, two and three). Cardinal numbers contrast with ordinal numbers, which mark a position in a series (for instance, first, second, and third). The use of –ty stems from the Old English –tig, through a Germanic root that existed as a distinct word in Gothic (tigjus) and Old Norse (tigir), which meant “tens, decades.” [1]

According to Google Ngram, eleventy was used in print early in the nineteenth century. Charles Buck used eleventy in his book A Theological Dictionary, Containing Definitions of All Religious Terms; a Comprehensive View of Every Article in the System of Divinity; an Impartial Account of All the Principal Denominations…Together with an Accurate Statement of the Most Remarkable Transactions and Events Recorded in Ecclesiastical History (1818). Buck wrote, “In the eleventy century they were exempted by the popes from the authority established; insomuch, that in the council of Lateran, that was held in the year 1215, a decree was passed, by the advice of Innocent III. to prevent any new monastic institutions; and several were entirely suppressed.”[2] The use of “eleventy century” is not typical and likely reflects a typographical error for the word eleventh.

An identical error occurred in 1834, when Samuel Astley Dunham used eleventy in his book A History of Europe During the Middle Ages, Vol. IV. Referring to Anglo-Saxon poets, Dunham wrote, “So little has our ancient language been studied, that we have no critics capable of distinguishing the style of the seventh from that of the eleventy century…The first specimen is evidently from an Anglo-Saxon poet—of one hostile to the barbarous Danes, whom he calls heathens and pirates. It is the death of Brithnoth; a composition that must doubtless be referred to the eleventy century.”[3]

In 1854, Thomas H. Palmer used eleventy in its mathematical context in Arithmetic, oral and written, practically applied by means of suggestive questions: “…Forty-five from a hundred and forty-eight? [or eleventy-eight.] Seventy-two from a hundred and forty-eight? Thirty-six from a hundred and twenty-nine? [twelvety-nine]…[4]

In 1897, R.A. Brock, secretary of the Southern Historical Society, edited and published Southern Historical Society Papers, Vol. XXV. Page three hundred seventy-six of that book, a history of Confederate States of America forces, refers to P.B. Akers of the Eleventy Infantry of Lynchburg, Virginia. It is likely that in this context, eleventy was a typographical error for eleventh. The word eleventy does not appear elsewhere in the book.[5]

In 1921, Margaret Wilson published her short story “A Little Boy’s Utopia” in Atlantic Monthly. Wilson used eleventy to refer to an indefinitely large number: “No grown-up people, no babies, no girls. It was a world of boys, eleventy and a hundred strong.”[6]

In his 1917 novel The Job, Sinclair Lewis used eleventy in a hyperbolic context: “Oh, I dun’no’; you’re so darn honest, and you got so much more sense than this bunch of Bronx totties. Gee! they’ll make bum stenogs. I know. I’ve worked in an office. They’ll keep their gum and a looking-glass in the upper-right hand drawer of their typewriter desks, and the old man will call them down eleventy times a day, and they’ll marry the shipping-clerk first time he sneaks out from behind a box…”[7]

Printed use of eleventy was not common between 1900 and 1950. In the early 1960s, however, the word became increasingly popular. This phenomenon was possibly due to the publication in 1954 of J.R.R. Tolkien’s novel The Fellowship of the Ring. The book is the first volume in Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings series and the sequel to his earlier children’s book, The Hobbit. In The Fellowship of the Ring’s first chapter, Tolkien’s iconic hobbit character Bilbo Baggins celebrates his eleventy-first, or one hundred eleventh birthday.[8]

In their book The Ring of Words: Tolkien and the Oxford English Dictionary, Peter Gilliver, Jeremy Marshall, and Edmund Weiner suggest that Tolkien gave his hobbits “a practice used by our forefathers,” but that he may also have known of similar words in Icelandic upon which he based his fictional language.[9]

Tolkien’s books have sold about one hundred million copies worldwide.[10] His popularity prompted the publication of a number of books dedicated to his works. At least three were published in the 1970s, including The Middle-Earth Quiz Book (1979), A Tolkien Compass (1975), and The Tolkien Companion (1979). Each mentions Bilbo Baggins’s eleventy-first birthday.[11]

According to Google, Internet groups and chat rooms referenced Tolkien’s use of eleventy as early as 1994.[12] In addition, the film version of The Fellowship of the Ring, released in 2001, was enormously popular among theatergoers. According to the Internet Movie Database, the film remained among the top ten grossing films in the United States for thirteen weeks. It is estimated that The Fellowship of the Ring’s film version alone grossed more than eight hundred sixty million dollars worldwide.[13] The enormous popularity of Tolkien’s written and filmed works at a time when the Internet became increasingly accessible were likely the single greatest influence on eleventy’s presence in the English language.

Use of eleventy in another context, to indicate hyperbolic numerals, became popular in 2000, when the television comedy show Saturday Night Live aired a sketch in which the cast member playing actor Keanu Reeves competes on Celebrity Jeopardy. In the sketch, Reeves bets “eleventy-billion dollars” on Final Jeopardy, but fails to answer the question (“Just write anything”). When the cast member playing Jeopardy host Alex Trebek informs Reeves that eleventy-billion isn’t a number, Reeves replies, “Yet.”[14]

Eleventy-billion has since become a popular way among fashionable Internet posters to describe hyperbolic numerals. The use of the hyphenated form, however, appears to be distinct from the use of eleventy in a Lord of the Rings context.

Eleventy is also a trendy way to mock Internet posters who overuse exclamation points. Urbandictionary.com notes that “Since many people preferred using the Caps-Lock to the shift key, they would be unskilled with the shift key…and it would end up coming out as !!!1!!!!111!!!! or things along that line.”[15] Urban Dictionary also defines eleventy as “a fictional number used to describe an immense amount or the result of a cat walking across the numbers of a keyboard.”[16]

The website freejinger.org, which has about seven thousand two hundred registered members, also uses eleventy in its hyperbolic numeral sense, often to refer to families with many children. “These families all have eleventy billion kids, so I would think the lure of money would be more easily forgiven than looking at those evil, tempting womenfolk.”[17]

Free Jinger posters also use eleventy in its punctuation overuse context. They refer to Rebecca, a blogger with a penchant for exclamation points, simply as Rebecca Eleventy, sometimes with a string of exclamation points interspersed with the numeral one.[18]

Thus far, eleventy is primarily used by fans of The Lord of the Rings and by trendsetters. It has been proposed that in the future, eleventy will be used to refer to the decade from 2010 to 2019 (or more accurately, from 2011 to 2020). This is possibly due more to J.R.R. Tolkien’s influence than to widespread knowledge of eleventy’s numerical origins


Brock, R.A. Southern Historical Society Papers, Vol. XXV. 1897.

Buck, Charles. A Theological Dictionary, Containing Definitions of All Religious Terms; a Comprehensive View of Every Article in the System of Divinity; an Impartial Account of  All the Principal Denominations…Together with an Accurate Statement of the Most    Remarkable Transactions and Events Recorded in Ecclesiastical History. 1818.

Dunham, Samuel Astley. A History of Europe During the Middle Ages, Volume 4. 1834.

“Eleventy.” Online Etymology Dictionary. http://www.etymonline.com. 23 Oct. 2013.

“Eleventy.” Urban Dictionary. http://www.urbandictionary.com/define/php?term=Eleventy. 26     Oct. 2013.

Freejinger.org.  http://freejinger.org/forums/viewforum.php?f=8. 23 Oct. 2013.

Gilliver, Peter, Jeremy Marshall, and Edmund Weiner. The Ring of Words: Tolkien and the     Oxford English Dictionary. 2006.

Google Groups.    https://groups.google.com/forum/#!search/eleventy%7Csort:relevance/alt.fan.tolkien/j9QAAsAI-lY/iBf96MJsXUIJ. 29 Dec. 2013.

Google Ngram Viewer. https://www.books.google.com/ngrams/chart?content=eleventy&year_start=1800&year_ end=2000. 1 Nov. 2013.

Lewis, Sinclair. The Job. 1917.

“The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring (2001).”     http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0120737/.  29 Dec. 2013.

Palmer, Thomas H. Arithmetic, oral and written, practically applied by means of suggestive questions. 1854.

Shippey, Thomas. “The Hobbit: What has made the book such an enduring success?” The Telegraph. 20 Sept. 2013.

“SNL Transcripts: Tobey Maguire: 04/15/00: Celebrity Jeopardy.” Snltranscripts.jt.org.

Tolkien, J.R.R. The Fellowship of the Ring: Being the First Part of the Lord of the Rings. 2012.

Wilson, Margaret.  “A Little Boy’s Utopia.” The Atlantic Monthly: Volume 127, 1 Jan. 1921.

[1] Online Etymology Dictionary.

[2] Buck 335.

[3] Dunham 22-23.

[4] Palmer 36.

[5] Brock 376.

[6] Wilson 639.

[7] Lewis.

[8] Tolkien.

[9] Gilliver, Marshall, and Weiner.

[10] The Telegraph.

[11] Books.google.com.

[12] Groups.google.com.

[13] Imbd.com.

[14] Snltranscripts.jt.org.

[15] Urbandictionary.com.

[16] Ibid.

[17] Freejinger.org.

[18] Ibid.

Lexiculture: bromance

Alistair King

Wayne State University

Cite as:  King, Alistair. 2014.  Bromance.  Lexiculture: Papers on English Words and Culture, vol. 1, article 2. http://glossographia.files.wordpress.com/2014/03/bromance.pdf

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

(Download PDF version)

Research Question

How does the emergence of the term “bromance” reflect societal expectations of masculinity and male homosocial relationships?


It was not until late 2008 to early 2009 that the word “bromance” burst into the American consciousness. A combination of “bro” (a commonly used abbreviation of “brother,” used among male friends) and “romance,” the word was suddenly everywhere. Seemingly overnight, magazines, newspapers, and even nightly news programs were filled with articles and stories detailing this latest trend in friendship. It is a simple enough term, merely giving a specific, modern name to a pre-existing concept while simultaneously taking it to the next level. According to the Oxford English Dictionary (OED), a bromance is an “intimate and affectionate friendship between men [or] a relationship between two men which is characterized by this.” The earliest quotation that the OED gives for the term is a more casual definition from the April 2001 edition of a publication called TransWorld Surf and says, “Bromance—Romance between bros. Example: ‘It looks like there’s a bit of bromance between Ryan and Matt.’” The Times of London claims the word goes back even further to skateboarding magazines in the 1990s, where it was used in a similar manner “to describe the affections of über-buddy boarders” (Maher 2009). Neither of these provide much further insight, but to put it all together very simply, a bromance is an especially close friendship between two men. The top definition on Urban Dictionary would go a step further and say a bromance is between two straight men[1], but that excludes the many homosexual or bisexual men who have been part of self-described bromances.


The main impetus behind bromance’s rise to fame was a slew of movies released in 2008 and 2009 with an emphasis on male homosocial friendship, similar to the buddy-cop genre. The film I Love You, Man, starring Paul Rudd and Jason Segal as bromance partners, in particular caused the term to skyrocket in popularity. The Times provides a brief summary of what makes their characters’ relationship so special: “The men go to the beach, the bar, and the park together. They talk for hours on the phone. They have self-described ‘man dates,’ and discuss fine food and weepy movies. Though both officially heterosexual, they are also, it seems, somehow in love.” Essentially, the two are best friends and are unafraid to proclaim their platonic love for each other.


It proved to be an appealing concept to men, because around the time of the movie’s release in early 2009, worldwide Google searches for the term “bromance” suddenly spiked to their second highest point of all time.[2]


Of course, I Love You, Man was just one bromance films out of many that were released during that time period. Once producers realized how much money there was to be made in buddy flicks, the theaters were soon full of them (Callaghan 2010). The television channel MTV even aired a reality show called Bromance in which men competed to become best friends with TV personality Brody Jenner (Ogunnaike 2009). The bromantic attitude experienced a fast diffusion from screen to reality and men all across the nation were soon literally and figuratively embracing their closest male friends.



In the United States, bromance was frequently advertised as the male equivalent to female best-friend relationships (Hubbard 2008). Previously, men who were perceived as being too close were sometimes ridiculed by bigots and accused of being homosexual. Men were encouraged to keep their emotions repressed and confessing even a platonic love to another man was taboo. The macho attitude was prevalent, and while men could be friends, it was considered unusual if two men were as close as two women were. However, the bromance movement made these intimate, male homosocial relationships acceptable. Hugging, sharing of deep emotions, and spending extensive amounts of time together were no longer seen as strictly feminine activities. Two “bros” could have dinner together, go shopping, see a movie—anything. As long as it was under the title “bromance,” all would be well. Deep connections were encouraged, being half of a bromance was considered “cool,” and the situation allowed men to behave in what would usually be perceived as a “gay” manner. Not just in regards to closeness and hugging, but many bromance partners joked about marriage or being together for the rest of their lives. In a classic example, Matt Damon and Ben Affleck have publicly called themselves “hetero lifemates.”[3] When men in the media were open about their self-proclaimed bromances, it showed that not only was it acceptable to be that intimate with another man, but that you could still be manly and heterosexual while doing so—something that was of great importance to the more insecure of bromance partners.


This is where the dark side of bromance begins to emerge. While men were encouraged to be more open and caring towards their “bros,” there tended to be an air of (to borrow a very “bro” colloquial phrase) “no homo” that pervaded all their interactions and the relationship in general. This was, of course, highly offensive to the LGBT community as it suggested that there was something wrong with homosexuality and that male-male intimacy was only okay if it was completely heterosexual and if that heterosexuality was regularly reinforced with the use of words like “bro.” The fact that these bromantic relationships were being lauded by the media and adopted by men all over the country was highly frustrating to some (Callaghan 2010). To experience such progress in the acceptance of homosocial relations and yet maintain such a backwards perception of homosexual relations, from which bromance participators were perhaps ironically drawing much of their inspiration, was insulting. Although some men treated their bromance with less of a “don’t worry, it’s not gay” attitude and more of a “so what if we are?” attitude, it was not as common as its homophobic counterpart.


As seen on the previous Google Trends graph, interest in the word “bromance” has more or less leveled out. After years of constant use, the term has fallen out of vogue, and articles discussing the latest bromances are harder to come by. Such stories and articles do still exist, but the word does not carry the buzz it used to and is most often used by misguided older writers trying to connect with today’s youth. One of the highest profile recent cases of a media-declared “bromance” comes from around the time of the 2012 American elections (and again earlier in 2013) when news outlets began reporting on President Barack Obama’s supposed bromance with Governor Chris Christie of New Jersey (Epstein 2012). Clearly, it is not quite the hip, young term it used to be when reporters are applying it to middle-aged politicians of opposing political parties.



I began this project by asking what the usage of “bromance” has to do with masculine ideals and male-male platonic relations. According to my research, the emergence of the word “bromance” prompted a wave of men to become closer than ever before to their “bros.” While previously it was frowned upon and unusual for two men to be too personal and open with each other due to such behaviors being perceived as effeminate and thus supposedly inappropriate in our society, this new fad allowed them to be openly affectionate with their friends. It represented an interesting shift in societal expectations of masculinity. The spread of “bromance” broke down some of the more rigid masculine ideals but it also brought with it further homophobia and merely exacerbated intolerance for homosexual relationships as bromance participators repeatedly emphasized that what they were doing was not gay. The fact that this was how bromances were sometimes interpreted—that the actions were “gayer” and not simply those of good friends—is troublesome. While it is lamentable that there had to be a special word to allow for the full acceptance of deeper male friendships and that it was something that could not develop on its own under the classic label of “best friends,” it is even more lamentable that it was accompanied by cries of “don’t worry, it’s not gay,” because apparently that is where the line has to be drawn. Bromances are acceptable, but they will never let you forget that that is all it is, and that anything more would be crossing the line. “I love you, man. But no homo.”


“Bromance.” Oxford English Dictionary. Oxford University Press, June 2013. Web. <http://www.oed.com.proxy.lib.wayne.edu/view/Entry/378903>.

“Bromance.” Urban Dictionary. Urban Dictionary, 30 May 2005. Web. <http://www.urbandictionary.com/define.php?term=bromance>.

Callaghan, Greg. “A Fine Bromance – TREND TRACKER.” The Australian Magazine 4 Dec. 2010. LexisNexis. Web.

Donnelly, Matt. “Matt Damon: Ben Affleck Is His ‘Hetero Lifemate’” Los Angeles Times. Tribune, 13 Dec. 2011. Web. <http://latimesblogs.latimes.com/gossip/2011/12/matt-damon-ben-affleck-we-bought-a-zoo.html>.

Epstein, Reid J. “The Bromance Continues…” POLITICO. POLITICO LLC, 1 Nov. 2012. Web. <http://www.politico.com/politico44/2012/11/the-bromance-continues-148036.html>.

“Google Trends: Bromance.” Google Trends. Google. Web. <https:/www.google.com/trends/explore?q=bromance>.

Hubbard, Jeremy. “SIGN OF THE TIMES; THE BROMANCE.” Nightline. ABC. New York, New York, 9 Apr. 2008. LexisNexis. Web. Transcript.

Maher, Kevin. “Bromance Movies – It’s a Guy Thing; Film I Love You, Man Is the Latest ‘Romantic Comedy for Guys’. Kevin Maher Spots a Hollywood Trend.” The Times [London] 28 Mar. 2009. LexisNexis. Web.

Ogunnaike, Lola. “Are You and Best Buddy in a ‘Bromance’?” CNN. Cable News Network, 15 Apr. 2009. Web. <http://www.cnn.com/2009/LIVING/wayoflife/04/15/bromance/>.

                [1] The UrbanDictionary.com top-voted definition for “bromance,” originally posted in 2005, is as follows: “Describes the complicated love and affection shared by two straight males.”

                [2] As seen in the Google Trends graph on this page, displaying relative search volumes and interest over time for the query “bromance.”

                [3] As seen in Matt Donnelly’s 2011 Los Angeles Times article, “Matt Damon: Ben Affleck Is His ‘Hetero Lifemate.’”

Lexiculture: Aryan

David Prince

Wayne State University

Cite as:  Prince, David. 2014.  Aryan.  Lexiculture: Papers on English Words and Culture, vol. 1, article 1. http://glossographia.files.wordpress.com/2014/03/aryan.pdf

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

(Download PDF version)

The word Aryan is a term that was popularized and most commonly thought of in modern society as being related to Nazi Germany and their views of white supremacy. Today we can find organizations that use the term ‘Aryan’ to define themselves and their ideologies. Such groups include but are not limited to Aryan Nations, Aryan Brotherhood, Aryan Guard, White Aryan Resistance, and Aryan League. These organizations have several traits in common with each other. They are focused around a common ideal of white supremacy, racial prejudices and hatred. They are also often found being called ‘Neo-Nazis’. Nazi Germany conducted massive genocides based on racist and ethnocentric ideologies which focused around the blond-haired blue-eyed ideal of the German Aryan. This term is today so strongly focused around this 20th century Nazi usage and carries a strong negative stigma, which has prevented its use in academic and many common social circles. The idea of the Aryan race in western culture was used as scientific terms and hypotheses in the 18th and 19th centuries, long before the rise of the Third Reich. Nazi Germany took many of the ideas that were prevalent at that time to support their racist views. These ideas were historical hypotheses about the evolution and origins of western language from India and Iran and their spread in and out of Europe. This raises the question: how did the word ‘Aryan’ change from an honorific adjective used thousands of years ago in Indo-Iranian languages to a word associated today with a Germanic blond-haired blue-eyed master race?

Where did the word ‘Aryan’ come from?

The original roots of the word Aryan can be found in the Sanskrit and Avestan (the ancient Iranian language of the Zoroastrian scriptures) languages found in India and Iran. The Sanskrit ārya and the Avestan/Zend form (Airya), are the roots to the word Aryan which mean “belonging to the faithful, of one’s own tribe; honourable, noble” (Sanskrit Dictionary). It is a name that the ancient Indians and Iranians applied to themselves in contrast to the outside world, which they considered “base-born and contemptible” (Dwight 30). It is also a word that they used to describe their language and is considered to be the oldest autonym for the Indo-European language family. The usage of the word ‘ārya’ (noble) to define themselves and their language is similar to the word Слава (Slava) in Slavonic languages. Slava means ‘glory’, and that root is used to define the Slavic people as the glorified people. (Dwight 30). Usages of ārya can be found in Āryāvarta, or ‘home of the Aryans’ which is what ancient Sanskrit literature refers to as the Indian homeland (Sanskrit Dictionary).

Why did the word move into the west?

The study of Sanskrit in the 18th century was driven by contemporary philologists. Philology is a study that tries to discover and explain “the origin, history and structure of the words composing the classical languages and those connected with them, whether cognate or derived” (Dwight 193). Philology conducted earlier attempted to trace back languages such as Greek and Latin into Hebrew, which they viewed as the original language, according to Christian beliefs. This was unquestioned by the church and the scientists of the time. The paradigm of language having its root in Hebrew was contested by Gottfried Leibniz, a German philosopher, sometime around the turn of the 18th century. Leibniz wrote in a letter to Tenzel, “To call Hebrew the primitive language is like calling the branches of a tree primitive branches, or like imagining that in some country hewn trunks could grow instead of trees.” He also asked, “If the primeval language existed even up to the time of Moses, whence came the Egyptian language?” (Muller 1861:126). This was the beginning of doubt on the roots of language originating with Hebrew.

William Jones was a philologist who strived, like many if not most other philologists of his time, to trace the roots of language back to the Judeo-Christian myth of the destruction of the tower of Babel. He took an interest in Indian culture and founded the Asiatic Society in Calcutta, an organization that sought to study Indian and oriental cultures and languages. Until this point, knowledge about India had been relatively untouched by western society. He produced a lot of works about India and Sanskrit, and eventually hypothesized a common root to Sanskrit and other languages, such as Latin, Greek and Persian (Lamb & Mitchell 31). He summed up his beliefs in a famous statement he presented in his Third Anniversary Discourse to the Asiatic Society in 1786.

“The Sanskrit language, whatever be its antiquity, is of a wonderful structure; more perfect than the Greek, more copious than the Latin, and more exquisitely refined than either, yet bearing to both of them a stronger affinity, both in the roots of verbs and in the forms of grammar, than could possibly have been produced by accident; so strong indeed, that no philologer could examine them all three, without believing them to have sprung from some common source, which, perhaps, no longer exists: there is a similar reason, though not quite so forcible, for supposing that both the Gothic and the Celtic, though blended with a very different idiom, had the same origin with the Sanskrit; and the old Persian might be added to the same family, if this were the place for discussing any question concerning the antiquities of Persia”.

This began a new wave of research and a change of paradigm about the roots and development of Indo-European languages. The first concept of a Proto-Indo-European language started with Jones. Philologists, based off of Jones’ ideas began to start searching for this hypothetical pre-language, and instead of turning to Hebrew, they began to focus their energies on Sanskrit.

How was ‘Aryan’ first interpreted in western culture?

The first usage of Aryan, or rather Arian, in western culture was by a man named Friedrich Schlegel, a German poet and philologist. He had taken an interest in studying the Indo-European languages. He was the founder of the studies of comparative Indo-European philology (Bonfiglio 145). Comparative philology utilized the technique of comparing two different languages and inducting similarities from them in attempt to find common linguistic trends in order to search for a common root. He began to look at a comparison of people and their language in a nationalistic way, viewing a certain race of having a certain language. In his book Über die Sprache und Weisheit der Indier (On the Language and Wisdom of India) (1808), he hypothesized that the Aryans of northern India came to Europe from India and the Aryan language they brought influenced the languages of the modern day Europeans. He discovered similarities to the Ari- root and the German word “Ehre”, which means honor. He also related Ari- to “Erben” (heirs) and “Wehren” (defenders). He made the point that they were similarly pronounced and that the German words drew directly from the “Arian language” and that Germans must have been descendants of the Arians. At this time, the view of the term ‘Aryan’ was purely linguistic. Philologists talked about Aryan as group of people that spoke a certain language and the path and influence that language had over time. The Aryan people were none other than the speakers of the Aryan language.

How did Aryan begin to be viewed as a race?

In 1855, Joseph Arthur comte de Gobineau, a French aristocrat, wrote a book entitled The inequality of the Human Races, which was one of the first examples of scientific racism. His book describes characteristics of each of the human races, which he categorizes as three: white, black and yellow. He holds Christian views to back up to some degree his argument and believes that “Adam is the ancestor of the white race” (de Gobineau 118). He states several characteristics of each of the races, and shows the white race to have the best qualities as well as “the monopoly on beauty, intelligence and strength” (de Gobineau 209). He says that all civilizations on earth today are derived from interracial mixing of white, black and yellow races. He goes on to say that the German people are the original pure Arians, or rather that the Arians were ‘Les races germaniques’, and that most of the other civilizations all had Aryan blood in them, although they were polluted. The three races that he portrayed laid the basis for race analysis for the rest of the 19th century. This was one of the first publications that went in depth about certain characteristics of certain races, as well as a hypothesis of a 3 root race system. His initial purpose for his work was to show why there was a degeneration of societies and what was causing it. His hypothesis was that the race of the people determined how successful they were (de Gobineau 26). Because of the belief of the Aryan success and power as the root of European languages, they were viewed as an example of the pure white race.

These ideas were supported alongside the contemporary ideology of unilineal cultural evolutionism that was perpetuated in the 19th century by sociologists such as Herbert Spencer, Auguste Comte, and Lewis Morgan. Unilineal cultural evolutionism was an ideology which was believed to be a universal succession of evolutionary stages that take place in societies, starting with savagery, progressing to barbarism and eventually reaching the pinnacle which was contemporary Western civilization. De Gobineau’s work portrayed a link to the less civilized people in relation to their race, implying that there was something about their race that made them less civilized and unable to become as such. This added a dehumanizing and separating effect between white Europeans and those of a different race that were not, according to their ideologies, civilized.

Where did the Aryans come from?

Philology has always believed that there must be a common root, a protolanguage, to modern European languages. Much of the philology of the 19th century was still guided by Christian ideologies and beliefs, especially that of the Tower of Babel. They wanted to find the root of the language and assumed a certain type of people spoke the language. They believed that the closer they got to the original language, the closer they got to the original people. They saw that the Arian influences in many languages were great so they sought after the Proto-Aryan language, and by doing so, searched for the Proto-Aryan people that spoke that language. This was the beginning of the blend of language and biology.

Max Muller, a German-born philologist, was the first to mention and talk about the “Aryan race” in English in his 1861 Lectures on the Science of Language. He hypothesizes that the roots of the Aryans were agricultural nomads and the term AR- goes back to the original proto language and means “to till” or “open the soil” and he gives examples of similarities in several languages (239). However this nomadic people grew larger and and in his book, Biographies of words, and the home of the Aryas (1888), he proposed that an Aryan invasion of India, in which the “dark aboriginal inhabitants” were invaded by “their more fair-skinned conquerors” took place (245). The Indian invasion theory led to a shift in people wondering where the Aryans hailed from. This theory is one which many later philologists will clutch on to and make it a main point of their research. In his book he talks at length about the concept of the Aryan ‘race’. He popularized the term, even though in his work he says that “Aryas are those who speak Aryan languages, whatever their colour, whatever their blood” (245). Muller’s idea of ‘race’ was that race was the language, culture and religion not the physical appearance.

“[I]n early history of the human intellect, there exists the most intimate relationship between language, religion and nationality- a relationship quite independent of those physical elements, the blood, the skill or the hair, on which ethnologists have attempted to found their classification of the human race”

He viewed the Indians as being ‘Aryan brethren’ and that Europeans and Indians belonged to the same race. Muller’s ideas of race, however, were not regarded. Philologists would eventually use the term ‘race’ in context to have a meaning more biological than sociocultural, something that Muller was in part responsible for, but had not intended.

Robert G. Latham, an anthropologist, in the 1850s attacked Max Muller about his idea of the Aryans and their roots in India. Latham believed that race was innately biological and that the Aryans could not have been the Indians. He argues that the Indians had never conquered anything, but rather that European accomplishments far outshone the accomplishments of the Indians. Therefore the Europeans were part of the white race, and the Indians were part of the yellow race (Arvidsson 47). Latham strongly opposed Muller’s ideas and instead proposed a radically repositioned theoretical homeland of the Aryans. Rather than being in or near India, he positioned it near Scandinavia, presenting an argument that the Lithuanian language has many of the archaic features that Sanskrit does. He also felt it was easier to explain that the Aryans emigrated from Europe than to believe that all the different groups and cultures in Europe found their way out of Asia. In Elements of Comparative Philology (1862) he says

“Has the Sanskrit reached India from Europe or have the Lithuanic, the Slavonic, the Latin, the Greek, and the German, reached Europe from India? If historical evidence be wanting, the a priori presumptions must be considered. I submit that history is silent, and that the presumptions are in favor of the smaller class having been deduced from the area of the larger rather than vice versa. If so, the situs of the Sanskrit is on the eastern, or south-eastern, frontier of the Lithuanic; and its origin is European” (611).

Muller hypothesized that the Aryan invaders hailed from somewhere near Lithuania, and said that Lithuanian had as many archaic features as did Sanskrit (Arvidsson 142). This theory was well received and propagated among Europe. Their sense of identity was changing. The locality of the Aryan homeland was brought to the Europeans, and the idea became very popular.

The shift that took place about the understanding of the Aryan birthplace developed within the mindset of the romantic nationalism that was taking place, especially in Germany after the Franco-Prussian War and the reunification of Germany. The idea of an European homeland went along with folklore’s focus on Germanic material (Arvidsson 142). It was not until Karl Penka, an Austrian philologist and anthropologist, made the proposal in his work, Die Herkunft der Arier (1886), that “the pure Aryans… are represented only by the North Germans and Scandinavians, a most prolific race, of great stature, muscular strength, energy and courage, whose splendid natural endowments enable it to conquer the feebler races to the East, the South and the West and to impose its language on the subject peoples” (46). The homeland of the Aryans, according to him was, as Latham thought, in Scandinavia. Theodore Pösche, in Die Arier (1878), laid the basis describing the appearance of the Aryans as being blond haired, blue eyed and fair skinned, and that the home of the Aryans must be where these traits would be most dominant (Arvidsson 142). The Aryans, the pure white race, still existed. There was a huge sense of national pride, especially in Germany, where scientists stressed the similarities of the Scandanavian and Germanic peoples. The ‘Nordic race’ became synonymous with the ‘Aryan race’ (Arvidsson 143). This pride of being the master race, the most perfect people, was in part main reason in why Adolf Hitler and the Nazi party were able to rise to power.

Aryan. What happened to this word? Why did this happen?

Aryan went from being a linguistic term defining a culture of people in India that spoke a hypothetical proto –language, the Aryan language, to being a term for a perfect biological master race that originated in Europe. Much of the history of this word is based off of misunderstandings and using contemporary science to fulfill one’s own agenda. Many of the original assumptions based off of the language, such as the connection Schlegel made between Sanskrit and German, were not viewed as nationalistic at first, just proof towards German having a direct decent from the original proto-language. Aryans were closer to the roots of the languages, but it was only cultural. There was no one people to whom this language belonged, only a shared area and linguistic roots. The concept of the Aryans as those that speak the Aryan language began to change when the Indian invasion theory was developed by Muller. The invaders invaded India and brought the Aryan language. Questions such as “Who were these invaders?” and “Where did these invaders come from?” started to be asked.

An Aryan homeland was envisioned. The Aryan language became fused to the Aryan people, and the view that the Aryan people came from someplace and were one nationality took over the idea that the Aryans were anyone that spoke the Aryan language. The Aryans were viewed as mighty conquers, and philologists began to wonder where these people originated from. With racist ideologies beginning to develop and a strong sense of European nationalism growing, the Europeans theorized that they were the original Aryans, because only the white race could have been capable of doing that which the Aryans had done. The Europeans had created this view of the Aryan race. There is no proof that there even was a Proto-Indo-European language, but it was taken as fact. So as theories piled upon theories, the term Aryan got further and further away from the original theory. ‘Aryan’ started as a culture of shared linguistic history, changing to the language of a group of people who invaded India, and then to the language of a nationality. European ethnocentrism pervaded the philologists’ minds and research and through them the Europeans created their own mythical Aryan race.


Anthropological Review. Les Origines Indo-Europeennes, ou les Aryas Primitifs, Essai de Paleontologie Linguistique. Royal Anthropological Institute of Great Britain and Ireland. 1863

Arvidsson, Stefan. Aryan Idols: Indo-European Mythology as Ideology and Science. 2006.

Bonfiglio, Thomas Paul. Mother Tongues and Nations: The Invention of the Native Speaker, 2010

Dwight, Benjamin Woodbridge, Modern Philology: Its Discoveries, History, and Influence. With Maps, Tabular Views, and an Index, 1877

de Gobineau, Joseph Arthur Comte, Essai sur l’inégalité des races humaines (An Essay on the Inequality of the Human Races) (1853–1855)

Jones, William. The Third Anniversary Discourse, on the Hindus, 1786

Lamb, Sydney M., & Mitchell, E. Douglas, Sprung from Some Common Source: Investigations Into the Prehistory of Languages, 1991

Latham, Robert G. Elements of Comparative Philology (1862)

Müller, Friedrich Max. Lectures on the science of language, delivered at the Royal institution of Great Britain in 1861 [and 1863], Volume 1, 1861

Müller, Friedrich Max. Biographies of words and the home of the Aryas. 1888

Penka, Karl. Die Herkunft der Arier (1886)

Sanskrit Dictionary. http://dsalsrv02.uchicago.edu/cgibin/romadict.pl?page=39&table=macdonell&display=simple

Schlegel, Friedrich. Über die Sprache und Weisheit der Indier (On the Language and Wisdom of India) (1808)

Lexiculture: Inquiries on Words

At long last, I have put together my long-promised collection of undergraduate papers from my Language and Culture course last term, entitled the Lexiculture Papers.  This is a new top-level section of Glossographia accessible from the menu bar, above.  The papers (my introduction, below, plus eight student essays) are accessible through that page, but each will also be published as its own post, along with a downloadable PDF version.  All of the papers in the project are licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License.

Stephen Chrisomalis

Wayne State University


Cite as:  Chrisomalis, Stephen. 2014.  Lexiculture: Inquiries on Words.  Lexiculture: Papers on English Words and Culture, vol. 1, Introduction. http://glossographia.files.wordpress.com/2014/03/intro2.pdf

(Download PDF version)

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

The Lexiculture Papers comprise student scholarship in linguistics and anthropology, bearing on the relationship between words and the social milieux in which they are coined, used, and transformed.  In choosing a neologism for this concept and for this project, I am consciously rejecting other terms, some of great antiquity (etymology, lexicography) and some of great recency (culturomics).    Lexiculture aims to carve out a distinct interdisciplinary space, using concepts from sociolinguistics and linguistic anthropology, to study the ‘culture of words’ from a perspective accessible to lay readers and scholarly audiences alike.

This project had its inception in 2010.  As a professor of linguistic anthropology at Wayne State University, I teach a course each year entitled Language and Culture, which is required for all our undergraduate anthropology majors.  Many of these students come into the class with a vague interest in language, but also significant trepidation or even loathing at the sound of words like grammar and linguistics.  Moreover, while some of my students have some knowledge of other languages, many of them do not, leaving English as the chief touchstone through which I can frame key concepts in the field.    I developed a pilot project on the word chairperson (Chrisomalis 2010) followed by an experimental student project in my 2010 course, before putting it into full practice in the 2013 version of my course (Chrisomalis 2013).

The term lexiculture is not entirely of my own invention; after coining it, I discovered that Robert Galisson had originated it (in French) in 1988 and used it in several publications thereafter, in much the same sense that I am using it (Galisson 1988, 1999).  The common point of interest in our approaches is that words are seen as discrete, analyzable aspects of cultural facts, and thus ways of understanding social change.   However, to my knowledge, it has not percolated into the English-language scholarship to date.

Of course, neither Galisson nor I are the first to reflect on the importance of individual words and their meanings for understanding social life.    Raymond Williams’ Keywords (1976) is perhaps best-known and widest-cited of these, seeking to demonstrate complex interrelations and semantic shifts in the basic vocabulary of the humanities and social sciences.   Wierzbicka (1997) takes a cross-cultural, cognitive and linguistic approach to similar sorts of issues in her Understanding cultures through their key words and other publications.    These have the advantage of a substantial scholarly apparatus, and enjoy their well-deserved reputations.    But for the student just taking the first steps into research of any kind, what they lack is a means to the joy of discovery in the social sciences of language, of collecting data on new words, transformed words, and just plain weird words, and deriving a scholarly analysis.

My own (perceived) inability to convey to my students the joy of conducting their own linguistic research proved to be the major impetus for the Lexiculture project.  In a field like archaeology, my departmental colleagues introduce students to research through work on large, collaborative field and laboratory projects in which they can develop their skills over time.    In contrast, linguistic research is frequently seen as the purview of the ‘lone wolf’ and to require a steep learning curve, before which nothing serious can be accomplished.   I became convinced that yet another class full of rote and rigor was hardly a blueprint for student success.

Given the wealth of tools available today, my entry into linguistic research for my students is through individual words, their histories, and their transformations.  It is probably the case that I could not have done this project five or ten years ago because so many of the tools at our disposal online did not exist then.    Linguistic corpora (such as COCA and COHA) and tools for massive textual analysis (most notably the Google Ngram Viewer) stand out among these, of course.  But even having regular access to the online searchable Oxford English Dictionary makes a huge difference for students who may come into the class thinking of ‘the dictionary’ as an abstract tome containing ‘the language’.    Using Elizabeth Knowles’ (2010) How to Read a Word as a core text, I aimed to get students first and foremost to think about words as aspects of social life, and only secondarily as subjects of quantitative research.  Beyond specifically linguistic tools, I wanted to encourage students to look at how the words they were researching intersected with social and historical trends at particular times, and how they changed over time.

There are certainly parallels between lexiculture and the work done by proponents of culturomics, the quantitative analyses of texts, which is a sort of branch of corpus linguistics using data compiled by Google (Michel et al. 2011).  Culturomics, and the Google Ngram viewer that is its primary public analytical tool, is important, and as you will see in the papers collected here, most of my students make use of Ngrams or other related tools of analysis.  I share the conviction of the folks at the Culturomics project that “quantitative methods can be a great source of ideas that can then be explored further by studying primary texts.” (culturomics.org) But the question is, how ought one to do that?   What works well and what doesn’t?   Rather than get into the (by now rather extensive) scholarly debate over whether these tools have any value (they clearly do), lexiculture seeks to actually use this approach in tandem with innovative theoretical and methodological approaches from the language and human sciences.

I developed the concept of lexiculture as a way of making the linguistic joys of lexicography and etymology intersect with the intellectual interests of my students in the social sciences.  To be sure, an etymological puzzle can be amazingly fun, but antedating is not a substitute for analysis.    Because I am a linguistic anthropologist (and not, principally, a dialectologist or a corpus linguist or a historical linguist, any of whose skills could be applied here), my particular focus is to get junior scholars (and, indeed, senior scholars!) thinking about the language-culture intersection in new and productive ways.    I want to get them to think about new words not as individual inventions, but through their adoption into speech communities, through their transmission at particular historical moments, and through their transformations within social contexts.

The papers in this project constitute detailed individual student work conducted in the span of a one-semester intermediate-division undergraduate course of around 30 students.  None of the students had extensive background in linguistics or linguistic anthropology prior to taking the course.  Students chose words from a long (~100 items) list that I developed on the basis of their potential interest, or, if they wished, they could make a formal written proposal to analyze another word.  The words on my list were single English words or two-word phrases that I felt might be of interest, and had their primary area of historical interest between roughly 1800 and the present.  This time delimitation is necessary, in part, because the datasets that are freely available to students largely cover this period, and in part because of the more specialized knowledge that would be required to cover more distant periods (or, for that matter, non-English words).    Of the 30 submitted projects, 12 were invited for submission to the project, of which the eight published here were submitted by the student authors.

It is my hope and expectation that, given the high quality of the submitted papers and the positive student response to the project, volume 2 of the Lexiculture Papers will be published here online in March 2015 or earlier based on next year’s class.


This is the list of sources given to Language and Culture students at the initiation of the project, and forms a wide potential range of materials useful for any particular lexicultural project.  Some of these (marked with *) are accessible only through university library subscription, while others are more generally available.  All of these links were active as of March 2014.

*Oxford English Dictionary


Comprehensive English dictionary with historical information

Online Etymology Dictionary


Comprehensive English dictionary of word origins and histories

Google Books


Books, any language, 1500 – present

Google NGram Viewer


Word frequencies, English and other languages, reliable for 1800 – 2000

Google Scholar


Journal articles, any language, 1900 – present

Google News Archive


Newspaper articles, mostly American English, 1850 – present

Google Groups


Usenet newsgroups, 1985 – present

Library of Congress – Chronicling America


American newspaper articles, 1836-1922

*Proquest Newspapers / Proquest Historical Newspapers


Newspaper articles and other sources, 1740 – present

*LexisNexis Academic


Articles, essays, newspapers, 1980 – present

COCA (Corpus of Contemporary American English)


400 million words in American English, various, 1990 – 2012

COHA (Corpus of Historical American English)


400 million words in American English, various, 1810 – 2009


Chrisomalis, Stephen. (2010). What do students want to know about lexicography?  http://glossographia.wordpress.com/2010/06/09/student-lexicography/

Chrisomalis, Stephen. (2013). Lexiculture redux: new adventures in teaching linguistic anthropology. http://glossographia.wordpress.com/2013/06/17/lexiculture-redux-new-adventures-in-teaching-linguistic-anthropology/

Galisson, Robert. (1988). Culture et lexiculture partagées: les mots comme lieux d’observation des faits culturels in Observer et décrire les faits culturels. Études de linguistique appliquée (69), 74-90.

Galisson, Robert. (1999). La pragmatique lexiculturelle pour accéder autrement, à une autre culture, par un autre lexique. Etudes de linguistique appliquée, 116(OCT-DEC), 477-496.

Knowles, Elizabeth. (2010). How to Read a Word.  Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Michel, Jean-Baptiste, Shen, Yuan Kui, Aiden, Aviva Presser, Veres, Adrian, Gray, Matthew K, Pickett, Joseph P, Hoiberg, Dale, Clancy, Dan, Norvig, Peter, and Orwant, Jon. (2011). Quantitative analysis of culture using millions of digitized books. Science, 331(6014), 176-182.

Wierzbicka, Anna. (1997). Understanding cultures through their key words : English, Russian, Polish, German, and Japanese. New York: Oxford University Press.

Williams, Raymond. (1976). Keywords : a vocabulary of culture and society. New York: Oxford University Press.