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.

Lexiculture: nymphomaniac

Christen Helper

Wayne State University

Cite as:  Helper, Christen. 2014.  Nymphomaniac.  Lexiculture: Papers on English Words and Culture, vol. 1, article 4. http://glossographia.files.wordpress.com/2014/03/nymphomaniac.pdf

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

(Download PDF version)


In the 1960s there was a new wave of feminism rising in American culture; women were rallying against the homemaker image and pushing toward a more modern, independent, and influential image.  During this time there was a ‘Sexual Revolution’ making an imprint on American culture; women were becoming more open and proud about their sexuality.  They viewed themselves and their actions as liberated and powerful, but to outsiders they were viewed as the new-age deviant nymphomaniacs. Nymphomaniacs, women who express and pursue an excessive amount of sexual activity, have felt a strong backlash for centuries to the cultural norms and gendered expectations of women in Western cultures.  But where did the rise of the nymphomaniacs begin, and how did they become such an iconic taboo in Western cultures and societies?  As our society strives to make steps toward more progressive and accepting ideologies, will women have to continue to keep their sexual identities hidden?

History and Etymology

The origin of nymphomaniac can be traced all the way back to ancient Greece; the word nymphe means “bride” or “young wife” (www.etymonline.com).  The word then goes on to give rise to the Greek mythological characters with the same name; The Nymphs.  According to Classical mythology, the nymphs are minor female deities and protectors of springs, mountains, and rivers; they are represented as young, beautiful girls (Mythica).  There are five different types, each named for the landmark or location they were entrusted to protect: celestial, water, land, plant, and the underworld.  They never grew old or died from old age, and in some legends they gave birth to demi-gods.  These free spirits were set apart from the common, mortal woman of Classical Greek life because they could not be tamed by men; they never married.  The gods and goddesses most commonly associated with nymphs are Artemis, Apollo, and Dionysus.  Figure 1 is a classical painting of nymphs.


Figure 1: ‘Bathing Nymphs’ – Palma Vecchi, c. 1525-28.

This is an Italian artist’s representation of what mythological nymphs could have looked like.  An important feature of these women is their comfortable appearance and body language; they are creatures of nature.  Their nudity isn’t meant to create the poster image for sexual desire or promiscuity, but to display the most natural state for all humans and divine beings.  This portrait captures the original meaning behind the word nymph.

In the late 18th and early 19th centuries, nymph went through a semantic shift.  Doctors began to add the suffix mania to form “nymphomania”; a disease in which women suffer through an excessive sexual desire (Dictionary).  Women accused of being nymphomaniacs were often sent to hospitals or asylums where doctors would treat these patients with series of traumatic and violent procedures; most commonly hysterectomies, lobotomies, and various other techniques that by today’s standards would be considered cruel and unusual.  Unfortunately many of the accused women did not have any form of a mental disorder or cognitive impairment; they were usually sent away by fathers or husbands for not conforming to archaic cultural norms for women’s behavior.

Nymphomaniacs and Satyriasis

Figure 2 displays the Google Ngram comparison of the words nymphomania and satyriasis.  Just as nymphomania refers to the excessive sexual urges in women, satyriasis is the excessive sexual urges in men.  This word also takes its roots in Greek mythology as well as having a similar semantic shift involving psychiatry.; however, around 1880 nymphomania appears to be used almost three times as much as satyriasis in literary publications – but why?  If both words are used to describe a person with excessive sexual compulsions and with identical symptoms, why is the female diagnosis much more commonly used and recognized?


Figure 2

One hypothesis reflects the differences in the names themselves.  When one hears a word that includes the suffix mania, it is automatically associated with a mental or cognitive impairment.  This then leads one to start associating other characteristics of what one might know about other manias; mood swings, aggression, erratic behavior, etc.  In general, abnormal behaviors.  When a woman is diagnosed as being a nymphomaniac, she is immediately stigmatized as having a sort of immoral, uncontrollable and irrational behavior; she is a danger to society and possibly threatens the moral guidelines for other women she may come in contact with.  On the other hand, if a man is diagnosed as having satyriasis, the name doesn’t do as much as to trigger a preconcieved notion as to what that might entail.  The suffix sis in medical terms is usually associated with a physical ailment, such as dialysis or neurofibromatosis, or even a biological event (meiosis or biogenesis).  Its name doesn’t automatically trigger thoughts of abnormal or uncontrollable behavior, but more of an abnormal condition involving bodily function.  This still leads to question why one gender is left with a much more burdening stereotype of the same state.

Nymphomaniacs and Literature

A part from the tragic, medicinal history behind the term nymphomaniac, there is another event that launches the use of the word; the 1955 novel Lolita.  Written by Vladimir Nabokov, it is the controversial story of a middle-aged man who becomes infatuated with a twelve-year old girl.  He eventually seduces her and begins a sexual relationship with the girl, despite her fragile, young age.  The protagonist, Humbert Humbert, has had a longstanding interest in pubescent-aged girls; he refers to them as nymphets.  Throughout the novel Humbert frequently uses this term, as well as a few others, to justify is his sexual advances of a young girl.  By giving his love interest a title that suggests that she is sexually promiscuous or has insatiable sexual appetite, he is drawing attention away from his own perversions.  Lolita is then portrayed in a completely different way; no longer is she an innocent adolescent, but now is a vixen and antagonist using adult behavior.  While it is clear that in the novel the young Lolita is objectified and sexually exploited by a much older man, the words associated with her character have an oppositional view.  Around the time of Lolita’s publication in 1955, a dramatic increase occurred in the usage of the words nympho and nymphet, as shown in Figure 3.  Although the context of the two words is not specified in the NGRAM search, it is rather coincidental that their sudden gain in popularity runs along the same time as the release of what is considered to be one of the greatest novels of the 20th century.


Figure 3

Notice that until approximately 1950 nymphet was virtually nonexistent; nympho also takes a dramatic increase in use around the same time.  Could this be a direct influence from Lolita?

Figure 4 compares the same three terms, but also introduces the term hebephile, a type of chronophilia in which one is primarily or exclusively sexually interested in pubescent individuals approximately eleven to fourteen years of age (Wikipedia).  Humbert is described in character analysis as being a hebephile, as throughout the story he is fufilling his sexual fantasies with Lolita; yet it is the words associated with her character analysis that transpire into culture and common vocabulary use.  Could this be due to gender gaps in society at the time of its release?  Even though adult-child relationships were considered morally unethical and taboo, did society still dissect Lolita’s character as being an explicit character, despite her age, simply because she is a young, unorthodox female?


Figure 4


As we progress further into the 21st century, the gender isolating terms of the past are taking on new names, as well as new identities.  Women are breaking away from the Victorian Era stereotypes of being the silent, restrained housewife and bridging the gender inequality gap.  Nymphomania is being replaced with more neutral terms such as hypersexuality and sex addiction.  This neutralization of nymphomania reduces the shame and attention that was once predominately geared toward women.  Hypersexuality, defined as a dysfunctional preoccupation with sexual fantasy for a period of at least six months (Weiss), is a part of sex addiction.  Figure 5 shows the increase in these new expressions as they begin to replace the older in cultural aspects of the English language.


Figure 5

The term sex addiction does not appear until the early 1980s, peaks in the 1990s, and then drops back down around the turn of the century; within the past five years it has regained some of its popularity within its use in pop culture.  The recent trend has been for celebrities (mostly male; Tiger Woods, David Duchovny, etc.) to come out as having sex addiction issues after a scandalous event or failure in personal relationships are covered by the media.  Since American culture is greatly intertwined with media and pop culture, this could be a huge contributing factor in the eradication of the use of nymphomania and satyriasis.  Media is one of the biggest contenders in the ways that language shapes culture (whether it’s subliminal or not); the words that are chosen for today’s news reports and magazine articles are the words that will be repeated in tomorrow’s conversation.


Dictionary, M.-W. (n.d.). Merriam-Webster Dictionary Online. Retrieved November 2013, from http://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/nymphomania

Mythica, E. (n.d.). Nymphs. Retrieved Novemeber 1, 2013, from Encyclopedia Mythica Online: http://www.pantheon.org/articles/n/nymphs.html

Weiss, R. (n.d.). Hypersexuality: Symptoms of Sexual Addiction. Retrieved November 2013, from http://www.psychcentral.com: http://psychcentral.com/lib/hypersexuality-symptoms-of-sexual-addiction/00011488

Wikipedia. (n.d.). Wikipedia: The Free Encyclopedia. Retrieved November 2013, from http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hebephilia

http://www.etymonline.com. (n.d.). Retrieved from Online Etymology Dictionary: http://www.etymonline.com/index.php?term=nymph&allowed_in_frame=0

Picture Credit : http://spenceralley.blogspot.com/2011/12/masters-of-venice.html

What’s so improper about fractions?

Yesterday, as part of the Wayne State Humanities Center brownbag series, I gave a talk entitled, “What’s so improper about fractions? Mathematical prescriptivism at Math Corps”, based on my long-term ethnographic research in Detroit.   For those of you who might be interested, you can watch the video below (or on Youtube itself), and the powerpoint is available for download here.

Help ignite the Schwa Fire

A really exciting new digital initiative in linguistics journalism is on the horizon: Schwa Fire.    It’s the brainchild of Michael Erard, a Ph.D. in linguistics and a superlative science writer.  Erard is seeking to fill the gap between the language blogs (of which you’re currently reading one), where content is relatively short and the authors unpaid, and the literary and intellectual magazines like the New Yorker, where there are occasionally linguistic essays of some importance, but not nearly often enough or in enough detail.  Schwa Fire will be a low-cost ($1.99) ad-free digital magazine available on the web and for mobile devices featuring important ideas from people from across the linguistic sciences.

Erard is currently running a major Kickstarter initiative to get his project off the ground, and is over halfway to his $25,000 goal.  I supported it today and I would encourage others with an interest in seeing high-quality, long-form, language-related on-line non-fiction (perhaps with not so many hyphens) to do so as well.

A hithertofore unrecognized neologism

I got a note last week from a correspondent asking me about the word hithertofore, and whether or not it was a ‘proper word’.  I have to admit that at first glance I was very surprised, because of course it was a perfectly good word, and one whose meaning I knew well.   But when the correspondent said that she’d looked around and hadn’t found it, I looked at it again and realized that of course it wasn’t a word.  Or was it?

English has two words with a distinctly archaic flavour that mean ‘up to the present time’, hitherto and heretofore.    These synonyms also start with the same letter, are compounds containing to, and to top it all off, hither and here are also synonyms, so it’s not even semantically odd.   Neither word is especially common, and as you can see from this Ngram, hitherto and heretofore are really quite rare and becoming rarer.    It’s hardly surprising, then, that some speakers and readers might blend these two. Whether we think of it as adding -fore to hitherto, or substituting hither for here in heretofore, doesn’t much matter, as the result is the same, hithertofore.

What should perhaps be more surprising is that hithertofore hasn’t hithertofore been included in any dictionary, not even with a usage note.   It’s not hard to find in use in printed books; Google Books claims 67,500 works containing it (although that number is probably inaccurate) in lots of different genres.  There are plenty of words in big unabridged dictionaries that are far less common than that.   I’ve found it going back at least as far as 1708, and I didn’t have to look very hard. While it seems at a glance that a higher than average proportion of these works are authored by non-native English speakers, I also would argue that one has to be relatively fluent to even make such an error, conflating two already-unusual words.

Note, though, that its Ngram, rather than slowly declining from the 19th century until today like those of its two constituents, shows it to be largely a product of the mid-20th century, peaking around 1970.  This suggests, firstly, that perhaps it was at its most popular when its two constituents had declined enough in frequency that they had fallen out of regular use (and were thus prone to confusion), but were still common enough to be intermixed.   It hit its sweet spot half a century ago, but now the two well-accepted words themselves are falling out of use in favour of previously  or other terms, so hithertofore may actually have lost its chance to become another widely used variant (even at its most popular, it was less than 1% as frequent as heretofore).    I still think it’s a neat example of the way that memory, meaning, and phonology can lead to the appearance of nearly-invisible blends, and given that it is a relatively common error, it could probably use some lexicographical attention.



‘False friend’ follies

Last week in my class, we were discussing loanwords as well as semantic change.    You couldn’t ask for a more perfect (although bothersome) news story incorporating these two aspects of linguistic change than this story about a  bilingual promotional campaign in Canada for Vitaminwater, in which random English and French words were paired on the bottom of drink caps.  But it all went horribly wrong when under one cap, the English word ‘you’ was combined with the French word ‘retard’ for ‘late’, as detailed in this article in the Province , and was then found by an Alberta family.   Another cap had the perfectly ordinary French word douche ‘shower’.  Coca-Cola (the parent company) has apologized profusely and cancelled the promotion (to its credit), and has said it was all a coincidence gone awry, although I still wonder whether it could be a rogue employee’s doing.

Learners of second languages are often warned to beware of ‘false friends’ – words that look like English words but in fact, in the other language, have a radically different meaning.  Obviously ‘retard’ has a very specific and highly offensive meaning for most English speakers.   But I’m a little surprised that, in the coverage of this story, there hasn’t been really any mention of the fact that ‘retard’ (with second-syllable stress) is not just a French word meaning ‘late’, but an English verb that, until recently at least, was in common use as a synonym for ‘delay’.     Of course, these days the offensive connotation means that the verb ‘to retard’ is becoming increasingly rare, although it’s not hard to find plenty of examples from recent news articles.     There is not a massive protest every time someone uses this verb in the customary way.   This leads me to conclude that in fact, the real troublemaking word on the bottlecap is not ‘retard’ at all, but rather, ‘you’, which immediately turns the following word from … whatever it was, in English or French … into an insult.  If the English word had been ‘kumquat’, I do not know whether we’d even have heard about this.

Cyberlinguistics and cyberetymology

The students in my undergraduate course are moving into questions related to changes in language including semantic shifting, so it seems appropriate to mention this fascinating article over at io9, The Bizarre Evolution of the Word ‘Cyber’.  It’s a compelling story of a single lexical item’s path from technical term to productive and trendy morpheme to unfashionability and … maybe back again from the brink?  Anyway, it’s interesting and has lots of detail.

The Google Ngram for ‘cyber’ shows a brief peak from the mid 1970s to about 1982,  followed by a dramatic drop, followed by a slow and steady increase up to 2000 – as I have detailed previously, anything after 2000 isn’t to be trusted at the Ngram viewer, but given the discussion in the article, we might suspect a dropoff.  Looking at the actual Google Books results, we see that the first period is almost entirely results for Cyber model computers (technical manuals, etc.) and then the later stuff is where you start see the more general references to computing and computer-related sexual connotations.   Bear in mind that that chart is just for the word cyber alone, not for compounds like cyberpunk or cybersex , both of which shoot up starting in the late 80s.

I found it curious, on first reading, that the article didn’t mention the term Cylon, referring to the robots from the 70s TV show Battlestar Galactica, later reconceptualized as androids in the 2000s reimagining.   I had always assumed, that the name originated (in 1978, at the show’s initial inception) as some sort of abbreviation or formation involving ‘cyber’.   Upon reflection, in 1978, that wouldn’t have been a likely derivation, and indeed it seems not to have been.  However, for the reimagined (2003) series, the name ‘Cylon’ was reinterpreted and given a new etymology, as an abbreviation for Cybernetic Lifeform Node.

New study on co-evolution of language and tool-making

There’s an interesting new study in PLOS One, ‘Shared Brain Lateralization Patterns in Language and Acheulean Stone Tool Production: A Functional Transcranial Doppler Ultrasound Study‘ (Uomini and Meyer 2013) with evidence that potentially bears on questions relating to the co-evolution of linguistic capacities and stone tool-making (for a useful summary, see Michael Balter’s news article in Wired).   The authors scanned the brains of expert flint-knappers both during knapping activities and during a standard linguistic task, showing that the parts of the brain that are activated are common to both activities among the participants.   This is one small piece of a much larger general argument that sees language capacities as much older than many linguists have traditionally accepted, co-evolving along with the Acheulean tool tradition (up to 1.75 million years ago).  In contrast, when I was a student, we all learned without much debate that the ‘Cognitive Revolution’ of 35,000-40,000 years ago was the dividing line for language origins.   Research on Paleolithic language ranges from the utterly wonderful to the utterly ridiculous, mostly because there is no agreement as to what sorts of evidence can be reasonably brought forward in support of different hypotheses, and because all the evidence is, by necessity, inferential rather than direct.  So we will see.

Selfishness in language and culture

Well, with regard to the study of California language diversity I talked about a few days ago, my students rightly think that using contemporary satellite images of California vegetation overlaid with potentially-unreliable  colonial-era ethnolinguistic data is probably not a good way to figure out why people 12,000 or 8,000 or 1,000 years ago moved where they did.  And I haven’t even taught them anything about the perils of glottochronology yet.    Also worth noting: no linguists were involved in the writing or evaluation of that paper at any stage, as far as I can tell.

So for those of you following along at home, on Thursday in class we’re going to be tackling yet another rather dubious piece of scholarship (and scholarly reporting) from last month: Patricia Greenfield’s research using the Google Ngram Viewer to study trends in personality in British and American societies as expressed through word frequencies; the study is ‘The Changing Psychology of Culture from 1800 to 2000‘ from Psychological Science and the news article is “Language in books shows how we have grown more selfish” from the Telegraph.   Advance feedback in comments is welcome.

Eellogofusciouhipoppokunurious, and other monstrosities

Over at my obscure words website, The Phrontistery, there’s been a word that has been the subject of many astonished inquiries over the years: eellogofusciouhipoppokunurious, which means simply ‘good’.   At 30 letters, it’s the longest word on a site that’s full of them. More to the point, because my site is one of the most prominent places you can find the word, and because it doesn’t appear in any standard dictionaries (including the mammoth Oxford English Dictionary), over the years, I have had many people write to ask whether it is in fact a real word at all.

So to try to answer this question, first let me tell you about how eellogofusciouhipoppokunurious came to be in my list.  Back at the dawn of the Internet (well, OK, more like 1996), I had no idea that my word list would still be around (and over twice as long) seventeen years later.  Nowadays, I wouldn’t rely on a source like this for adding words to my list, but I was less picky back then, and I took words wherever I found them.  Combing my old email (I admit it – I have a complete record of all my emails going back to 1995.  But questions like this are why I hoard them), I discovered that I found the word in something called the Slang Teasers Dictionary, vol. IISlang Teasers is a game like Balderdash except instead of cards with words on them, there is a little silver paperback dictionary from which you pick words.  It was published in Canada in 1985, and as far as I can tell is generally forgotten today, although you can still buy the book used on Amazon.com for $50 if the mood strikes you.  Anyway, I still have the book, and there is eellogofusciouhipoppokunurious, defined as ‘very good; very fine’.

But where did the creators of the game find it? Whenever I’ve been asked, I haven’t really had a satisfactory answer.  I’ve told various people that I suspected it to be a nonce-word – that is, a word created ‘for the nonce’, to solve a one-time need in communication, without any expectation that it will become standardized or widely accepted.    The fact that its first six letters, read backwards, spell gollee (whereas eellog is very odd according to the patterns of English orthography) suggest that its inventor may not have been entirely serious. Nonce-words can end up becoming used more widely – that’s often why they end up in dictionaries – but they start out in a single specific context and aren’t expected by their creators to go any further.    There are tons of nonce-words created to mean ‘good'; if I say to you, “Wow, this donut is superfantrobulous’, you’ll know what I mean, even though I just made it up.  Most of them are never written down and never repeated.

A short while ago, when I created my Long Words page on the Phrontistery, I returned to the vexing subject of the origin of eellogofusciouhipoppokunurious and after a couple minutes’ searching, turned up this entry over at the wonderful Futility Closet, which at least gave me a source in an actual dictionary, Weseen’s Dictionary of American Slang, but seemed unlikely to go further.  A search on Google Books produced a couple of false positives (no, it wasn’t really used in some novel from 1845), some modern reuses (analogous to my Slang Teasers), and one from a 1934 review of Weseen’s dictionary. Nevertheless, I tracked down a copy of Weseen’s dictionary, which I just got on Thursday from my friendly interlibrary loans department, and sure enough, there it is, defined as ‘very good; very fine’ but with no further information.

So where did Weseen find it? With nothing relevant in Google Books (and in fact, nothing in several other sources I use from time to time), it seemed as if I had reached a dead end.  However, two facts gave me hope:

1) While Weseen’s dictionary is fairly simplistic (he provides only words and one-line definitions), he was no crank; he was (according to the title page), ‘Associate Professor of English, University of Nebraska’ and ‘Author of Crowell’s Dictionary of English Grammar and Handbook of American Usage; Words Confused and Misused; Write Better Business Letters; Everyday Uses of English.  His introduction is clear and well-written and emphasizes the wide range of texts and spoken contexts where slang is found, suggesting to me that he wasn’t just making stuff up.

2) The fact that the word didn’t show up in a search for eellogofusciouhipoppokunurious is not immediately fatal because there can be many opportunities to misspell such a word (one l or two near the start?  shouldn’t it be ‘hippopo’ rather than ‘hipoppo’?, etc.), and many opportunities for Google Books’ optical character recognition (OCR) to get it wrong as well.

But despite multiple attempts at respelling, nothing came up, and I was starting to get frustrated.   So I changed strategies, and decided to search for some of the other weird-looking words in Weseen’s dictionary.  I found an awful lot of them that seemed to have come from early issues of Dialect Notes, an early publication of the American Dialect Society and a predecessor to its current journal, American Speech.  Fortunately, much of this journal (at least, that part published pre-1922) is in the public domain and available online.     A substantial number of searches from Weseen’s words ended up going to articles by Louise Pound, a major American folklorist and dialectologist, the first female president of the Modern Language Association, and one of the founders of American Speech, who was … wait for it … a professor of English at the University of Nebraska, along with Weseen.  And sure enough, a little more searching turned up the elusive reference I had been looking for: Pound’s 1916 article “Word-List from Nebraska (III)”, Dialect Notes 4(3): 271-282, which is a list of slang terms she collected from her students in the early 1910s.  And lo and behold:


(Pound 1916: 274)

We can also see immediately why Google hadn’t turned it up in my searches – because it was broken up using hyphens and dots, it didn’t turn up as a whole word.  (I believe that the dots are being used to indicate stress, while the hyphens are orthographic – i.e., they’re meant to be used when the word is spelled out, even though none of my later sources do so.   The source is listed as a contributor from western Oregon, but Pound also assures us in her introduction that “Unless note to other effect is made, each word on the list was known to at least six people, coming generally from different sections of the state” (Pound 1916: 271).  I’m not sure whether the note is meant to suggest that in this case, only one student, from Oregon, knew the word, or whether others from Nebraska also were familiar with it.

So at this point I could have been satisfied that Weseen got it from Pound and then called it a day.  But then I found this very curious entry just two pages later:

(Pound 1916: 276)

(Pound 1916: 276)

Now, it didn’t define hypoppercanorious for me, but one doesn’t need advanced training in linguistics to see that it’s basically eellogofusciouhipoppokunurious minus the eellogo and the fusciou.    This one was known by students both from Nebraska and Massachusetts.  The entry sent me off to the previous volume of Dialect Notes, and to yet another article by Pound and to yet another word, flippercanorious, defined as ‘fine, grand’ and indicated to have been used in Nebraska.    And indeed, while hypoppercanorious is not in Weseen, flippercanorious is there, defined as ‘grand; elegant’.

So these three words all generally mean ‘good’ or ‘fine’ or ‘grand’ and presumably eellogofusciouhipoppokunurious, with all those extra morpheme-looking bits on the front end, is intensified and so means ‘very good’ or ‘very fine’.  Gollee! But this set of entries also shows that at least in the early-to-mid 1910s, and possibly later, this set of related words were used by youth from coast to coast, perhaps most widely in Nebraska, presumably mostly in speech (or else they’d show up in more texts).  No mere nonce-words, these seem (at least the shorter ones) to have been in some sort of regular usage among at least some youth-oriented or college-oriented speech communities for at least a little while.  Slang – to be sure.  Jocular – of course.  But definitely ‘real’ words used more than once by more than one person.    It makes me much more comfortable leaving eellogofusciouhipoppokunurious on my list, right where it’s been for the past 17 years.

After all this, there’s still one question remaining: why on earth would you need such an unwieldy synonym for ‘good’?   Granting that ‘flippercanorious’ isn’t so bad, and ‘hypoppercanorious’ is at least manageable, ‘eellogofusciouhippopokunurious’ strains the tongue and the eyes. So why bother?  The word’s value lies in its very size.  Compare ‘supercalifragilisticexpialidocious’, another super-long English word that, contrary to popular belief, didn’t originate with Mary Poppins at all, but, quite possibly, in a very similar context, among the youth of the 1910s, and certainly by the 1930s.  Or ‘floccinaucinihilipilification’, created by students at Eton in the 18th century out of four Latin roots, to mean ‘to value as worthless’.   Or ‘pneumonoultramicroscopicsilicovolcanoconiosis’, created as a joke in the 1930s by the president of the National Puzzlers’ League.   All of these words are coined facetiously, have simpler synonyms, and serve as an emblem of social value for their users, pointing to themselves as clever people who know long words.  Even ‘antidisestablishmentarianism’, which refers to a real 19th century political movement in Great Britain, wasn’t actually used as a word in 19th century Great Britain.  The earliest reference in the OED is from Brewer’s Dictionary of Phrase and Fable (1923 edition) in the ‘Long words’ section.

In fact, the only places where any of these words normally show up in ordinary usage today is in discussions of what is the longest English word.  They each have a definition, which gives their lexical meaning, but their meaning in context and in actual use – their social meaning – is to show off the fact that one knows long words, and presumably, by extension, that one is intelligent.  It is a small wonder that these words are developed and used frequently by students – those who have the most to gain by claiming cultural capital associated with intellect.   As a linguistic anthropologist, I want to know what words mean, of course, but I also want to know how they are used in actual social contexts.  And really, what we have here is a whole category of words that, regardless of their specific meaning, are used in the same way, to impress and overawe the listener or reader with their users’ erudition.  That’s pretty darn eellogofusciouhipoppokunurious indeed.