Language and Societies abstracts, vol. 9 (2017)

The abstracts below are summaries of papers by junior scholars from the 2017 edition of my course, Language and Societies. The authors are undergraduate and graduate students in anthropology and linguistics at Wayne State University. Over the next few weeks, some students will be posting links to PDF versions of their final papers below their abstracts. Comments and questions are extremely welcome, especially at this critical juncture over the next two weeks, when the authors are making final revisions to their papers.

John Anderson: Symbolic Meanings of the “Rune Poems”

Bridget Bennane: A Woman Ran for President: A Political and Gender Discourse Analysis on Hillary Clinton

Kaitlin Carter: Ubermess: Corporate Social Responsibility Responses as a Dialogue through Social Media

Lynn Charara: Portraits of The Orange Man

Rebecca Cornejo: Identity at 70 MPH: The crafting, meaning, and importance of personalized license plates

Nadine Duchaine: Native American Code Talkers: Life before the Code

Katilyn Gerstner: Differences in opportunity teaching styles between multiparous and uniparous chimpanzee mothers suggest that experienced mothers are better teachers

Michael Henson: Critical Discourse Analysis of Media: A Systematic Approach to Analyzing Child Welfare Representation in the Media

Miriam Jacobs: Metaphors of Poverty

Kelsey Jorgensen: Displaying the Dead: Assessing Agency Through Museum Linguistic Practices

Travis Kruso: Updating the Fashion System? Using Language to Create and Maintain Authenticity in the Online Avant Garde

Colleen Linn: Legitimatizing the right to water in Michigan’s post-industrial cities

Emily K. Lock: Gettin’ Fit to Push a Bit: Medical advice about exercise during pregnancy (1900-present)

Stacy F. Markel: Power Play: gender, power, and language of nurses and doctors

Kailey McAlpin: Analyzing Detroit’s Racialized Public Discourse of Urban Renewal through Metaphor

Luke Pickrahn: The language of extreme metal

Terri Renaud: Language Construction and Cultural Representation in Fantasy Video Games

Elizabeth Riedman: The discourse of Detroit: A critical look into the use of language within Detroit documentaries

Rebecca Sawyer: Beisbol and Tostones: Constructing Narratives of Puerto Rican Identity in Secondary Level, First Year Spanish Textbooks

Maria Schell: Discipline or Domestic Violence: Distinctions in discourse about interpersonal violence

Jasmine Walker: Lexical and Performative Cues for the Provocation of an Altered State of Consciousness in the American Evangelical Church

Hannelore Willeck: 18th Century Advertising Language and the Shift from British Colony to New Nation

Josh Wolford: Anishinaabe Toponyms in Michigan: A History of Colonized Folk Etymology and Anishinaabe Cultural Renaissance

Athena Zissis: Memories of Unrest: Placing the Detroit 1967 Project within the Riot vs. Rebellion Debate

Public lecture: Renewing a dynamic cognitive philology of numerals

For any of you in the New York City area this coming week, I’ll be giving a public lecture ‘Renewing a dynamic cognitive philology of numerals‘ at the Heyman Center for the Humanities at Columbia University, Friday 02/24, 5:00pm.  All are welcome.

And for those of my readers who are in the Detroit area / part of the Wayne State community, have no fear: I’ll be reprising this talk at the WSU Humanities Center brownbag series, Thursday 03/23, 12:30 pm.  Again, this is a public lecture.

Seeking survey participants: Knowledge and Beliefs About Cognitive Anthropology

I’m writing to ask for your help in spreading the word about a new online research study on anthropologists’ knowledge and beliefs about the subfield of cognitive anthropology.  I hope you will consider participating in this short survey by clicking the link below.

Also, please take a moment to let your colleagues and students know about this survey by sharing this post.

I’m interested in learning more about how cognitive anthropology is understood today, among anthropologists and anthropology students of all subdisciplinary and theoretical perspectives.   My hope is to collect a wide range of data from people from different career stages, nationalities, and research interests, including both people who know a lot about cognitive anthropology and those who don’t.

Participants will complete an online Qualtrics survey, which should take about 15 minutes to complete.   Participation is voluntary, and no identifying information or IP addresses are being collected.  Participants should be 18 years or older.

To complete the survey, you can click on this link or copy/paste the following URL into your browser:

If you have any questions about this research study, please contact me (Stephen Chrisomalis) at

Thank you for your assistance.

Two immigrants: a story for a Trumpian era

January 10, 1904. My great-grandfather George Kastris, a non-literate farmer from Greece, arrives in North America for the first time at the age of 25 through the port of New York, en route to Toronto, travelling back and forth to Greece several times until finally emigrating for good in 1925. You can see him on line 11 of this register (click to enlarge).


List or manifest of alien passengers, S.S. Savoie, Port of New York, Jan. 10, 1904

He had $10 to his name, and since this was his first trip, he spoke basically no English. Maybe he had a passport, but certainly no authorization was needed to go from the US up to Canada to work for as long as he liked, to stay with his brother-in-law. No chest X-ray, no green card lottery, no extreme vetting. I guess I’m glad to see that he was neither a polygamist or an anarchist, since those things could get you turned back. But you know that other than asking him “Are you an anarchist?” there was no way for the folks in New York to confirm that.

Now look at the guys above and below him, with their names like Jamal and Hussein and Kalil, from ‘Syria’ – actually you can see they are from Beirut, now Lebanon. Probably Muslim (though there are a few Lebanese Christian names further down the list too). Just a few dollars to their name, first time in the country, going to live with some relative, just like my grandmother’s dad George. I like to think they were all buddies (but that could just be my imagination). Just a bunch of brown dudes from the eastern Mediterranean, come on in to work in America, or Canada, doesn’t much matter, just let us write down where you’re going to end up and whether you have a ticket there already. Think about how normal it was to just come across the ocean in steerage on the S.S. Savoie in 1904, just a bunch of Greeks and Lebanese and Italians and whatnot. I wonder about the grandkids of those other guys, whether they’re old retired farts in Newark or Mississauga or wherever.

Now I’m confident that North America in 1904 was a pretty racist place. I’m not saying that everyone welcomed George and Jamal and Hussein and Kalil with open arms. From Know-Nothings to the Klan to goddamn Breitbart, anti-immigrant sentiment is hardly new. My point is not to idealize 1904.

But ask yourself this: If your family came to North America as immigrants, whenever they came, do you have any sense of what papers they carried, what questions they faced, how they were treated? When we talk about immigrant societies, we’re not just talking about 1904 but the millions of immigrants and refugees, coming from all walks of life, from the Germans who Ben Franklin hated so much, to the hated papist Irish, to the Jews (side note: America, stop painting swastikas all over the place already! Don’t you watch enough stupid World War II movies to know that’s seriously screwed up?) And of course, the Mexicans and the Syrians and the Chinese. What gives you the right to tell today’s potential Americans that the country is full? When did you suppose that you, particularly, have the right to decide who can be American? On what basis comes the right to choose who counts as a good immigrant?

And then let’s not forget poor little Steve, come to America in 2008 to take some American’s job, an immigrant only because his great-grandfather ended up on this side of an imaginary line instead of the other side. Takes me about 20 minutes to get to work, not eight days, and I’m damn glad not to be in steerage class on the Savoie (although the Ambassador Bridge is in rough shape these days). But you know damn well that I’m not the immigrants they’re talking about. And then you have to ask yourself: why the hell not.

Drinks by the jillion

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

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

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


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

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


The strange case of the Urinal Smoothy

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Lexiculture: feisty

Kathryn Horner

Wayne State University

Cite as: Horner, Kathryn. 2016. Feisty. Lexiculture: Papers on English Words and Culture, vol. 2, article 8.

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

(Download PDF version)

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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


From fist to feist: an American tale

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


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

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

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

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


From farting to females: a woman’s worth

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

[1] Online Etymology Dictionary

[2] Webster’s Dictionary

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

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

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