The holiday book-hoard

As usual, the holiday brought a hefty hoard of books to add to my not-inconsiderable collection of non-academic books.  Because the movers didn’t complain quite enough about our 50 boxes of books when we moved from Montreal to Windsor in 2008, that’s why!  So here’s what Santa and his minions brought me:


For crying in the sink, let’s euphemize!

This is a parallel post to’For chrissake, let’s blaspheme!‘ at the Strong Language blog.  It’s a fine and upstanding place for scholarship and punditry on not-so-fine and not-so-upstanding words.  Consider yourself forewarned if you choose to click through.

You know you’ve made it as a taboo word when you attract the attention of those prudish arbiters of etiquette who substitute a weaker, pithier word in your place. These euphemisms, these scab symbols crossing the picket lines of the word-factory, are called minced oaths, and include such wilted phrases as gosh darn, zounds, and the notorious fuddle duddle

For several decades now, ‘for crying in the sink‘ has been a frequent utterance around the Chrisomalis home.  I hadn’t given it much thought in my youth, and probably assumed that everyone said it, although that’s clearly not true – Google Books only has around 20 unique hits for the phrase.  But only recently did I realize, in a moment of profane clarity, that surely this is a minced oath for for Christ’s sake.  I raised the issue with my parents, wondering if I was missing something obvious, but they hadn’t realized its origins either, in all our years of mincing and oathing.  But the phonological similarity is striking:

fəɹ ‘kɹajɪŋ ɪn ðə ‘sɪŋk
fəɹ ‘kɹajs               ‘sk

The first clear* instance of this phrase I’ve been able to find dates from 1931, from the comic strip When Mother Was a Girl by Paul Fung, one of the first Asian-American cartoonists to achieve national prominence:

1931 Paul Fung, When Mother Was a Girl (Apr 19) Well, for crying in the sink! Can you imagine that bozo!

1931 Paul Fung, When Mother Was a Girl (Apr 19) Well, for crying in the sink! Can you imagine that bozo!

But by no means are we limited to the sink; for instance, here are some other minced oaths for us to cry in:

for crying in the beer:  1934 Graeme and Sarah Lorimer, Stag Line 113 “For crying in the beer,” I said.

for crying in the creek:  1936 Florence W. McGehee, Orchids and Onions (Woodland, CA Democrat, Feb 12) For crying in the creek, Mother, have you lost your mind?

for crying in the alley: 1936 The Forum and Century 96: 92 “For cryin’ in the alley, anyone’d think you was in love with one of them skirts you toot up and down,” his brother was always saying.

for crying in the rain:  1941 Robert Archer, Death on the Waterfront 141 “Oh, for crying in the rain, we’re not going to get anywhere this way,” Stern raged.

for crying in the dark:  1946 Royall Smith, The Aluminum Heart 53 For crying in the dark, hadn’t they learned from us in the first place?

for crying in the soup:  1953 Earl Chapin, Long Wednesdays 128 “For crying in the soup!” yelled Junior, “why don’t you get rid of that dang cat?”

for crying in the bucket: 1969 John Schmiedeler, The kids have us buffaloed  (Salina, KS Journal, Dec 7) For crying in the bucket, are we going to hold still for such rubbish?

The prevalence of nouns for liquids or for holding liquids is probably not a coincidence, when one is looking for things to cry into.  But, of course, the granddaddy of all these phrases is for crying out loud, first reported in The Union Postal Clerk (1921: 56) in a list of “Famous sayings of the clerks of the Mailing Division”:

1921 The Union Postal Clerk 17: 56 Well, for crying out loud.

Not only is for crying out loud the earliest of the crying euphemisms, it’s also the most common, and has a nice Ngram outlining its origin in the 1920s rising steadily until about 1980, then spiking upward over the last 20 years of the century.   Of course, we also have the earlier criminy and cripes, but these aren’t really euphemisms for for Christ’s sake but rather just Christ – they’ve both been around longer than for Christ’s sake was a profane oath, although they sometimes occur in phrases like for criminy’s sake and for cripes sake.

Taken individually, a skeptic could make the case that perhaps these are just idiomatic expressions rather than minced oaths, but taken collectively, that theory holds less water than a sink full of blasphemous tears.  In fact, the Dictionary of American Regional English survey (conducted in the late 1960s) has a question devoted to “NN31: Exclamations beginning with the sound of ‘cr-‘, for example, ‘cripes’“. (Thanks to Ben Zimmer for pointing this out to me.)  You can’t see the full survey results unless you have a DARE subscription, alas.

These ‘crying’ minced oaths reflect a decades-long pattern of euphemism that emerges in the 1920s and 1930s and continues to the present day, largely under the radar.   Cassell’s Dictionary of Slang (2005: 533) lists for crying out loud but none of the others; similarly, the New Partridge slang dictionary (2006: 786) lists no other variants.   To really understand all of these in context, though, we have to relate them to the original blasphemy, which emerges and flourishes around the same time.  For more, see my parallel post on for Christ’s sake and its many variants.

*Although, if anyone has access to the 1924 Year Book of the Rochester Dental Dispensary, School for Dental Hygienists , and would be able to check page 39, we could get it back to 1924!  I don’t trust Google Books on this one, since dating errors abound in their metadata.

Glossographia: the year in review, 2014

So, overall, it’s been a good year.  Got tenure, gave five talks, taught new classes, lots of things in the pipeline, and setting up for more to come.   Here at the ol’ blogatorium, though, things were fairly quiet compared to 2013.   In the spring, I posted the first set of Lexiculture papers, and in the fall, I was tickled pink to have my students from my Anthro-X seminar post reviews of current books on culture and cognition.   But almost certainly my favourite post was The Case of the Missing Pi Day 4s, featuring three of my favourite things, language, numerals, and pie.

Thanks to all my loyal readers as Glossographia is now past its sixth birthday.  Having begun as a present to myself for getting hired on the tenure track, it (like its author) can enter the serene mid-career stage.   All the best in the year to come!

Verso e-books at 90% discount

In case you’re the sort of person who can’t have enough books, Verso Books is discounting all of its e-book titles by 90% for this week only (until Jan. 1), which means that you can pick up some great academic titles for $2 – $3 each in a DRM-free format.  I just bought Gabrielle Coleman’s new ethnography of Anonymous, Hacker, Hoaxer, Whistleblower, Spy , as well as John Hall’s biography of Ernest Gellner, for less than $6 for the two.

Language and Culture: a strange exam

Every year, my Language and Culture introductory linguistic anthropology course has a massive take-home final exam consisting of ten questions, of which students choose seven or eight (depending on class size).   The students have a month to do the exam, and are encouraged to share ideas and collaborate as long as they don’t actually copy answers from one another. You’d be surprised just how minimal a problem this is, compared to when I used to do more traditional assignments.  They know I’m looking for outright copying, and anything up to that point I consider to be salutary and valuable for learning.

Because – as you will see below – the questions are somewhat weird, to put it mildly: mostly dependent on blogs, videos, and other online sources as well as the texts and lecture materials, it’s unlike any of the exams most of the class has ever encountered.   I always emphasize that basically none of them are going to become linguistic anthropologists professionally, so their goal should be more broadly humanistic, to be able to think critically about and with the sort of material they’re likely to encounter in their lives.  I had 58 students complete exams this year (x 7 questions x 2 pages = 812 typed pages), and in the wake of my post-grading exhaustion, I thought I’d share this year’s exam questions with you.   Enjoy!

  1. Read the news article ‘How to talk like a stone-age man’ ( and then evaluate its argument using material from the course about proto-languages and language evolution.
  2. The Twitter account @nixicon ( retweets people who claim that some particular word is actually ‘not a word’.   Use at least two examples of tweets retweeted by @nixicon, along with the concept of metalanguage, to analyze the social reasons why people claim that particular words that they encounter aren’t real.
  3. Watch the film ‘Marie’s Dictionary’ ( and then, with reference to chapter 7 of The Power of Babel, discuss the issue of language endangerment with relation to Native American languages. Using evidence from the film, to what degree and for what reasons is the preservation of endangered languages an important and worthwhile goal?
  4. In Portraits of “the Whiteman”, one aspect of Anglo-American speech that the Western Apache mock is the way that the word ‘friend’ and the concept of friendship are used by Anglos.   One can also find discourse about the meaning of ‘friend’ in essays about social media, such as   Comparing these two instances of metalanguage about ‘friend’, discuss how words can challenge cultural preconceptions about social relations such as friendship.   What do you think that Western Apache would think about the concept of ‘Facebook friends’?
  5. Read the blog post at on the difference between Lebanese Arabic and Standard Arabic. Using material from the post and from The Power of Babel, discuss this post in relation to Max Weinreich’s statement, “A language is a dialect with an army and a navy.”
  6. The blog post at sets out some principles for a new (hopefully facetious) dialect, Death Metal English. Using specific examples from this post, discuss how language can be a tool to index particular social identities? What sorts of values and ideals are being expressed using Death Metal English?
  7. Using data from Google Ngram Viewer, discuss the changes in frequency of the terms suntan lotion, sunscreen, and sunblock.   Find a website that discusses the use of these terms and use it to analyze the significance of the choice among them.
  8. Watch the video ‘Stephen Fry Kinetic Typography – Language’ ( Discuss the claims made by Fry about why people complain about language use, using the concepts of descriptivism and prescriptivism.
  9. The map at shows some interesting patterns in the distribution of the terms ‘pop’, ‘soda’ and ‘coke’ as the generic term for soft drinks. Identify two distinctive patterns on that map that you find interesting and speculate as to their potential origins and social significance.
  10. Ask a thoughtful question about the relationship between language and culture to which you do not currently know the answer.   This question might be related to an issue raised in class or in one of the texts. Using the analytical and conceptual tools of this course, discuss (in general) how someone might go about finding a satisfactory answer to the question.

New blog: Strong Language

I’m inordinately pleased to be one of the contributors at Strong Language, ‘a sweary blog about swearing’.  To say the least, it is not recommended for those who don’t want to be exposed to profanity, and is probably not recommended viewing in many workplaces.  It has a star-studded cast of contributors, including many professional linguists, and is off to a really fantastic start.  I just made my first post there yesterday, ‘How many swears can we give?‘  Read at your own risk and leisure.

Review: Wengrow, The origins of monsters

Wengrow, David. 2014. The Origins of Monsters: Image and Cognition in the First Age of Mechanical Reproduction. Princeton and Oxford: Princeton University Press. 160 pp.

Reviewed by Molly Hilton (Wayne State University)

It is tantalizing to ponder: does Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein saturate popular imaginings because of some inherent human cognitive bias? What is the appeal of griffins, sphinxes and centaurs? Do these fantastical creatures somehow “stick” in the human imagination? In his recent book The Origins of Monsters, David Wengrow examines the archaeological record for an answer to this serious question regarding modern human cognition. Can an empirical investigation of the visual record for the cultural transmission of fantastical creatures develop a “unified understanding of culture as the product of both history and cognition?”

“Monsters” are composite figures, while “composites” are an amalgam of physical traits and appendages that form a creature that does not exist organically:

The total bodily form of that species is absent from the resulting depiction, but its presence is signified, nonetheless, by the special disposition of elements around the body that belongs to an animal of a different kind. The outcome is a new kind of figure that is sui generis, imaginary, but nevertheless retains a certain basic coherence on the anatomical plane (p27).

Cognitive psychologists have suggested that the ability to conceive of composite beings “may have evolved in tandem with our capacity for complex social interaction” (p4). Wengrow rightly urges skepticism of these evolutionary claims, pointing out methodological issues, including the fact that infants are often used as the model for prehistoric human cognition. Wengrow prefers a materialist methodology that allows empirical comparison over geography and different time scales.

Drawing on work by Dan Sperber and Pascal Boyer, Wengrow applies an epidemiological approach, which seeks to describe cognitive capacities and constraints through analysis of the cultural transmission of representations. The methodology for this approach calls for the study of the cultural transmission of representations at the level of populations, which may then be accounted for at the individual level. Key to the inquiry at hand is the argument of evolutionary psychologists that humans are hard-wired for classification of living kinds of animals and plants (p5). The result according to this argument is an intuitive, folk-biology. According to Sperber, “supernatural beings ‘blatantly violate the kind of basic expectations that are delivered by domain-specific cognitive mechanisms” (p23). It is the combination of these violations with an otherwise expected form that attracts attention. According to Boyer, the representations of supernatural beings “are more likely…to be easily acquired, memorized, and transmitted” (p23).

Visual representations of composite figures are, Wengrow argues, a productive site for an epidemiological approach because they are: (1) grounded in material culture and not bounded by the domain of language (2) culturally and historically distinctive (3) representations of supernatural beings. First, Wengrow notes that the epidemiological approach often relies on analysis of language-based representations. For composite figures, transmission may occur without language. More importantly, representations of composite figures appear on artifacts whose movement and stylistic influences can be empirically traced. Material culture can demonstrate technological innovations and also “transformations in modes of thought” (p3). This breadth of information allows Wengrow to incorporate the situ of institutions and cultural practices in his analysis.

Wengrow reconsiders the “monumental” works of art historian Mikhail Rostovtzeff, in comparing composites from China to Scandinavia from the early Upper Paleolithic through the Bronze Age and Iron Age. Wengrow finds the popular view that composite figures have been a common creation of anatomically modern humans to be unsubstantiated by the archaeological record. Composite figures “fail spectacularly to catch on across the many millennia of innovation in visual culture that precede the onset of urban life” (p51). In contrast, composite figures regularly appear alongside the development of urban settlements and the growth of a class of social elites. Here, the inclusion of maps and charts would have bolstered the author’s argument. Readers unfamiliar with Bronze Age and Iron Age settlements may find Wengrow’s argument difficult to follow and evaluate.

Composites cross chronological and cultural boundaries, he claims, through three modes of transmission: transformative, integrative and protective. Transformative transmission occurs at a time of rapid structural change in a society and a composite form is adopted from an outside source. The exotic form reinforces rank and status for those able to secure access to prestige goods. Integrative transmission entails the blending of elements from multiple sources such that the results cannot be attributed to any particular source. The goods embody a “desire for mutual recognition and integration across tense cultural boundaries” (p95). There may have been competitive goods exchanges among leaders. Protective transmission would take place when composites were borrowed or imagined for purposes of ritual use as protection against threats to household and person. The standardized production of goods for ritual purposes suggest the existence of the complex cultural framework of an imperial state.

The risk and uncertainty of encounters with the “other,” according to Wengrow, make composite figures more salient for societies with trade routes and urban settlements. Wengrow explains:

Each [mode of transmission] is associated to some degree with environments of heightened risk and uncertainty, where failure to properly negotiate boundaries can lead to catastrophic consequences (p106).

Wengrow finds political economy to be the key influence as to whether a society creates and/or adopts composite figures. Once societies reach a level of complexity that instantiates a new whole-parts modularity, the composite figure encapsulates “the bureaucratic imperative to confront the world … as an imaginary realm made up of divisible subjects, each comprising a multitude of fissionable, commensurable, and combinable parts” (p73). This line of argument could be criticized as functionalist.

The Origins of Monsters raises a strong critique of Sperber’s 1996 article “Why are perfect animals, hybrids, and monsters food for symbolic thought?” If supernatural beings are “sticky” as Boyer and Sperber argue, why did they not take hold in the archaeological record earlier? I find the argument persuasive that social complexity co-locates with the adoption of composite figures. I don’t see the evidence presented as causal, but Wengrow makes a strong case for the applicability of comparative, historical data to cognitive studies.

Sperber, Dan. 1996. Why are perfect animals, hybrids, and monsters food for symbolic thought? Method and Theory in the Study of Religion 8:143-169.