Limitations on use of “[quality] as shit”

[Trigger warning: I’m going to write “shit” about a billion more times in this blog post because it is necessary to describe this linguistic observation. YOU HAVE BEEN WARNED.]

So every once in a while I notice something semantic about English that just blows my mind. I was making tea this  morning and thinking about whether or not your could say that “That dress is bespoke as shit”. Why? Because I’m a linguist, but also because someone brought this cartoon to my attention again recently:

So, in the field of semantics sitting around thinking about your intuitions about words is actually pretty solid methodology, so I’m going to do that. (I know, right? Not a single ultrasound or tracheal puncture? What do they do on Saturday nights?) Let’s compare the following sentences:

  1. That dress is bespoke as shit.
  2. His wardrobe is bespoke as shit.
  3. That dress is pink as shit.
  4. His wardrobe is pink as shit.

My intuition is that that two and three are fine, four is… okay but a little weird and that one is downright wrong. And I also feel very strongly that the goodness of a given sentence where some quality of an object is modified by “as shit” is closely tied to whether or not that quality is a continuous scale. (And, no, I’m not going to say “adjective” here. Mainly because you can also say “Her wardrobe is completely made out of sharks as shit.” And, in my universe, at least, “completely made out of sharks” doesn’t really count as an adjective.) Things that are on a continuous scale are like darkness. It can be a little dark or really dark or completely dark; there’s not really any point where you switch from being dark to light, right? And something that’s dark for me, like a starry night, might be light for a bat. “Pink”, and all colors, are continuous scales. (FUN FACT: how many color terms various languages have and why is a really big debate.) But things like “free” (as in costing zero dollars) are more discrete. Something’s either free or it’s not and there’s not really any middle ground.

The other thing you need to take into account is whether or not the thing being described is plural and whether it’s a mass or count noun. Mass nouns are things like “water”, “sand” or “bubblegum”. You can less or more or some of these things, but you can’t count them. “I’ll have three water” just sounds really odd. Count nouns are things like “buckets of water”, “grains of sand” or “pieces of bubblegum”. These are things that have discrete, countable units instead of just a lump of mass. It’s a really useful distinction.

Ok, so how does this gel with my intuitions? And, more importantly, can I describe qualities in such a way that my description has predictive power? (Remember, linguistics is all about building testable models of language use!) I think I can. Let’s roll up our sleeves and get to the knitty-gritty. I’ve got two separate parts of the sentence that go into whether or not I can use “as shit”: the thing(s) being described, and the quality it has. The thing being described can be either singular or plural, and either mass or count. The quality it has can either be continuous or discrete. Let’s put this in outline form to make the possible different conditions a bit easier to see:

  • Thing being described
    • Is it singular? If yes, is it:
      • A mass noun? If so, assign condition 1.
      • A count noun? If so, assign condition 2.
    • Is it plural?  If yes, is it:
      • A mass noun? If so, assign condition TRICK QUESTION, because that’s not possible. 😛
      • Is it a count noun? If so, assign condition 3.
  • Qualities: continuous or discrete
    • Is it continuous? If so, assign condition A
    • Is it discrete? If so, assign condition B.

[What’s that, pseudocode? I thought you didn’t do “computer-y code-y math-y things”, Rachael.] Ok, so now we’ve got six possible conditions for a given sentence (1A, 2A, 3A, 1B, 2B and 3B). Which conditions can take “as shit” and why? (Keep in mind, this is just my intuition.

  • 1A: “Water is big  as shit.” = acceptable
  • 2A: “The dog is big as shit.” = acceptable
  • 3A: “The dogs are big as shit.” =  acceptable
  • 1B: “Water is still as shit.” = unacceptable
  • 2B “The dog is still as shit.” = unacceptable
  • 3B: “The dogs are still as shit.” = acceptable

Okay, so a little of my reasoning. I feel very strong that “as shit” serves to intensify the adjective  and you can’t intensify something that’s binary. The light switch it either on or off; it’s can’t be extremely on or extremely off. So all of the B conditions are bad… except for 3B. What is 3B acceptable? Well, for me what I get the sense that what you’re saying is not that you’re intensifying the qualities of each individual but that you’re talking about the group as whole. And if you add up a bunch of binaries (three still dogs and one moving dog) you can get value somewhere in the middle.

But that’s just a really informal little model based on my intuitions and I feel like they’re getting screwed up because I’ve spent way too much time thinking  about this. And now the tea that I was making is getting cold as shit, so I might as well go drink it.

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What counts as a word?

A lot of us, as literate English speakers, have probably experienced that queasy moment of dread when you’re writing something on the computer and suddenly get a squiggly red line under a word you use all the time. You look at the suggested spellings… and none of them are the word you wanted. If you’re like me, at this point you hop online really quickly to make sure the word means what you thought it did and that you’re not butchering the spelling too horribly. Or maybe you turn to the dictionary you keep on your desk. Or maybe you turn to someone sitting next to you and ask “Is this a real word?”.

Latin dictionary

Oh, this? It’s just the pocket edition. The full one is three hundred volumes and comes with an elephant named George to carry it around your house. And it’s covered in gold. This edition is only bound in unicorn skin but it’s fine for a quick desk reference.

The underlying assumption behind the search to see if someone else uses the word is that, if they don’t, you can’t either. It’s not a “real word”.  Which begs the question: what makes a word real? Is there a moment of Pinocchio-like transformation where the hollow wooden word someone created suddenly takes on life and joins the ranks of the English language to much back-slapping and cigar-handing from the other vetted words? Is there a little graduation party where the word gets a diploma from the OED and suddenly it’s okay to use it whenever you want? Or does it get hired by the spelling board and get to work right away?

OK, so that was getting a bit silly, but my point is that most people have the vague notion that there’s a distinction between “real” words and “fake” words that’s pretty hard and fast. Like most slang words and brand names are fake words. I like to call this the Scrabble distinction. If you can play it in Scrabble, it counts and you can put it in a paper or e-mail and no one will call you on it. If you can’t, it’s a fake word and you use it at your own risk. Dictionaries play a large part in determining which is which, right? The official Scrabble dictionary is pretty conservative: it doesn’t have d’oh in it for example. But it’s also not without controversy. The first official Scrabble dictionary, for example, didn’t have “granola” in it, which the Oxford English Dictionary (the great grand-daddy of English dictionaries and probably the most complete record ever complied of the lexicon of any language ever) notes was first used in 1886 and I think most of us would agree is a “real” word.

The line is even blurrier than that, though. English is a language with a long and rich written tradition. In some ways, that’s great. We’ve got a lot more information on how words used to be pronounced than we would have otherwise and a lot of diachronic information. (That’s information about how the language has changed over time. 😛 ) But if you’ve been exposed mainly to the English tradition, as I have, you tend to forget that writing isn’t inseparable from spoken language. They’re two different things and there are a lot of traditions that aren’t writing-based. Consider, for example, the Odù Ifá, an entirely oral divination text from Nigeria that sometimes gets compared to the bible or the Qur’an. In the cultures I was raised in, the thought of a sacred text that you can’t read is strange, but that’s just part of the cultural lens that I see the world through; I shouldn’t project that bias onto other cultures.

So non-literary cultures still need to add words to their lexicons, right? But how do they know which words are “real” without dictionaries? It depends. Sometimes it just sort of happens organically. We see this in English too. Think about words associated with texting or IMing like “lol” or “brb” (that’s “laughing out loud” and “be right back” for those of you who are still living under rocks). I’ve noticed people saying these in oral conversations more and more and I wouldn’t be surprised if in fifty years “burb” started showing up in dictionaries. But even cultures which have only had writing systems for a very short amounts of time have gatekeepers. Navajo, which has only been written since around 1940, is a great example. Peter Ladefoged shares the following story in Phonetic Data Analysis:

One of our former UCLA linguistics students who is a Navajo tells how she was once giving a talk in a Navajo community. She was showing how words could be put together to create new words (such as sweet + heart creates a word with an entirely new meaning). When she was explaining this an elder called out: ‘Stop this blasphemy! Only the gods can create words.’ The Navajo language is holy in a way that is very foreign to most of us (p. 13).

So in Navajo you have elders and religious leaders who are the guardians of the language and serve as the final authorities. (FUN FACT: “authority” comes from the same root as “author”. See how writing-dependent English is?) There are always gray areas though. Language is, after all, incredibly complex. I’ll leave you one case to think about.

“Rammaflagit.” That’s ɹæm.ə.flæʒ.ɪt in the international phonetic alphabet. (I remember how thrilled my dad was when I told him I was studying IPA in college.) I hear it all the time and it means something like “gosh darn it”, sort of a bolderized curse word. Real word or not? The dictionaries say “no”, but the people  who I’ve heard using it would clearly say “yes”. What do you think?

Letters “r” lies, or why English spelling is horrible

If you’re like me and have vivid memories of learning to read English, you probably remember being deeply frustrated. As far as four-year-old-Rachael was concerned,  math was nice and simple: two and two always, always equals four. Not sometimes. Not only when it felt like it. All the time. Nice and simple.

Reading, and particularly phonics, on the other hand, was a minefield of dirty tricks. Oh, sure, they told us that each letter represented a single sound, but even a kid knows that’s hooey. Cough? Bough? Come on, that was like throwing sand in a fight; completely unfair. And what about those vowels? What and cut rhyme with each other, not cut and put. Even as phonics training was increasing my phonemic awareness, pushing me to pay more attention to the speech sounds I made, English orthography (that’s our spelling system) was dragging me behind the ball-shed and pulling out my hair in clumps. Metaphorically.

Books that make literacy fun

“Oh man, they’re trying to tell us that A makes the ‘Aaahhh’ sound. What do they take us for, complete idiots? Or is that ‘whaahhht’ to they take us for?”
“I know, right? One-to-one correspondence? Complete rubbish!”

Of course, I did eventually pass third grade and gain mastery of the written English language. But it was an uphill battle all the way. Why? Because English orthography is retarded. Wait. I’m sorry. That’s completely unfair to individuals suffering from retardation. English orthography is spiteful, contradictory and completely unsuited to representing the second most widely-spoken second language. This poem really highlights the problem:

Recovering Sounds from Orthography

Brush up Your English

I take it you already know
Of tough and bough and cough and dough?
Others may stumble but not you
On hiccough, thorough, slough and through.
Well done! And now you wish perhaps,
To learn of less familiar traps?Beware of heard, a dreadful word
That looks like beard and sounds like bird.
And dead, it’s said like bed, not bead-
for goodness’ sake don’t call it ‘deed’!
Watch out for meat and great and threat
(they rhyme with suite and straight and debt).

A moth is not a moth in mother,
Nor both in bother, broth, or brother,
And here is not a match for there,
Nor dear and fear for bear and pear,
And then there’s doze and rose and lose-
Just look them up- and goose and choose,
And cork and work and card and ward
And font and front and word and sword,
And do and go and thwart and cart-
Come, I’ve hardly made a start!
A dreadful language? Man alive!
I’d learned to speak it when I was five!
And yet to write it, the more I sigh,
I’ll not learn how ’til the day I die.

A dreadful language? Man alive! I mastered it when I was five.

— T.S. Watt (1954)

So why don’t we get our acts together and fix this mess? Well… trying to fix it is kind of the reason we’re in this mess in the first place. Basically, in renaissance England we started out with a basically phonetic spelling system. You actually sounded out words and wrote them as they sounded. “Aks” instead of “ask”, for example. (For what it’s worth, “aks” is the original pronunciation.) And you would be writing by hand. On very expensive parchment with very expensive quills and ink for very rich people.

Enter the printing press. Suddenly we can not only produce massive amounts of literature, but everyone can access them. Spelling goes from being something that only really rich people and scribes care about to a popular phenomena. And printing press owners were quick to capitalize on that phenomena  by printing spelling lists that showed the “correct” way to write words. Except there wasn’t a whole lot of agreement between the different printing houses and they were already so heavily invested in their own systems that they weren’t really willing to all switch over to a centralized system. By the time Samuel Johnson comes around to pin down every word of English like an entomologist in a field of butterflies, we have standardized spellings for most words… that all come from different systems developed by different people. And it’s just gotten more complex from there. One of the main reasons is that we keep shoving new words into the language without regard for how they’re spelled.

“The problem with defending the purity of the English language is that the English language is as pure as a crib-house whore. It not only borrows words from other languages; it has on occasion chased other languages down dark alley-ways, clubbed them unconscious and rifled their pockets for new vocabulary.”

― James Nicoll

There’s actually a sound in English, the zh sort of sound in “lesiure”, that only exists in words we’ve “borrowed” from other language and, of course, there’s no letter for it. Of course not; that would be too simple. And English detests simple. If you’re really interested in more of the gory details, there’s a great lecture you can listen to/watch here by Edwin Duncan which goes into way more detail on the historical background. Or you can just scroll through the Oxford English Dictionary and wince constantly.