Zombie English

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S2: From New York City. This is Lexicon Valley a podcast about language. I’m John McWhorter and this week. Well you know Halloween is coming. And so I guess I’m supposed to do a Halloween episode and so OK I can play along Why don’t we do a zombie show.

S3: We’ll have a zombie theme. You know that’s actually an African word for the record if we want to sprinkle in some etymology that’s from Congo. That’s an African language a Bantu language of the Niger Congo family. Spoken in Angola and some other countries. And the word originally was zombie and it was brought here by slaves actually.

S4: So technically zombie is a black thing. Zombies are of course the Living Dead. You know the stuff that we keep. By extension for no reason like I have nine hundred seeds and I’m not getting rid of them. I have about 400 DVD I thought those were really it permanent. The streaming thing I’m trying I still have a protractor. I am just now realizing I no longer need a cable box. In any case zombie things actually permeate language as well. And you can look at it on various levels an awful lot of what we use as language and think of as communication is zombie material. So that can be our Halloween theme.

S3: The truth is I didn’t start out planning this episode thinking about Halloween what really got me going was one of those things where you learn something long past your childhood about something that you think you know everything about you know I actually don’t know every word in the English language or I don’t know the things that I should know about them because I just found out this week that vittles is not short for visuals visuals apparently doesn’t exist. You’re not supposed to ever say it that way. I always figured victuals was something that you know you heard people saying in old westerns and that these were people who had let the word visuals take the direction that it naturally would if it weren’t used in writing. But actually when you see the word visuals on a page no matter who is consuming these visuals it’s supposed to be vittles. I had no idea. PETER SOKOLOWSKI I learned that from a tweet of yours sitting on the train and this whole episode ended up springing into my head over the next five minutes. I was just so surprised. So it’s one of those words it’s like actually I’ve never seen this discussed but chitlins the intestines of pigs that I grew up not eating watching my parents who were not Albanian but black eating them and enjoying them very much and it was called chitlins they don’t smell good when cooked apparently they taste better when eaten one day I they find out. But very late in life I realize that there’s something written as chitter lings which is the chitlins that everybody refers to and as far as I know I don’t think anybody ever says chitlins. Not in any circumstances anybody who says it has to say chit Lin that is the word. Well apparently vittles is like that and you know this reminds me of. You guessed it. But it’s actually something I think all of you will like on some level Broadway song and it actually comes from something that had decayed in my memory. This is jellies last jam and I used to listen to the album all the time then for some reason I stopped and I thought there was a line in one of my favorite cuts in it where somebody says affectionately it’s a black woman who says affectionately I thought she said Now I’m only gonna say this once. I thought the line was chitlin eating bitches and I’ve been singing it that way in my head for 20 years. But actually it’s gumbo eaten. And so anyway this is Michigan water blues and it’s one of the most rocking numbers in this show I love this cut to death sometimes when I’ve had a bit to drink and I’m riding home on the train I’ll just play this because somehow it seems to fit. This is Michigan water. Which proves that. Three feet. In. The. It. May. Be.

S4: The singer is Mary bond Davis by the way. She never is quite celebrated as a star and it’s not fair. I’ve seen her in many things and she always just tears it up. Funny thing my little daughter is the witty one. She somehow picked up that there’s something people say about Philadelphia water that it isn’t good. And we were in St. Lewis and we were at this little library and she took a sip of the water from the fountain and she said this water is disgusting it tastes like Philadelphia water and the whole library just burst out into laughter.

S3: She is gonna be the wit. In any case these fossilized ways of spelling things that can be very interesting. There are these zombie bees for example. Take for example the word debt. You’re in debt no matter how slowly you say you’re not gonna say debt but it’s debt. Now of course it comes from debit to this. It comes from a word that was that. But after a while people saying it quickly started saying just debt we got it from French. As debt and we were just saying debt. But then some prissy person came along and decided that you had to stick the be back in because there had been one in Latin as if that makes any kind of sense. And next thing you know you have this debit it really is something of a tragedy although here I am I’m in an etymology mood today. Here’s the etymology of debt debits. That was from day how beret ha beret is have so deputies debt comes from what originally meant to two d have in other words to not have and of course if you’re in debt to somebody then you’re about to not have something.

S4: So that was kind of a cute etymology. Doubt is the same thing. It starts in Latin as dooby tarry. Then say that over and over and pretty soon in French you have dough tear no more book that got lost so do it due to dota doh tear like that. Well that comes into English and it was a duty on duty. There you go the B was utterly forgotten but then along comes some person who probably talked like the old character actor Richard Hayden took kind of like this. We must have the B because of acting and so they stick the beat back in and so it becomes a dial. But why is it now but just because of that.

S3: Or do you have a big giant arm chair and read American Heritage Magazine. Are you one of those people you sit there reading American heritage with either tea with a cinnamon stick in it or maybe a lager but you’re reading American heritage and you’re in a big armchair and probably in an X or somewhere. If you were that person then you read about readouts because you’re reading about battles in the Civil War where a readout is what some small fortress or something like that I’m not sure what it is because I’m not really much for reading about the great battles but if you read about them you know the word read out and you know that it’s spelled r e d o u Beatty Well it’s not a redial but it’s a readout somebody stuck the B in because they thought that the doubt in readout was related to doubt as in being unsure that it comes from a completely different source readout started as read Duke does but some person decide Willie must also have the beat then. Now we have to spell it that way it really doesn’t. Make any sense.

S4: So we’ve got these zombie sounds you know I can’t even pretend to fit this into the subject matter but I’ve just got to do it because I could get hit by a bus tomorrow and you know if I ever do do a Broadway podcast we’ll go something like this. I just saw Santino Fontana doing the lead role in the Broadway musical of Tootsie and you know he ends up doing something beyond a drag act it’s great writing by David Yaz back because he is one of the best people working now but I was truly moved by Santino his performance because he’s being a woman. But in this not only does he have to walk around talking like a woman like Dustin Hoffman but he has to sing as that character and it has to be convincing.

S3: This is a bit of I won’t let you down where here is a man who is being a woman and singing a song and meaning it and you actually believe it. It’s an amazing feat of performance. Just listen to a bit of this well to.

S1: Seems to be shared. I won’t let you.

S4: Thank you because you or folks zombie words we have words that are living dead emoluments emoluments clause. We’ve been hearing a lot about that lately and we always have to be told what the monument is. As it happens it is things like compensation and special allowances or benefits. OK. We always have to be told that because none of us who are not lawyers know what an emoluments is. I’ll openly say that to me it sounds like some kind of ointment. I would assume that an emoluments is what I need to put on my ashy knees. I would love to have various emoluments probably smelling like peaches because I like peach jello but that’s not what emoluments are. They are these special allowances and compensations. Well why can’t we say that you know why can’t we at best put a monument in parentheses because that’s the word in the Constitution and we can’t change that but Emoluments Clause for us to refer to it as that at all when for ninety nine point ninety nine percent of us that’s opaque is a peculiar thing to be a language with giant dictionaries is to be a language where a lot of what we call words are unknown to almost all the people who speak the language. It’s a weird thing. Now that’s not to say that our vocabulary is supposed to only be the dregs on the bottom of the bucket. So for example you can help somebody or you can aid somebody or you can assist somebody help his original English aid is from French assistance from Latin it’s one of those triplets. Kind of like kingly Royal and regal. So of course we have words like aid and assist because life operates on many levels of formality but we all know what assist means. We all know what compensation means what allowance means. Those are not gut bucket words but we know what they mean after the age of roughly 13. But then there are all these words that are in the dictionary and so we say well it’s a word because it’s in the dictionary. But a lot of the words that are in that dictionary are not ones that any of us know in which case you wonder if language is supposed to be about communication why we think of them as part of the language at all. Now you can imagine that they’re part of the earlier phase of the language like various words of Old English that are opaque to us now but how come a word like a monument is considered living in any way beyond very narrow legal discussions. Why would the rest of us encounter it and use it in the media weird thing go into the dictionary and you can find a word like Ruth and I don’t mean Ruth as in the lead character in the wonderful glow. I mean Ruth as in mercy because if you can be ruthless and we all know what that means. Well of course there was originally a word Ruth so please show me some Ruth. Well no Ruth is not a word most of you are probably hearing that for the first time. It does not qualify as a word in any real sense it’s in the dictionary because it used to be a word. But time passes and we are at the end of it. And so it’s gone. You ever expiate anything. I didn’t. I have impeded probably too many things but airspeed. Well you know apparently it’s still used by Scottish lawyers and that’s a great thing. X speed is in the dictionary it’s not a word. I mean it’s not even a word that you learn for the S.A.T. or something like that. It’s just not a word. So you know it might be fun to know words like that just for the heck of it. Did you know that there’s expatriate expiate is about sin. We all know that one expatriate obvious expatriate is to go on too long. He says well that’s not a word I learned it actually in language arts and even back then when I was you a probably pimply in about 13 I remember thinking how is this a word when you can tell that nobody knows it outside of this book. There used to be a drumming language used by the KLA. People talk about key Congo actually a ways over in Africa. They were the KLA people and the KLA people were among the Africans who can communicate by drum because their languages have tone. And so you can actually parallel the contours right down to the meanings of words by playing the drums that’s really cool. Now the KLA language was documented and there were some words in the drum language that nobody knew what they meant anymore and so they were just the drum words. Now that’s fine. But how do we think of that we think of that as well that’s a tribal thing. Well how ritualistic. How quaint. That nobody knew what those words meant. Well what about Ruth and Expedia and emoluments. It’s interesting to see what a language can be like when there isn’t that dictionary because the language is too new and it isn’t used in writing very much anyway. So if a word falls usage then it’s not then a word that nobody knows what it means but it’s in the dictionary and therefore still a word. Those words just don’t exist. And so for example a language I’ve brought up on the podcast fairly often. Sara McCann is a language that formed when slaves escaped from the plantations on the coast of Surinam into the rainforest and they used about 650 words of English and a bunch of them from Portuguese and then a whole lot of words from a couple of African languages one of them called for one of them actually our friend ki Congo and they fashioned that into what started out as just a kind of makeshift lingo but because that was the language that these slaves could use among themselves and they spoke different languages. It very quickly became a real language and they made the most of that original yeast of words. And so the language has existed now for 300 and change years and it’s a full language. They’ve got their helps and aids and assists and all of that. But for example if something worries you in Samarkand it breaks your head. That’s how you say worry that’s if you ask How do you say where the first thing they’re gonna say is Boko Haiti. It breaks your head but there’s no word like perturb or vexatious nothing nothing like that where you know especially with vexatious a lot of us have no idea what it means and perturb is a word you probably hear once every two years. There’s none of that. There are no words that nobody knows except of course in some ritual circumstances. But now when you’re talking about urgent things like an impeachment process there’s no such thing as words that don’t serve well for communication. So that’s just my view on these matters. And of course I think it’s time since a lot of you can disagree for a musical number. This is dance around in your bones. This is a late 20s song. This is the wonderful Walter Donaldson who’s best known number today is probably making would be wonderful melodies. I think I’ve used this song on the show before but you know this is my 18th episode. I am sure that almost none of you have heard the other 87 and dance around in your bones I used it a couple years ago.

S5: So this is a very catchy little song a bit of Halloween because you can imagine it being skeletons or something like that and it gets too hot bar and you can get I say hey no I got this dance around Bones I’m made me think oh hey you shot me softly mom you know you can’t dance around your bones of all of our Jane Green and Green I got the right idea of these things right mommy and a dad now I’m like Oh my baby I’m about a topic I know when to take off your shirt around your zombie word order.

S6: It’s not just the letters in the words zombie word order.

S7: For example here’s something that happens in German you say except in German I go to the movies. OK. Now suppose it’s tomorrow that you’re going to the movies. Well you’d think that what you would say in German is tomorrow I go to the movies but you don’t say that because go refuses to move. So when I go to the movies go is in the second place. OK then you say tomorrow I go to the movies and you think that go would just move over into the third place and I is in the second place and then tomorrow gets to be in the first. But no when you stick tomorrow on go sits still it’s like one of those those saxes in the Dr. Seuss story. It won’t move. So what happens as you say tomorrow go because go won’t move. And so I have to jump over to the other side of go tomorrow go I to the movies. So Morgan Gaya if it’s Kino that’s what you have to say tomorrow go I to the movies. What the hell is he talking about.

S3: This is what I’m talking about that is called verb second because the verb insists on sitting in the second place and that’s a queer little thing that happens in Germanic languages. That’s a very Germanic thing. Now it used to be something that was part of how English worked but it leached out. And so now I have to tell you about the notion of tomorrow go to the theater but there’s still a remnant of it there’s still like that fly caught between the window and the screen and it has to do with something that we use in writing without even thinking. So take this.

S4: This is from a very obscure under sun series of books about a certain Harry Potter. So oh you look much tastier than crab and Goyal Harry said her mining before catching sight of Ron’s raised eyebrows was it. Why not her my any said and you could say her mind he said but instead we’re used to it being said her mind with all of a sudden the subject after the verb that’s a remnant of the time when the verb refused to move out of place. So do you look much tastier than crab and Goyal Harry said her mining. That is classic verb second or no I’m not retorted her mining. I’m hoping to do some good in the world if you ever thought how odd that is. That is a remnant of good old Germanic verb second. So if we find it odd when a German person says tomorrow go to the theatre except in German that not at all odd when we’re used to things like no I’m not retorted her by any very peculiar thing. It’s zombie word order is just kind of this living dead verb second. And yet we can listen to something like Williams doll from free to be you and me. Yes this is Alan Alda and Marlo Thomas singing almost 50 years ago at this point. This has always been one of my favorite numbers from it and I don’t think I’m alone in this. But it’s that same thing with the verb second business with said Listen to this. When my friend William was 5 years old he wanted to hug and but she. Said well. Know. What I. Wash and. Mean. And. The. DOG TO. BODY. AND. Put to bed one day is. An.

S8: Let down. I. Want to. Know yes. He said his best friend said. Why should I buy when I play with a. Dog. A girl said his. Friend. Don’t. Judge said. Joe.

S4: Then one more thing this is going to annoy some of you is zombie conjugation zombie verb marking and what I mean by that is. Well you sit down but you’ve set a cup on the table OK. You raise the card from the table but if you start coming up out of your seat up into the air well then you are rising. OK. And in the same way you are lying on the floor but you lay the card down on the table. Now I Lay Me Down to Sleep upon which I am lying asleep. Now we’re told that to be somebody who you know doesn’t smell bad you’re supposed to maintain that distinction between lie and lay but you have to be told it and people flout it all the time. And so I’m laying down over here in the corner somebody you’ll say that drives a certain kind of person crazy. Oh it’s it’s laying over there. Well no you’re not supposed to say that because it’s just it’s just sitting there and so it’s lying over there. Well you know it’s an interesting distinction to maintain. I can do it when I’ve had my coffee. I have messed it up actually on this show and been politely scolded on Twitter for it and the reason is because that is something that used to make sense it used to be living. It was part of a pattern. Many many verbs did that and one that you wouldn’t even think of now is drink and drench if you think about it. Drenching is making something drink that used to be just the way the language worked so you wouldn’t have to just master this business of lying and lying. You had a whole bunch of verbs that did it whereas today it’s really just down to lie lay sit set and rise raise and notice with sit and set that nobody seems to get us upset if you say I’m going to sit this cup here on the table it’s not likely that somebody on the other side of the room is gonna throw a spitball at you and tell you that you should have said set it on the table there’s just this fetish sensation about lie and lay and you know frankly I think it sounds great to say I’m laying down over here and you might argue you know Benjamin Dreier and Mary Norris and Brian Garner probably feel differently than I do there’s a subjectivity here but you might argue isn’t it arbitrary to just keep lie lay when really it’s a dead rule and nobody really minds with it set then there’s raise and rise which nobody has any trouble with and that pretty much takes care of it why are we so upset about that one for example with plurals why don’t we keep kind for count you know kine was actually the original plural for cow why not keep it we let that go well if we let kind go and we can almost imagine letting lice go you know what it’s louse having a regular plural given how marginal they usually are to life you wouldn’t mind just saying lasses and in fact that’s exactly what you say if you’re calling a person allows folks I’m not going to play diamonds are a girl’s best friend but Broadway fans imagine that I did sis go back to their spouses so we let kind go you know in Scotland there are people who can say shoe in for shoes shoes shoe in well why don’t we keep those they fell away lie and lay is trying to fall away and we just won’t let it out it’s like we’re in the mafia you know just when I think I’m getting out whatever that expression was just saying you know order is a kind of clarity I would think an order would be that I could lay in the corner and nobody would think there was anything wrong with me in any case with rising and raising a little bit of on the 20th centuries I rise again this is John column singing in nineteen seventy nine and there are a couple of interesting little linguistic lessons in this song so take a listen to this part of I rise again. And. Then. A ace alliance with my slingshot I it. With. My back. Up against a wall.

S9: That’s picking up six or seven see inside a two shot it just brings tears to my cheeks my must then raging Lynch mob. The false reports of five miles. Behind me. With. My back. Oh.

S10: It’s interesting. He says he’s talking about. I hit at them. These villains hit at them. That’s interesting because it implies that you’re not quite succeeding I hit them I hit at them just that at conveys that he’s waving his hands in the air and he’s not quite getting rid of them. It’s interesting how language works and that actually difference that actually difference. I keep that in between hit them and hit at them. That actually has a name that is a kind of what linguist call anti passive I’ve been trying to slip that into the show for three years now and I finally did. I don’t know if I’ll ever do it again but also listen to picking with their beaks. Angry birds pecking with their beaks. Think about it. What else would they pick with. I love that line. You can imagine a hypothetical language where if you can say that the birds are pecking with their beaks like what else would they pick with their backs. You could say something like Well I ate it with my mouth I smelled it with my nose. There could be a language like that that was just oddly redundant in that way. I sat down with my butt. It’s just an interesting thing. Pecking with their beaks peeing with their all right I will sit down now. But by the way if you want to know what the fate of the word university in English has to do with Yosemite Sam then I think you need yourself some Slate Plus Slate Plus gives you an extra bit at the end of every show and more to the point for a nominal fee if you pay for Slate Plus two things happen One you don’t have to listen to any ads by me or anybody else. And two it helps pay for not only this podcast but all of the other fine podcasts that Slate does. So sign up for Slate Plus and you learn new things you get a tidbit and that tidbit is not available online.

S4: I actually have never heard any of my Slate Plus segments but you get more stuff. And also for those of you who don’t like Broadway clips I usually don’t play them in the little clip of Slate Plus. In any case in our autumn folks I said in the last show that sweet meat was pancreas. And no that’s not true. Sweet bread is pancreas but still that shows bread used to have a broader meaning it does these days. But somebody told me on the Twitter actually and I hate to say that I’ve already lost it but you know who you are and thank you sweet bread is pancreas. You know I’m just. Just this one more time.

S2: Back to that Tootsie. So this is the end of I won’t let you down. Just listen to how this man actually sings as a woman convincingly. I was deeply touched by this performance and I can be hard to touch sometimes. Right so I. Remember. I thought. About. That. How well that to.

S10: For those of you who don’t want that let’s let’s Funk it up a little bit to go out. This is just good ham and cheese.

S2: This is Saturday in the park by Chicago. My older daughter Dalia used to love this one when she was tiny because she did understand the word Saturday. And so she used to sing along with it. You can reach us at lexicon Valley at Slate dot com. That’s lexicon Valley at Slate dot com. To listen to past shows and subscribe or just to reach out go to Slate dot com slash lexicon Valley. Mike bolo is as always the editor. And I’m John McWhorter. Waiting.

S4: You know what’s boring clippings and what I mean by that is that there’s some linguistics one or one concepts where it’s presented to you as something you need to know. This is where words come from. And one of the things on the laundry list is clippings. And so somebody will tell you eagerly you know somebody will corner you at a party blowing crackers in your face and telling you that well lab came from laboratory really mod comes from modern. Well shut my mouth. REP IS SHORT FOR reputation. How exciting. I mean these are not the sort of things that make me leave my happy home. But you know there’s some clippings and I happen to come across a couple of these randomly the other day and I thought I would share because the show for me is all about sharing my toys. And yet I can’t do a whole show about this. There’s some clippings that actually are kind of counterintuitive. So for example gin as in the lovely liquor that came from Geneva and Geneva was from Dutch of that which is Juniper because gin has that that taste so gin is short for Geneva. So gin is clipping or chap chap as originally Chapman and chapman was a tradesman originally and then that tradesman meaning morphed also into a customer. And so Chapel’s customer and then it extends into being just a guy. And if you wonder how customer morphs into being just a guy remember that even now we can say that somebody is a tough customer and that doesn’t mean that the person is at a store buying forks or something like that. It means that that’s kind of a tough guy a tough customer and so comes from Chapman and chapman or top man as it was an old English man is the same word as what in German came out as cough man. So could sure and then chop for put so Pater and father that P F relationship that we’ve actually discussed in another show. So chop man in old English calls man in German business man or if you’re talking about somebody named Calvin Georgia’s Kaufman that word. KAUFMAN actually has a cognate relationship to the word chap of all things. So chap is short for Chapman or fence as in fencing. Now you’re in college and it’s always somebody you wouldn’t expect to turns out to be a fencer. It’s always some person where you would think they would be into something else. You’d think that they’d be a harpsichord Esther that they would you know like shooting up or something like that but then they say oh well I fence. It’s always a wild variety of people. Fencing is short for defense. I never knew that or story is short for history. Story is a clipping so his story it comes from French so he story OK and then gets Shorten to story and you can see the relationship but story is short for history. And then this is my favorite one. Varsity did you know that that’s short for university. You think it was some separate word but there’s a reason why varsity relates to colleges. It’s from university. And why is it var instead of verb it’s like varmint for vermin and you think of that as Yosemite Sam. But actually varmint goes back to British English in 1773. That var for ver. That’s something that actually starts in Britain not in John Ford movies or universal. There people could say vassal and you think that it’s John Wayne or Yosemite Sam or somebody in a certain kind of Coen Brothers movie or Deadwood or something like that. But no actually vassal for universal sixteen ninety. It goes back that far. And so varsity for university it’s not just somebody chewing on whatever that plant is that you know old gold prospectors chewed on in say 1851 saying well you don’t go to varsity by crafty or something like that because varsity goes all the way back to eighteen twenty five. There had been no gold rush yet. And as far as we know nobody talked like that. So varsity is from University and it is not an Americanism. It’s something from across the pond. And now here we are talking about varsity sports. Those are some clippings that aren’t boring. You heard them here first and I’ll see you next week.