Talking About Words
With Prof. Richard W.
Botoxed, Burger, Bra, Zoo and Other Whacked Words
The horrors of the First World War led, in the 1920s, to a distrust of rationality and order, since it seemed to many that those very qualities had gotten Europe into the carnage of the Western Front. In the world of art, Dadaism appeared as a movement that systematically attacked rationality and order.
One expression of Dada poetry was the “cut-up” technique devised by the Romanian-French writer, Tristan Tzara. He gave a recipe for creativity: take a newspaper, cut out each of the words, place them in a bag, shake it gently, draw out the words, copy them down in the order they emerged from the bag.
“And here you are a writer, infinitely original and endowed with a sensibility that is charming though beyond the understanding of the vulgar,” he wrote.
“Cut-up” as a technique surfaces from time to time, most recently in the compositional method of David Bowie, the rock-and-roll artist.
It has, I think, about as much enduring artistic value as a film—made in the tradition of Andy Warhol's 1964 film, Empire—of blobs rising in a lava lamp.
(Empire resulted when Warhol pointed
a movie camera out a window at the Empire State Building and kept
it running from morning to night. The most thrilling moments of
this eight-hour homage to tedium occur when pigeons unexpectedly
fly past the window. The last 90 minutes consist of utter darkness,
marking the time after the spotlights illuminating the Empire State
were shut off.)
Still, it must be confessed, some English words can usefully be seen as having been julienned by the invisible knife of history.
Take a word apparently coined in 1999: blog.
Its source is Web log with the we lopped off
and the space removed. As such words metastasize in the vocabulary,
we get lots of derivatives: the blogosphere, for instance,
in which blog newbies can be initiated in such techniques
as spam-proofing your blog site and avoiding blog
burnout. Twelve-step programs emerge to benefit those who
have become blogaholics.
It's as if the rapid-chopping technique used to market the Ginsu knife had been applied to English words.
There are a surprising number of ways in which English words have been cut up and rearranged. In about 1300, the name for a particular serpent was nadder, and one can imagine the cry: “Look out! It's a nadder.” The ‘en' was then chopped off and pasted onto a so that nowadays we say, “It's an adder.”
Just as amputees feel sensation in a missing
foot, so a few speakers of English have a sense of what has been
chopped off and thrown away: -ssiere from brassiere to
produce bra, or -forte from pianoforte to
yield piano, or -ological park from zoological
park to give us zoo. The fronts of words get whacked
too: burger (from hamburger ); phone from telephone ; burb from suburb,
bus (from omnibus).
Sometimes the middles vanish: hemoglobin (from hematinoglobulin).
Rarely, both beginnings and ends are chopped off: cab from taximeter
Sometimes, it's as if all the pieces had been cut up and drawn from Tristan Tzara's bag: botoxed < bo tulinum + neuro tox in + -ed . “He had the corners of his eyes botoxed and he's disappointed no one has noticed.”
We acquire our language without a sense of its history, and so the sensation of the missing parts is not passed on from one generation to the next.
Take zep. Zep is one of the
many words describing a sandwich made from a long roll of crusty
Italian bread and containing slices of cheese and meat (among other
things). The sandwich is known variously as grinder,
hero, hoagie, po' boy, sub (or submarine) .
In New Jersey, it is called a zep, which is simply zeppelin with the -pelin chopped off. What with the Hindenburg disaster, zeppelins may live longer in the Jersey consciousness than elsewhere, and the shape of the dirigible gave rise to the name of the sandwich. It is unlikely, without strenuous marketing, that the missing part of the word could be brought to the collective mind today.
Linguistic conservatives have long been distressed by the cutting and pasting of new English words. In 1714, Jonathan Swift warned that “even in London, they clip their Words after one Manner about the Court, another in the City, and a third in the Suburbs.”
Swift also singled out some of these “clipped” words
for special criticism: mob (instead of mobile ‘promiscuous
assemblage of people,' as the OED defines it); phizz (for physiognomy ); rep (for reputation ); sham (derived,
apparently, from ashamed ). These words have lived (or
died) despite what the conservatives might have wished.
There is nothing to be done, of course. Listen carefully to the wordsmiths in a quiet moment and you can hear the thud of the knife against the cutting board.
W. Bailey is the Fred Newton Scott Collegiate Professor
of English. His most recent book is Rogue Scholar:
The Sinister Life and Celebrated Death of Edward H. Rulloff, University of Michigan Press, 2003—a biography of an
American thief, impostor, murderer and would-be philologist who
lived from 1821 to 1871. It was published by the University
of Michigan Press in 2003.