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December 11, 2017

Whomst'd've guessed it?

One of my favorite memes of 2017 has been ‘whomst’. Now ‘whomst’ started appearing early 2017, so it’s basically decrepit in meme years, but since we’re nearing the end of the year I figured it would be fun to look back at this language-based meme.

‘whomst’ is a meme that involves using the word ‘whomst’ instead of ‘who’ to appear intelligent. It has some overlap with the meme ‘me, an intellectual’ which also involves fake intelligence, and the glowing eyes memes, where ‘whomst’ has contractions added to it to become even longer and ‘better’.

One thing I have not seen anyone talk about is the form of the word ‘whomst.’ The consensus is ‘whomst’ is a fancier version of ‘who,’ but very little discussion has been given to why the fancy version of ‘who’ is ‘whomst’ and not ‘whont’ or ‘wholli’ or any other variation. And the truth is, there is very much a reason behind ‘whomst’ taking the form it took.


Ladies and gentlemen and members of the audience, this is the phenomenon to blame. The entire motivation for there even being a ‘whomst’ meme, the scourge of all prescriptivists and tool of all station-climbers... hypercorrection. Hypercorrection refers to a phenomenon where someone misuses a construction or word in an attempt to appear more "correct." The seeds of hypercorrection are planted in grammar school, when teachers tell students things like “me and Jane” is incorrect and it should actually be “Jane and I.” (Of course, those of us who study linguistics know that such value judgments are actually arbitrary and not logically consistent or even historically sound… but that’s a topic for another post). English teachers rarely, if ever, know anything about linguistics, and so their understanding of English comes from a different framework. They make statements about how some constructions are unacceptable - even though they sound perfectly normal in colloquial English - and that ‘Standard English’ is the only true way to speak English.

The problem is they often fail to actually teach why the "wrong" form doesn’t work. To use our earlier example, ‘me and Jane’. Let’s look at the pronoun. (The ordering is some weird stuff we won’t get into). Pronouns in English have these two forms, the ‘nominative’ and the ‘accusative.’ The nominative is used when a pronoun is the subject of a verb. This form is ‘I, you, he, she, it, we, they.’ You can say ‘I ran,’ but you can’t say *‘me ran’ in most varieties of English. The accusative case is used when a pronoun is the object of a verb - in other words, when something is being done to the pronoun. You can say ‘I loved him’ but not *‘I love he’.

In Standard English, pronouns in a subject position (the pronoun is the one ‘doing’ something) must be in the nominative case, even when they are joined with another word by using 'and'. So ‘me and Jane ran’ is incorrect in Standard English because *‘me ran’ is unacceptable. ‘Jane and I ran’ is okay because you can say 'I ran.' Now look at ‘He loved Jane and me.’ This one is okay because if we remove Jane, you get ‘he loved me,’ which is grammatical. *’He loved Jane and I’ is not a good sentence because ‘He loved I’ is a bad sentence.

Extra credit: who is correct, Todd or Scott? (spoiler: Todd's version is awkward but the case makes sense because "I and he" is the subject. Scott's "he and me" mixes nominative and accusative case, which is a no-no in Standard English!)

Did your teacher ever teach you any of this? Or did they just say ‘you can’t say me and X, it must be X and I’? Most teachers just broadly tell you that something is wrong and then move along through their long list of arbitrary rules. This leaves people confused and they come up with their own explanations - "'X and me' is wrong, but ‘X and I’ is correct." This leads to constructions that are actually not grammatical in Standard English, like *’between you and I.’ In Standard English, prepositions take the accusative case. It’s ‘with me,’ not *‘with I’. The form should be ‘between you and me’, but if you were never explained how this works, you’re just going to find every instance of ‘me and X’ and replace it with ‘X and I.’ This is a hypercorrection - when you go too far in trying to be right that you end up wrong. Hypercorrections are one of the ways you can spot someone who is not actually comfortable using standard language but is trying to appear as though they do.

The same applies to ‘whom.’ Most people know ‘whom’ exists, but ‘whom’ is virtually extinct in most varieties of English. Unlike the ‘you and I’ example, most teachers won’t even talk about it! Now the reality is that ‘whom’ is simply the accusative form of ‘who’. If you can replace who with a pronoun in the accusative case, you can use ‘whom’. “Who did he love?” “He loved her.” -> “Whom did he love?” If you can replace ‘who’ with the nominative, then don’t change anything. “Who went to the store?” “They went to the store.” The key: whom can never go in the subject position.

Zac Efron demonstrates the social consequences of misusing who and whom.

All of this is lost on people who know there is a word ‘whom’ and that it is used by well-educated people. The assumption is that ‘whom’ is a ‘fancy’ or ‘more correct’ version of ‘who’ and so you get ungrammatical sentences like *‘whom went to the store?’ This is a dead giveaway that a person is not actually well versed on Standard English grammar and is trying hard to look smarter than they really are. This is part one of ‘whomst’. But we’re not content to stop there - there’s an -st there.

The -st

Think about ‘among’ and ‘while.’ In the United States, these are the standard versions. However, there are variants: ‘amongst’ and ‘whilst’. Now, people hate it when two words mean exactly the same thing, so they try to come up with some distinction between them to justify having two different words. ‘Grammar nerds’ will argue over when it is appropriate to use ‘among’ or ‘amongst,’ and people come up with the most bizarre and ahistorical justifications like ‘among is for people and amongst is for inanimate objects’ (I've actually seen this one). The reality is that ‘amongst’ and ‘whilst’ mean exactly the same as their shorter brethren; they are simply older and rarer. If you only encounter ‘amongst’ in literature, though, you may be forgiven for thinking that ‘amongst’ is the ‘literary variant’ - and the logic goes "literary = more educated." This leads to some people falsely saying ‘amongst’ is the ‘proper’ form and ‘among’ is the colloquial!

As you’ll notice, both of these words comprise a well known word (among/while) and what appears to be a suffix, -st. By analogy, couldn’t you just add ‘-st’ to make a word fancy and literary? What if we added it to an already fancy and literary word like… whom? We’d have the most educated word in the world! And so it appears ‘whomst' was born by analogy.

Size Matters

But the whomst meme doesn’t stop there! In many of the comics, ‘whomst’ is simply the first level. To reach true awakening, you must use ‘whomst’d’, or even ‘whomst’d’ve’. Wow, my eyes sure hurt from all this glowing.

This is a weird expansion of the word, because they are adding contractions. Whomst’d would therefore be ‘whomst had’ or ‘whomst would’. ‘Whomst’d’ve’ would be ‘whomst would have’. Contractions are usually considered informal, and double contractions like ‘who’d’ve’ are considered especially unfit for the written page by stodgy guardians of propriety. Why would adding contractions make ‘whomst’ an even more ‘fake intelligent’ word?

My theory - this has to do with the English belief that ‘long words’ are more ‘literary.’ Have you ever heard someone accuse someone else of using ‘big words’? ‘Big words’ refer to words that are usually found in books and are ‘long’. This is in comparison to normal words: lightning, not fulmination. It’s very unusual because this isn’t really a thing in other languages. In Spanish, there are plenty of common words that are long. Agglutinating languages like Turkish and Japanese add so many suffixes to words that almost every word in a normal sentence can be a long word!

The belief that longer word = literary word seems to have some correlation with the fact that the base of English vocabulary is of Germanic origin, while the ‘learned’ vocabulary is of Latin and Greek origin. The Germanic words are often monosyllabic, like ‘egg’ and ‘word’. The Latin words, meanwhile, have many syllables, like ‘deconstruction.’ The meanings of these words are transparent to people who speak Romance languages or Greek (de = to undo; construct = to build; -tion = make the verb into a noun), they are not transparent to English speakers without further explanation. The end result is that an association arises between how long a word is and how learned the user must be.
Now English does not have a ton of suffixes it can add on to ‘whomst’, but it does have contractions. In this way ‘whomst’d’ is longer than ‘whomst’ and ‘whomst’d’ve’ is even longer. You can see it get crazier and more nonsensical with stuff like ‘whomst’d’ve’ll’.

Ask Not For Whomst The Bell Tolls

The fun of this meme is that it’s totally silly - it mocks people who want to put on airs without actually going through the trouble of learning anything new. ‘Whomst’ is brilliant - I don’t know if the originator had -st in mind when coming up with it, but it just works so well by analogy with amongst. Unfortunately, memes have a lifespan, and it appears that ‘whomst’ is nearing its end. Farewell, brave linguistic meme. Whomst’d’ve ever expected you?

December 1, 2017

Why does Khalid say "Amewican Teen"?

While browsing popheads yesterday morning, I saw a post asking why "industry plant" Khalid pronounces his 'r's like 'w's.
In American Teen he pronounces American like "Amerwican" with emphasis on the W. Another example is the way he says proud like "pwoud". It's so annoying and it kills me. I've noticed Ariana and Halsey do it but not as severe as Khalid. (source)
One user pointed to a Tom Scott video about why English talk show host Jonathon Ross can't pronounce his r's. Scott says that it's because Jonathon Ross pronounces his 'r's differently from many people. Instead of putting his tongue under the space behind his teeth (this pronunciation is called an alveolar approximant /ɹ/), he puts his top teeth near his bottom lip (a labiodental approximant /ʋ/), which sounds a lot like a 'w'. Case solved?

Not sure about that. First: the labiodental approximant version of 'r' is mostly found in Southeast England; Khalid is American, as are Ariana and Halsey, the other singers the poster complained about. It's possible that all three spontaneously started pronouncing it this way, but they're from pretty different areas (Georgia; South Florida; New York, respectively). Second, and more importantly, the 'w' sound does not appear to be consistent. Listening to "American Teen," most of the cases where you had 'r' and a vowel sound like Rs. The only instance where I really can hear it sounding like a 'w' is in the background repeat of 'American teen'. Khalid's 'r's when talking normally don't sound like 'w's at all (listen to the "really"s). Compare it to Jonathon Ross's pronunciation, which is definitely a labiodental approximant.

My explanation: Khalid uses an alveolar approximant (tongue behind teeth), but he's not pronouncing it clearly. English speakers round their lips when making the 'r' sound. English speakers also round their lips when they make the 'w' sound. If Khalid doesn't really commit to the sound when he's pronouncing it, then it will end up sounding like a 'w'. It's not uncommon for singers to speak clearly in their regular speech and then be harder to understand when singing. This also accounts for Ariana Grande: she's gotten a lot of flak for not pronouncing words clearly, and this is a result of her articulating them weakly. Like Khalid, her normal speech also doesn't have any 'wabbit' pronunciation. I can't really explain Halsey, but who can explain Halsey? (disclaimer: I love Halsey!)

If you know any other singers with bad or unusual pronunciations, please let me know! I'd love to do something on all the different ways singing can affect how you pronounce things (*cough* why singers say 'baybay' instead of 'baby').

November 20, 2017

Rae Sremmurd Teaches Phonotactics

So you guys saw the mannequin challenge several months back, right? It's a video meme where participants freeze in place, as if they were mannequins. It's pretty cool looking when done well. For some reason, the song "Black Beatles" by Rae Sremmurd is supposed to play in the background. Now I was watching the Rap Critic's review of "Black Beatles" the other day when I noticed an interesting portion. The band had a clip where they showed the name written in IPA and explained how it was pronounced. "There's a silent h between the s and r," explains one of the members. The Rap Critic mocks them for this, saying that if they wanted to have an h sound, they should have written it in (0:31-1:12 in the video above).

However, their pronunciation of 'Sremmurd' with an 'sh' sound is not unusual if you know about how English works. We can use this band's name as an opportunity to explain the concept of phonotactics.

What is phonotactics? Well, you know how some people don't like when their peas and carrots touch but others are okay with all sorts of foods touching? Languages are much the same way. Every language has rules about what sort of sounds are allowed to be next to each other, and English is no different.

The important rule here is that English does not allow /sr/ as a consonant cluster at the beginning of a syllable. How many words can you think of (excluding foreign words!) that start with 'sr'? Not too many. This means that native English words are not going to have this series of sounds - in linguistic parlance, it is an illegal (not allowed) onset (the beginning of a syllable). However, sometimes circumstances arise that result in an illegal onset, and the English language has ways of dealing with this.

Take the word 'groceries.' It's normally pronounced 'grow-suh-reez' /groʊ.sə.riz/.

In quick speech, the schwa (the 'uh' sound: /ə/) in the middle (grow-suh-riz) can be dropped so that the whole word is now two syllables. But there's a problem: now there's a syllable that begins with /sr/: grow-sriz [groʊ.sriz] (?).

How does English fix that? Well, it looks for a sound that's close to 's' and that is allowed with 'r'. If you move your tongue back a little when making an 's' sound, you get the 'sh' sound (ʃ). Now 'shr' is totally acceptable in English: we have words like shrimp, shriek, shrink, shrapnel. The English phonological system is satisfied with this, and the end result is grow-shreez [groʊ.ʃriz].

Some people even extend this short version into the full version. They restore the schwa, but they do not change the 'sh' sound. This means you even have some people saying grow-shuh-reez [groʊ.ʃə.riz]! Britney Spears uses this form clearly in her song "Piece of Me": "while buying the grosheries."

That's not the only possible result. Here's a recent loan word, sriracha /srɪ.rɑ.tʃə/. As you can see, it has that 'sr' cluster at the beginning, which is a no-no. Some speakers' dialects fix the illegal onset by using the same process you get with 'groceries' above, resulting in shri-rah-chuh [ʃrɪ.rɑ.tʃə]. But others will instead use metathesis, which is when you flip two sounds around. Observe:

sri-rah-chuh [s.rɑ.tʃə] -> sir-rah-chuh [sɪr.rɑ.tʃə]

As you'll notice, the 'r' and the 'i' sound have traded places. Now the two offending consonants are no longer touching and harmony is restored. Note that since there was already an 'r' sound at the beginning of the next syllable (sriracha), the flipped r just blends into the 'r' that was already there.

* Some speakers DO say 'sriracha' [srɪrɑtʃə], but most English speakers find the consonant cluster a little difficult and may use one of the two pronunciations outlined here.

Let's look back at Rae Sremmurd. The name comes from taking 'ear drummers', writing it backwards, and pronouncing the result. There are no illegal combinations in the name, except for the 'sr'. The solution: pronounce it 'shr.', just like with groceries and sriracha. Rae Sremmurd explain it by saying there's a 'silent h', but that's actually the opposite of what's happening. A silent letter is a letter that's written but not pronounced. This is a sound that's pronounced but not written. In any case, the pronunciation of 'sremmurd' with an 'sh' sound is perfectly justifiable via English phonology.

Now Rae Sremmurd were apparently not content to just pronounce their name without explanation. They explain how to pronounce the name and even use some IPA... giving us /reɪ ʃrˈɪmɜrd/. Some interesting things:

The stress marker (') is wrong. The way the stress marker is placed, it looks like "reishr" is one syllable. It would be pronounced 'reyshr-IMMerd', when it's actually 'rey-SHRIMMerd'. The correct transcription would be /reɪ ˈʃrɪmɜrd/.

It's worth noting that despite the fact that it's spelt "Sremmurd," it's pronounced with an 'ih' /ɪ/ sound as opposed to 'eh' /ɛ/, and this is reflected in the IPA. The members of Rae Sremmurd have the pin-pen merger (when 'em/en' sound like 'im/in' instead of sounding different), and it's reflected in how they transcribed the name as "shrimmurd" and not "shremmurd."

Linguistic Nerd Note: The use of slashes would mean that the underlying form is actually /ʃrɪmɜrd/, instead of having /ʃrɛmɜrd/ be realized as [ʃrɪmɜrd] due to the pin-pen merger. There isn't a process in English that I know of where /ɛm/ becomes [ɪm], so per this transcription it would not be correct to pronounce it [ʃrɛmɜrd]. But! I have a feeling it would really be /ʃrɛmɜrd/, one realization of which would [ʃrɪmɜrd]. They should've used brackets instead of slashes to show this was a phonetic realization, not a phonemic one. A theoretical quibble, but one with actual implications.

They also mess up the explanation of the IPA. The 'line' is not related to the vowels; it's a stress marker. The 3 is not a 3, it's a backwards epsilon. I guess nobody really explained the IPA to them properly, or they didn't get it if it was explained to them. The IPA itself is a little wonky, so maybe whoever came up with it also did a weird job explaining it. Who did they get to do it, actually? Are there transcribers for hire?

So Rap Critic, while I may agree with your critique of the song, I do not agree with your critique of the name. They are perfectly justified in pronouncing it 'shremmurd' due to English phonotactics preventing the illegal onset 'sr'! I do agree with you that they have no idea what they're talking about with the phonetic transcription... because they don't. But that transcription wasn't even right in the first place, so whoever did that probably didn't know either. Let's make sure to be vigilant for weird IPA transcriptions in music videos!

November 1, 2017

The Deal with Daddy

In 2012, when I was getting into Lana Del Rey's music, I found out that she had a reputation as singing about old men and calling her boyfriends "daddy." It struck me as a very weird thing to do, with all sorts of reverse-Oedipal undertones. What does it mean? Who's doing this? Are there men out there calling their girlfriends "mommy"? I spent some time researching this phenomenon, and it turns out we've been doing this for quite a while!

A stern 1950s dad with horn-rimmed glasses sits next to his son.
"Tell me a story, daddy." "Well, son..."

What is 'daddy'?

dictionary entry of list of slang meanings of 'daddy' from the Cassless Dictionary of Slang
All sorts of things, apparently.

The oldest use of "X's daddy" to refer to someone other than X's father or father figure dates back to 1681 (per the Random House Dictionary of American Slang). It was used by prostitutes "in reference to their pimps or to an older male customer." The connection was that pimps - a mostly male group - took care of the prostitutes financially, much like how a father provides for his child's financial needs.

In the early 1900s, we also see blues songs with the term 'daddy' to refer to a pimp. The meaning starts to expand, however, to refer to a man who "takes care" of a young woman's financial needs, likely in exchange for sexual favors. It's no longer a prostitute-pimp relationship, though - instead it's the "sugar daddy-sugar baby" relationship (note that the infantilization implied by 'daddy' is made explicit in the recipient term 'sugar baby'). We also start seeing it expand even more. It's genericized to refer to a male lover. It's used as gay slang for "the dominant/masculine role in a homosexual relationship." Angela Davis says it's even used for female lovers (Blues Legacies and Black Feminism, 1999). In African-American working class argot, "daddy" went from a father to a pimp to a man who takes care of a woman's financial needs to a male lover and then even any lover. The theme becomes less obvious with each step, but the thread is still "someone who takes care of someone else." The slang use of "daddy" in modern Anglo-American culture likely stems from this early African American working class argot (as opposed to being a direct descendant of the 17th century use of daddy).

Image from 1920s French magazine 'La Vie Parisienne.' Shows a young woman getting married to an elderly but wealthy man.
Top text: The young lady needs to get married. Bottom text: "Think of it this way - a marriage where I have everything to win... and nothing to lose!"

"Daddy" can be interpreted as the "provider," but daddy can also be an authority figure. This is exemplified in the phrase "who's your daddy." The Washington Post did some research into the origin of this taunt. In 1969, the Zombies made a song innocently asking "what's your name, who's your daddy" referring to wanting to know a girl's pedigree.  DJ Doug Tracht heard the phrase in the Zombies song and then used it in a zestier reading on his radio shows. He used this phrase so often that it began to be used outside his show. "Who's your daddy" became popularized as a way to assert someone's dominance over someone else. e.g. winning a poker game and smugly asking, "who's your daddy?" Or you can have an entire stadium yell it at you as a taunt.

That's too much smug.

'Daddy' has expanded from being a financial provider to being an attractive male, especially one that looks older. This slang use is most popular among straight girls and gay boys in the early teens to early twenties range. Of the commonly used slang meanings of daddy, this is probably the one furthest removed from the whole 'taking care of someone else' thing. In fact, it seems to have more to do with authority and dominance than providing, as it's not uncommon for someone to leave a comment on an attractive male's Instagram requesting that 'daddy' do something to them.

Screenshot of a topic from GagaDaily. Title is 'Justin Bieber seen with HOT daddy.' There is a photo of an older man with his hand around Justin's waist.
Spoiler alert - that's his pastor and he has a wife and kids. (Source)

Building off the authority/dominance sense, there is 'daddy' referring to the male partner in a Daddy Dom/little girl roleplay scenario. This one seems to have sprung up independent of the pimp meaning, but it's the slang meaning that's closest to the original meaning of daddy: it involves actually pretending to be someone's father. Going further into what a Daddy Dom/little girl (DD/lg for you Tumblr users) roleplay is is a bit beyond the scope of this blog (and also not safe for work), but I'm sure you can work out what it entails.

For something completely different, take a look at "daddy-o." This is a term of address for a male in hipster/beatnik vernacular (dating back to the 1950s/60s). The aspect of "daddy" that got developed on wasn't the "taking care of" part but the "adult male" part. Perhaps this term also grew out of the African-American use of "daddy." Ultimately daddy-o became dated slang as the old hipster subculture ceased to exist. It's still invoked occasionally - Britney Spears uses it in her song Womanizer (2007): "Daddy-o, you've got the swagger of a champion."

Movie poster for 'Daddy-O'. Text: Meet the 'beat'! Daring to live... Daring to love! DADDY-'O'
This critically panned B-movie from 1958 demonstrates. At least it was John Williams's first score.

Who Actually Says 'Daddy,' Though?

As established earlier, the pimp meaning of 'daddy' is one of the earliest ones. We see it in blues songs, where provocative and suggestive lyrics were more accepted. Bessie Smith's "How Can I Be Your Sweet Mama When You're Daddy To Someone Else?" (1929) provides a lament on this subject, while Trixie Smith's "My Man Rocks Me (With One Steady Roll)" from 1922 uses it to refer to her lover: "My man rocks me, with one steady roll [...] I said now, Daddy, ain’t we got fun." Remember what Angela Davis established – daddy was the province of African-American working class argot. Most examples I can find of “daddy” in early blues songs were by black writers and singers.

In 1938, we see "daddy" appear outside the world of black American music. In fact, it appears in a medium that's historically excluded black performers - the Broadway musical. We see the pimp meaning appear in the Cole Porter song "My Heart Belongs to Daddy" about a "sweet millionaire" who lavishly provides for his girl. Songwriters and screenwriters began to mine “daddy” for all its salacious implications. Ten years later, Marilyn Monroe sings "every baby needs a da-da-daddy" (yes, complete with childish stuttering!) in the 1948 film "Ladies of the Chorus," referring to every woman's supposed need for a man to protect her. Monroe’s character in "Gentlemen Prefer Blondes" (1953) also repeatedly calls her fiance "daddy," probably one of the most famous media referenced here (and likely where classic film enthusiasts picked up on this slang usage). The deracialization of “daddy” occurred fairly quickly!

Marilyn's character, Lorelei, says 'Daddy, I'll bet you made me the happiest girl in the world' to her fiance and moves in for a kiss
In case you were wondering, her fiance is also fabulously wealthy.

It would do us well to remember “daddy” doesn’t have to be a pimp or a lover. In the aftermath of songs like "Hit Me Baby One More Time," a boogie-woogie song called "Beat Me Daddy Eight To The Bar" sounds too provocative for 1940. Those of you with dirty minds will be disappointed, because the "daddy" in question is actually a drummer nicknamed "Daddy Slack." Translation: Gimme eight bears to the bar, daddy slack!".A proto-example of ‘daddy(-o)’ to refer to a man? Nevertheless, the daddy = dominance meaning didn't go unignored: "and when he plays with the bass and guitar, he's the daddy of them all." Perhaps the drummer was nicknamed "daddy slack" due to his mastery of his instrument instead? We may never know that, but we do know this song has a daddy quotient of two separate daddies.

"Daddy" even makes a surprise appearance in American country music. Country music has a complicated genesis – it shared roots with the blues and was originally performed by black musicians, but by the 40s it had become the music of rural, working class whites. That won't stop daddy, though. Hank Williams uses it in his classic cover of the Tin Pan Alley song "Lovesick Blues" (written 1922, released 1949): "Lord, I loved to hear her when she called me sweet daddy." He provides the only example on this list of a man referring to himself as a lover's "daddy" in "Moanin' the Blues" (1950): "your daddy is lonesome." Every other example of daddy here comes from the mouth of a female singer, but Hank Williams shows you can consider yourself a lover’s “daddy” too.

Close-up of 7'' 45 RPM Vinyl Single label. Text: Hank William sings ''I'm a Long Gone Daddy''
This song reached #6 on the US Billboard Country Charts!

Fast forward twenty years and we see daddy pop up in the nascent disco genre. Boney M released a song in 1976 called 'Daddy Cool', and it was their first major hit in Europe (the song never took off in the United States). While you could conceivably believe that "Daddy Cool" is about an actual father, the bridge "she's crazy about her daddy" and the refrain "she's crazy like a fool, wild 'bout daddy cool" -suggest it's a lover/pimp. If you’re intrigued by the semantic possibilities of daddy cool, there's an article in the New Inquirer approaching the song from a semiotic perspective. It's wild.

excerpt from The New Inquiry - Hence we must regard 'Daddy Cool' as another seminal contribution to the debate between culturalists and psychoanalysts over the universality of Oedipal structures in ordering human practices. We may paraphrase Deleuze and Guattari and state that ''it is within capitalist society that the critique of 'Daddy Cool' must always resume its point of departure and find again its point of arrival.'' Daddy Cool is superimposed on larger and even more amorphous familial figure, that of capital itself...
This was a really... interesting topic to research.

Now we arrive to the inspiration for this topic - Lana Del Rey. She hinted at the idea of a lover being a father-type in her major label debut "Born To Die" - the song "Off To The Races" has her refer to her lover as "my old man." She didn’t explicitly say “daddy,” though until later that year when she released the lead single for her new EP, "Paradise." The song, "Ride," includes the lyric "you can be my full time daddy." The accompanying music video shows her with an older male lover, positioned on his lap like a child, and also shows a different older male lover brushing her hair (explicit infantilization!). If that's not enough daddy for you, she also re-recorded an old song of hers, "Yayo," which has her purring "let me put on a show for you, daddy." This sparked an association between Lana and "daddy," resulting in a common misconception that she sings about "daddies" on every song (and many memes). She cut down on daddy usage significantly afterwards, with "daddy" appearing only once on a bonus track from her 2014 album Ultraviolence and not at all in Honeymoon (2015) or Lust For Life (2017). There’s speculation that Lana, a fan of classic Hollywood films, may have picked up on the usage from “Gentlemen Prefer Blondes.” Alas, no sooner did daddy get a chance to breathe out in the open than he was summarily sacrificed. Nevertheless, his ghost lingers as she is uniquely associated with the slang usage of "daddy."

Lana making a disapproving face and 'nah' gesture with her hands. Text: no? i don't think so? you are too young to be my sugar daddy Image: Lana peaking out from behind a wall. Text: ''did someone say /daddy/?''
The only reason I wrote this article was to post these lana memes

You don't have to be a niche crooner to talk about daddy! Nobody less than queen figure Beyonce uses daddy in the song "Rocket" from her self-titled 2013 album: "oh, daddy, ooh now, yes child [...] you ain't right for doing it to me like that, daddy, even though I've been a bad girl." You can't control Beyonce - her lover is daddy, but he's also child, and she's a bad girl. She's no stranger to daddy though, having sung a song called "Sexy Daddy" on Destiny's Child album "Survivor" (2001). Perhaps daddy is finally entering the mainstream.

Why 'Daddy?'

“Father” is the neutral, standard way to refer to the male parent of a child. It’s appropriate for use in scientific literature and general discussion of fathers, as well as a form of address for one's father. “Dad” is an informal way to refer to a father. It’s not appropriate to use the word "dad" in a formal written paper, but it’s perfectly acceptable to say “Mishall’s dad likes road trips across America” and to talk about things like “dad rock” or “dad jokes.” "Daddy" is the diminutive form of "dad." The term is at least 500 years old, and likely older. Unlike father and dad, this one is distinctly associated with children. A seven year old can say “daddy, let’s go to the park,” but a forty year old saying “daddy, let’s go to the park” sounds a little weird (though it is acceptable in certain regions). Notice the importance of using the proper term for a father in the correct context. Using the incorrect one, especially in reference to one’s own father, suggests an abnormal father-child relationship to the listener.

Oedipus meeting a man at the crossroads and preparing to kill him. Unbeknownst to him, that man is his father.
Normal: Oedipus killed his father. Colloquial: Oedipus killed his dad. Bizarre: Oedipus killed his daddy.

Now normally, calling someone "my daddy" refers to a human being who is, in fact, your father. X's daddy should always refer to 'the father of X.' Most usages of "daddy" are straightforward like this, but we're not interested in those today. We want to know why daddy is such an gold mine for slang usages. Why don’t father and dad get the same treatment?

A picture of Michael Jackson in the 80s with his mother standing to his left and his father standing to his right. He has his arm around his mother and is standing closer to her.
I wonder who he was closer to.

The consequences of misusing daddy are clear - if you are past a certain age and you call your father "daddy," you sound a little like a baby. The diminutive of “dad” is considered acceptable for kids, but after a certain point your relationship with your parents is expected to mature and that often involves a changing of terms to refer to each other. A five year old may call her father “daddy” in private and in public, but a thirteen year old will never call her father “daddy” in public because she’s aware the term is childish and she wants to assert that she is no longer a child by changing how she refers to her father. She may call him “daddy” in private if trying to elicit a favor – temporarily positioning herself as an innocent child to be spoiled in order to get her father to respond favorably to whatever request she may have. In my experience, it seems more common for women to continue to privately address their fathers as “daddy” than it is for men.

William: Dad, you have to go back to the doctor. [...]
Betty: So... daddy, what would you like to do today?

You don’t have to be talking about your own “daddy” if you want to invoke infantile images. Think about the term "daddy's girl," which suggests a girl or woman who is/was spoiled by her father with lavish gifts (note that there’s no similar term “daddy’s boy;” there is “momma’s boy” which suggests an overprotected boy). Think about how often someone belittles and infantilizes someone by claiming their achievements were due to their parents’ influence as opposed to their own talents: “That trust fund baby John thinks he’s such hot stuff because he got into Harvard, but I bet you his daddy had to leverage his connections to get him in.” Look at the tweet below. For context, The Fyre Festival was a festival that was under-prepared on the actual day of the event. Young people bought expensive tickets to a private island expecting a catered lunch and got bread with cheese. The over-dramatic response to these conditions by privileged young people led to mockery on social media, including one user who clearly thought their reaction was childish:

Tweet from @Ganodiciendo. Upper text: 'Rich kids be like: if the poor weren't lazy and started working they'd be rich.' Lower text: 'At the #fyrefestival: DADDY SEND HELP, MY SANDWICH IS WEIRD!'
"Do you know who my father is?!"

The term 'daddy' has also become associated with men who are attractive in a traditionally masculine sort of way, especially if they are "older" (read: more than 30 years old). The association with fathers is not quite clear in this case. It could be "this man is so attractive, I want him to take a dominant role in a relationship with me." Curiously enough, attractive baby-faced men are less likely to be referred to as 'daddy' in my experience. Looking 'dominant' seems to be part and parcel of being a 'daddy.'

Tweet from @BieberBonerz: 'he went from ''hello sir, it's nice to finally meet you'' to ''your daughter calls me daddy too''.' On the lower left is a picture of a young, fresh-faced Justin Bieber smiling. On the lower right is a picture of Bieber as a young man with tattooed arms, crouching down and striking a pose.
A tale of two daddies.

The pattern is clear: if there is a "daddy," then there must also be a "baby" or a child, who needs to be taken care of and even told what to do. The "taking care of/provided for/subservient to" theme is the underlying thread in all other "daddy" meanings (with one exception in 'daddy-o'). This meaning is obvious and the tension underlying an unexpected use of “daddy” is easily exploitable. “Dad” and "father" in comparison are so commonplace that it’s very hard to misuse them at all. In other words, lots of people were looking for a way to refer to someone taking care of someone else and “daddy” was just the way to do it.

'Mama' and 'Papi'

If you're wondering if there's an equivalent to daddy in other languages, the answer is yes. Spanish speakers will be familiar with the term 'papi' used to refer to either a male lover or just any male in general. 'papi chulo' is the equivalent of 'daddy' to mean pimp, though it now refers to any cool guy.

A clip from Jennifer Lopez's music video for 'I Luh Ya Papi.' Text: I luh ya papi, I luh ya luh ya luh ya papi.
This song reached #5 on the US Billboard Dance Club Songs!

If you're wondering if there's a female equivalent to daddy, there's 'mama'. Lana demonstrates in "Yayo" again: "You call me your mama." This one also has deep roots in the blues - all sorts of blues songs have the female lead refer to herself as 'mama'. Bessie Smith alone has "How Can I Be Your Sweet Mama When You're Daddy To Someone Else" and "I Used To Be Your Sweet Mama." If you need an example that's a little more mainstream and current, Bruno Mars's #1 US hit "That's What I Like" (2017) says "you can be my fleeka, mamacita." (There is also a Spanish equivalent to ‘momma,’ “mami.” It’s used in much the same way “papi” is.)

While the authoritative and dominant connotations come more easily to "daddy" than "mama," don't think that means you can boss mama around. The song "When You're Good To Mama" from the 1975 musical "Chicago" unequivocally establishes that "the keeper of the keys, the countess of the clink, the mistress of murderess row" is "Matron Mama Morton," who has not one but two maternal names. Christina Aguilera's forgotten single "Woohoo" (2010) also suggests mama's in control: "Cravin', now get your hands on/Give it up before mama says no."

Image: Mama Morton licks her finger in front of an audience member. Text: When you're good to mama... (the following line would be: mama's good to you)
...Mama's good to you.

Anyone who's been around the pop music community will have heard of fans referring to celebrities as "mom." Lady Gaga used to refer to herself as "Mother Monster" to purposefully position herself as a surrogate mother figure to her teenage fans. Lorde once retweeted Kim Kardashian's magazine cover and wrote 'mom,' which led some to believe she was shaming Kim for looking attractive while having children. Lorde explains: "i retweeted kim’s amazing cover and wrote ‘MOM’, which among the youthz is a compliment; it basically jokingly means ‘adopt me/be my second mom/i think of you as a mother figure you are so epic" (emphasis added). Here the idea is similar to the one behind daddy where you have "mom" as someone who takes care of someone else. However, "mom" has a nurturing tone lacking from daddy, and there are no romantic or sexual undertones.

Admiration in one word.

Otherwise, "mother" and “mom” suffers from the same blandness "father" and “dad” do and are not ripe for slangification. The variant "mommy," curiously enough, is not common, even though it has the same childish connotations that “daddy” does. Perhaps that one is simply too infantile to transfer to a romantic context, or perhaps straight men don’t find the idea of infantilizing themselves in comparison to their female partners attractive. If daddy is making steps into the mainstream, mommy is still firmly in "very creepy" territory.

The Daddy of 'em All

If you've ever felt weirded out by all the slang uses of 'daddy', just remember that we've been using 'daddy' to mean all sorts of things for centuries! We first see non-father 'daddy' in the late 17th century, then see it independently developed again in the 20th century by African Americans. From there it's slowly spread throughout media, never quite losing its weird incestuous tone but slowly becoming more accepted. Perhaps the taboo behind ‘daddy’ is precisely what keeps this word a gold mine of material.

Tweet from @PatrickCharlto5: My kids are gonna call me dude because yall have tainted all the father figure words
Can't blame this guy.

BONUS ROUND: Somebody realizes the comedic potential of the creature named 'daddy long legs.'

September 29, 2017

A Quick Taxonomy of Album Titles

"Tell Me You Love Me" - Demi Lovato, 2017

Today Demi Lovato's new album, "Tell Me You Love Me," came out. Ever since she announced the title of it a month ago, I was thinking that it was a weird album title for some reason. It shouldn't be unusual - there is a song on the album called "Tell Me You Love Me," which was competing with "Sorry Not Sorry" to be the first single. It's not at all uncommon for an album to share its name with one of its songs, especially if that song is the lead or hugely successful. "Tell Me You Love Me" is a fine name for a song, but for an album specifically it was just clumsy. I'm not the only one thinking this either - I came across several posts on pop music forums complaining about the title.

"So we're not going to talk about how tragic the title is?" 3 folks agree!

On reflection, the weird thing about this title is that it's a whole phrase - or, for my syntacticians out there, this is a whole TP. Moreover, it's a phrase with no special meaning; you've likely heard this exact phrase in countless books, plays, films, TV shows, and songs.

Nowadays we like our albums to be more ~conceptual~. Artists (especially pop artists) love talking about how their album represents who they are as a person and how the album is an important artistic statement (ignore the fact that the songs are written by seven anonymous songwriters), giving us album titles like Selena Gomez's "Revival." Single-noun album titles are very popular in general - Kesha gave us "Rainbow" this year; Miley Cyrus had "Bangerz," Lorde "Melodrama," pophead favorite Carly Rae Jepson had "Emotion," Britney Spears had "Blackout" and "Circus." This trend isn't relegated to contemporary female pop singers - the Beatles had "Revolver," Fleetwood Mac had "Rumours," Pink Floyd's "Animals," ABBA's "Arrival." Single noun album titles are themselves a subcategory of one word album titles. Nouns are the most common variant; rarely you'll get a verb (The Beatles, "Help!") or an adjective (Demi Lovato, "Confident"). Anything beyond that is rare; I can't think of any preposition ("In") or determiner ("This") album titles (please comment if you know any one-word album titles that are not nouns, verbs, or adjectives/adverbs!).

"Revolver" - The Beatles, 1966. "Emotion" - Carly Rae Jepsen, 2015

The world of non-sentence multi-word album titles is a little more interesting. There are NPs - Blondie's "Parallel Lines." Van Morrison's "Astral Weeks." The Beatles's "Rubber Soul." Tove Lo's "Queen of the Clouds" has a more complex structure, involving an embedded PP. What would The Clash's "London Calling" be? Anyway, we're at the second level of abstraction here - beyond one word, but not a TP either. You have whatever Miley Cyrus's "Younger Now" is, and Pink Floyd's "The Dark Side of the Moon" is a DP. You also have TPs that could not pass as full sentences, like Kendrick Lamar's "To Pimp a Butterfly."

"Parallel Lines" - Blondie, 1978. "The Bones of What You Believe" - CHVRCHES, 2013

Finally, you have the album titles that are full sentences. This is stuff like Jimi Hendrix's "Are You Experienced," The Beatles' "Let It Be," Pink Floyd's "Wish You Were Here." The most extreme example is Fiona Apple's "When the Pawn" (hover over the album cover for the full title), which is a poem consisting of multiple sentences! Demi Lovato's album title falls into this category.

"Are You Experienced" - Jimi Hendrix, 1967. "When the Pawn..." - Fiona Apple, 1999

Now back in the day song titles that were full sentences were more popular. Remember that albums are often named after their songs. So you'd get albums like Olivia Newton-John's "If you love me, let me know" and Anne Murray's "Let's Keep It That Way." This structure of song title has become less popular in recent days. If you want to get a full sentence in there, it better be something cool-sounding and thematic, like Lykke Li's "I Never Learn." Naming your album after a pedestrian phrase is not just not cool anymore, it simply isn't done. I don't know why everyone else thought "Tell Me You Love Me" was weird, but I can tell you that my thought was "this sounds like an album from the 1970s by some middle-of-the-road female singer." The problem is this album is not the sort of placid, pleasant music Olivia and Anne made - it's modern electropop. There's a dissonance between the era the album title evokes and the contents of the album.

"If You Love Me, Let Me Know" - Olivia Newton-John, 1974

The question of how song titles have changed over the hundred or so years we've had a recorded music industry is actually pretty interesting. Roughly speaking, we've gone from long, sentence titles being popular ("I Dream of Jeannie with the Light Brown Hair," "Nobody Knows You When You're Down and Out") to very compact song titles ("Bad Things," "Love," "Style"). This also correlates to how song structure has changed. It used to be that the hook of the song was a phrase, and this phrase was the title of the song. This was supposed to make it easy to remember a song if you heard it somewhere so you could buy it later. Now we have Shazam, we can Google lyrics - it's not as important to remember a song's name. You can take a random phrase from a song ("no matter what you say, no matter what you do, I only wanna do bad things to you") and make that the title. In fact, a 'cool' title is important because songs are often teased weeks or even a month ahead of release, and 'cool' titles intrigue fans and have them coming back to check out what the song was about. Titles that fall in between these two extremes ("Lush Life" from the 40s, "Shape of You" from this year) have been pretty enduring.

I could go in deeper to how this correlates with changing musical structures, and how that correlates to the media we use to consume music changing, but that would be a whole separate post and this was supposed to be a quick one. ;)

May 1, 2017

Oh Babih, Babay - How one vowel one hundred years ago changed how we sing

A couple of months Atlas Obscura published an article about the curious way 90s stars pronounced words like 'me' and 'baby' as 'may' and 'babay.' I was pleasantly surprised to see a non-academic outlet touch upon linguistic concepts in a way that was both accurate and easy to understand. I nevertheless felt like there was something missing in their account of this pronunciation - weren't they being too specific when talking about the “90s” pop phenomenon? Weren't there plenty of people who sang like this before the 90s? I decided to start looking into this.

As it turns out, things are rarely simple. Turns out there are two pronunciations: 'babay' [ɪi] and ‘babih’ [ɪ]. These two pronunciations don't just sound similar - they actually occur in similar places song-wise, and you can even hear both pronunciations in a single song!  What's the deal with that? What follows is my nearly hundred-year-long journey down the rabbit hole of recorded music to explain to you what is the deal with "babih" and "babay."