Sunday, June 26, 2011

It's Sort Of Weird How Often People Say "Sort Of"

Why do people who are trying to sound erudite keep saying "sort of" and "kind of"?  I kept hearing people speaking this way at the American Library Association conference in New Orleans yesterday. You hear it all the time on NPR, not necessarily with the reporters, but with the people calling in or being interviewed.  There's sort of this tendency for people to say "sort of" all the time.  If they really want to emphasize something, they might even say "really sort of".  Why on earth, if you're trying to sound smart, would you use filler phrases like "kind of" and "sort of"?

I think part of the answer is that these phrases aren't just filler.  They resemble other filler words, like "um" or "uh", in that people say them unconsciously.  But "sort of/kind of" seem to carry some real meaning, too.  They serve as hedge phrases, to make people sound less blunt.  In this sense, they're related to the "like" of teen-speak, which really, like, drives the grownups crazy*.  More than that, though, these phrases seem to be unconscious affectations or signals, which say "I am speaking the way thoughtful, educated people do".  "Sort of" and "kind of" serve as indicators that the speaker is part of a certain subculture (more or less the NPR-listening, college-educated, self-consciously-cultured subculture), and can speak the way their peers in that subculture do.

Which is really sort of mildly annoying to me.  I'm very attuned, for some reason, to people's unconscious badges that mark their subcultural identity.  I notice how skateboarders walk differently than hipsters, and hipsters smoke their cigarettes differently than construction workers.  But when the subculture I'm observing is one that I'm (loosely) associated with, like that bookish, NPR-listening crowd, those subcultural badges irritate me.  I'm part of that subculture that tries not to be part of a subculture (we're probably very predictable).  I know I probably wear my share of these badges, but I do think there's a good reason to notice when you're unconsciously mimicking your peers.  As soon as you start automatically speaking and dressing like a particular group of people, you run the risk of automatically thinking like them.  And if you're automatically thinking like any group of people, well, that really sort of means you're not thinking at all.  It's not that I think people should immediately cease and desist with the "kind of" and "sort of".  It's just that it wouldn't be a bad idea for them to notice it, and stop to think about what else they're doing, and thinking, without really thinking about it.

* Wikipedia says that people have been using "like" this way for a long time, but it became popular with the beatnik character Maynard G. Krebs, on the TV show Dobie Gillis in the early '60's.  Of course, we all know Shaggy said it a lot on Scooby Doo.  So, like, people that are grandparents now used to talk like this.  In fact, some of them still do.  Wikipedia also says words like "like", "um", "uh", "well", etc, are called discourse markers or discourse particles.  Apparently, linguists used to think of these things as mostly being filler, but now see them as carrying real meaning.  I think I'll look into this some more, once I find some readable sources on this stuff beyond Wikipedia.  Here's a couple of interesting ones:

Just Like, Er, Words, Not, Um, Throwaways.  Michael Erard, New York Times

Like, what is the meaning of "like".  USA Today

Tuesday, June 21, 2011

Puttin' On Airs

OK, so I got one reasonably polished essay up on this blog.  Which is good, but I don't think I'll be doing that more than every couple of weeks (and that's optimistic).  The rest of the time, this will be more like a journal of the ideas that intrigue me, rather than some sort of well-developed column.  I'll let people know on Facebook if I write something I think they might like reading, and the rest of the time, I'll just use this blog as what Thoreau called "a meteorological journal of the mind".  At least, I think that's what he called it.  I never read the obscure work he said that in; I got the quote from Annie Dillard, who probably did read it.  Maybe sometime I'll write about how much intellectual bluffing goes on in this world.  Lots of writers just throw out a reference like that, and if you get the false impression that they are a minor Thoreau expert, well, that's your loss and their gain.  I'll try to avoid that sort of thing, but I do think the Thoreau quote is a great metaphor for the the unpredictable eddies and swirls of people's minds.  Actually, metaphor is what's on my mind--metaphor and word histories, and what they say about how we think. So that's what I'll talk about in my next post.

Monday, June 20, 2011

Boogie Roots

More on music, and how what seems current may have roots that go farther into the past than you think.  I was just listening to Pinetop's Boogie Woogie, first recorded by Pine Top Smith in 1928. Over 80 years later, it's amazing how many elements of the song seem modern. Pine Top is telling his audience exactly how he wants them to get down, just like party bands still do today. This is apparently one of the first records to tell someone to "shake that thang".  I never noticed people express approval by exclaiming "That's what I'm talkin' about!" until just a few years ago (probably because that's when white people started saying it) but here's Pine Top saying it decades ago.  You can hear the foundations of funk and hip hop here, in a song from the jazz age. Check it out:

Friday, June 17, 2011

From St. James Infirmary to the Streets of Laredo

In my last post, I talked about how interesting it can be to discover that seemingly unrelated things are really different branches of the same tree. Finding these connections can be intensely satisfying (at least if you're a geek like myself). I get an added jolt sometimes when I realize that the connection I've just recognized has unexpectedly old, deep roots. I got this double-jolt not long ago, after listening to Louis Armstrong's amazing version of St. James Infirmary. (All the songs mentioned in this post are linked to Rhapsody, a subscription music service. You should be able to listen to up to 25 songs for free).

Since I live near New Orleans, I started wondering if the infirmary he was talking about had been a hospital there. But when I looked into it, I was amazed. The original St. James Infirmary (actually called St. James Hospital) was leper colony in London. And get this--it was torn down in 1532, on the order of Henry VIII, to build the St. James Palace. The palace was the main home of the royal family during the 1700's, and is still standing today. This is astounding to me: when he recorded St. James Infirmary in 1928, Satchmo was singing about a place that hadn't existed in nearly 400 years.

Just as unexpectedly, I found that St. James Infirmary has a well-known cousin, which it doesn't resemble at all at first glance: the cowboy song Streets of Laredo. Most Americans with any exposure to folk music will recall the tune from the opening lines:

"As I walked out in the streets of Laredo,
as I walked out in Laredo one day.
I spied a young cowboy all wrapped in white linen,
wrapped in white linen and cold as the clay".

The dusty old ballad still packs a punch, but on the surface, it has about as much in common with St. James Infirmary as a west Texas cowboy has with an African-American jazz musician. But the fact is, the two are distant cousins, and their shared ancestor is an Irishman.

The common ancestor of the two songs, it turns out, is an Irish song called The Unfortunate Rake. This song, and its various versions and descendents, seems to be one of the best-documented of all folk songs. In 1960, the folklorist Kenneth Goldstein compiled several of its permutations into an album called The Unfortunate Rake (most of the information in this post comes from the albums excellent liner notes). The first song on the record, the only one called The Unfortunate Rake, is a recording based on the first documented version, which dates from 1790's Ireland. Just as in Streets of Laredo, the narrator walks down the street and comes across a dying man. Here, however, the unfortunate lies not outside of a saloon, but outside of St. James Hospital. He blames his troubles on a "handsome young maiden", and says:

"And had she but told me before she disordered me,
Had she but told me of it in time,
I might have got pills and salts of white mercury,
But now I'm cut down in the height of my prime."

In other words, he caught a venereal disease from her. Given his condition, it makes sense that he was near a hospital. However, when this song was first documented in the 1700's, the hospital was long gone, and the English royal family was living on the site. So, we have an Irish narrator relating how his friend is dying of a venereal disease on the site of the English royal palace. This is politically touchy stuff, so it may be that the song was more than just a morality tale. An Irishman in 1790 would have been ill-advised to stand outside of St. James Palace and sing it. In any case, this song has none of the bluesy groove of St. James Infirmary. It's one of those Anglo-Celtic dirge-ballads, which sounds sludgy and morose to most modern ears. But the dying man is a rake, after all, and a typically flashy one (some things never change). He wants his friend to help him go out in style with a grand funeral:

"Get six young soldiers to carry my coffin,
Six young girls to sing me a song,
And each of them carry a bunch of green laurel
So they don't smell me as they bear me along."

"Don't muffle your drums and play your fifes merrily,
Play a quick march as you carry me along,
And fire your bright muskets all over my coffin,
Saying: There goes an unfortunate lad to his home."

As the song evolved over time, the dying man kept on dying, but he turned into a soldier, or a sailor, depending on the version. He even changed sex, turning into a young woman whose wild living has caught up with her. In the version often called One Morning In May, the dying woman is singing the song herself, saying "When I was a young girl, I used to seek pleasure". This version has a more driving, haunting rhythm: when I WAS, a YOUNG GIRL, i USED To, seek PLEA-SURE. It's a lot more interesting to listen to than the older dirge, especially if you listen to this version by Feist.

Sometime during its journey from the British Isles to the American west, the song picked up a different (and also more interesting) waltz-like rhythm. The rake/soldier/sailor became a cowboy, and Streets of Laredo was born. Streets of Laredo retains the narrator who finds the dying man in the street. In most versions, the young cowboy is dying of gunshot wounds, although he's been hanging out in places where he could have caught the other afflictions of the sporting life. As in The Unfortunate Rake, he asks a passing stranger for a big funeral:

"Get sixteen cowboys to carry my coffin,
Get sixteen pretty ladies to bear up my pall,"

Streets of Laredo doesn't mention the St. James Hospital, but there is a separate cowboy adaptation of The Unfortunate Rake which does, and is actually called St. James Hospital. This song keeps the dirge tone of the ancestral tune, and, in some versions it calls for a more mournful funeral than the Irish rake's, asking friends to "Beat the drum slowly, and play the fife lowly".

Around the turn of the twentieth century, a song called The Gambler's Blues (sung here by the blessedly un-dorky folk singer Dave Van Ronk) took elements from St. James Hospital, including the hospital, the dying person, the descriptive words white and cold, the call for a grand funeral, and the rakish character. But this is a very different song. The blues had come along by now, and the song sounds more Mississippi River juke joint than old west saloon. The dying person, now a woman again, has finally died, and is laying on the "cold, white table". The rakish character is her old beau, who has gone down to St. James Infirmary pay his respects. Yes, he's sad to see her go, but he's basically unrepentant about his own lifestyle (this is the twentieth century, and you no longer have to talk about tragic ends and repentance when singing about the wild life). Actually, he's a real cad. Standing there looking at his "baby", he reflects that "she'll never find a sweet man like me", and then he starts imagining his funeral, and what he should be wearing to impress his buddies:

"When I die please bury me
In my high topped Stetson hat,
Put a twenty dollar gold piece on my watch chain,
My gang will know I died standing pat."

This guy isn't just a rake. He's close to being a sociopath. Though this version of the song is more blues than jazz, he also requests that his friends:

"Put a jazz band on my hearse wagon,
Raise hell as I stroll along."

This suggests that this version of the song, or at least this verse, came from New Orleans, which is where Louis Armstrong would have heard it. In Armstrong's version, he drops the first two lines of Gambler's Blues, and starts with "I went down to St. James Infirmary". When he first recorded this song in the late twenties, Louis Armstrong was moving beyond early jazz (which, to my amateur ears, sounds like ragtime played by a brass band). Along with other brilliant innovators, such as Sidney Bechet, he was adding more improvisation and solos, as well as toning down the frenetic feel of early jazz with more bluesy elements.

Louis Armstrong's version of St. James Infirmary is an amazing recording. I would be floored by it even if I had never wonder where St. James Infirmary was. But, by digging into its history, I discovered deeper layers of the song; extending back across centuries, and linking it to Streets of Laredo, another song I find endless fascinating. Even though they sound almost nothing alike, they can both be traced to a song from another continent; a song about a building that hasn't existed since the time of the Tudors. Those are some deep, rich roots.

Thursday, June 16, 2011

Roots and Branches

One of my favorite intellectual pastimes is tracing branches backward until I find where they meet at the roots. Whether it is two species that evolved from a common ancestor, or two words that did, I love learning about it. When you think about it, this world is full of things that are--in a conceptual sense--tree-shaped. To see the tree, you have to look at how related things have evolved over time. For example, all the branches of the tree of life, from bread mold, to elephants, to redwoods, can be traced back to one root: a lowly single-celled organism that existed billions of years ago. All the diversity of life on earth--millions of species--also has a fundamental unity. As different as they are, redwoods and elephants have a common history, somewhere in the distant past. Because of this shared history, they have things in common: shared features they inherited from common ancestors. For example, all living things share certain genes that code for a few universal proteins, which may have been around since life began. These genes and proteins may differ very slightly between, say, E. Coli and humans, but they are basically the same, and usually still have the same function. The more recently two lineages diverged from each other, the more they will have in common. Orangutans have a lot more in common with gorillas than with seaweeds, because they shared a common ancestor with gorillas more recently.

Culture evolves too, although the process isn't directly analogous to biological evolution. Still, culture tends to unfold in tree-like patterns, where unity branches into diversity. You see this pattern with language, music, fashions, and just about anything else that people transmit to each other and modify over time. One thing that makes this interesting is that, as you look backward in time, you see unexpected connections. Here's a trivial example. A while back, I noticed the word "disaster", and for some reason thought about where it might come from. "Aster" means star, I realized, so disaster means "bad star". I looked up the history of the word, and my guess was right. Now, I could go see a bad Jerry Bruckheimer disaster movie about an asteroid threatening the earth, and lean over to the guy in the seat next to me and say "Did you know 'disaster' and 'asteroid' both come from words for stars?" When he gets up and moves, I'll have more room. See, this stuff is more useful than it looks.*

But really, what I love about noticing connections like that is that one minute you are looking at a word like "disaster" and taking it for granted. The next minute, you are looking into the word, seeing the history encoded in its structure. With disaster, you might guess (rightly) that the word comes from a time when people took astrology very seriously. Disasters were thought to happen under bad stars...disasters happened because of dis-asters. I love the fact that sometimes you can look at a word, notice the root words it's made of, and get an insight into how people thought when the word was coined.

* Just wanted to point out that "asterisk" also comes from the word for star. Just look, it even looks like one.

Wednesday, June 15, 2011


Is the -ed ending for past tense fading into history? Judging from common misspellings you see on signs, it seems to be. Down the street from me is a sign that says "boil crawfish". At first I thought this was a south Louisiana thing, but I've seen it other places, too. Is -ed going to be a thing of the past? Of the pass-ed? And does the word past come from the word "passed". Must check on these important bits of trivia.

Monday, June 6, 2011

And another thing...

Here's an idea. I could set up two blogs. One to throw out ideas, and make note of things that interest me, and occasionally make a real, polished post out of some of them. Then I could post the polished ones to the other blog, so that's all it would have. I could even invite some people whose opinions I respect to follow the "lab" blog.

Let's Try This Again

Well, I see it's been a year since my first and last post here. A lot has happened in that year, but would think I could have found time to post here and there. I think I'll modify my idea of what constitutes a respectable blog post. I was imagining mini-essays: well-edited little gems of a few paragraphs. I think I'll settle for writing a few sentences, and if it turns into something more, then that's icing on the cake.

One of my main ideas with doing this is to tag each post, and see which themes start to pop up. As I go, we'll see how these themes might arrange themselves into some sort of coherent structure, which I may not have recognized before.

The last few years, I've been interested in trivial little tidbits about nature and culture: pondering whether the word "courtesy" and "court" and "courtesan" have common origins, or the fact that the songs "Streets of Laredo" and "St. James Infirmary" both have common roots in a song from 16th century England. I'll try to blog about both of these things, but really, these tidbits are just brain candy. They aren't especially important. But...maybe if I take note of them here, tag them, and see how the themes of the various posts hang together in larger patterns, they might become part of something more meaningful. Maybe not, but who knows. Besides, what's wrong with a little brain candy?