Author Archive | Neal Whitman

The Boss of Malcolm, Dirk, Monica, and Others

I also got a lot of reader responses to my post on “You’re not the boss of me!” Most of them wrote to tell me that if I had not been so quick to filter the They Might Be Giants song “Boss of Me” out of my Google search, I would have learned that it is the theme song for Malcolm in the Middle, and has been for all five or six seasons of the show. That, they pointed out, probably had a lot to do with the phrase’s increasing popularity.

A good number of respondents also mentioned the movie Boogie Nights, in which porn star Dirk Diggler tells off his producer, saying, “You’re not the boss of me, Jack! You’re not the king of Dirk! I’m the boss of me! I’m the king of me. I’m Dirk Diggler!” (Thanks to Mike Miller and D.G. Judy for the exact quotation.) I actually did see Boogie Nights, and I’m surprised I didn’t notice that line, especially since it seems to have made an impression on so many others. Maybe it even inspired TMBG; Boogie Nights came out in 1997, and “Boss of Me” in 2000, so it’s possible.

Though these two pop culture appearances may have helped popularize boss of me, the strange syntax predates them. A few readers noted that Monica Lewinsky had been widely quoted as saying it. VC reader Michael Gebert notes that Bob and Ray often used the phrase for a couple of recurring characters in their racio show from the 50s to the 70s. And several readers told me about hearing it in their childhood, the earliest being the 1960s.

As for how the phrasing actually came about, there were a couple of hypotheses that a number of readers proposed. Some said they [...]

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Update: Do Your Best at What You Do the Best

Several VC readers responded to my post about the hook

Everybody does what they do best the best

in a children’s song (“The Mighty Worm,” on Ralph’s World: Peggy’s Pie Parlor). Maestro and Russ Petti noted the existence of a reasonable, non-tautologous, fifth reading of the line. It’s that whatever activity is your personal best, that’s the one that you tend to work hardest and most enthusiastically at, and do to the best of your abilities.
If this reading is available in Ralph Covert’s mental grammar, then I’d agree that it’s probably the meaning he intended. However, I can’t get that meaning from the way the line is phrased. For me to get that reading, such that when you’re doing your personal-best activity, you always do a full-assed job and not a half-assed one, the line would have to be phrased like this:

Everybody does THEIR best at what they do THE best.

Meanwhile, VC reader Barry Jacobs has a slightly different take on Maestro’s and Petti’s interpretation. He says:

Apropos your post … referencing Ralph’s World: it seems to me that Ralph has slyly been teaching your kids basic economic theory. To wit, the theory of comparative advantage states that optimal productive effeciency (call this “Efficiency Best” or EB) is attained when everyone engages in the activity in which he has a comparative advantage (call this “Comparative Best” or CB). As David Ricardo illustrated in his famous (to economists) mathematical example, a person’s CB activity need not be one in which he is Better Than Everyone Else (“BTEE” in your terms), but rather, is simply that activity that maximizes the value of his time.

Indeed, it is entirely possible that a person who has a choice between a low-value activity that’s his PB and maybe even his BTEE

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It Takes Too, Baby

Every now and then I’ll read a column on English grammar where the author or one of his readers is complaining about the unnecessary of in phrases like this:

too big of a job

The columnists that I’ve seen address this issue always stick very boringly to the tiny question of whether the of belongs or not. They never get into the questions I’d like to see discussed, so I guess I’ll have to do it myself.

First, I need to distinguish between two ways of using adjectives. When an adjective follows a form of be (or a few other verbs which I don’t want to talk about), it is known as a predicative adjective. For example:

Predicative adjectives
This movie is dull.
They were dead.
It’s going to be incredible.

When an adjective modifies a noun (usually appearing right before it), it is known as an attributive adjective. For example:

Attributive adjectives
We saw a dull movie.
Dead puppies aren’t much fun.
The incredible discovery made headlines.

The next relevant fact is that many adjectives take up more than a single word, as in the following predicative examples:

Multi-word predicative adjectives
He is jealous of everyone.
She is ready to get out of here.
These directions are really hard to follow.
This job is too big for one person to finish.

It’s generally more difficult to make attributive versions of adjectives like these. First of all, they usually can’t go before the noun anymore. For example, jealous of everyone and ready to get out of here become ungrammatical if you make them attributive and put them before the noun they modify, as seen below. Move them to after their nouns and they’re pretty much OK.

Multi-word attributive adjectives
*I know a jealous

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Pow! Smash! Truncate!

Mark Liberman has an interesting post over at Language Log about the spelling of interjections and onomatopoetic words in comic strips. It brought back a memory of a Broom Hilda strip I read sometime in the 5th grade. Someone was getting beaten up, and the frame showed the standard cloud of dust with fists and legs sticking out of it. And of course, a few powerful words surrounding it. There was probably a pow!, maybe a smash!, but the one I remember most clearly was truncate! I’d learned that word only recently, when we’d done some geometry in school, so I could see how it made sense: Someone, we were to believe, was getting cut in half inside that dust cloud. But still, the word somehow didn’t belong, and I finally figured out it was because when you truncated something, it didn’t make the sound truncate!–it’d probably sound more like grind, snap, or ssssshhh, depending on what you were truncating. (Yes, yes, I laughed at the joke in addition to analyzing it.)

It’s been years since I’ve seen any Broom Hilda strips, but I do get For Better of For Worse, and I’ve noticed that writer Lynn Johnston often has non-onomatopoetic words floating around in an action scene for humorous effect. For example, the mother in the strip was furiously cleaning the house in one frame, and floating around her were words like swish, swish, swish!, but also clean, clean, clean! and tidy, tidy, tidy! And it seems to me I also saw one where a character was laboriously chewing a bite of food, with the words chew, chew, chew, and masticate appearing overhead.

I wonder how long comic strip artists have been able to exploit this kind of humor. Comic strips have been around [...]

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I Hate the Boss of Me My Boss!

Here is something that my brother Glen never said to me while we were growing up:

You’re not the boss of me!

However, he did say this on a number of occasions:

You’re not my boss!

For the past few years, though, I’ve been hearing the first phrasing much more than the second one, and I don’t know why. The of me makes it sound like the speaker is translating something from a language that doesn’t have possessive pronouns. The primary place where I expect to see of-possessive in English is in partitive constructions, as in all/part/some/none/the rest of me. To indicate ordinary possession of some object, a possessive pronoun or ‘s possessive is the usual way to go, as in Neal’s dog or our house.

Of course, my boss is not a case of ordinary possession, since only in the rarest cases does one own one’s boss. It’s a relational noun, which means that a possessive shows who the noun relates to. Even so, boss is the only relational noun I’ve seen where an of-possessive is OK (at least for some speakers). All the other relational nouns I know of show the relation with an ordinary possessive. For example:

  • the boss of me / my boss
  • *the doctor of me / my doctor
  • *the attorney of me / my attorney
  • *the father of me / my father (but: father of the bride)
  • *the wife of me / my wife
  • etc.

These examples hold good at least when the ordinary possessive is pretty short–I’d probably use an of-possessive instead of saying something like the a friend of a guy I used to work with’s boss. (In fact, I’d have to, if I wanted to make it clear whether it was the friend’s boss or [...]

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Nuh-Uh!

Imagine that you’re back in elementary school, having a discussion on the playground with one of your classmates. It goes something like this:

You: My dad can beat up your dad!

Classmate: Nuh-uh!

What is the proper response here? For me, it is and has always been, “Uh-huh!” But in the past few years, I’ve been hearing “Yuh-huh!” At first it was just in a few TV shows (I think I’ve heard it in “Friends”), and then I saw it written in a comic strip or two. When I really started to take notice was when my son Doug got to be old enough to have these kinds of conversations, and always said “Yuh-huh,” never “Uh-huh.” That was interesting, because he certainly didn’t acquire yuh-huh from me (any more than I acquired uh-huh from my parents). He must have gotten it from his peers, which meant that they were all saying yuh-huh, too. To make a hasty generalization out of it, there seems to be a generational shift from uh-huh to yuh-huh.

I asked some people about this a few years ago, and got some anecdotal support of the hypothesis. For example, here’s what Glen said:

I’ve noticed the gradual emergence of “yuh-huh” as the response of choice. It’s often been used in Buffy the Vampire Slayer by Dawn, Buffy’s 15-year-old younger sister. The younger someone is, the more likely they are to say “yuh-huh” instead of “uh-huh.” But I’m old enough that I still prefer “uh-huh.”

And another guy told me that he used to say uh-huh, but picked up yuh-huh from his kids.

When I did an Internet search, I found:

  1. several attestations of nuh-uh and uh-huh close to each other

  2. many more attestations of nuh-uh and yuh-huh close to each other, the oldest of

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Being the worst at what you do best

I was listening to one of our many kids’ CDs in the car the other day. That’s (many (kids’ CDs)), not ((many kids’) CDs), BTW. Anyway, it was from the Ralph’s World series, and the first track is a really catchy song that starts off like this:

Everybody does what they do best the best

I usually dwell on this line during the rest of the song, and end up thinking about it several times in the few days after I play the CD. No, it’s not the plural they with the singular everybody antecedent that gets to me—I got over that grammar issue years and years ago. What I think about is the 4-way ambiguity in this line, with two readings that are tautologies and two that are probably not true, but are interesting to think about. Allow me to explain…



When you say, “Swimming is what I do best,” you could mean that you are better at swimming than you are at any of the other activities you engage in. I’ll call this the Personal Best (PB) reading. Or, you could mean that you swim better than all the other people who swim. I’ll call this the Better Than Everyone Else (BTEE) reading. And now, when you say, “Everybody does what they do best the best,” you’re doubling the ambiguity, ending up with four readings.



First, there’s the PB-PB reading: The activity that you do better than any other activity is, naturally, the activity that you do better than ay other activity. Then there’s the BTEE-BTEE reading: The thing you do better than anyone else, you do better than anyone else. These are the boring readings, but maybe Ralph just wanted to emphasize one of these two undeniable facts. On the other hand…



Here’s where it gets interesting. [...]

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Acronym Stacking

In my posting on almost-recursive acronyms, I noted that the company Cygnus, whose name expands to “Cygnus, Your GNU Support,” was not guilty of what I referred to as acronym stacking. This is the name I give to an acronym including a letter that abbreviates a different acronym; as I like to think of it, the first acronym is stacked on top of the second one. The first stacked acronym to catch my attention was the name of an issue-oriented political group called ACT-UP, an acronym for “AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power.” Aside from the awkwardness of the phrase unleash power for the sake of having a meaningful acronym, my complaint was that you couldn’t tell what the A stood for. Yes, it stood for AIDS, but the A in AIDS stands for acquired. Shouldn’t this group more properly be known as AIDSCT-UP? Hard to pronounce, sure, but that’s not my problem. If you want to make a clever acronym, you still have to play by the rules; that it’s difficult to do is no excuse. It’s the same kind of aesthetic that goes for sonnets or haikus. And Cygnus beats ACT-UP in this regard, because its namers were able to create an interesting acronym that respected the acronym of GNU by incorporating it whole into the company name.

That’s my prescriptive take on how acronyms should be. From a descriptive standpoint, I’d say that if an acronym (such as AIDS) can be abbreviated by its initial letter, that’s just an indication of that the word has become so thoroughly ordinary that speakers hardly remember that it’s an acronym. I don’t know how I’d test this hypothesis, since there are so few stacked acronyms to begin with, but that’s my suspicion.

David Price sent me a good [...]

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Watch my Backformation

Someone I know once told me,

  1. I like to peoplewatch.”

In May 2003, a gossip column had a quotation from Ashton Kutcher, concerning a party that George W. Bush’s daughters had attended at his place in 2001. Kutcher said,

  1. The Bushes were underage drinking at my house.

These two sentences caught my ear because of the verbs in them: peoplewatch and underage drink. These verbs are a particular variety of one of my favorite word-formation processes, backformation. Backformation is the reverse of adding an affix (i.e prefix or suffix) to a word (or if we’re not just talking about English, doing any kind of derivational operation on a word, whether it’s affixing, or repeating a portion of the word, or changing the vowels, etc.). Instead of the affixed word coming into existence after the original word, the affixed one is the original word, and the un-affixed version comes later.

For example, consider first an ordinary case of derivation: the adjective sexual. This is derived from the noun sex by adding the suffix –ual. Now consider the adjective homosexual, and complete the following old-style SAT analogy:

sex : sexual :: ? : homosexual

The answer is homosex, a well-attested noun meaning “sexual activity between members of the same sex.” The adjective came first, not the noun, though in a hundred years I’m guessing most English speakers will assume it was the other way around. (Just as they do with the verb edit, which actually entered the language after the noun editor.)

Examples (1) and (2) above are a special case of backformation that I’ve started to notice. They are backformations resulting from this sequence of events:

First, a noun form of the verb, i.e. gerund or agentive noun, is combined with some other [...]

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When I Say Everyone Can’t, I Mean It!

One time back in elementary school, I heard a teacher talking about the logistics of an upcoming field trip, and she said something like this:

  1. Everyone can’t fit on the bus.

I was confused. Did she seriously mean to say that not a single one of us could fit on the bus? How was that possible? Oh, wait—she must mean that not everyone could fit on the bus. But even when I’d figured out what she’d really meant, mentally attaching the intended meaning to the actual utterance was like trying to push two magnets together the wrong way.

This happened whenever I heard a sentence with a universal subject (e.g, everyone) and a negated main verb (e.g, can’t). The resistance was so strong that for years, I thought the adage “All that glitters isn’t gold” meant that by golly, if it glittered, it wasn’t gold! Of course, I always thought it would make more real-world sense to say that not everything that glittered was gold, but hey, that wasn’t how the saying went, and who was I to try to reinterpret it to suit my own taste?

In formal semantic terms, I was taking the negation to have scope only over the rest of the verb phrase, as illustrated in (2) with the Everyone can’t fit example. I balked at allowing the negation to have scope over the whole sentence, as illustrated in (3):

  1. For every person x, x cannot fit on the bus.
    (I.e., No one can fit on the bus.)
    every(x, ~fit_on_bus(x))
  2. It is not the case that everyone can fit on the bus.
    (I.e., Not everyone can fit on the bus.)
    ~(every(x, fit_on_bus(x)))

    Through the years, I (in company with many other people with strong opinions about English grammar) remained convinced that anyone who said

  3. [...]
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    Almost-Recursive Acronyms

    There’ve been a number of posts about acronyms recently on some of the blogs I read. One was from me, one from Glen, and one from the guy at Semantic Compositions. This last one reminded me of a letter to the editor I wrote some 15 years ago. The post is about recursive acronyms, the cited example being GNU, which expands to “GNU’s not Unix.” One of the letters in a recursive acronym (theoretically any one of them, but always the first one in the examples I’ve seen) stands for the acronym itself, leading to an infinite loop when one tries to expand out the acronym. As I read the post, I thought back to my freshman year at the University of Texas at Austin… ah, yes… I remember it as if it were a segment on Letterman…

    I was reading in the campus newspaper about a newly formed student organization that called itself QUEERS. That’s QUEERS, not Queers. It was an acronym. I was curious what the acronym could stand for, since there aren’t that many words beginning with Q, and probably even fewer that would be relevant. What could it be? Quest? Quintessential? I read on. QUEERS, as it turned out, stood for “Queers United Envisioning an Egalitarian Restructuring of Society.”

    At first I was just disappointed. That was it? The elusive first word of QUEERS was just queers? That wasn’t very clever at all. Then I began to be alarmed. You see, I had just read Douglas Hofstadter’s Goedel, Escher, Bach, which had introduced me to the concept of a recursive acronym in the name of a genie in one chapter-opening vignette. The genie’s name was GOD, which stood for “GOD Over Djinn.” When asked to grant a [...]

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