January 24, 2006

Blawgs, phonolawgically speaking

Mark Liberman commented last week on some complaints lodged against the neologism blawg, meaning 'a law-related blog.' David Giacalone of f/k/a dismissed the term as "an insider pun by a popular lawyer-webdiva (which should have been passed around and admired briefly as a witty one-off)." (The lawyer-webdiva in question, by the way, is Denise Howell of Bag and Baggage, who began keeping a "blawg roll" in early March 2002. An article in Legal Times gives Howell sole credit for the coinage.)

Mark noted that blawg is "an unusual sort of portmanteau word" — unusual in that "the sound of one of the words (law) is completely contained within the sound of the other word (blog)." I'd agree that the blending of law and blog into blawg is a peculiar formation (even for a "witty one-off"), but not simply because one of the words is phonologically contained within the other.

First, let's consider the structural possibilities for "blends" or "portmanteaus" — words that combine two or more forms, with at least one of the forms getting shortened in the process. In "Blends, a Structural and Systemic View" (American Speech 52:1/2, Spring 1977, pp. 47-64), John Algeo discerns three main categories of lexical blending:

  • Blends with overlapping (and no other shortening): slanguage < slang + language, sexpert < sex + expert
  • Blends with clipping (and no overlapping): fanzine < fan + (maga)zine, smog < sm(oke) + (f)og
  • Blends with clipping and overlapping: motel < mot(or) + (h)otel, feminazi < femin(ist) + Nazi

For all three types of blending, the majority of items combine their components sequentially: a segment of the first word is followed by a segment of second word, with possible overlapping between the two segments. But Algeo notes that blending sometimes occurs through the insertion of one form into another, again with possible overlapping of segments.  Following the terminology of Harold Wentworth, Algeo dubs such inserted blends "sandwich words." Note that sandwich words, like other blends, still require that at least one form is shortened in the process of combination; if there's no shortening then it's simply a case of infixation, like fanfriggintastic (expletive infixation) or scrumdiddlyumptious ("diddly" infixation with partial reduplication).

Here are examples of sandwich words given by Algeo to fit each of his three categories:

  • Overlapping: autobydography < autobiography + by dog, in-sin-uation < insinuation + sin
  • Clipping: chortle < ch(uck)le + (sn)ort, miscevarsitation < misce(gen)ation + varsit(y)
  • Clipping and overlapping: slithy < sli(m)y + lithe, ambisextrous < ambi(d)extrous + sex

Though two of Lewis Carroll's classic portmanteaus — chortle and slithy — are represented among Algeo's sandwich words, most are what Giacalone would call "witty one-offs," or what linguists call nonce formations. Thus we have autobydography 'an autobiography written by a dog,' in-sin-uation 'the insinuation of sin,' miscevarsitation 'marriage between attendants of different colleges,' and ambisextrous 'sexually ambidextrous.' (Michael Quinion notes that ambisextrous is not so nonce, as it dates from 1929 and "has achieved a modest continuing circulation.")

Every generation seems to create its own sandwich words, but we are blessed (and cursed) to live in an era where every nonce formation is likely to be recorded on some website somewhere, occasionally gathered up in such repositories of fleeting usage as Urban Dictionary, Langmaker, or most recently Merriam-Webster's Open Dictionary. (Such collaborative enterprises tend to be utterly chaotic, as opposed to the more methodical cataloguing of innovative forms by Grant Barrett at Double-Tongued Word Wrester or Mark Peters at Wordlustitude.) It's easy enough to find latter-day sandwich words on these sites, e.g.: satiscraptory = satisfactory + crap, fantASStic = fantastic + ass, and specyackular = spectacular + yack. Elsewhere one can find sandwich words of a less profane nature, e.g.: specTECHular = spectacular + tech, fan-Kaz-tic = fantastic + Kaz (i.e., the baseball player Kaz Matsui), and ter-RIF-fic = terrific + RIF ("Reading is Fundamental").

Certain words seem to lend themselves to sandwich blending. Once ridonkulous and other silly variants of ridiculous began to spread several years ago, the word ridiculous became a prime target for nonce sandwich blends. Urban Dictionary is full of examples like redorkulous, redrunkulous, reboozulous, and recrunkulous (in these cases, the blending has led to a reanalysis of the first syllable as re-). In fact, ridonkulous itself has been interpreted as a blend of ridiculous and donk(ey), though this strikes me as an ex post facto rationalization. Another popular target among left-leaning Netizens is the word Republican, which gets the sandwich treatment in such epithets as Rethuglican, Resmuglican, Repiglican, Redumblican, Rebooblican, Reporklican, Repooplican, Reputzlican, Repukelican, etc., etc.

The recipe for such sandwich words is pretty constant: take a polysyllabic word and replace the primarily-stressed syllable with a punchy monosyllabic word of your choice. It's clear, however, that blawg is a different beast, morphophonologically speaking. Denise Howell took a monosyllabic word (blog) and inserted another monosyllable (law), such that the "bread" for the sandwich consists merely of one initial consonant (b-) and one final consonant (-g). I know of no other sandwich word so dominated by its filling.

What's more, the two component words are maximally overlapping for some speakers and nearly so for others. For speakers with the cot-caught merger of low back vowels (such as most residents of the western U.S.), the vowel in blog merges with the vowel in law, with the result that blawg is homonymous with blog. Speakers without the merger tend to use the cot vowel for most words ending in -og, with the exception of dog and occasionally other common words. Blog is not (yet!) common enough to be subject to this lexical diffusion and thus remains distinct from blawg for most speakers lacking the merger.

The low back merger is clearly a point of confusion in the blawg wars. The editor of Blawg Review evidently has the merger and doesn't seem to be aware that others might not:

Interestingly, the word blawg is pronounced the same as the word blog, so there is absolutely no confusion in oral communication. In the written word, blawg is easily intelligible and conveys additional meaning to readers and to search engines.

Conversely, David Giacalone doesn't have the merger and expressed shock that there are those who do:

Frankly, I was surprised to read that you pronounce "blog" and "blawg" in the same way... That underscores the notion that the word is just an insider gimmick, because the two words don't need to be homophones. Merriam-Webster online, for example, does not pronounce "blog" in a manner that makes it homophonic with "blawg." ... I believe most "blawgers" pronounce the words blawg and blog differently -- otherwise, making the distinction seems pointless. If one has to pronounce them the same way for the uninitiated to understand what you are talking about, you are making my confusion argument for me.

Both sides of this argument seem odd to me. The Blawg Review editor presents it as a virtue that blog and blawg are pronounced the same (for everyone, he thinks). I'd have guessed that this would be a strike against blawg, since the distinction with blog becomes difficult to make in spoken interaction, potentially leading to more confusion, not less. (Indeed, Giacalone links to a post by Trevor Hill, who also has the merger, but sees it as a drawback to blawg: "it's homophonous with blog, making it useless in actual English speech.")

On the other hand, I don't think that the presence of the low back merger for some speakers renders the blog-blawg distinction "pointless," as Giacalone would have it. It would simply make blawg a sandwich blend with maximal overlap, like in-sin-uation, fantASStic, ter-RIF-fic, or ri-dick-ulous. True, the punniness of those polysyllabic blends can be driven home by exaggerating the stress on the inserted segment, a prosodic device that isn't available for blawg (unless a peculiar contrastive pronunciation developed, like "buh-LAW-guh"). But blawg has been doing just fine as a visual blend, regardless of whether readers think it's pronounced the same as blog or not. Since the term has thus far existed primarily in online interaction in the blawgosphere, complaining about its potential pronunciation makes about as much sense as complaining about the typographical conventions of l33t. But if blawg really does start taking off in spoken discourse, it will be interesting to see if these arguments over the word's pronunciation become intensified.

A companion to the phonological argument over blawg is the aesthetic one. Hill thinks the word "looks ugly," and Giacalone is troubled by the similarity to dawg as eye dialect for dog. (I say eye dialect because, as I mentioned, even speakers lacking the low back merger tend to use the caught vowel for dog. But dawg may also represent a pronunciation spelling if it represents an exaggerated pronunciation of the vowel; cf., rock vs. rawk.) Giacalone writes:

Most members of the public are far more likely to think its a take-off on the incredibly overused "dawg" for dog, rather than a reference to law-related weblogs. Insiders know what it is, outsiders do not and are very likely to view it as adolescent jargon.

Personally, I think most "outsiders" are perceptive enough to avoid seeing blawg as merely "adolescent jargon." Surely context is key. I can't imagine many readers would have difficulty distinguishing between, say, "Blawgs can be used for practitioners to give information about what is happening in his/her area" on the one hand, and "Kewl blawg, dood!" on the other. And if there are any concerns about misconstrual, one can always opt for the more orthographically distinct bLAWg. Aesthetically, though, that's pretty darn odd-looking.

[Update #1: On a side note, Karen Davis emails to comment on the awkwardness of the above quote from the Maryland Bar Bulletin: "Blawgs can be used for practitioners to give information about what is happening in his/her area." As Karen notes, the writer "puts 'practitioner' in the plural and then *still* uses the clunky "his/her" instead of the natural — and totally permissible — 'their.'" I suspect this is simply an editing error, since the previous sentence uses the singular "practitioner." Or perhaps it's a case of pronominal hypercorrection brought upon by an aversion to singular they.]

[Update #2: John Lawler contributes the following:

A data point -- I come from DeKalb, IL, just above the Northern/Midland isogloss, and have distinguished between 'cot' and 'caught' all my life. Indeed, my surname constitutes a test case, since to me it rhymes with 'caller', 'taller', and 'hauler' but *not* with 'collar', 'dollar', or 'holler'.

However, *I* pronounce *both* 'log' and 'blog' (as well as 'dog', 'hog', 'fog', 'frog', 'smog', and 'bog') with the same vowel as 'caught' (open O), and *never* with /a/.

By contrast, I *always* have /a/ in 'cog', and I'm ambivocalic with 'slog', 'sog(gy)', 'tog(gle)', and 'trog(lodyte)'.

So 'blog' and 'blawg' do mean the same thing for me, and in fact when I first saw 'blawg' I assumed it was just an eye dialect spelling of 'blog', just as 'dawg' is of 'dog'.

I guess the moral is that Paper's Law [1] applies here.

[1] Named after my former colleague Herb Paper, the law is succinctly stated as "It's not that simple".

[Update #3: More from David Giacalone, Denise Howell, and Mark Liberman.]

Posted by Benjamin Zimmer at January 24, 2006 11:44 AM