January 29, 2006

The cran-morphing of -dango

On his blog Evolving English II, Mike Pope (aka "WordzGuy") reflects on the name of a new job-searching website for the Pacific Northwest: Jobdango, evidently inspired by the movie ticketing service Fandango (rather than the Spanish dance):

They've broken off -dango and used it to mean, I am guessing, something like "place where you get something":

Fandango = place where you get movie tickets
Jobdango = place where you get jobs

The flaw in this theory is that Fan- doesn't map cleanly to "movie tickets." But who says that the -logy part of etymology has to mean "logic"? Not I.

Pope has previously blogged about similar breakaway segments, such as -zilla and -palooza. This sort of reanalysis relies on what linguists sometimes call "cranberry morphemes." The segment cran- in cranberry is opaque, though it looks like it's a modifier for the transparent morpheme -berry. Indeed, cranberry was only ever fully transparent in the Low German dialects from which the term was borrowed, where it was kraanbere or 'crane-berry.' Since English underwent the Great Vowel Shift, the semantic connection between the cognate forms cran- and crane has been lost. But the opacity of cran- has allowed for a reanalysis of the morpheme to "stand for" cranberry in new compounds like cran-grape and cran-raspberry. Such cran-morphing has yielded many productive suffixes in the 20th century: -burger, -(o)holic, -(o)rama, -(a)thon, -(o)mat, -(o)nomics, -gate, etc. (In the case of -burger, the new morpheme quickly became lexicalized as the standalone burger.)

Though Pope was unable to find many other examples of the cran-morphing of -dango (besides an airbrush template with a flame pattern named "flame-dango"), he missed one obvious predecessor: fundango. Among the tens of thousands of Googlehits for "fundango" or "fun-dango" are a company promoting online activities for children, a circus festival, and a juggling convention. All three of these operations are based in the United Kingdom, but fundango also has a long history in American English as a fanciful name for a fun activity. The earliest examples I've found in digital newspaper databases date to 1961. On Feb. 26 of that year, the Los Angeles Times ran a photo feature in its TV section with the headline "Fun-Dango," about a flamenco act appearing on NBC's "Galaxy of Music." That obviously is still connected to the terpsichorean sense of fandango, but the same can't be said for this citation, from an article about Missouri osteopaths attending the annual convention of the American College of Osteopathic Surgeons in Denver, Colorado:

Chillicothe (Mo.) Constitution Tribune, Oct. 28, 1961, p. 1
Highlights of the convention will include a formal banquet, inaugural and ceremonial conclaves on Monday evening [and] the "Colorado Fundango" on Wednesday evening.

(Who says osteopaths don't know how to have fun?) A couple of years later, Chicago Tribune entertainment writer Herb Lyon began using fundango, as in his "Tower Ticker" column of Apr 29, 1963: "Bob Hope will take up most of Johnny Carson's Thursday night TV fundango." These examples rely on the preexisting sense of fandango as a bit of tomfoolery, popular in American English since the 19th century (along with the apparently related form fandangle).

The switch from fandango to fundango only requires changing one vowel, but it may have opened the door to the reanalysis of -dango as a bound morpheme. (As Pope suggests, the use of the name "Fandango" as a ticketing source for movie fans also contributes to the reanalysis, particularly as an analogical basis for a service like Jobdango.) A similar phenomenon occurred with the cran-morphing of -tastic, which began with the easy shift from fantastic to funtastic. I've found examples of funtastic all the way back to 1939 in Jimmie Fidler's syndicated column, "Fidler in Hollywood," as in these three citations:

Los Angeles Times, Apr. 27, 1939, p. 13
In-a-word description of the Ritz zanies: Fun-tastic.

Nevada State Journal, Oct. 27, 1942, p. 4
Fantastic and fun-tastic; manna for theater-goers who want "something different."

Nevada State Journal, Nov. 17, 1942, p. 4
Fun-tastic nonsense guaranteed to tickle your sense of humor.

By the 1960s, X-tastic had become a productive formation for US advertisers. A quick scan of the newspaper databases turns up shoe-tastic (1966), carpet-tastic (1966), fang-tastic (1968), shag-tastic (1969), swim-tastic (1970), and so forth. (During the NFL players' strike of 1987, David Letterman had a Top Ten list called "Top 10 Slogans of the Scab NFL" — the number one slogan was "It's scab-tastic!") Since the '90s, the suffix -tacular has begun to rival -tastic, though they often attach to the same root (craptastic and craptacular each return hundreds of thousands of Googlehits.)

One quick measure of the relative success of cran-morphemes in contemporary online discourse is to see how often they get attached to that promiscuous blend component, blog- (as in blogosphere, blogorrhea, blognoscenti, etc.). Google currently finds about 93,700 pages with blogtastic, 39,200 with blogalicious, 15,800 with blogeriffic, 984 with blogapalooza, but only 89 with blogdango. And most of those 89 don't count, since they refer to the Japanese website Blog Dango, which I'm assuming is a blog about rice dumplings. Filtering those out leaves just three examples: one about bloggers "getting ready to trip the light blogdango" (playing on Procol Harum's reanalysis of the old expression trip the light fantastic), one suggesting "Blogdango" as a blog-related project for Kevin Costner (playing on his 1985 movie "Fandango"), and one joking about calling "1-800-BLOGDANGO" (playing on the Fandango movie ticket service). So clearly -dango has a long way to go to catch up with its crantacular morphoriffic colleagues.

[Update: Grant Barrett suggests that the reanalysis of fandango as fan + dango has been encouraged by the Fandango ticket service ever since they began screening promotional ads in Sony/Loews theatres featuring paper-bag puppets. In one early promo, one of the puppets says, "I know 'fan' means for the fans, but I don't know 'dango'...what that means." Grant speculates that this widely viewed advertisement "might be a reinforcer of any cranalytical neologizing of 'fandango' now going on."]

[Update, 2/8/06: Mark Peters of Wordlustitude reports on another form: fuckdango.]

Posted by Benjamin Zimmer at January 29, 2006 04:27 PM