February 13, 2006

Feeling all Olympic-y

The Winter Olympics is looking more and more like the trendy X Games, with new sports like snowboarding contributing to the "extreme makeover" of the Olympic Games. The English language is getting an extreme makeover too, as anyone who has heard 19-year-old snowboarding phenom Shaun White, aka "The Flying Tomato," can attest. At his news conference after winning the gold medal for the men's halfpipe event, White displayed a typical array of snowboarder slang (a subcultural offshoot of West Coast surfing and skateboarding lingo): gnarly, stoked, pumped, amped, and so forth. A more innovative usage appeared in an offhand comment he made between qualifying rounds, admitting his nervousness after an unimpressive first run. Three media sources gave slightly different versions of White's overheard remark:

"I'm feeling all Olympic-y," he confessed to one of his Burton snowboards support crew. (Los Angeles Times)

Standing at the base of the mountain, he said he felt "all weird and Olympic-y." (New York Times)

"I wasn't thinking straight," White told Finch before jumping on a chair lift for his second qualifying run. "I got all Olympic-y. I got that out of the way." (Yahoo Sports)

Regardless of White's exact wording, he apparently used "all Olympic-y" to mean 'suddenly overwhelmed by the experience of participating in the Olympics.' Once White overcame that anxious feeling of Olympic-iness, he was able to relax for his second qualifying run and win the gold.

White combined the use of two forms common in the casual speech of young American speakers: the intensifier all and the productive suffix -y. Intensive all should not be confused with quotative all ("So I'm all, 'Huh?'"), though both of these usages have been investigated by the "Changing All" project at the Stanford Humanities Lab. (See Arnold Zwicky's discussion of the project here and here.) The intensive usage is nothing new, despite what the Recency Illusion might lead you to believe. It's easy enough to find 19th-century examples of intensive all, particularly in representations of Scots and other British dialects. And it turns out that intensive all has long been attached to adjectives ending in -y describing some sort of emotional or physical state. Here are two early dialectal examples I found from a full-text search on Oxford English Dictionary citations:

1866 THORNBURY Greatheart lviii, I felt all whizzy and sleepy like. (s.v. whizzy)

Leeds Loiners' Comic Olmenac 24, I went all wimley-wamley e me head. (s.v. wimbly-wambly)

The pattern get/go/feel all X-y was extended in the 20th century to a wide variety of forms, as in these three examples from well-known novels:

1922 JOYCE Ulysses 445 Eat it and get all pigsticky.

1932 S. GIBBONS Cold Comfort Farm v. 71 She will only go and keep a tea-room in Brighton and go all arty-and-crafty about the feet and waist.

1934 A. CHRISTIE Murder on Orient Express I. vi. 59 This is where I'm supposed to go all goose-fleshy down the back.

I'm afraid I don't have a clue what Joyce might have meant by "get all pigsticky," but Stella Gibbons' "go all arty-and-crafty" and Agatha Christie's "go all goose-fleshy" are transparent enough.

Beginning in 1997 the productivity of the suffix -y got a tremendous boost by the television show "Buffy the Vampire Slayer," as meticulously detailed by Michael Adams in his book Slayer Slang. (Followers of the truthiness wars will remember Adams as the wordanista who dared to define "truthiness" without reference to Stephen Colbert, instead relying on the Buffyesque formulation of "truthy, not facty.") Many of the examples of -y usage cited in Adams' book also make use of intensive all:

"Oh, so who are we to be all judgy?"

"And none of us look all passiony murdery, so we're probably safe here."

"So, you gonna say good-bye this time, or just split all secret agenty like last time?"

"Wanna come and get all unwindy?"

"Darla's cute until she turns all vampiry."

As the above lines demonstrate, the "Buffy" writers felt free to attach -y to just about anything (more complex examples given by Adams include twelve-steppy, out-of-the-loopy, and stay-iny). Context is sometimes necessary to establish the exact semantic relation between the base form and the suffixed form, but the use of intensive all at least helps establish that a particular -y innovation refers to a mental, emotional, or physical state of being.

Context is also key in the case of Shaun White's comment. Out of context, one might assume that "feeling all Olympic-y" is an emotionally positive state of being, something like "feeling all warm and fuzzy" or "feeling all gooey (inside)." If White had used the expression during the opening ceremony or on the medal stand (as well he might), then the expression could indeed have had this positive sense. But coming immediately after his shaky qualifying run, the usage was properly understood by his snowboarding colleagues and other overhearers as referring to a state of heightened anxiety or "stage fright" that can afflict Olympic athletes at crucial moments.

By the way, White wasn't the only American Olympian to use the -y suffix in an innovative fashion this past weekend. Outspoken figure skater Johnny Weir used the word princessy in comments to the Associated Press (offering an implicit critique of athletic norms of gender and sexuality):

"I am very princessy as far as travel is concerned and having a nice room and things like that. Sorry to say 'princessy,'" he added, laughing, "but that's what we do."

Posted by Benjamin Zimmer at February 13, 2006 11:50 PM