March 11, 2006

A pirated Barbie-ism

Veteran Wikipedian Leflyman sends along an intriguing early variation on the popular expression attributed to Teen Talk Barbie: Math is hard, let's go shopping! (later snowcloned into X is hard, let's go shopping!). To recap my earlier discussion, the Teen Talk Barbie doll was introduced by Mattel in 1992 and came programmed with certain sayings, including "Math class is tough" and "Want to go shopping? Okay, meet me at the mall." After protests from female educators, Mattel removed "Math class is tough" from the selection of utterances. But Barbie's vacuous math-talk lived on in the popular consciousness, grafted onto her shopping-talk in the compact form of "Math is hard, let's go shopping!" Usenet newsgroup participants were using this canonical version by May 1994 and began snowcloning it (replacing "math" with other tough stuff) in early 1996. The snowclone was firmly established by 1997.

Meanwhile, as Leflyman has discovered, the expression was germinating in the minds of video game designers.  In August 1995 Jonathan Ackley and Larry Ahern set to work on "The Curse of Monkey Island," the third game of the popular "Monkey Island" series from LucasArts. As with previous installments, the video game centered on the villainous shape-shifting pirate LeChuck, whose incarnations included a joke-cracking toy doll. When the game was finally released in November 1997, it included this line from the LeChuck doll: "Arrr! Math be hard! Let's go shopping!"

This doesn't quite rise to the level of a snowclone, since the original expression isn't used as a template with a key word like "math" replaced with something else. Rather, the variation comically shifts the saying into a different register, namely pirate talk. As we all know, pirates love using the interjection arrr. (For recent evidence, see this Saturday Night Live sketch about a convention of hyper-rhotic pirates and their keynote speaker, Peter Sarsgaard.) As Mark Liberman's post on arrr revealed, we owe this stereotypical bit of pirate-ese to Robert Newton, who portrayed Long John Silver in the Disney version of Treasure Island. Newton himself may have modeled his hyper-rhotic speech on maritime pidgin English dating back to the 17th and 18th centuries, with roots in the southwest of England. And we also know that pirates love using be as an invariant copula. According to Geoffrey Nathan in the update to Mark's post, invariant use of be in pirate talk may also represent a fossilized remnant of maritime pidgin English. So there's nothing better than "Arrr! Math be hard! Let's go shopping!" for a Barbie-aping pirate doll to say. (Putting incongruous Barbie talk into the mouth of a pirate doll is also likely an homage to the notorious Barbie Liberation Organization.)

The appearance of variations on the Barbie-ism in Usenet newsgroups like soc.motss and in the dialogue to a popular video game suggests that it was spreading in many different directions in the mid-'90s. Just in case there was any confusion about my original post, I did not mean to imply that the first known Usenet citation for Math is hard, let's go shopping! — from Nick Fitch on soc.motss in May 1994 — was the baptismal usage from which all others flowed. (Fitch himself has said that he's sure the expression was already in use when he posted it on soc.motss.) Rather, both Fitch and the video game designers represent different vectors for the expression, as they say in the field of urban folklore. As early adapters, they may have been influential in spreading the Barbie-ism in memetic fashion, but neither vector was solely responsible for its circulation. It's useful to return to a point made by Arnold Zwicky in his post on historical snowclonology: documenting the spread of a snowclone is not the same as discovering its origin. We will probably never know who first said Math is hard, let's go shopping!, or who first thought up X is hard, let's go shopping! as a generalizable template. But that doesn't mean we can't use the resources at our disposal, like searchable databases of online conversations, to discern the various formative pathways of the meme.

Posted by Benjamin Zimmer at March 11, 2006 02:55 PM