February 18, 2007

Rankled by "ankle"

On Opinion L.A, the daily blog of the Los Angeles Times Opinion Section, Matt Welch sounds seriously peeved by a bit of Hollywood-speak:

This L.A. Observed headline -- LeDuff ankles NYT -- has finally pushed me over the edge. Did I miss the memo? When -- and for God's sake, why -- did "ankles" become a preferred headline verb somehow meaning both "quits" and "fires"?
We know the chief culprit: the mockworthy Hollywood trade-mag Variety. We know that "industry journalists" like to use it, that Kevin Roderick has developed a taste, and that actual humans never even think of saying it out loud in a sentence. All well and good. But what specifically is it referring to???

I don't know where Welch got the idea that the verb ankle could mean 'to fire' — in the parlance of Variety, it means 'to quit (from)' or 'to be fired (from),' as explained in the magazine's glossary of "slanguage":

ankle -- A classic (and enduring) Variety term meaning to quit or be dismissed from a job, without necessarily specifying which; instead, it suggests walking; "Alan Smithee has ankled his post as production prexy at U."

The two senses are also adequately explained by the William Safire "On Language" column from 2005 that Welch quotes:

"Variety was founded in 1905 and used street lingo," says Tim Gray. "It was fun, and easier to say a play 'had legs,' for example, than to say it had a good chance of running a long time."
Why ankle, which has long had a general slang meaning of "to walk?"
"Hollywood is filled with egos. A lot of times, a studio will tell us that they let somebody go, and the exec will say, 'I wasn't fired, I quit!' Both sides claim it was their decision. We need that equivocation," he said.
Why not depart, leave or exit? Gray's answer: "Ankle is more fun."

Welch responds to Safire's column by saying:

Yes yes yes, but if it indeed comes from the UK slang for "to walk," well, you wouldn't really say "LeDuff walks NYT," now would you?

Welch would have been better off consulting a more reliable lexicographical source than Wiktionary, where he hit upon the notion that ankle meaning 'to walk' is "UK slang." If he had checked, say, the Historical Dictionary of American Slang, the Dictionary of American Regional English, or Cassell's Dictionary of Slang, he'd find that this sense of ankle is true-blue (albeit rather dated) American slang. Granted, the OED entry for ankle gives two examples from the works of P.G. Wodehouse (from the 1930 play Baa, Baa, Black Sheep with Ian Hay, and from the 1932 novel Hot Water), but the first cite given in both OED and HDAS is from an American source, the 1926 Wise-Crack Dictionary by George H. Maines and Bruce Grant. (And in any case, Wodehouse, as George Orwell once observed, was fond of inserting Americanisms in his work, having lived in the U.S. for several years.) Cassell's agrees that the sense is "orig. U.S.," and the paper trail of American usage is long and varied. In the journal American Speech it can be found in an eclectic assortment of word-lists from the first half of the 20th century, with attestations of use among undergraduates ("Johns Hopkins Jargon," June 1932), convicts ("Prison Parlance," Feb. 1934), and rural Southerners ("More Tennessee Expressions," Dec. 1940).

The origin of the perambulatory sense of ankle, later extended in show business to quitting or getting fired, is not entirely obvious. We could compare it to other names of body parts that get applied to walking or running by the process of synecdoche, as in the expressions leg it, foot it, and hoof it. Ankles, however, seem like an odd anatomical choice, despite the historical presence of colloquialisms for bipedal motion such as ankle express (in HDAS and DARE) and ankle-cart (in "A Word List From Southeast Arkansas," AmSp, Feb. 1938, in the expression "Hitch up your ankle-cart"). HDAS reasonably suggests that the verb ankle has been influenced by amble and angle. The same 1938 Arkansas word-list that provides ankle-cart also explains that angle can mean 'to walk slowly, without definite purpose,' calling it a "fairly common midwestern" term that "may be a corruption of amble." So the older form amble (ultimately from Latin ambulare) seems to have coexisted with sound-alikes angle and ankle in a number of American dialects.

Digital newspaper databases, as usual, flesh out the history of the verb in much greater detail. On Newspaperarchive, the walking/running sense of ankle first shows up in the comic writing of Gene Ahern — better remembered for his work as a cartoonist, creating such popular characters as Major Hoople, not to mention the timeless phrase "Nov shmoz ka pop." In his column "Ain't Nature Wonderful," Ahern frequently used the verb ankle in jocular contexts as early as 1917. The following examples all appeared in the Fort Wayne Sentinel, one of many papers to print his syndicated column:

The curious infant canine who ankled away from home used up a bushel of nosing around and came downtown. (FWS, May 23, 1917, p. 8)

We may be wrong, but we think if a steak shouldn't listen like a steak, the great architect would have hung a bottle of chili sauce on a cow's flyswatter and have porkers and sheep ankling around with a bottle of chutney, or Worcestershire strap-hanging off their roofs. (FWS, June 1, 1917, p. 7)

Y'know, on the / Streets, when I / Ankle around / And some autos / Just miss by / A whisper / Massaging my / Anatomy, I / Mutter-r-r-r / To myself, words / At the driver, / You don't hear / In church sermons. (FWS, June 26, 1917, p. 10)

F'rinstance waking up in the a. m. and lie in bed and listen to the hoofpats of the other citizens ankling to work. (FWS, July 20, 1917, p. 11)

That's the sixth panhandler ankled by and didn't warble a sob sonata and strike for a shekel to get some lunch. (FWS, Sep. 13, 1917, p. 5)

"Hap" Felsch would rather sit around the hotel than go out with "Buck" Weaver. He says "it costs me too much dough." So Buck has to dig up someone else to ankle out with to put away a nut sundae. (FWS, Sep. 27, 1917, p. 8)

Another comic writer of the time, Bugs Baer, followed Ahern in using the verb ankle. It's not surprising to find Baer using the word, since he enjoyed peppering his newspaper columns with peculiar slang terms like beezark (a variant of bezark, defined by HDAS as "an odd or contemptible man or woman"). Here he uses ankle in 1919 to describe boxing fans leaving an arena:

Jazz rolled over like a hoop and the $60 gents ankled towards the exit with 57 washers of skirmishing still coming to 'em. (Bridgeport Standard Telegram, July 4, 1919, p. 7)

In these early examples, ankle can be followed by a directional prepositional phrase complement ("ankle to work," "ankle towards the exit") or by a directional/locative particle in a verb-particle construction ("ankle around," "ankle away," "ankle by," "ankle out"). In other words, it very quickly assumed the same combinatorial possibilities inherent in the verb class that Beth Levin calls "RUN verbs" — like amble, creep, drift, gallop, hobble, hurry, lope, meander, prance, ramble, rush, saunter, scramble, swagger, traipse, trudge, waddle, wander, and many more (see 51.3.2 here). This would continue to characterize the usage of ankle as it became popularized in print through the middle of the 20th century. The newspaper databases show hundreds of citations, chiefly on the entertainment and sports pages. (In sports reporting, ankle also frequently appeared with an adverbial measure phrase of distance, as in "The running back ankled 30 yards for a touchdown.") For a wide selection of "ankle + PP complement" and "ankle + particle" citations from mid-20th-century American newspapers and magazines, see these examples from Google News Archives.

So how did the verb get extended to the transitive Variety-style usage? Using Levin's terminology, ankle joined the class of "verbs of inherently directed motion" (see 51.1 here). Many of these verbs of motion share the property of "locative preposition drop alternation," where the verb can appear either in an intransitive frame with a PP complement or in a transitive frame. As Levin explains, "the transitive frame appears to be derived from the intransitive frame by 'dropping' the preposition" (Levin 1993: 43). The motion verbs depart, exit, flee, leave, and escape all illustrate this alternation:

The convict departed/exited/fled/left/escaped from the area.
The convict departed/exited/fled/left/escaped the area.

So, once ankle was perceived to be a verb like depart, exit, flee, etc., then the preposition drop alternation allowed it to move from an intransitive frame to a transitive one. Here are three transitional examples where ankle implies departure from a place but still appears as an intransitive with PP complement, all using the preposition off:

It was a tired and broken gray-jerseyed team that ankled off the field when taps were sounded. (Syracuse Herald, Oct. 12, 1927, p. 18)

There should have been a cameraman present Saturday, if only to shoot the picture of Doc Sargeant as he ankled off the field. (New Castle [Pa.] News, Dec. 8, 1930, p. 22)

So Eyla Raines didn't want to work in an Abbott and Costello comedy and ankled off the Universal-International lot. (Kingsport [Tenn.] Times, Jan. 21, 1948, p. 4)

The first two quotes refer to baseball players leaving playing fields, while the third, from Erskine Johnson's syndicated "In Hollywood" column, exemplifies the burgeoning show business usage. Two years later the phrase "ankle the lot," as opposed to "ankle off the lot," was presented as an established idiom in "The Hollywood Beat" by Bob Thomas:

Pat, who previously had a suspension for refusing a loan-out as Gene Autry's leading lady, was offered a contract renewal—at a cut in salary. As the old saying goes, she ankled the lot. (Indiana [Pa.] Evening Gazette, Aug. 21, 1950, p. 9)

The earliest citation I've found so far for transitive ankle appeared a few months before that, written by the notorious columnist Hedda Hopper:

Since Charles Vidor ankled the direction of "Running the Tide," Metro's gone back to the original script, which is excellent, and George Sidney's been asked to direct. (Los Angeles Times, May 30, 1950, p. 10)

Hopper provides a more generalized usage of the verb: rather than the physical departure of someone from a movie lot, she uses ankle to describe a director's abandonment of his work on a film project. This suggests that transitive ankle was already common enough in Hollywood circles by 1950 for this type of figurative extension to be understood by the target audience of show-biz-savvy readers. Searching in Variety and other entertainment industry magazines would no doubt turn up further antedatings.

The newspaper databases contain numerous citations for transitive ankle in entertainment columns throughout the '50s and early '60s, with objects including "the film," "the [television] station," "the starring spot [of a movie]," and "the showing [of a movie]." It was common enough in 1955 that it could be used to refer to Whittaker Chambers defecting from the Communist Party (in Walter Winchell's "New York Confidential" column, guest-written by Lee Mortimer):

The professor is the biggest catch since Chambers ankled the Party and turned state's evidence. (Syracuse Herald Journal, Aug. 19, 1955, p. 25)

But the verb never really developed a life outside of Hollywood, and there were gripes about its unnaturally idiomatic use in Variety-speak long before Matt Welch. From 1952:

Every so often we pick up a copy of Variety, the show-biz magazine, just to tickle our vocabulary.
For, as those of you who read Variety know, this flashy trade magazine lives in a language of its own.
Variety, for example comments that a certain performer "ankled his show." Meaning, he walked out on it. ...
Just imagine yourself going home, having your wife ask how the day passed with you, and having you answer, "Boffo, babe! Except I ankled on the boss."
She would immediately suspect you of being either under the influence of a stimulating beverage or nuts.
And could you blame her?
(Fitchburg [Mass.] Sentinel, Oct. 18, 1952, p. 6)

Like many items of Variety jargon, transitive ankle has persisted long past its sell-by date. I agree with Welch that it sounds downright odd, if not ridiculous, outside of entertainment industry reporting. But at the same time this little verb represents a fascinating time capsule of forgotten American slang from the early to middle 20th century.

Posted by Benjamin Zimmer at February 18, 2007 12:21 AM