November 27, 2007

In the wake of ThanksGIVing

You never know which ones are going to get around ... The New York Sun gives me the challengingly vague request to "make this week's column about Thanksgiving," I gamely wangle something or other and assume barely anyone will read it since they'll be in transit to join relatives for ThanksGIVing, and much to my surprise the column ends up the occasion for discussion by people other than roughly me and my wife.

Well, Mark, I take your point, of course.

The particular fact that Thanksgiving with stress on the second syllable was already especially common in poetry as far back as the 17th century, whereas it was less so with other compounds such as SHOEMAKER, suggests that the stress pattern had already shifted when the holiday began.

However, I presume that we would rather not just attribute this to mere chance. Rather, the stress shift suggests that the word itself had already drifted from being processed as a strictly literal conjunction of the two words THANKS and GIVING.

That is, the compound word that furnished the name of the holiday was one which had already taken on what linguists would call a noncompositional meaning. From the poetic citations in Mark's post it would seem that THANKSGIVING referred to gratitude of a certain large-scale, ceremonial nature as opposed to simply thanking someone for picking a hair off of your sweater.

However, I do wonder if part of what we see in poetry is due to the word THANKSGIVING, with its ceremonial air, being used more in the poetic register than SHOEMAKER and its like. If so, the word would have been more likely than others to submit to distortion of stress that poets have always considered their license.

I think of examples where poets render compounds in ways that are most certainly foreign to actual speech, rather than reflecting dialectal or idiolectal variation.

Take this passage from Dr. Seuss's On Beyond Zebra, where NOSE-PATTING is rendered with second-syllable stress:

And ZATZ is the letter I use to spell Zatz-it
Whose nose is so high that 'most nobody pats it
And patting his lonely old nose is the least
That a fellow could do for this fine friendly beast
So, to get there and do it, I built an invention:
The Three-Seater Zatz-it Nose-Patting Extension.

Or this from Scott Joplin's opera Treemonisha, in which the stress in booze drinkin' is on the first syllable of drinkin':

It will drive the blues, I'm thinkin',
And will stop Ned from booze drinkin'.

Or this from the recently defunct Broadway musical GREY GARDENS, in which "Big Edie" Beale sings, in the song "Jerry Likes My Corn," about hearing "the old sad SACK sing," whereas in speech it would be "the old SAD sack sing":

Jerry doesn't fight like two fishwives.
Jerry likes relaxing.
Now and then we play my 45's.
Hear the old sad sack sing.

In fact, in this lyric fishwives is pronounced with the stress on wives rather than fish as it would be in speech. The song is brilliant overall, but this small section happens to have bad scansion.

If in fact THANKSGIVING was submitted to this more often than other words, it definitely may mean that the word was actually widely pronounced with second-syllable stress as early as the 17th century. However, this is the kind of thing that leaves one regretting that we only have a century-and-change's worth of recordings of the human voice.

For whatever it's worth, recorded in my head is that my Philadelphia-born father said "thanks-GIV-ing," whereas my Atlanta-born mother said "THANKS-giving."

Posted by John McWhorter at November 27, 2007 12:46 PM