December 16, 2007

What have you done with God's ear?

Back on 23 September I surveyed some items on the fringes of Snowclonia, among them

God's Ear: From X's lips/mouth to God's ear.

Body Snatcher: Who are you and what have you done with X?

Time for an update.

God's Ear.  What I said before:

... I just noticed "from X's lips/mouth to God's ear" in a posting of Geoff Pullum's: "From [Stanley] Fish's mouth to God's ear."  Substantial number of hits, but it's not at all clear what people are using the figure to convey: there are some occurrences of "from your lips to God's ear" that seem to convey nothing more than that God hears everything you say, but in most occurrences of the figure something more complex is going on.

Almost immediately, Mank Mandel supplied a lead:

"From your lips to God's ear" is common among at least some Jews as a reply to an expression of hope or good wishes. I speculate that it may be a translation of a common Yiddish expression ...

(Also appearing in English as "from your mouth to God's ear".)  That is, what's conveyed is 'may God hear your words', contextualized as polite receipt of praise.  The expression has clearly been extended for some speakers of English (many of them not Jewish) to a wider set of contexts.  And at some point people varied the expression by allowing possessives other than your, to convey 'may God hear X's words'.  That would be the snowcloning moment (but see below).

Ben Sadock then supplied a Yiddish original: 

Fun dayn moyl in gots oyern.  'From your mouth to God's ears.'

Some versions have the expanded in gots oyern arayn.  The ones I've found all have moyl 'mouth'.   Most have the plural oyern, rather than the singular oyer, and the second-person possessive, but other versions have been reported:

from your mouth to God's ear (or ... to the Gates of Heaven).  May God hear what I/you say and act upon it.  Or, as defined in The Taste of Yiddish by Lillian Merwin Feinsilver (1970): 'Fun zayn moyl, in Gots oyer.  Lit, From his mouth into God's ear.  May God hear what he has said (and fulfil it)!'  The 'Gates of Heaven' may be an Arab version. ...  The first expression my stem from Psalm 130:2: 'Lord, hear my voice: let thine ears be attentive to the voice of my supplications'.  The phrase also appears in the orthodox Jewish prayer book.

Goldeneye is the best movie in the series since Diamonds Are Forever ... I told him I thought it would take $30 million in its opening weekend, to which he replied: 'From your lips to God's ears.'  Evening Standard (London) (4 October 1995)

(Nigel Rees, Cassell's Dictionary of Word and Phrase Origins (2002), p. 90)

No doubt there are other variants in Yiddish.

In English, the raw Google webhits favor lips over mouth and show a favoring of concordance in number between the two nouns: lips ... ears (9,100) over lips ... ear (3,360), and mouth ... ear (2,330) over mouth ... ears (650).

Now, is this a snowclone -- or an idiom with an open slot in it?  In principle, a similar question arises for every putative snowclone that has only one open slot, for instance:

What is this X of which you speak?
That's why they call it X.
We are all X now.
X is hard; let's go shopping!
X, call your office.

The once and future X.
Stupid X tricks.

Most of these are full sentences, though some are NPs.  Now, most expressions traditionally labeled "idioms" are on a smaller scale, but many of them have open slots in them.  Here are a few such VP idioms with make:

make something seem like a picnic
make someone sit up and take notice

make someone's skin crawl
make someone's day

(Note that the last two have a possessive open slot, just like the God's Ear formula.  There's a huge number of idioms with possessive open slots in them.  Please don't write me about further examples of open-slotted idioms; idiom dictionaries are packed with them.)

Formulaic expressions that are full sentences are traditionally labeled "proverbs" rather than idioms, and they are nearly completely fixed, with no open slots in them (though ANY formula is available for the occasional playful variation, of course):

A fool and his money are soon parted.
Fools rush in (where angels fear to tread).
A stitch in time saves nine.
He who pays the piper calls the tune.

So one way to think of God's Ear is as a cross between an idiom with an open slot in it and a proverb -- that is, as a big idiom (a sequence of two PPs conveying a proposition) or as an open-slotted proverb (of relatively recent invention).  Indeed, snowclones in general might be seen this way.

Body Snatcher.  What I said before:

... over on ADS-L I recently started a discussion of "Who are you and what have you done with X?", which I'd contemplated using in a recent posting that mentioned my granddaughter's alarm at being confronted by her mother speaking German: "Who are you and what have you done with my mother?"  The figure is canonically used in situations where the speaker is confronting someone who appears to be X but observes that this person lacks some property or properties historically characteristic of X; think Invasion of the Body Snatchers.  Things are a bit tricky, though, because there are perfectly straightforward uses of such expressions, as sequences of ordinary questions.  In any case, everybody seems to think that the figure originated in a specific quotation (not in IBS, so far as I can tell), but so far no one has a good candidate.  And there are lots of instances out there.

In what follows, I'll refer to the literal understanding of the two questions in sequence as the "at face" interpretation and the figurative understanding as the "impostor" interpretation.

The ensuing ADS-L discussion (and e-mail following up on my September Language Log posting) went in many directions.

First, no one has found the figure, or anything like it, in any version of Invasions of the Body Snatchers.  The IDEA is there, but not any formula.

Second, lots of people suggested some influence from the famous James Thurber cartoon, with the caption "What have you done with Dr. Millmoss?":

But the question in the cartoon is entirely literal; there's no suggestion that the hippopotamus is trying to pass itself off as Dr. Millmoss (and every suggestion that the hippopotamus has eaten Dr. M.).  The Thurber cartoon, wonderful as it is, is a red herring.

Next, a similar digression that turns on mere similarity in form: Linda Wilkinson citing the 1971 movie title Who Is Harry Kellerman and Why Is He Saying Those Terrible Things About Me?  Though there might be the beginning of another formula here.

Meanwhile, the hounds of ADS-L were on the antedating trail, trying to find earlier and earlier instances of the impostor use of the expression.

[Side note: antedating and sourcing can be fascinating, but for a variety of reasons they're mostly not my thing.  Establishing that some usage is in fact current for some group of speakers shouldn't commit you to a study of where, when, and why it originated and how it spread.  Not that these aren't interesting questions.]

This search into the (recent) past pulled up an awful lot of examples that could be seen as at-face uses of Body Snatcher.  That's what happens when you search on strings.  But several landmarks appeared:

Chris Waigl noted that there was a small flurry of impostor cites in 1997/8, possibly based on its appearance in the the film Ever After (1998).  From the imdb:

Henry: Mother, Father, I want to build a University, with the largest library on the continent, where anyone can study, no matter their station!
King Francis: All right... Who are you... and what have you done with my son?
Henry: [laughs] Oh, and I want to invite the gypsies to the ball!

Chris and I supposed that this was a secondary spread of an existing snowclone.  And there are earlier impostor cites.  A few, going back in time:

Who are you, and what have you done with the real Jessica?  (Deadly Voyage by Francine Pascal, 1995, found by Jeff Prucher)

WHO ARE YOU AND WHAT HAVE YOU DONE WITH NOT AL CRAWFORD?  ("A. Jing Hippy" responding to "Not Al Crawford" on alt.peeves, 1991, found by Ben Zimmer)

Who are you really ? And what have you done with Ross Alexander ?  (on, 1990, found by Towse)

... when I took 500 mg. of diphetocaine which made me alert at bedtime when Joey discussed his day at the office -- after which I
took 750 mg. of osculavenol and slept soundly through the night. This morning I work up, dragged myself to the bathroom -- and found that I was out of everything. When Joey came down for breakfast he screamed: 'Who are you and what have you done with Dorothy?' (Hold Me! by Jules Feiffer, 1977, found by Towse)

Somewhere along the line, I noted that there was no particular reason for the expression I started with to be the sole way of conveying the impostor idea.  Had it really become formulaic?

This turned out to be a hard question to answer.  One thing quickly became clear: other ways of expressing the impostor idea were around:

who are you, and where is my husband? I came home from work today and the house was sparkling clean...  What do I check to make sure he hasn't become a pod person? (link)

I'm pretty sure there isn't a chapter in a parenting book as to what to do when your daughter wakes up one morning and says "I'm not eating those ribs and please remove the pork fat and back from my collards. Thanks." My father would look at me like, who are you and what happened to my daughter who could suck down a plate of ribs? (link)

I have no easy way of determining how often one formulation is used versus others.  It might well be that the variant I started with is the most common.  But it's beginning to look like this is not so much a figure of speech, tied to particular wording, as a figure of thought -- much like systems of metaphor.

Posted by Arnold Zwicky at December 16, 2007 09:37 PM