Saturday, January 12, 2008

Splice "Which": Where You At?

Among the ways I amused myself when we were living in Brooklyn was finding things I said that they couldn't understand, or identifying things they said which I found odd, amusing, or useful, and previously unknown to me.

Here are some of the things I found myself saying that elicited confusion in New York:
  • a change is as good as a rest
  • to tear a strip off of somebody
  • to go up one side of somebody and down the other
  • to twig to something/be twigged to something
  • Bob's your uncle
  • grotty
  • SOL
  • beater (old car)
  • pastry (pie crust)
  • take a boo
  • tickety-boo
  • heel (of bread)
  • laid on (provided by the host)
Honestly, I don't know how they get by without these guys.

Some things are simple idiolects but might still be recognizable to other Canadians. Whenever there's any kind of extreme weather, Winnifred and I say to each other, "the wind she blow on Lac St. Pierre," a reference to a poem memorized by generations of Canadian school children and still alive in the popular consciousness. Never mind the poem stopped being taught well before I went to school; and never mind that our "quote" doesn't actually appear in the poem. Somehow, you say, "the wind she blow on Lac St. Pierre" (with a fakey Quebecois accent) and it makes sense. "Gee that's a heck of a wind, eh?" Nobody thinks anything of it. Say it in Brooklyn, however, and people think you're strange.
On the opposite side of the equation are the terms and usages we found exotic. The famous "all right" pronounced with no consonants provided many hours of amusement as we attempted to mimic it. We took tips from strangers on the subway (or "train" as they say) and tried to elicit it from locals of our acquaintance. The New York-ism we have most fully adopted is what Winnifred calls the "splice which." Neither of us can remember if this is a term she heard or read somewhere, or if she made it up. There might be a better way to describe it. At any rate, it goes like this:

She's yelling at me for coming in after curfew, which that's not even fair because my brother does it all the time.

She's yelling at me for never cleaning my room, which it's none of her business anyway.

See how useful that is? It is so much more emphatic than a grammatical "which isn't even fair" would be, and much more urgent and immediate than starting a new sentence. They just splice it together with a "which" and Bob's your uncle. We use it all the time now. I could not say why our examples are both from the realm of teenage unhappiness, except perhaps that teenage distress is a natural breeding ground for linguistic novelty.

Then there are instances where the same phrase means one thing in Vancouver and something else in New York. In New York, "Where you at?" is a request for simple factual information. "Where are you right now?" Where as in Vancouver, "where are you at?" (we're a grammatical bunch) would mean, "what is your psychic/emotional state at the present time?" There are instances in popular culture when both meanings seem to be present, but in New York I only ever heard it used to mean literal geographic coordinates. So last night when Winnifred and I were meeting up with my mom for dinner, I called her as I got out of the train--pardon me, SkyTrain--and asked "Where you at?" and she told me she was just parking in front of my mom's house. Another Vancouverite would be likely to say, "oh okay, you know, hard day at work, etc."

10 comments:

Javier Hernandez-Miyares said...

in the black slang, an old car is called a hoopty. love your posts.

wendyfrost said...

The Writing Sister, who sometimes moonlights as a Spanish teacher, taught me to say "y Roberto es tu tio", which is not even remotely an expression in any Spanish-speaking culture. I taught it to everyone at my workplace, who love it, and now we all say it all the time.
(That's when we're not doing our Scarlett O'Hara impressions, taught to me by Winnifred: "Ah cain't think about that raht now. Ah'll go craaazy if Ah try to think about that now. Ah'll think about that tomorrow, when Ah can staind it." You can keep this up until you get to "tomorrow, at Tara", or until your co-workers start running away from you, whichever comes first.)

the chocolate lady מרת שאקאלאד said...

Love the which-splice, which that's funny because I never hear it around Manhattan, and that a line which is not in a poem that one may or may not have studied has become part of the vernacular.

What's the twig thing and the boo thing?

FJ said...

"Everything's going along tickety-boo" would mean it's running smoothly, perhaps better than expected.

"To twig to something" means to become aware of a situation. Last night at a conference organizing meeting the chair asked at the end, "Is there anything I've forgotten? I feel like there's something I'm not twigging to." He was worried that in all the discussion of the programming, food, accommodations, finances, registration and publicity, there was still some element we had forgotten. Which no doubt there was and we'll twig to it far too late.

the chocolate lady מרת שאקאלאד said...

y'know, I wonder if the which splice is calqued from Yiddish--not exactly, but you know we would say something like, ikh vel zikh trefn mitn por vos ikh hof zey zoln vern undzere farmers
(I'm going to meet with the couple which I hope they will become our farmers)

FJ said...

Good point, Chocolate Lady. I don't know under what circumstance you would actually use that sentence, but if such a situation arose that would indeed be the way to say it. Perhaps we'd better ask Linguist Rebbe to step into the fray.

FJ said...

Linguist Rebbe concurs! He writes:
"Schaechter has written (I don’t have the article in front of me, unfortunately) about this phenomenon. In Yiddish, it’s perfectly correct to say “Der mentsh vos kh’hob gezen...” or “Der mentsh vos kh’hob im gezen...” and which sometimes emerges in English as “The man who I saw him...”"

the chocolate lady מרת שאקאלאד said...

and what is "take a boo"?

(heh heh, I use this sentence because I am organizing a CSA in my neighborhood!)

FJ said...

Oh, *that* boo thing. "Take a boo" is "gib a kuk".

In my mind (a source that cannot be considered definitive) it comes from Cockney rhyming slang "butcher's" i.e. "butcher's hook" = look.

*Another* CSA? What's the matter, your current CSA not giving you enough squash?

the chocolate lady מרת שאקאלאד said...

heh heh, no, I love my current CSA, and I can hardly bear to leave it, but it is a mitsve to make a new one and bring more souls to the deliciousness of squash.