Word Matters Podcast

A 'Wicked' Good Episode

Word Matters, Episode 40

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How did 'wicked' become THE New England signifier? We'll look into that, along with some more questions from readers.

Download the episode here.


Emily Brewster: Coming up on Word Matters, the questions that have been on your mind. I'm Emily Brewster and Word Matters is produced by Merriam-Webster in collaboration with New England Public Media. On each episode, Merriam-Webster editors, Neil Serven, Ammon Shea, Peter Sokolowski and I explore some aspect of the English language, from the dictionary's vantage point. Each week, we ask listeners to send us any language-related questions that have been on their minds, and our listeners consistently come through with thought-provoking queries. I'll take the first one.

We have a question from Doug Barrack who writes, "Regarding hot yoga and cold yoga, I wanted to provide an alternative view. I'm a sometimes practitioner of the former, and I was told once by my yogi, or maybe yogini, that the hot yoga tradition reflects yoga's roots in India, where it was hot. European and North American yoga in climate-controlled buildings came along later and was colder." So this is addressing whether or not hot yoga is a true retronym, because hot yoga may be the first kind of yoga. Now Doug's question reminds me of some correspondence that we got, also, about our retronym piece. There were a number of people who wrote to address the fact that film camera is a term that was used before digital cameras existed. That film camera was a term for a new kind of camera that was contrasted with the camera obscura and with the daguerrotype. So film camera also, in theory, is not a true retronym. But I think that, in truth, both hot yoga and film camera still qualify as retronyms, simply because a retronym really exists in the eye, or in the mouth, or in the thinking, of the beholder. So a retronym is coined to distinguish an older version of something from a new version. And I think that for most of the people who refer to hot yoga or refer to film cameras, they are contrasting it with something that is known, and it doesn't really matter that these terms had earlier reference.

Neil Serven: Well, I'm the person I think who made the remark during the original podcast about hot yoga and cold yoga. I remember seeing hot yoga advertised, and I wondered how it was different from what I was imagining to be regular yoga. I am not a practitioner of yoga. I did not really think it was making an allusion particularly to the history of yoga, or at least when it was being advertised. But of course, that was my lack of awareness about that. In my mind, if you are aware of hot yoga being a thing and of its distinctions from what other people called yoga, then if you use the term cold yoga, you would be using it as a retronym. You would be using it to make a conscientious distinction from this other thing called hot yoga.

Emily Brewster: I think that's a really good point. A person can use something as a retronym, whether that term existed before. It's a retronym to the person who's using it.

Peter Sokolowski: We're just really trying to be precise. If we say acoustic guitar or regular coffee, I bet most people are just simply identifying a category. They're not thinking that this term is actually altered in its meaning over the years. I think the big issue here that is brought up by the question, is that most of us don't carry a dictionary around in our heads. There's no way to know, and there's no real important reason to know that, for example, hot yoga existed before yoga did. Because as Emily said, it's the intention. You're isolating, you're identifying, and to do that, you have to discriminate, that you have to make this kind of yoga different from a different one, this kind of coffee different from another kind of coffee, for example.

Emily Brewster: Yes. The crucial thing is to make sure that you are ordering regular coffee and not, God forbid, decaf. Next up, Ammon Shea has another of your questions.

Ammon Shea: Ila Hardin, and I apologize if I've mispronounced either of your names, wrote in to say, "Hello Word Matters and your latest podcast. You mentioned hello being used as an exclamation, as well as being used on the phone when the caller didn't know the class of the person they were calling. Can you go into more detail on this?" And she said, she would love to hear more about it. And we can place the blame for hello in a very specific place. And that is, we can blame the telephone book. The first telephone book that was ever published, which was not technically a book, because it was only a single sheet of paper and it had 50 names on it, with no numbers, because when they first started using the telephone, they didn't have numbers, of course. You just rang up the operator and told them who you wanted to speak to.

Peter Sokolowski: In what municipality?

Ammon Shea: This was in Connecticut. It was in New Haven and it was published by the District Telephone Company of New Haven, since 1878. So it's not technically a book, but it did have information, had the list of subscribers. And it also had instructions on how to begin their conversations. And it said, "you should begin your conversation with a firm and cheery hulloa," H-U-L-L-O-A, which was a curious spelling. So that's the forerunner of the-

Peter Sokolowski: What year?

Ammon Shea: This is 1878. And then phone books take over. Everybody and their brother and their sister has a phone book soon enough, because everybody starts getting a telephone. So the phone started initiating all these conversations. It seemed people who needed a way of addressing each other. And Thomas Edison, one of the early phone giants, was in favor of saying "hello." However, Alexander Graham Bell thought we should say, "ahoy." We all know who won this particular battle.

Peter Sokolowski: They were competing ideas.

Ammon Shea: Right. It was hello, there were the helloers and the ahoyers, with the sole exception of Montgomery Burns in The Simpsons, who still answers the telephone, "Ahoy, ahoy," hello obviously won out. The telephone was a really incredible change for a modern society in the late 19th and the early 20th centuries. Suddenly, you could talk to people that you could never speak to before, and it was mind bending for a lot of people. And many people had trouble with this newfangled device. And so the early telephone books, up through the beginning of the 20th century, would give instructions on etiquette and things like that. And they would tell you, you don't need to yell into the thing. People can hear you and don't yell at the operators and don't say, "Can you hear me? Can you hear me? Can you hear me?" They can hear you just fine. And a lot of the things though, in the early phone books, that they suggested didn't really stick around. One of the things they said is at the end of the conversation, you should end by saying, "That is all."

Peter Sokolowski: Ah.

Ammon Shea: So hello, before we use it in the telephone, it did have use, but it was more like something you would say to attract attention like, "Hello, what do you think you're doing?"

Peter Sokolowski: Or express surprise.

Ammon Shea: Right. "Hello, what's that stuck to the bottom of my foot?" That kind of thing. It wasn't so much a greeting. Ahoy was used as a greeting for at least a hundred years prior to the advent of the telephone, but it was chiefly a nautical greeting.

Emily Brewster: Ahoy makes a lot more sense. It really does, because it does have this history as a greeting. And hello or hallo, in old literature, you find it where people are surprised by something. It fills the place where, "What is this?"

Neil Serven: "Hello, what is that noise?" Or something like that, you would hear, right?

Ammon Shea: Sure.

Emily Brewster: Hello, what have we here?

Neil Serven: You think people were surprised by the phone ringing. They pick it up off the wall, they're like, "Hello, what is this? Who is trying to get ahold of me?"

Peter Sokolowski: That's plausible. And then semantic drift to move it over. Oh, it means a greeting as opposed to expresses surprise.

Ammon Shea: The about the story that I like the most is that Bell is so firm in his belief that we should still say ahoy, that he insisted on answering the phone with ahoy for the rest of his life.

Emily Brewster: I think he was allowed, right? I mean, he was Alexander Graham Bell. So, however he wanted to answer the phone.

Ammon Shea: Ila has also asked where hey and hi come from, and if they originated from hello. Hey dates back to the 13th century. It obviously predates hello. A lot of these things, they're not things that often show up in prose.

Peter Sokolowski: In print, the point being, dictionaries depend on the evidence of written texts. It's an interesting blind spot, which is to say utterances of people made between themselves that weren't written down.

Emily Brewster: Although, we do have in Shakespeare's plays, he uses hallo and halloa, H-A-L-L-O and H-A-L-L-O-A. And certainly, in lots of literature, there are greetings, there's dialogue, where people are greeting one another.

Peter Sokolowski: Exactly. Dialogue becomes the rich source of evidence.

Ammon Shea: I remember at a recent conference, there was a woman, an academic from Canada, and she used this enormous corpus of 17th and 18th century plays to show how people spoke and shifting register based on their social status. And because we don't really have a lot of replicated natural dialogue from that period, it makes perfect sense to use theater as a way of seeing how people spoke. That's as close as we can get to a recording of people speaking natural speech.

Peter Sokolowski: Sure. And one thing that comes to mind in Shakespeare is just to learn how thee and thou were used, as opposed to you, and notice that the royals in the kingly plays, refer to others as thee and thou, but they are referred to as you, and I think that's kind of interesting. It's a way to learn that lost distinction.

Ammon Shea: That is all.

Emily Brewster: You are listening to Word Matters. I'm Emily Brewster. We'll be back after the break with another of your questions. Word Matters is produced by Merriam-Webster in collaboration with New England Public Media.

Neil Serven: I'm Neil Serven. Do you have a question about the origin, history or meaning of a word? Email us at wordmatters@m-w.com.

Peter Sokolowski: I'm Peter Sokolowski. Join me every day for the Word of the Day, a brief look at the definition and history of one word, available at merriam-webster.com or wherever you get your podcasts. And for more podcasts from New England Public Media visit the NEPM podcast hub at nepm.org.

Emily Brewster: We get some wicked good questions from our listeners. Here's Neil Serven with our next one.

Neil Serven: A listener named Allen writes that he is curious about words that become associated with a particular region. And Allen is thinking, in particular, about the word wicked. It's used as an adverb in New England. He cites L.L.Bean, the outdoor company, advertises something called "wicked good slippers." In this usage, Allen notes, it means "extremely," extremely good slippers. He asks, "Is this more recent than its more common meaning of evil or fierce? And how prevalent is this sort of usage need to be to get in the dictionary as a definition?" Well, first of all, I want to say that Allen has lobbed me one that's right in my wheelhouse. Because this is a word that was very common to my vocabulary growing up, because I grew up in New England. I grew up north of Boston. I used wicked as an adverb all the time. "That was a wicked cool show I saw." "That was a wicked hard test that teacher just gave us."

Peter Sokolowski: And wicked smaht.

Neil Serven: Wicked smaht. And so, this is very common to me, and it's something that I grew up using all the time. And I think there's even an added wrinkle, in that Alan notes when he cites the wicked good slippers is that this is a term that has actually become a signifier of New England parlance. When you use it, you're trying to identify yourself as someone who lives in New England or is associated with New England a lot. There's wicked good slippers. In the movie Good Will Hunting, which is set at MIT, one of the character's friends, talking about Matt Damon's character says, "My boy's wicked smart." It's not only as a signifier of where he's growing up, it's a signifier of the kind of friends he has, the ones that are not using academic speak around him. They're just talking as they talk.

Peter Sokolowski: Local dialect, sort of town and gown-

Neil Serven: A local dialect, and this use is very common. It is actually entered in our dictionary. He asks, is it more recent than the common meaning of evil or fierce? It absolutely is. The date we show is 1980, which might be an indicator of how much this was used in spoken language before it was ever written down. That date of 1980 is the evidence of first usage in print that we can identify. When we are dating words, as we say, when we show a date of first use, it is the first use of printed evidence. So that means that the word could've been used in spoken language for substantially longer than that, before we actually found that first documented evidence.

Emily Brewster: We know that it was, and we can speak with great confidence that any slang or informal term was used in speech before it was used in writing.

Peter Sokolowski: Sure-

Ammon Shea: And it also could easily mean that it was used for up to several decades or even hundreds of years in print, and we just haven't found it yet.

Emily Brewster: That's right.

Peter Sokolowski: That's right. And the Oxford English Dictionary gives an interesting angle with the amelioration of this word, meaning "in informal English, excellent or splendid," F. Scott Fitzgerald in 1920 saying in dialogue, "Phoebe and I are going to shake a wicked calf," which means we're going to dance in an excellent manner. Again, just to show this, I think what linguists is call amelioration, the word that went from having a negative connotation or denotation to a positive one. That had happened, and the Oxford English Dictionary identifies that as an American phenomenon.

Emily Brewster: And that particular use, the Fitzgerald use, that's adjectival not adverbial.

Peter Sokolowski: Right. It's not adverbial. Right.

Emily Brewster: Yep.

Neil Serven: In this case, one of the theories behind this word, and maybe a pretty good theory, when you think that wicked being associated with New England, New England's also home of the Salem witch trials. And so when you associate wicked, you think of fairy tales, you think of evil, of stepmothers and witches and curses and all that. So to then have that word, associated with that locality, then be used in this show-offy way, kind of way that is meant to be for something impressive. It's almost as though you're using this reference to curse the way we use swear words sometimes, but maybe not quite as a swear. We're co-opting this word that we associate with evil to then use for something impressive.

Emily Brewster: We do the same thing with bad.

Neil Serven: We do. Allen touches upon a broader question, which is about regional uses. And wicked is definitely associated with New England so much, that when it's used adverbially outside of New England, and almost gets noticed as something that any New Englander might not think is even correct. When you go around New England, you see things advertised as being wicked awesome. There's a network of news publications called Wicked Local that's associated with each town. In Salem, there's actually a bookstore called Wicked Good Books. Obviously, that they're making this coy allusion to this association of wicked with New England. And so you think of other uses that might be so pinned to a location. There aren't many, but one that comes up is hella, which we associate with the West Coast in the same way, it's adverbial. It means "very or extremely"... That ride was hella-

Emily Brewster: It's actually adverbial and adjectival. It's associated, specifically, with Northern California. So there's a divide in the state of California about where you say hella and where you don't, or there used to be anyway. I think that hella is a really interesting word to compare to wicked. Hella is thought to be a truncation of the phrase hell of a, right? But it started out as an adverb, and then it gained this adjectival use also. Although, in speech, it may be the other way around, but as far as what written evidence is available. But we didn't enter hella until 2015. Current evidence states the adverb to 1987 and the adjective to 1991. I only know this because it happens to be one of the words I defined. So that's a long time to go between starting to collect evidence. And I think the earliest evidence that we collected when we were monitoring this term was not those earliest-most dates, right? We have people on staff whose job it is to find, to go and seek out the earliest date of print evidence of a particular word, but we are collecting evidence all the time. And so the earliest evidence that we had collected on our own, I think, was from 1996 or so, maybe 1994. So that's when we started noticing, when editors at Merriam-Webster started noticing hella, was in the mid-'90s, and it didn't get in until 2015. And the reason for that is that it's a regionalism, same thing with wicked, right? We don't enter regionalisms as soon as they come on our radar, we enter regionalisms when they have settled into the language more broadly.

Neil Serven: I will say the first time I encountered the word hella as a New Englander, I believe it didn't really occur until I started using more social media. And I started being connected to people who live in California, who I might not have otherwise conversed with before social media became a thing, and they just use hella unselfconsciously in their language. And I'm like, "What does this mean, hella?" I could sort of get it just by the context, what was meant, but it just struck me as this word that, how have I never seen this word before? And, it's like, oh, you're using it the exact same way I use wicked.

Ammon Shea: Can something be hella wicked? Only if you live in the Midwest.

Neil Serven: It averages out.

Ammon Shea: Right.

Neil Serven: Around Missouri.

Emily Brewster: Here's Peter Sokolowski with our final question.

Peter Sokolowski: We have a note from Mark Robinson who says, "I'm helping my daughter with second grade, and I mentioned that when you have twelve things, that's also called a dozen. Being a child, she of course, asked, 'Why?' And I realized, I don't know. So what's so special about the number twelve that it gets another name? Are there other numbers with special names that I'm not aware of?" This is a great question. And it is interesting that for English speakers, there's something's magical about the number twelve, which seems arbitrary. Although we do have things like a dozen eggs as a fixed quantity for some commerce, but the fact is lexically, the reason we have this word is because of French. It came in from French. In French, it's not a word so much as it's a pattern. So that ending the -en, the E-N in English, which would be A-I-N, or A-I-N-E, if it were in feminine form, is an ending that means "about or around." So you can say, for example, with dozen, the French word for twelve is douze, and you just say, douzaine, or douzaine, and that means "about twelve." But you can do that with any number. So ten is the number dix, spelled D-I-X. And so you can dizaine, and that means "about ten." Or, you can say the number 100 is cent, C-E-N-T. You can say centaine, and that means about a hundred. It is funny, sometimes someone will say something like, about eight, and they'll say huitaine. And I would think, "Well, why would you say about eight?" Just say something more rounded. But in fact, they have this ending. There's a coincidence in that we did borrow another one of these words, which is the word for "about forty," which is, in French, quarantaine, which came into English as quarantine. And because they came in at different moments, a dozen came in after the Norman Conquest, 13th century, and quarantine came in later, they therefore don't look like they have the same form, but in fact, they came from the same pattern of French words that do this. And it's just interesting to me, that English borrowed a couple of the points on the arc on the rainbow of numbers, but not the whole system of using this generalized suffix.

Emily Brewster: Well, and we borrowed a word that means an imprecise "about twelve" to name exactly twelve.

Peter Sokolowski: Well, yeah, but we do use it both ways, right? "I started about a dozen years ago." You can use a dozen, I think, in a way that just means a large-ish number, but less than twenty.

Emily Brewster: But most of the time, an English speaker would do what you just did right now and say "about a dozen years ago." And we do use it imprecisely when we say, "dozens and dozens of..."

Peter Sokolowski: Right. So that means indefinitely large.

Neil Serven: It's an interesting point that Mark makes, is that we talk about twelve as having this significance, when we live in this society that uses the base ten system. Why does twelve have a significance that we don't actually give to ten in terms of dealing with eggs and donuts?

Peter Sokolowski: Except for inches. You're right, base ten idea for counting, except for that weird English system for weights and measures is so strange.

Neil Serven: Well, my guess is that twelve is divisible by both three and four, and so it might make it more useful and utilitarian than ten. That is my guess for why twelve has a significance, and then has this number of approximation that we then attach to it in dozen.

Emily Brewster: Because if you buy twelve eggs, you can divide them between your family, whether you have three children or four children, but if you-

Neil Serven: Exactly. And something-

Emily Brewster: ... buy ten eggs and you have three children...

Peter Sokolowski: You're out of luck.

Neil Serven: And someone's fighting for that fourth egg.

Ammon Shea: There is also another number word we have in English, which is both precise and imprecise, which is couple. In a lot of contexts, couple will very specifically mean two, but if you ask somebody who's come in wildly inebriated, "How many beers did you have?" Oftentimes they'll say, "I just had a couple."

Peter Sokolowski: A couple.

Ammon Shea: And depending on the context, couple can have anywhere between three and 84.

Emily Brewster: Now, I didn't learn the use of the word couple to mean very specifically two, until I moved to New England. I grew up in Pittsburgh. And I moved to New England and I was working in an ice cream shop, and somebody came in and ordered, "a couple black and white sodas." A black and white soda is vanilla ice cream in a chocolate soda. So I was like, "Okay, sure. I'll make you a couple. How many do you want?" And they were like, "I want a couple." And I realized like, oh, they mean exactly two. Once it was clear that this person was referring to a particular number, I knew that the number was two. But I had always used, and I had only ever noticed other people using couple to mean two, three, maybe as many as four. I understood it as a very imprecise number, exactly synonymous with few.

Ammon Shea: But less than several?

Neil Serven: It's strange, because don't you think in terms of romantic couples would be exactly two, right? You make that firm association of two with that term then. So then, it's interesting that you don't actually project that, then, to two, to other things when you hear couple as a quantity.

Emily Brewster: Now when I say couple, I am thinking of two, almost always. And I'll say few if I mean more than two.

Neil Serven: Mark is asking are there other words that are pinned to a certain number, like dozen is associated with twelve? The one that comes to my mind is score for twenty.

Peter Sokolowski: Oh, right.

Neil Serven: Abraham Lincoln used it most famously in the Gettysburg Address, "Four score and seven years ago..." He was speaking in 1863 and meaning 87 years ago, four times twenty, add seven, and then you get to 1776. And so he was doing math right there on the field. But in terms of other numbers, there's brace, which also needs two, and usually refers to a pair of animals together. Gross is a term that means a dozen dozen-

Peter Sokolowski: Oh yeah, a dozen dozen.

Neil Serven: ... for shipping quantities and things like that. There's also pleiad, which means seven, and that refers to the Pleiades. The Pleiades were the daughters of Atlas Pleione, who changed into the seven stars that are found in the constellation Taurus.

Emily Brewster: I don't think they changed intentionally. I think they actually were changed, the seven sisters.

Neil Serven: They were changed. They were changed into the stars. Yes, they didn't decide to become stars. But because of that, we sometimes use pleiad to mean any group of seven. Well, another one is ennead, which refers to a group of nine, comes from that same mythological origin.

Ammon Shea: I could have sworn you said ennead and you were going to say that meant any number. I was going to say that sounds not so literary at all.

Neil Serven: Ennead's spelled, E-N-N-E-A-D, from the Greek word for nine, I believe.

Peter Sokolowski: And getting back to dozen, the idea of a baker's dozen, I see in the Oxford English Dictionary, goes back to around 1600. And one of my favorite historical lexicographers, John Florio, friend to Shakespeare, translator of Montaigne, he used the term baker's dozen in definition. He said "baker's dozen, that is thirteen to the dozen." The note given, "apparently so-called after the former practice among bakers of including a thirteenth loaf when selling a dozen to a retailer, the extra loaf representing the retailer's profit." Finally, we should mention, if I didn't, that quarantine refers to forty, the forty days that a crew on a ship would remain on the ship in port and not coming onto land in order to ensure that any illness on board was identified.

Emily Brewster: Peter, did the word quarantine ever have use referring just to a quantity of forty?

Peter Sokolowski: Oh yeah, yeah, forty days and foty nights. It's a complicated story, because the idea that we have today of waiting for the purposes of keeping disease, either from a population or from yourself, comes from the Italian word quarantena, which came during the plague of the 14th century. That sense existed in Italian, but English had borrowed quarantine from French as a period of forty days in the biblical sense. So we have these two competing rRomance language terms that merged after the plague. The Italian word came into English. It blended with the existing French form, which is why when we say quarantine today, we usually mean a period of waiting for purposes of disease, rather than simply a generic period of forty days, which is how it entered the language, in fact.

Emily Brewster: Thank you to all who have written to us. If you have a question or a comment, email us at wordmatters@m-with.com. You can also visit us at nepm.org, and for the Word of the Day and all your general dictionary needs, visit merriam-webster.com. Our theme music is by Tobias Voigt, artwork by Annie Jacobson. Word Matters is produced by John Voci Adam Maid. For Neil Serven, Ammon Shea, and Peter Sokolowski, I'm Emily Brewster. Word Matters is produced by Merriam-Webster in collaboration with New England Public Media.

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