Friday, 18 December 2009

Overstand the downpression of the kin-dread by outformers: On what to call "reverse eggcorns" in Dread Talk

The language of reggae music is filled with examples of linguistic creativity, including what we might call "puns". One example is Rastafari reanalysed as Rasta Far Eye. Tafari was Haile Selassie I's pre-king name, and since he was of Ethiopian nobility he had the title Ras, an Amharic word roughly translatable as "prince". One of the central tenets of the Rastafarian movement (which obviously takes its name from Ras Tafari) is that Haile Selassie I is an incarnation of God (Rastafarian Jah, cp. Yahweh). Rastafari is thus (intentionally/knowingly) reanalysed as "far-seeing Haile Selassie I/God/Jah".

Another interesting example of this sort is found in the lyrics and title of the song "Kin Dread" (Midnite[1]):

Here singer/lyricist Vaughn Benjamin intentionally reanalyses kindred as kin-dread, and, amusingly, he appears to overtly reference this linguistic remaking, as towards the end of the song (~5.00) he says:
Well, how come family mean "kin" and "dread"? Enough with them the vernacular etymological syntax.
Does vernacular etymological syntax = "folk etymology"?

Kindred historically derives from OE. cynn-rǣden: cynn "family, race, blood-relations" (OED[2]) and rǣden "condition, reckoning" (modern English read and riddle come from the same root); the -d- of kindred is epenthetic (cp. Modern English thunder from OE. þunor, ME. þoner).

Benjamin's reanalysis of kindred as kin-dread I assumed would mean something like "fellow Rastafarians" (dread can mean "Rastafarian"; from dreadlocks, "uncut, unwashed, uncombed hair worn 'in dread of the Lord' [cf. the Nazarite vow]"), but from the context of the song it seems to simply bear the standard sense of kindred, metaphorically extended as "fellow human beings", since it is obvious that usually the kin-dread he refers to are not necessarily fellow Rastafarians, as shown by:
Hear a small story, me a-tell you a sad story about a farmer. Planted the most italful garden, but [the youth them]i only want soft drinks in Babylon-flavour. But yeah, you know, themi are me kin-dread.... Full-fledgèd.
[Babylon is a standard Rastafarian term for "(corrupt) western society". Ital (cf. italful) is roughly "kosher (for Rastafarians)", excluding tobacco, alcohol, pork (and often meat altogether), and preservatives/artificial ingredients (and thus soft drinks....).]

Examples like Rasta-Far-Eye and kin-dread appear to be largely nonce-formations, akin to puns. However, Rastafarian English (or what Pollard[3] calls "Dread Talk", defined as an example of "lexical expansion within a creole system" [2:24]) is full of entrenched examples of remakings which are similar to (though not typically paronomastic in the same way as) kin-dread and rasta-far-eye.

Pollard[3:24,46] refers to such examples as "Category II: words which bear the weight of their phonological implications". I'm not sure that this is the clearest definition or the best analysis of the linguistic change involved in such remakings. Let's examine the some of the most common of these entrenched reanalyses:
Downpress(ion) = "oppress(ion)"
Overstand = "understand"
Outformer = "informer"
Livicate = "dedicate"
Blindgarette = "cigarette"
All of these involve remakings which seem add or remove a pejorative sense (as appropriate):
Oppress treated as if up-press (though really from Latin ob- "against" + premere "press"). Uppress would seem to mean "lift up"; thus reformed as down-press.

Understand is of somewhat obscure origins. Other Germanic languages use stand with other prefixes for the same sense (cp. German vorstehen, as if English forstand). The prefix perhaps reflects not PIE *ndher "under" (cp. Latin infrā), but rather PIE *nter "between, among" (cp. Latin inter), see further Liberman[4:210-5]. Whatever the etymology, other words in modern English with the prefix under- tend to indicate either "subordinate", e.g. underling, or "insufficient", e.g. underfunded; thus understand is reanalysed as "low comprehension, insufficient comprehension", and remade as overstand.

Informer: in often has positive connotations (e.g. in-group); out negative ones (e.g. outsider); thus remade as outformer (cp. perhaps to rat (s.o.) out).

Dedicate actually from Latin "out" + dicāre "say, proclaim", but analysed as if connected with English dead (with negative connotations); so remade as livicate (from live).

Cigarette: analysed as see-garette, where see has positive connotations (cp. above Rasta-Far-Eye), but tobacco is considered by Rastafarians as polluting/unclean; thus reformed as blind-garette.
These reanalyses are reminiscent of folk etymology or eggcorns (see also Liberman[5], Pullum[6], Zwicky[7]), but unlike eggcorns they appear to be intentional. That is, Rastafarians obviously recognise that in standard English people say oppress, understand, informer, dedicate, cigarette etc., and thus these aren't misunderstandings like elk for ilk. And they don't seem to be what Zwicky[8] calls "mock eggcorns". Rather the above remakings involve an intentional re-etymologising, as if the standard English forms were the eggcorns.

What do we call this sort of morphological/semantic change?

("Reverse eggcorn" is the best I have, but that doesn't seem quite right.)

[1]Midnite. 2006. Jah Grid. Christiansted, St.Croix (US Virgin Islands): I-Grade Records.
[2]The Oxford English Dictionary, September 2009 rev. ed.
[3]Pollard, Velma. 2000. Dread Talk: the language of Rastafari. Kingston, Jamaica & Montreal, Canada: Canoe Press & McGill-Queen's University Press, rev. ed.
[4]Liberman, Anatoly. 2008. An analytic dictionary of English etymology: an introduction. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.
[5]Liberman, Mark. 2003. "Egg corns: folk etymology, malapropism, mondegreen, ???" Language Log. September 23, 2003.
[6]Pullum, Geoffrey K. 2003. "Phrases for lazy writers in kit form." Language Log. October 27, 2003.
[7]Zwicky, Arnold. 2003. "Lady Mondegreen says her peace about egg corns." Language Log. November 02, 2003.
[8]Zwicky, Arnold. 2009. "Mock eggcorns and their kin". Arnold Zwicky's blog. August 29, 2009.


  1. I refer to it as Dreadspeak.

    You're right, all of it is intentional. I and I believe Word Sound Has (literal) Power. Jah-Jim