From correspondent G.D. yesterday:
… I had stumbled onto your blog [Language Log] by searching for the word astiperios — because a colleague of mine used it today to describe a student’s attitude. It’s a word I had never heard before (or seen in print), so I wanted to see if it was real, and what it meant. I’m curious how your adventure in tracing its roots started, and where it took you in the end.
G.D. is referring to a posting of mine from, omigod, 2004, in which I mentioned my travails in tracking down the word asteperious (which appears in various spellings). Things pretty much ran aground five years ago, and I never got around to writing about the quest in a proper blog entry (though most of it was documented on the American Dialect Society mailing list). Now would be a good time to tell the story.
Here’s the summary in my 2004 posting, which was actually about investigating the history of the X3 snowclone (as in “location, location, location”):
When I have accidentally fallen into work of this sort [tracing the history of words and expressions], I’ve found it grindingly difficult and often baffling. I hope to report soon on my adventures in tracing the AAVE lexical item asto(r)perious / asteperious / astiperious ‘haughty, uppity’ (if any of you reading this actually uses this word, tell me now, please). Suffice it to say that I found myself engaged with the work of Zora Neale Hurston, the naming of World War Two bombers, race horses, romantic pseudo-historical fiction about early Ireland, rap music, detective mysteries, and much else. And I still don’t understand any of it, really. I’m amazed that people can, sometimes, succeed at this sort of enterprise.
I have an enduring respect for lexicographers.
(No one responded to my appeal — until now.)
1. Chapter 1: Blanche White. The story began, for me, with this quote from Barbara Neely’s 1998 detective novel Blanche Cleans Up:
If she’d wanted the man, she could have had him. He had been really clear on that. She was the one who hadn’t been clear. She still wasn’t… She hoped she hadn’t let a good thing get away from her just to be asteperious. But she’d hated the idea of being matched and labeled, and she’d never been keen on marriage. (p. 99)
Blanche is Blanche White, a “black maid-cum-snoop extraordinaire”, as the book’s back cover identifies her. The meaning of asteperious was none too clear to me from the context.
Chapter 2: Zora Neale Hurston. The dictionaries were, unsurprisingly, not helpful with asteperious. So I went to our friend Google, which had no web or newsgroup hits, but did suggest i might have meant asterperious (a word that would surface as asteperious in a non-rhotic dialect (such as that spoken by the North Carolinian African American Blanche). Googling on that took me back to Zora Neale Hurston.
From her short story “Sweat” (1926):
Kill ‘im Syke, please.”. “Doan ast me tuh do nothin’ fuh yuh. Goin’ roun’ trying’ tuh be so damn asterperious. Naw, Ah aint gonna kill it.
And here’s Rodney O. Lain (Signifyin(g) as a Rhetorical Device In Selected Writings of the Harlem Renaissance …, 1994 Master’s thesis, Northwestern State University of Louisiana, ch. 3) on a essay by her:
Four years later, in a cogent observation entitled “My People!” [in her 1942 autobiography Dust Tracks on a Road] Zora Neale Hurston, albeit facetiously, echoes [Roger] Abrahams’ findings about blacks’ love of language, especially the tendency to create new, often humorous words.
with this quote from it:
If he can’t find that big word he’s feeling for, he is going to make a new one. But somehow or another that new word fits the thing it was made for. Sounds good, too. . . . Somebody didn’t know the word total or entire so they made bodacious. Then there’s asterperious, and so on. When you find a man chewing up the dictionary and spitting out language, that’s My People.
A search for the spelling astorperious pulled up three more Hurston cites:
From “A Story in Harlem Slang” (1942):
Jelly slammed his hand in his bosom as if to draw a gun. Sweet Back did the same.
“If you wants to fight, Sweet Back, the favor is in me.”
“I was deep-thinking then, Jelly. It’s a good thing I ain’t short-tempered. ‘T’aint nothing to you, nohow. You ain’t hit me yet.”
Both burst into a laugh and changed from fighting to lounging poses.
“Don’t get too yaller on me, Jelly. You liable to get hurt some day.”
“You over-sports your hand your ownself. Too blamed astorperious. I just don’t pay you no mind. Lay de skin on me!”
They broke their handshake hurriedly, because both of them looked up the Avenue and saw the same thing.
From “Why They Always Use Rawhide on a Mule” (in her 1935 folklore collection Mules and Men):
“Who gittin’ old? Not me! Ah laks de lies. All I said is yo talkin’ skeers off all de trouts and sheepheads. Ah can’t eat no lies.
“Aw, gran’pa, don’t be so astorperious! We all wants to hear Larkins’ tale. I’m goin’ ketch you some fish. We ain’t off lak dis often.
And from her “Glossary of Harlem Slang” (accompanying her 1942 “Story in Harlem Slang”):
Astorperious: haughty, biggity
Other writers mentioning the word generally trace it back to Hurston. In fact, Doug Wilson reported on ADS-L that he’d found a 1978 newspaper article on Hurston maintaining that she coined the word herself — which isn’t entirely out of the question, though as a folklorist and anthropologist (she was a student of Franz Boas’s) she claimed to be recording usage, not inventing it. Of course, some of the usages she recorded (and then represented in her fiction) might well have been “family words” or other very restricted usage. She was in no position to survey black speech — even rural Southern black speech — as a whole, and for relatively infrequent items she could have had no way of knowing what their distribution was like.
In any case, no one has yet found pre-Hurston cites for the word (in any of its spellings).
(Astorperious has an entry in DARE, and all the cites are from Hurston.)
Chapter 4: Non-Hurston uses. So far we have two non-Hurston uses: from Neely’s character and from G.D.’s colleague (who is African American). My most unexpected find is from a fantasy romance set in Ireland: Riona: Fires of Glennmara Book II, by Linda Windsor (who is white and American), from 2001:
Alls I can say is, it’s time, well enough, for the world to recognize me Celtic forefathers as far more civilized than their asterperious Greek and Roman counterparts gave ‘em credit for. No culture copycats among us! Our poems and tales, preserved by word of mouth, are purely our own dear Irish–a delight to the eye as well as the ear.
A little bit earlier, there was the spelling astiperious on the Talon (automobile) mailing list on 11/18/99, from the contributor Alisen on the topic “More Y2K”:
So even tho we know we lucked out and bought a car that was for a short time sold at a price that was accessible to the middle class, but was not your average middle class car should not feel astiperious.
(Yes, the syntax unravels.) There is clear evidence that Alisen is a woman, and almost surely white (“While I have no plans to sell my talon, and plan to be the little blue haired old lady driving the talon the in fast lane with people trying to catch up,…”); she also says that she’s from the Midwest.
And a little before that, from the almost surely African American “CreoleLady” on the newsgroup alt.rap (8/16/97), in a rap “Mo Freestyling”:
Most player haters
are ubiquitous spectators
But I’m like Sisyphus with the rock
Never mind your loaded glock
Studio hermits can never offend me
They lack the hegemony
you are nothing in a society
where nothing plus nothing equals nothing much
and nothing much minus really nothing much
equals more nothing
I’m not astorperious
but you’re delirious
and oh so delusional
get ready for the fall
Also from 1997, this speech from a young black man in Andy Duncan’s science fiction story “Beluthahatchie”:
I ran one finger along my guitar strings, not hard enough to make a sound but just hard enough to feel them. “I ain’t got a ticket, neither,” I bit off, “but it was your railroad’s pleasure to bring me this far, and it’s my pleasure to ride on a little further, and I don’t see what cause you got to be so astorperious about it, Mr. Fat Ass.”
(Duncan himself is white, but Southern.)
Doug Wilson reported that there was a race horse with the name “Asterperious” around 1945, but that there’s not much information about the horse available in the newspapers.
I’m postponing discussion of one further occurrence of the word.
Chapter 5: Some comments on meaning. The cites so far fall into two somewhat overlapping sense groups, ‘haughty, imperious’ (Windsor, for instance) and ‘obstreperous, “difficult” ‘ (Neely, for instance). It’s not always easy to tell which was intended, and uppity can be similarly used in both these ways.
Chapter 6: On the source of the word. DARE gives only the spelling astorperious and confidently asserts that the word is a blend of Astor, referring to the wealthy and socially prominent American family, and imperious – thus focusing on the ‘haughty’ sense. The same suggestion was made by several ADS-L posters back in 2004. It’s not implausible, but it’s far from a sure thing. Hurston’s earliest uses have the spelling asterperious, and she never mentioned the Astors.
There’s an odd suggestion on a Black Thought and Culture site that I’m not able to penetrate, beyond the bit that Google shows:
“Astorperious” is supposed to have originated in Florida. It means “high hat” and is a tribute to the socially prominent Astors.
I suspect that the reference to Florida comes from the fact that Hurston grew up in Eatonville, Florida.
The ADS-L discussion looked some at the possibility that obstreperous was involved in the coining of the word. The meaning of obstreperous doesn’t fit with Hurston’s explicit glossing, and there are phonological difficulties, but obstreperous might still have played a role in the coining of the word, as a “catalyst” for it (as an existing word in roughly the right semantic domain — here, critical judgments of behavior — that promotes the coining without directly contributing to it).
Hurston herself merely said that black people made up the word. In general, it would be too much to expect that inventions always have simple and straightfoward explanations.
Chapter 7: Asterperious Special. Google also came up with a fair number of references to a B-24 Liberator called “Asterperious Special”, flown in the South Pacific in World War II. According to this site,
Asterperious Special actually had two lives. After serving the 319th Bombardment Squadron faithfully from approximately August 1943 onwards, she was transferred to the 528th Bombardment Squadron of the 380th Bombardment Group and renamed Little Eve. She was written off with this unit on 20th April 1944 in a landing accident.
I have found no account of how the name was chosen, though there’s a hint to be found in the nose art.
The site above notes that “expressive noseart in the Pacific theatre was not always of the girlie variety” (though an awful lot of it was). In this case what’s depicted is a native with a grass skirt next to a bomb; the native has a bone in one ear, a large ring in the other, large red lips, and dark brown skin, and he’s wearing white gloves. Here’s a (rather imperfect) picture:
Doug Wilson suggested on ADS-L that the figure
… had white gloves to show upper-crust social position. Presumably the “Astor” etymology had been forgotten already (assuming it was valid in the first place), given the spelling with “aster-”.
I countered that the white gloves might come from the minstrel tradition and noted that the figure combines signifiers of Pacific islanders, African “tribesmen”, and stereotypical African Americans, and the last of these could have been the source of the white gloves. In any case, the nose art connects the name “Asterperious Special” to black folks.