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
or nefarious
or unserious
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.

14 Responses to “Asteperious”

  1. Nose art « Arnold Zwicky’s Blog Says:

    […] Arnold Zwicky’s Blog Just another weblog « Asteperious […]

  2. a rat’s ass « Arnold Zwicky’s Blog Says:

    […] rat’s ass is something of a trial for lexicographers (once again, as here, I note that I’m not a lexicographer, and I appreciate how difficult lexicography is): […]

  3. Michael Eckert Says:

    Asterperious was the name for the 319th squadron of the 90th bomb group (Jolly Rogers). They defined the made up word to be: A superior attitude in an inferior environment”. My father was one of the original pilots arriving in Australia in 42″

    • arnold zwicky Says:

      Yes. See chapter 7 in my posting.

      • Michael Eckert Says:

        Your “minstrel tradition” makes sense especially for the times. The creator of the drawing (cant remember his name) was a Disney artist who was on one of the crews. The skull and cross bombs logo on the tail came from the squad commander Art Rogers…thus Jolly Rogers. I still have my dads bomber jacket with Asterperious on it. Great to see the name appearing as well as the thoughts behind the different origins. Thanks!

    • stoneandtimber Says:

      Michael Eckert re: 319th of the 90th BG; my dad was a crew member on the Asterperious Special out of Port Moresby; I have his mission diary I would share if it is of interest to you. Unlikely we are talking about the same crew but would be interesting to figure it out. Also looking for crew photos of the Asterperious Special. Reply back if you are interested.

      • Michael Eckert Says:

        Stoneandtimber, I would be very interested in his diary. Are you connected to Bob Tupa? He is very involved with the Friends of the 90th and may well have some pics of the Asterperious Special. I believe I have seen some. What is the best way to connect?


      • Harold Lincoln Says:

        Hi, In your fathers missions diary is there anything on B-24 YANKEE DOODLE DANDY ??? My father was a waist gunner on it and I will look to see if I have any pictures of your fathers plane. My e-mail is
        Thank you for your time, Harold Lincoln.

      • Renato Foucault Says:

        Michael, and all others interested…

        My father, George Fields, also served in the 319th and we think he flew the B-24D Yankee Doodle Dandy while at Port Moresby. Wondering if you have any corroborating stories, memories, photos. I have a large, high-res photo of him with the crew in front of the nose cartoon painting on the airplane, happy to share.

        –Robert Fields Whitman

  4. » Blog Archive » LAJC Artist Beat: Gavin Templeton CD Release Show @ Blue Whale Says:

    […] American literature and conversational use.  Language blogger Arnold Zwicky has an interesting post describing the origins of the word, if anyone is interested. artwork by Kio […]

  5. Media color the image of “Out There” Americans | Poking Around with Mary Says:

    […] *Note: “Asteperious”, a favorite word that is not in my spoken vocabulary, conveys the thought: […]

  6. Renato Foucault Says:

    In the context of WW2, “Asterperious” was the nickname of the 319th Bomb Squadron, one of four squadrons in the 90th Bomb Group which flew out of bases in Australia and New Guinea from about 1942 to 1944. The mascot of the 319th, the “Asterperious”, was the aboriginal cartoon figure with the grass skirt holding a bomb, and the nickname for the whole unit (the 90th BG) was the Jolly Rogers. Sadly we don’t have any survivors to offer a clue what the word meant to them, but we interpret it as something like confidence in a seriously mucked-up situation.

  7. Harold Says:

    Hi Mr. Robert Fields Whitman. Your father and my father were on the YANKEE DOODLE DANDY together at the same time. They were very good friends. I may have some pictures of your father. Please e-mail me at
    Harold Lincoln Jr.

  8. Shawn Applegate Says:

    My Grandfather served in the group and I am currently trying to research his military career, should anyone have any information to help me in my endeavors, I would greatly appreciate your clues. His name was Bert J. Jordan. He was wounded 7 Dec 1941 at Hickam Field and when he returned to Duty, was moved to Australia and New Guinea. I know he was a gunner, but not sure which position. He received Distinguished Flying Cross, Air Medal, Purple Heart among the more notable commendations that I have been able to find. I have determined that he served at Midway as well and was discharged 6 Nov 1943 as a Staff Sergeant. I have seen his flight jacket and will never forget the “Asterperious” patch which is sandblasted on his headstone.

    should anyone wish to contact me, I may be reached at:


    Shawn Applegate
    proud grandson

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