Words

Commenting on my posting on The Simpsons, Doug Wyman says in e-mail:

I just read your blog on the Simpsons and words.  I notice that the 10 words in the referenced blog contain diddly.  Now I *know* diddly can’t have been originated in the Simpsons since we used it as children.  Often it was diddly squat as in nothing but often just used alone as an indication of nothing or non-consequence.

Now I wonder when it really got started as a word.

This issue comes up repeatedly. In an effort to avoid unnecessary technicality, I generally use the word word when the appropriate term is in fact lexeme (or lexical item). But that can sow confusion, since non-linguists generally use word to refer merely to physical substance — pronunciation and/or spelling — while a lexeme is a pairing of physical substance with meaning. There are several distinct lexemes pronounced /pɛn/ and spelled PEN; at least two distinct lexemes pronounced /tu/ and spelled TO (a preposition and the infinitive marker); and so on. So the crucial question is what /dɪdli/ DIDDLY *means* in the Simpsons context.

From the relevant web site:

Diddly: a filled pause, a non-word which a speaker uses to take up time or space in a sentence, and which are sometimes used for emphasis (link)

If “uh” and “um” have a home in the dictionary, then so too does Ned [Flanders]’s favorite non-word. Whether used to add alliteration, replace a swear word or simply as nonsense, few words are as versatile and effective as diddly. One of my favorite diddly quotes: “Son of a diddly!”

This is pretty clearly a different lexeme from the diddly of diddly-squat. But they’re not entirely unrelated, because they share a semantic component of insignificance. This is a case where you can begin to discern where a Simpsons lexeme might have come from.

Fortunately for the hstorically curious, OED3 (March 2005) has gotten to its revision of the diddly-related entries. The ultimate origin is — surprise! — unknown, but it might be related to one of the verbs diddle.

The main entry:

colloq. (orig. and chiefly U.S.).
A. adj.
Insignificant, trifling.
Originally (now sometimes) in euphemistic oaths. [attested from 1893 on] [some recent cites:]

1967 J. Kerouac Let. 21 July in Sel. Lett. 1957–69 (1999) 441 Any little diddly piece of money will be appreciated.
1996 Esquire Jan. 38/1 I’m not talking about the diddly stuff such as whether to stick the expense account with that bottle of 1983 Château Margaux you order.

B. n. = diddly-squatn. [attested from 1964 on] [a recent cite:]
2001 Nation 22 Jan. 24/1 ‘Liberal anticommunists’ were doing diddly about the shame of raw racial discrimination.

And then diddly-squat:

colloq. (orig. and chiefly U.S.).
A. n.
As a count noun: a thing of little value or significance; esp. in not to give a diddly-squat. As a mass noun: nothing at all; (in negative constructions) anything. [attested from 1963 on] [two recent cites:]

1983 Washington Post 24 Oct. c6/2 Nobody except his family and friends..seems to give a diddly squat about..[him] as a human being.
1989 ‘C. Roman’ Foreplay xxii. 258 My funds are depleting fast, I’ve got diddley-squat to live on.

B. adj.
Insignificant; trifling. [attested from 1985 on] [a recent cite:]

1992 E. Goudge Such Devoted Sisters ii. 312 The dipshit who ran the health club..was..always ragging his ass about some diddly-squat thing.

Getting back to Simpsons lexemes, I should point out that other “words” (defined by pronunciation or spelling) have previous, and quite irrelevant, histories: the famous meh is in the OED in three different uses, all from very long ago — as a variant spelling of me, as a variant spelling of my, and as a variant spelling of mighe v. ‘urinate’.

Of course, the ones we notice as novel are the ones that are novel (to us) in pronunciation and spelling. But meaning is crucial.

 

One Response to “Words”

  1. doug Says:

    arnold, I am honored you replied on line and want to thank you for the knowledge of lexeme. It provides a way to distinguish hacker from hacker in the two totally different lexemes the original has become. (please excuse the grammar.) 🙂

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