Yogi-isms

Back on 9/23, I got e-mail from a representative of a California public radio station, sent at 9 a.m. (though I didn’t get to it until later), asking me to do an interview by phone for them at 11:45 that morning, on Yogi Berra and his language. Now, I was offended at the extremely short notice (though journalists do this to me a lot), and I had other reasons for not wanting to do it. After some thought, I decided to meet rudeness with rudeness and just delete the message.

Reasons: (1) I don’t like doing phone interviews, because I don’t think I’m good at them. (2) I especially don’t like phone interviews where I have no chance to prepare what I’m going to say. (3) I’ve never looked closely at the corpus of Yogi-isms, so I’d actually have to do some research first. (4) I guessed that I was being asked because I’m a go-to guy on malapropisms, but I was pretty sure that very few Yogi-isms were in fact malapropisms (of any variety).

The next day came a long obit in the NYT by Bruce Weber, “Yogi Berra, Yankee Who Built His Stardom 90 Percent on Skill and Half on Wit, Dies at 90”, beginning:

Yogi Berra, one of baseball’s greatest catchers and characters, who as a player was a mainstay of 10 Yankees championship teams and as a manager led both the Yankees and the Mets to the World Series — but who may be more widely known as an ungainly but lovable cultural figure, inspiring a cartoon character and issuing a seemingly limitless supply of unwittingly witty epigrams known as Yogi-isms — died on Tuesday. He was 90.

… Lawrence Peter Berra was born on May 12, 1925, in the Italian enclave of St. Louis known as the Hill, which also fostered the baseball career of his boyhood friend Joe Garagiola.

The obit was mostly about baseball, but there was a nice sidebar piece, “Behind the Yogi-isms: Those Said and Unsaid” by Victor Mather and Katie Rogers, which noted that

In 1998, he published an aptly titled book on the matter, “The Yogi Book: I Really Didn’t Say Everything I Said!”

and engagingly discussed a series of examples, making good use of the valuable Quote Investigator site. On the site:

This blog records the investigatory work of Garson O’Toole who diligently seeks the truth about quotations. Who really said what? This question often cannot be answered with complete finality, but approximate solutions can be iteratively improved over time. (link)

The long section on Berra is here. It notes that often there is good evidence that Berra did actually say the thing in question, yet the joke or whatever can nevertheless be traced further back in time, so maybe Yogi was serving as a “quote magnet” for citations. (A further complication is that for some quotes, Yogi denies it at one point and then later embraces it.)

But back on the 23rd, Ben Zimmer did a really fine piece on Slate, in its Lexicon Valley site, “Yogi Berra Turned Linguistic Vice Into Virtue With His Cockeyed Tautologies” (like “It’s not over till/until it’s over”). That’s the place to go to on Yogi-isms. I couldn’t have done it nearly as well.

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