lookit, looky

My morning names a few days ago: surprising places the verb look has gone.

To come: the story of these items, from the OED. The related stories of some uses of say and like. All having moved from relatively concrete to much more abstract uses, serving discourse functions of various kinds.

lookit. From OED3 March 2015 (latest online revision Sept. 2019):

verb lookit [etymology < look at]: colloquial (originally and chiefly U.S.). In imperative or optative use.

1. intransitive. Used to direct or draw attention, esp. to what one is about to say [1st cite 1907, in Billboard: Lookit! Burlesque Jokes.]

(#1) A James Thurber cartoon on class and gender — from my LLog posting of 7/30/12: “Thurber and the sexes: the cartoons”

2. transitive. To look at (a person or thing). [1st cite 1908; representative cite from 1968, in Hailey’s novel Airport: At an adjoining table, a woman said loudly, ‘Geez! Lookit the time!’]

looky (and its variants). From OED3 March 2015 (latest online revision Dec. 2020):

verb looky [common variants look’ee, lookee, lookey, looka] [etymology < look ye]: regional and colloquial. Chiefly in imperative. Used to draw or direct attention; ‘see’, ‘observe’, ‘take note’.

1. a. intransitive. With implied or explicit reference to a person or object, or to what one is about to say. In later use U.S. [cites from 1663; 2007 cite: Looky,looky, looky, what a horse.]

b. intransitive More emphatically looky here (also look-a-here). Also as a rebuke, or introducing a protest, reprimand, order, etc. … Chiefly U.S. (rare before mid 19th cent.) [1st cite 1736; 1925 E. O’Neill Desire under Elms i. ii. 20 Looky here! Ye’d oughtn’t t’ said that, Eben.]

(#2) A characteristic expression of the Looney Tunes cartoon character Foghorn Leghorn; see my 1/21/20 posting on this blog, “It’s a metaphor, son”, with a section on Foghorn

2. transitive. U.S. With interrogative clause as object. [1st cite 1900; 1946 Billboard 21 Dec. 57/2 (advt.) Looky what I got!]

Among the uses of say. From NOAD:

verb say: … 2 [a] [with clause] assume something in order to work out what its consequences would be; make a hypothesis: let’s say we pay five thousand dollars in the first year. [b] used parenthetically to indicate that something is being suggested as possible or likely but not certain: the form might include, say, a dozen questions.

exclamation sayNorth American informal used to express surprise or to draw attention to a remark or question: say, did you notice any blood? 

Among the uses of like. Originally verb and adjective. From NOAD:

adverb like: 1 [AZ: discourse marker like, < adj. like and patterning with y’know, well, etc.] informal used in speech as a meaningless filler [AZ: not meaningless, but functioning to indicate topic changes, reformulations, discourse planning, stressing, hedging, or backchanneling] or to signify the speaker’s uncertainty about an expression just used: I was, like, so hyped up I couldn’t go to sleep. 2 [AZ: quotative marker (be) like, < adj. like and serving a function parallel to quotative verbs like say and (now) go] informal used to convey a person’s reported attitude or feelings in the form of direct speech (whether or not representing an actual quotation): so she comes into the room and she’s like “Where is everybody?”.

(There’s a considerable literature on discourse-marker like and on quotative (be) like and go. And of course on discourse markers and quotatives in general.)

On the train to Abstractville. The historical developments here are all moves from relatively concrete to much more abstract uses, serving discourse functions of various kinds. The larger point is that speakers of all languages have the need to express some assortment of these discourse functions, and if they’re to be conveyed verbally (rather than by prosodic features, vocal qualities, facial expressions, manual gestures, or bodily stances), the relevant linguistic markers have to come from somewhere, so speakers extend existing expressions metaphorically — just as they do in expressing (more abstract) logical relationships between states of affairs (reason, cause, contrast, etc.) by repurposing indicators of (more concrete) temporal relationships, as when the English temporal Ps since and while develop uses as logical Ps (respectively, of cause, roughly ‘because’ and contrastive concession, roughly ‘although’).

Usage peevers almost invariably wield the etymological fallacy to complain about these new functions of old expressions (even logical rather than temporal since and while) — as perversions of their original, and therefore sole and true, functions. But ordinary speakers going about their daily lives don’t give a crap about etymologies, and linguistic change rolls on. (Some people find etymology intellectually fascinating — I do myself —  but that doesn’t make original usages a guide to current ones.)

Sometimes, the connected-speech phonology of older expressions in new functions becomes fixed — look at as lookit, look ye as looky/lookee/…, and then these new expressions are free to develop their own syntax, often at variance with the etymological source, as when lookit now occurs in places where look at would always have been impossible: recall the Thurber cartoon in #1, with Lookit, Herman — where *Look at, Herman (conveying ‘Look at it, Herman’) is not now, and never was, grammatical.

Bonus cartoon. Thanks to a recollection from Julian Lander (see the comments), I was able to unearth this 2/18/1963 Peanuts strip by Charles Schulz:

(#3) Charlie Brown treats Frieda’s lookit as an unanalyzable whole and so attaches the inflectional affix –ing to the whole business; Linus finds this remarkable

2 Responses to “lookit, looky”

  1. Julian Lander Says:

    I have a vivid memory of a comic panel or strip featuring young children, and I apologize for not remembering which one, in which one child says excitedly to the other, “Lookit! Lookit!” and the other replies, “I’m lookiting.”

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