Behind the Dictionary
Lexicographers Talk About Language
Oy, You Diphthong!
I've been coaching a team of three eighth-grade girls for the North American Computational Linguistics Olympiad, as one of the co-curricular clubs that are offered at my sons' school. We've been having fun working what amounts to logic puzzles with a linguistic slant, and I've been introducing various linguistic concepts as they become relevant. A few weeks ago, as we worked our way through a puzzle whose solution depended on recognizing the length of a syllable, I decided it would be useful for the team to know the word diphthong.
A diphthong is a sequence of two vowel sounds pronounced in the same syllable. The two most easily recognized diphthongs in English are [ɔɪ] as in toy, and [aʊ] as in how. Also very common is [aɪ], which many Americans are more used to thinking of as "long I." Pronounce a word like high slowly, and you can actually feel your tongue sliding from the position for "ah" toward the position for "ee." The diphthong [eɪ] has the same kind of recognition problem: It's commonly known as "long A." But pronounce hey very slowly, and you can feel and hear the transition from "eh" to something close to "ee." Long O is a diphthong, too: [oʊ]. Say hoe slowly, and you can hear and feel the transition from an "oh" like the ones in Minnesota, don'tcha know to an "oo." Some lesser-known diphthongs end in schwa, namely the [uə] heard in words like cool and rule, and the [iə] heard in Neal, the Real Deal. Finally, depending on how you define them, diphthongs can even include the "yu" sequence in cute (i.e., think of it as [iu])or the "we" sequences in queen (think of it as [ui]).
I wasn't going to get into all that, though. All the team needed to know was that two vowel sounds run together were a diphthong.
"What?" I asked when I noticed all three of them were stifling their laughter. One of them clued me in.
"We, uh, sometimes call each other diphthongs for an insult," she said.
That was my introduction to pejorative diphthong, or as it's often spelled with this meaning, dipthong. (Actually, that spelling and pronunciation do have historical precedent: The word was borrowed from French, where it was originally spelled dyptongue, and the "dip" pronunciation is recognized in several dictionaries.) Internet searches for "what a dip(h)thong," "such a dip(h)thong," and "you dip(h)thong" bring up gems like:
- "You're such a diphthong!" This is the new favorite saying of the kids on my block. (link)
- My mom thought this was some kind of insult ("you are such a dipthong"). She was a little sad to find out it was something real. (link)
- Finn needs to stop being such a dipthong. (link)
- Now if you'll excuse me, my son just called me a "dipthong"– most likely because I plopped him in front of iCarly to write this blog. (link)
- "Not you, dipthong!" she said, with a harsh tone in her voice. Carly was shocked at her insult while Freddie said nothing. "Did you just call me dipthong?" Carly asked, not sure if she heard her right. (link)
As you may have gathered from the last two examples, there is an association between pejorative diphthong and the Nickelodeon TV show iCarly. On his blog, the creator of the show Dan Schneider wrote about the July 11, 2009 episode "iTwins":
Sam calls Freddie a diphthong. I love it. It sounds so abrasive and crude. But do you know what a diphthong really is? It's "an unsegmentable, gliding speech sound varying continuously in phonetic quality but held to be a single sound or phoneme and identified by its apparent beginning and ending sound, as the oi-sound of toy or boil." Yay, we're learning!
Diphthong is also mined for humor in this clip from a later episode in 2009.
Though iCarly may have helped the spread of pejorative diphthong, it didn't invent it. This Urban Dictionary entry is from October 2007, scarcely a month after iCarly began airing:
A vowel combination consisting of a weak vowel and a strong one.
It is more commonly used as an insult, seeing as it is a legitimately funny word.
On Language Log, Chris Potts quoted a line of dialogue from Jonathan Lethem's book Motherless Brooklyn, published in 2000: "If I wanted a gun, I'd get a gun, you diphthong." Furthermore, several commenters on the post tell of using diphthong as an insult during their elementary- and middle-school days. E. Levin wrote:
"Diphthong" was a common insult in my elementary school until the music teacher, stepping in to arbitrate one particularly loud conflict, burst out laughing. I don't know how it got started on our playground, but 15 years later, I still can't use it without feeling like a second-grader.
Another commenter named Melissa wrote in with what became the title of this column.
Earlier still is the character of Dipthong "Dip" Dimquest, from a 1990 issue of Pulphouse magazine. As an author, he refuses to adopt a pen name such as Dennis Daniels, saying, "I've put up with the name for thirty years, endured the dumb jokes and crank phone calls for as long as I can remember. I'm not about to toss in the towel now."
Several commenters on the Language Log post observe that for diphthong to sound maximally insulting, it needs to be pronounced "dip-thong," not "dif-thong." This is true: Only in this way can the word piggyback on the established negative connotations of the word dip. As early as 1932, according to the Oxford English Dictionary, dip was being used as an insult. The first attestation is from an issue of American Speech. It was created by backformation from the adjective dippy, of obscure origin. Dippy goes back to at least 1902. Dippy peaked in the 1930s, and a Disney character named Dippy Dawg appeared in a few cartoon shorts in 1932 and 1933 before being renamed Goofy. Though less popular now, dippy is still hanging on, sometimes showing up in the collocation hippie dippie, as it did in the late 1960s with George Carlin's character of Al Sleet, the Hippie-Dippie Weatherman.
By that time, the first dip-based compound pejorative had made its debut in a near-rhyme for dipstick, and American Speech is again the source of the OED's first attestation, from 1963. Dipstick itself, which in its original sense refers to a calibrated stick used to measure the depth of a fluid, began its second career as an insult a little bit later. Its earliest OED citation is from 1968, though if you're my age you probably remember it from The Dukes of Hazzard. Dipwad came a little later; the earliest I've found it in Google Books is 1984.
Of course, diphthong carries an extra dose of funny from its second syllable. Although it comes from the Greek di- "two" and and phthongos "sound," English phonotactics breaks it up as dip(h)- and -thong. Now that thong has come to have as its primary meaning a type of skimpy swimsuit or underwear, it makes diphthong sound even more inappropriate.
I came to the next team meeting with a printout of Chris Potts's blog post, plus one I'd written about my son back in 2006, and the team went diphthong-crazy. They wrote on the whiteboard, "Word of the day: DIPTHONG"; "Dipthongs are amazing"; and "This message has been brought to you by Linguistic Olympiad Club. 'We'll make dipthongs out of you!'™" Before all was said and done, they had decided to rename their team the Diphthongs.
"All right, all you diphthongs," I said. "Let's get to work."