Strausbaugh's dismissive comment on "dude" (was Re: Eggheads' Naughty Word Games)

Arnold M. Zwicky zwicky at CSLI.STANFORD.EDU
Tue Dec 28 20:00:24 UTC 2004

on Dec 28, 2004, at 9:37 AM, geral cohen wrote:

>         I join Larry Horn in wondering about Strausbaugh's mocking of
> the MLA "dude" paper. It's certainly possible to gain an understanding
> of low/popular culture without embracing it. In fact, one can gain a
> better understanding of any number of subjects without embracing the
> culture of the group being studied.
>         This is so basic, it's almost embarrassing to have to mention
> it.

indeed.  but thanks for saying it.

the attitude is that popular/low/mass culture is not a worthy object of
study.  as someone who's written about the rhyming schemes of rock
music, imperfect puns in jokes and advertisements, regularity and
irregularity in folk music and limericks, etc., i'm going to object to
this attitude in the strongest of terms.  of course, i present papers
on such topics at linguistics conferences, not the MLA, which i've
never attended and probably am never going to.

linked to this attitude is a wariness towards (or outright hostility
to, depending on who you talk to) any definition of "literature" or any
approach to it that would not have been at home at MLA meetings in the
19th century.  over the years this wariness has extended to the
linguistic analysis of literary texts, psychoanalytic interpretations,
and statistical approaches, but things seem to have really heated up
when scholars began to question fundamental assumptions about the roles
of social organization and ideology in literary works.  to my mind,
this was a Very Good Thing.  yes, it produced a certain amount of
silliness, showing off, tedious jokiness, and in-group jargon.  well,
literary scholarship is a human activity, with all the defects that
come from that.

strausbaugh contrasts the old days, when "professors attended to doze
through papers on Chaucer and Emerson...", with things since the 1980s,
when "the conference became the site of annual skirmishes between
old-school traditionalists and the increasing powerful new breed of
postmodernists" etc.

> Now, as far as "dude" itself goes, there's some very interesting
> information connected with the popularization of the term in 1883, its
> etymology, the field day the 19th and early 20th humorists had with
> the "dude," and the term's semantic changes over the years...


> ... If Mr. Strausbaugh is interested, I'll be happy to provide him a
> complimentary copy when it appears in 2 years or so. (He need only
> contact me at any time and ask for one.).

nice offer, but i doubt he'll take you up on it.

> ... And without doubt the study of low/popular speech is a highly
> interesting topic--worthy of study in its own right and for the
> insight it can provide into broader issues in language.

you're not going to find many linguists who'll argue with you on that.
mostly, we take the position that low/popular speech *is* the
fundamental topic of our field.  (not that we're inimical to the study
of writing, high literature, standard varieties, etc.)  of course,
we've had some trouble spreading the word.

arnold (zwicky at

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