Amos, Andy, and "unlax"

Laurence Horn laurence.horn at YALE.EDU
Mon Jan 21 19:38:25 UTC 2008

More inspiration from football...

On the radio, from a sports talk show host interviewing a former
football player about the release of adrenaline after a big game:

"How long does it take for you to undrain yourself?"

So I googled "undrain" and found 2130 hits (albeit with the usual
large proportion of overlap), mostly referring to recipes in which
one is told to undrain frozen strawberries, canned mushrooms or
carrots, etc., but also clogged sinks.  On the third page of hits I
noticed the first compositional use, for a technique you can use to
"undrain your brain".  But the vast majority are indeed redundant, =
'drain'.  Predictably, the prefix in "undrain a drain/clog" can only
be redundant, while that in "unclog a drain" can never be.

But while "undrain (oneself)" is probably not regional, it reminded
me of a verb that I think is, "unlax" (with the meaning 'relax', but
usually--if google cites can be believed--in transitive contexts,
although I could be wrong about that).  One cite led me to a curious
American Speech paper from awhile back:

Margaret Reed (1932), "Intentional Mispronunciations".  American
Speech 7: 192-99.

This covers what Reed took to be a fad among the "light-hearted
youth" of Central Westerners (she's writing from Nebraska) to
circulate...well, intentional mispronunciations.  (She's following up
on a paper by Louise Pound from 10 years earlier in _Dialect Notes_.)
Her categories include everything from adding or subtracting
syllables and restressing (antique as "an-tee-cue", "champeen",
"the-'ater"), tensing lax vowels ("genu-wine"), borrowing of "vulgar"
pronunciations ("agin", "extry", "who'd-a thunk it", "varmint"), "Al
Smith" English [a.k.a. Brooklynese, not a moniker Reed herself
applies] ("boid", "noives", "toity-toid street", "winegar woiks"),
the "extremely annoying" affectation of children's speech ("sojer",
"sword" [with /w/, as we've been discussing recently], "Injun", "ax"
for 'ask' [!-- she does add 'also archaic' for this], "itty bitty"),
Yiddishisms ("epple", "darlink", "dun't esk"), various other dialect
borrowings ("enyhoo", "pitcher" [for 'picture'], "divil"), blends and
folk etymological forms ("bumbershoot", "brass-ear", "animule",
"absotively"), misdivisions ("a tall", "a norange", but not "a whole
nother"), spelling pronunciations ("k-nife", "g-nat", "X-mas"), and
so on.  She ends with the wistful hope that while "human nature" may
be responsible for perpetuating this fad (or these fads--unclear how
many causal factors are involved), "surely, in its fullest and most
extreme form, the phenomenon is now passing its peak".

So anyway, one of Reed's categories (p. 194) is what she terms '"Amos
and Andy" English, heard over the radio, which is so much in vogue at
the present time. It is not at all unusual to find the most
fastidious speakers employing such forms as:  [I sample here]
disremember or misremember, elebben, heabbn, recited (excited),
sebben, unlax (relax)".  Now several of her examples involve
/vn/>/bn/, a frequently encountered variant, not restricted to (but
maybe stereotypic of?) AAVE.  And of course we're dealing here with
dialect forms at several removes from direct observation.

But I'm wondering specifically about her citing of "unlax", which
I've come across elsewhere noted as AAVE (although not necessarily
AAVE-specific).  DARE (at least the published volumes) can't help me
here, nor can HDAS, given the initial "u".  So what is the
distribution/history of "unlax"?  (It's unlisted in the OED, AHD, or
Wright's English Dialect Dictionary.)  Joan, do you have a draft
entry for this?


P.S.  I am, of course, concerned only with the colloquial verb,
transitive or intransitive, meaning (roughly) 'relax', not with the
possible homonymous adjective, as in "/I/ is lax while /i/ is unlax".

The American Dialect Society -

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