Amos, Andy, and "unlax"

Wilson Gray hwgray at GMAIL.COM
Mon Jan 21 21:25:22 UTC 2008

FWIW, "unlax," even in BE, has always struck me as a joking
pronunciation primarily used by middle-class speakers. Cf. James

There was a time
When I used to dance
There was a time
When I used to prance
There was a dance
They called the "jerk"
Now, everybody _RE-lax_ [emphasis in original] (not "*UN-lax")
And watch me work!
Watch me, now!

The Godfather of Soul would surely have used "unlax," had he
considered it soulful.

IAC, most BE speakers, in my experience, would use a regional term
like "stretch out" or a slang term like "lay dead." But, hol' own
dare, bruthuh Larrih, I don't intend to claim that Amos & Andy English
wasn't popular, back in the day.


On Jan 21, 2008 2:38 PM, Laurence Horn <laurence.horn at> wrote:
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> Sender:       American Dialect Society <ADS-L at LISTSERV.UGA.EDU>
> Poster:       Laurence Horn <laurence.horn at YALE.EDU>
> Subject:      Amos, Andy, and "unlax"
> -------------------------------------------------------------------------------
> 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?
> LH
> 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".
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