Dips, dipshits, dipsticks, dipwads, diphthongs

Neal Whitman nwhitman at AMERITECH.NET
Fri Dec 9 16:22:27 UTC 2011

Thanks for the additional datum; I hadn't known about either EST or the
"Mork and Mindy" spoof. Was Erhard known to call people assholes in his

Here's the text of the piece:

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

A diphthong is a sequence of two vowel sounds pronounced in the same
syllable. The two most easily recognized diphthongs in English are [??] as
in toy, and [a?] as in how. Also very common is [a?], 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 [e?] 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: [o?]. 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 [u?]
heard in words like cool and rule, and the [i?] 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
[http://danwarp.blogspot.com/2009/07/icarly-fun-facts-about-itwins.html] 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
[http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=HlAaqVDSyEc] 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
[http://www.urbandictionary.com/define.php?term=diphthong] 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

On Language Log, Chris Potts quoted
[http://languagelog.ldc.upenn.edu/nll/?p=978] 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

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 [http://disney.wikia.com/wiki/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

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, as it did to
one teenage girl:

I came to the next team with a printout of Chris Potts's blog post, plus one
I'd written
[http://literalminded.wordpress.com/2005/12/14/diphthongs-for-doug/] 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!'TM" 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."

----- Original Message -----
From: "Geoffrey Nunberg" <nunberg at ISCHOOL.BERKELEY.EDU>
Sent: Friday, December 09, 2011 12:30 AM
Subject: Re: Dips, dipshits, dipsticks, dipwads, diphthongs

> ---------------------- Information from the mail
> header -----------------------
> Sender:       American Dialect Society <ADS-L at LISTSERV.UGA.EDU>
> Poster:       Geoffrey Nunberg <nunberg at ISCHOOL.BERKELEY.EDU>
> Subject:      Re: Dips, dipshits, dipsticks, dipwads, diphthongs
> -------------------------------------------------------------------------------
> I couldn't get into the site to read the piece (I have a password
> somewhere), so you may have touched on this, but "You're all dipsticks"
> was the denatured phrase used in place of "You're all assholes" in the
> 1979 Mork and Mindy sendup of est in which David Letterman played the
> mercenary founder of Ellsworth Revitalization Konditioning, or erk.
> (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mork_Goes_Erk)
> Geoff
>> From: Neal Whitman <nwhitman at AMERITECH.NET>
>> Date: December 8, 2011 7:31:57 AM PST
>> Subject: Dips, dipshits, dipsticks, dipwads, diphthongs
>> An overview of "dip"-based pejoratives, inspired by finding out that some
>> people use "dip(h)thong" as an insult (subscription required):
>> http://www.visualthesaurus.com/cm/dictionary/3058/
>> This 2009 Language Log post by Chris Potts had some useful reader
>> comments:
>> http://languagelog.ldc.upenn.edu/nll/?p=978
>> Neal Whitman
> ------------------------------------------------------------
> The American Dialect Society - http://www.americandialect.org

The American Dialect Society - http://www.americandialect.org

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