Popular perceptions of lexicography: MADtv edition

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Last December, an episode of Comedy Central's "Sarah Silverman Program" revolved around fanciful neologisms, culminating in a scene where the editors of the Oxford English Dictionary anoint their latest entries in a "Word Induction Ceremony." The FOX sketch comedy show "MADtv" (now in its final season) imagines the lexicographers of "Webster's Dictionary" announcing new words in a far less celebratory mood. Here (for the time being, at least) is a YouTube clip bringing together the three-part sketch and one outtake:

(This was first broadcast on March 28, 2009, episode #1414. The full episode is available online here. Hat tip, Andy Hollandbeck.)

Since the YouTube clip could very well be taken down soon if FOX gets wind of it, here's a helpful summary from Planet MADtv:

Dictionary Words #1

Glenn (Keegan-Michael Key), and Gene (Crista Flanagan) come up to tell the new changes to Webster’s Dictionary has to add new words that have becomes staples in American speech. These words include ba*donk*a*donk (n): A large and formidable posterior, and but*ter*face (n): A woman who is considered attractive for everything but her face. Along with these new additions will be the shortening of other words like totally to totes (abr), seriously to f*reals, and Laughing out Loud to just LOL (v).



Dictionary Words #2

Webster's Dictionary has now gathered again to update the change in phrase of some words. These words include slut, whore, and bitch (n) which now stands for a term of endearment between 2 drunk girls, served (v) which now means getting busted on by a wicked dancer, and wick*ed (adj) now means extremely awesome. Along with these changes include words like dra*ma (n) which now encompasses even the mundane. Bro is now a verb which means sex between 2 male best friends. The last change is to the word lit*er*al*ly (adj) due to the fact that people now use it to mean everything but literally.



Dictionary Words #3

Gene asks Glenn why they must rape the dictionary so. Glenn answers "because they are Americans". They then announce the following words that have now been removed due to their neglect amongst the US population. These words include sav*ings (n), ab*stain (v), pa*tience (n), rag*time (n), soc*cer (n), De*troit (n), cy*ber*space (n), E.R (the show. NBC), and books (n).

Few if any of the "new" words or senses reluctantly admitted by the fictional lexicographers should be too surprising to anyone paying attention to contemporary American usage — though the suggestion of brew as the past tense of the verb bro was a new one on me.

The sketch derives its humor from the idea that the super-dignified Webster's crowd is being forced to include slangy and nonstandard terms as "proper" (and defining those terms in stuffy dictionary style). But it's not just Urbandictionary that keeps tabs on such usage: scholars of slang pay close attention to the latest colloquialisms and are hardly horrified by them. For instance, you'll find butterface in Cassell's Dictionary of Slang (Jonathon Green, 2005) and badonkadonk in The New Partridge Dictionary of Slang and Unconventional English (Tom Dalzell & Terry Victor, 2006). Badonkadonk even got a long exegesis in the pages of the New York Times in 2006, from a Kelefah Sanneh article about Trace Adkins' surprising country hit, "Honky Tonk Badonkadonk":

Only a few years ago “badonkadonk” was considered strictly hip-hop slang — sly onomatopoeia for the imaginary sound made by a decidedly nonimaginary asset. It was used by the African-American comedian Tracy Morgan, as the single-minded Spoonie Luv, on Comedy Central’s “Crank Yankers.” Missy Elliott played with the pronunciation when she rapped, “Keep your eyes on my ba-bump-ba-bump-bump/And think ya can handle this ga-donk-ga-donk-donk.” And the rapper Twista tried to cash in with a song called “Badunkadunk” in early 2004.



The word was a black thing, and so, went the implicit logic, was the thing it described. The term evoked both black culture and black anatomy: like the concept of race itself, “badonkadonk” was a mishmash of nurture and nature. (Though Spoonie Luv never described it that way.)

For me, the least compelling part of the sketch was the usual litany of complaints about literally. (And not just because they misspelled it as litterally.) "MADtv" has already been there, done that:

That was one in a series of literally sketches starring Nicole Sullivan and Michael McDonald that ran on "MADtv" in 2004 (1, 2, 3, 4). Naturally, the sketches got props from the peevebloggers at Literally, A Web Log. Perhaps the appearance of literally in the dictionary sketch was intended as a bit of peevish nostalgia for devoted fans as the show nears its swansong.

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6 Comments »

  1. Matthew Stuckwisch said,

    April 29, 2009 @ 6:57 am

    The third one literally (trad. usage) made me laugh out loud when Detroit appeared. I think the first and second one were just used more to build up for the last one.

  2. kenny v said,

    April 29, 2009 @ 9:18 am

    clearly, the person who summarized the skit for Planet MADtv has no clue about slang; They defined "bro" as "a verb which means sex between 2 male best friends." This is completely wrong, and I don't see how they could have interpreted it to mean that. In addition, some of the other explanations are slightly off.

  3. Ellen said,

    April 29, 2009 @ 9:55 am

    I enjoyed the "literally" bit. I like the humor that sometimes happens from taking "literally", uh, literally when it isn't supposed to be taken that way. It's a humorous clash between two different meanings of a word.

  4. Benjamin Zimmer said,

    April 29, 2009 @ 10:58 am

    Ellen: Another comedian who has exploited literally humor is David Cross. From his standup album "Shut Up You Fucking Baby" (transcribed here):

    “You know one of the things I can’t stand; one of my like pet peeves is people who misuse the word literally. That drives me up a wall because when you misuse the word literally you are using it in the exact opposite way it was intended. When you fuck that up, you fuck it up so bad. Its not like a little goof. You should stop using the word forever until you fucking figure it out. It’s like ‘Dude man, let me tell you the funniest story. I was really fucked up the other day and I was hanging out with Jeremy and we were both super fucked up. And we went back to Jeremy’s apartment and we split this bar of Zanax. Then he put on that Viking hat, you know the one he won in Vegas, and he started dancing around. Dude it was so fucking funny, I literally shit my pants.’ What’d you do with your pants? ‘What’re you talking about?’ No, you said you literally shit you pants. What’d you do with your shitty pants? ‘Naw dude, I didn’t really shit my pants, I literally shit my pants. You don’t get it at all’”

  5. Wilson Gray said,

    April 29, 2009 @ 1:18 pm

    Is anyone else able to recall the days when the expression was

    "… drive [one] up _the_ wall"?

    How about

    "… cross _the_ line"?

  6. Catherine said,

    May 7, 2009 @ 4:51 pm

    I agree with Kenny V.; clearly the writer from Planet MadTV did not even watch the sketch because at no time do they say that bro means sex. Regardless, there is some humor here, though I resent the fact that linguists and other very smart people are portrayed as so ignorant of pop culture. To borrow slang from fifteen years ago (because no doubt it's bound to resurface), "As if!"

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