Annals of Linguistic Prejudice

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John Bainbridge's 1961 book The super-Americans: a picture of life in the United States, as Brought into Focus, Bigger than Life, in the Land of the Millionaires — Texas was originally published as a series of articles in the New Yorker. The first installment (March 11, 1961: p. 47) began with this sentence:

It is currently fashionable among the more advanced spirits in this country to look upon Texas with an air of amused condescension.

And a few pages later, Bainbridge underlined the advancement of his own spirit as follows:

At a recent cocktail party in Dallas, a visiting journalist was introduced to a handsome, impeccably groomed young matron with golden hair, velvety eyes the color of wood violets, and a becomingly superbious air. She seemed a sublime specimen of the Super-American until, as so often happens, she elected to open her mouth. "Mistah," she said, "Ah'm sick and tahed of readin' those trashy stories you-all keep writin' ahbowt Texas. They ah just so unfaih they make mah blood boil."

In the facsimile "New Yorker Digital Edition", this text frames an ironically appropriate cartoon:

The eye dialect ("Ah'm sick and tahed…") is of course the key technique of condescension here, but there are several other skillful touches. In particular, let me note with admiration Bainbridge's choice of superbious, which most readers will understand by reference to superb, or perhaps its Latin antecedents, though (according to the OED) superbious itself is an obsolete and rare adjective meaning "proud, overbearing, insolent", last used in the early years of the 18th century.

Literature Online find no hits in poetry, and just one in drama — from W.S.,  The Tragedy of Locrine, the eldest Son of King Brutus:

Nor wreak I of thy threats, thou princox boy,
Nor doe I fear thy foolish insolency,
And but thou better use thy bragging blade,
Then thou does rule thy overflowing tongue,
Superbious Britain, thou shalt know too soon
The force of Humber and his Scythians.

The word is also found in three prose works, from 1640, 1650, and 1714, of which this lovely passage from John Reynolds' 1650 The Flower of Fidelitie is typical:

Our Princes seeing the sodain departure of this ancient Lady, exceedingly admired what this unlookt for novelty meant: But at last arming their resolutions with courage, as also seeing the sable night begin to orevaile the Element with obscurity, taking leave of their Nymph, they boldly entred; where no sooner they had past the outer gate, but they were forthwith met by two glorious Virgins, who saluting them with a smiling countenance, arm in arm most lovingly conducted them to a superbious Theatre, from whence they might deliciously behold many amorous Ladies and gallant Cavaliers circumferencing themselvs in a dance: from whence after having repleated their eyes with applause, they by the Ladies were conducted to a sumptuous Bed-chamber, where divers flourishing Knights were unchastely Courting of their beauteous Paragons, yea and with such unseemly dalliance, that Vesta , nay Venus her self could scarce refrain from blushing at their immoderate familiarity; In such sort, that being glutted with the variety of divers unchaste prospects, (which to repeat would but vainly replenish the Readers capacity with prejudicial contemplations) they were at last by many radiant Tapers alighted to their chambers; where to passe away the tediousnesse of the night, two lascivious Ladies were proffered to beare them company: But our young Princes (albeit ardently tempted with carnal inchantments) having their immoveable resolutions charactered upon the foundation of Honour (not accepting of this unexpected courtesie) very vertuously crav'd their absence; when thinking to repose themselves, lo they were instantly again sollicited by two tender Virgins, who bringing two Ivory Lutes in their hands, with their melodious ( Orphee ) Musique, thought to lull their premeditations asleep: Their breasts were nakedly unmask'd to the spectators eye, where one might apparently behold their Alabaster paps swell and sink at an instant, as being inspired with the luxurious winde of unsatiable desire. Immodest smiles they had at command; and with the Hiæna , their eyes darted forth prejudicial Assummons: Their outward vestments were both gay and loose, in all things fitly corresponding with their inward qualities: And their glistering Haire being escaped from the Tresses of Chastity, most viciously sported with their Chrystal complexions, as the amiable Fetters of Lust to inchant the Approachers.

Anyhow, I doubt that Mr. Bainbridge learned the word superbious from immersion in 17th-century soft porn, and so I leave it to future literary scholars to determine which thesaurus or unabridged dictionary he fetched it from. Wherever he got it, superbious strikes just the right note of amused condescension.

The "Ah'm sick and tahed" passage was drawn to my attention by a Texas native, who noted Robert Draper's recent comparison of Bainbridge to Tocqueville ("It's Just a Texas-Governor Thing", NYT Magazine, 12/6/2009):

1961, a New Yorker writer named John Bainbridge, who had left his home in Bronxville, N.Y., for a nine-month stay in Texas, channeled Alexis de Tocqueville in “The Super-Americans.” Today a largely overlooked classic, the book argued that the Lone Star State was like America except more so: more optimistic, more preoccupied with bigness, more obsessed with self-invention. For those of us raised in the shadows of the Astrodome, Bainbridge’s references to newly enriched oilmen trading in their Cadillacs once the ashtrays require emptying are blush-inducing but hardly unfamiliar. And in any event, “The Super-Americans,” like Tocqueville’s “Democracy in America” 126 years before it, ultimately acquits its subject, proclaiming Texas to be “the land of the second chance, the last outpost of individuality, the stage upon which the American Drama, in all its wild extremes, is being performed with eloquence and panache, as if for the first time.”

On the basis of that recommendation, she thought that Bainbridge's (long out-of-print) book might be a good gift for her relatives. But that superbious matron on p. 7 changed her mind.  (When she told her father about it, he was amused to learn that someone from New York could possibly make fun of how other people talk.)

In any case, Bainbridge's book reminds me much less of de Tocqueville than of Charles Dickens' Martin Chuzzlewit, though Dickens' defenders of local values are mostly less well groomed than Bainbridge's superbious matron.  Thus in the settlement of Eden, Martin encounters Hannibal Chollop, "a lean person in a blue frock and a straw hat, with a short black pipe in his mouth, and a great hickory stick studded all over with knots, in his hand; who smoking and chewing as he came along, and spitting frequently, recorded his progress by a train of decomposed tobacco on the ground".

Chollop objects to Mark Tapley's characterization of Eden as swampy, and appeals to a third party for an opinion:

'I was merely observing, sir,' said Mark, addressing this new visitor, 'that I looked upon the city in which we have the honour to live, as being swampy. What's your sentiments?'

'I opinionate it's moist perhaps, at certain times,' returned the man.

'But not as moist as England, sir?' cried Chollop, with a fierce expression in his face.

'Oh! Not as moist as England; let alone its Institutions,' said the man.

'I should hope there ain't a swamp in all Americay, as don't whip THAT small island into mush and molasses,' observed Chollop, decisively.

After some further discussion, Chollop leaves with a warning:

'I have draw'd upon A man, and fired upon A man for less,' said Chollop, frowning. 'I have know'd strong men obleeged to make themselves uncommon skase for less. I have know'd men Lynched for less, and beaten into punkin'-sarse for less, by an enlightened people. We are the intellect and virtue of the airth, the cream of human natur', and the flower Of moral force. Our backs is easy ris. We must be cracked-up, or they rises, and we snarls. We shows our teeth, I tell you, fierce. You'd better crack us up, you had!'

Dickens is said to have modeled Eden on Cairo, Illinois, which he visited in 1842.  While Cairo is diagonally across Arkansas from Texas (which was an independent republic at the time of Dickens' visit), there's a clear cultural continuity between the caricatures of Dickens (who also satirized the higher strata of American society) and of Bainbridge (who also attended to less well-groomed Texans).

(I'm as puzzled as you probably are by Dickens' non-standard capitalization. It's possible that this represents something like the speech pattern described here. Then again, maybe it's just supposed to evoke illiteracy.)

This all reminded me, though indirectly, of Matt Taibbi's recent blog post "Sarah Palin, WWE Star":

The really beautiful thing about the culture war, from an entertainment standpoint, is that it is fundamentally irresolvable. There isn’t a concrete set of issues involved, where in theory both sides could give in a little and find middle ground, reach some sort of compromise.

That’s because there are no issues at all. At the end of this decade what we call “politics” has devolved into a kind of ongoing, brainless soap opera about dueling cultural resentments and the really cool thing about it, if you’re a TV news producer or a talk radio host, is that you can build the next day’s news cycle meme around pretty much anything at all, no matter how irrelevant — like who’s wearing a flag lapel pin and who isn’t, who spent $150K worth of campaign funds on clothes and who didn’t, who wore a t-shirt calling someone a cunt and who didn’t, and who put a picture of a former Vice Presidential candidate in jogging shorts on his magazine cover (and who didn’t).

Or who uses which words, in which accent.

And while some of us are old enough to remember that once upon a time, these arguments always had at least some sort of ideological flavor to them, i.e. the throwdowns were at least rooted in some sort of real political issue (war, taxes, immigration, etc.) we’ve now got a whole generation that is accustomed to screaming at cultural enemies as an end in itself, for the sheer dismal fun of it. Start fighting first, figure out the reasons later.

Sarah Palin is the Empress-Queen of the screaming-for-screaming’s sake generation. The people who dismiss her book Going Rogue as the petty, vindictive meanderings of a preening paranoiac with the IQ of a celery stalk completely miss the book’s significance, because in some ways it’s really a revolutionary and innovative piece of literature.

Palin — and there’s just no way to deny this — is a supremely gifted politician. She has staked out, as her own personal political turf, the entire landscape of incoherent white American resentment. In this area she leaves even Rush Limbaugh in the dust.

Taibbi's analysis of why Palin transcends Limbaugh is interesting — read it and see what you think. His basic point is that

Complaining about the assholes we interact with on a daily basis is the #1 eternal pastime of the human race. We all do it, and we get to do it every day, because the world is full of assholes.

This sort of resentment has always been a crucial subtext of politics — especially when the resentment can be generalized to groups of people — but Taibbi feels that Sarah Palin has a unique and unprecedented talent for dispensing with the text.  I feel that this is unfair to history's many notable resentment-mongers, but it's still early in Ms. Palin's career.

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14 Comments »

  1. rootlesscosmo said,

    December 18, 2009 @ 9:39 pm

    I feel that this is unfair to history's many notable resentment-mongers

    I agree, the Recency Illusion may be at work here. Mario Procaccino, a New York Mayoral candidate in 1969, attacked the incumbent, John Lindsay, as a "limousine liberal," which was understood to mean "rich fancy-talking niggerlover." (Lindsay was re-elected, partly because split the resentment vote with a rival monger, partly because the Mets won the World Series and put everybody in a cheerful frame of mind that briefly reduced the general snarling.)

  2. kenny said,

    December 18, 2009 @ 11:30 pm

    Is it really out of the question that he just made up a word that happens to have been in use in past centuries? He only has to know some Latin to make it plausible. I, a Latinist, frequently invent words based on Latin roots which I subsequently discover to have been already coined, almost always with the same (or a very similar) meaning.

    [(myl) I guess it's conceivable that Bainbridge invented the word on the basis of the Latin root, but it seem impossible that Miss Gould would have let that pass. And since he no doubt knew that -- he'd been writing for the New Yorker since the 1930s -- he would have looked the word up. I still lean towards the theory that he was prone to dredge through the thesaurus looking for the mot juste.]

    Also, I don't think it's unreasonable for him to say that as soon as her Southern voice came out, it ruined the impression of her as the Super-American. That's happened to me before. A strong Southern accent is simply not the American prototype. I understand that he's being condescending, but not everything written there is unfounded.

    [(myl) But the whole point of his series -- announced in his title, and discussed in his first few pages, before this passage -- is that Texans are super-Americans. So how can talking like a Texan ruin the impression of being a Texan? On the contrary, it's seems clear that he thinks the woman's (regional, hick) accent is incongruous given her (soignée, cosmopolitan) appearance. For a more recent example of the same impulse, see Michael Lewis's 1998 reporting on the Microsoft anti-trust trial, where he said of Microsoft's lead attorney that "it didn't take him long to prove that technology doesn't sound nearly as impressive when it is discussed in a booming hick drawl. As he boomed on about 'Web sahts' and 'Netscayup' and 'the Innernet' and 'mode ums' he made the whole of the modern world sound a little bit ridiculous."]

  3. Peter Taylor said,

    December 19, 2009 @ 5:00 am

    I did a double-take at "young matron", which sounds like an oxymoron: to me "matron" conjures up the phrase "of a certain age". Looking at the rest of the paragraph, though, he may have meant "young mother".

    [(myl) Or just "young married woman". It's a common phrase, though it has a slightly anachronistic flavor well captured by this little joke.]

    He may have got "superbious" by looking for an English cognate of the Spanish "soberbio" (which is still in common use) or a cognate from another Romance language. (Is there one in French? My Spanish-French dictionary suggests not by translating soberbio as orgueilleux when referring to people).

  4. Catanea said,

    December 19, 2009 @ 6:56 am

    I read that Dickens A as indicating the pronunciation of the name of the letter, not a schwa.

    [(myl) That's the hypothesis indicated by the link in the post. But note that Dickens also capitalizes "Of" in the quoted passage; and in the rest of the rendition of Chollop's speech, he capitalizes "An", "My", "Freedom", etc., suggesting that he has something else in mind -- maybe unexpected emphasis, for example.]

  5. Jack Collins said,

    December 19, 2009 @ 11:04 am

    In addition to being condescending, the "Mistah, Ah'm sick and tahed…" quote is wrong, since Texan accents are rhotic. Unless she moved to Dallas from Savannah, GA or something…

  6. language hat said,

    December 19, 2009 @ 11:11 am

    Jack Collins beat me to it — that doesn't sound like any Texan I've ever heard.

  7. Sili said,

    December 19, 2009 @ 11:30 am

    As he boomed on about 'Web sahts' and 'Netscayup' and 'the Innernet' and 'mode ums' he made the whole of the modern world sound a little bit ridiculous."]

    Well, the modern world is (more than) a little bit ridiculous.

    A strong Southern accent is simply not the American prototype.

    Perhaps not proto-, but certainly stereo-.

    I can't say I'd ever thought of Texas as non-rhotic, but I see for the WP that it's an older feature of the South.

  8. Jay Lake: [links] Link salad goes for a wet morning walk said,

    December 19, 2009 @ 11:37 am

    [...] Annals of linguistic prejudice — Interesting, rambling post from Language Log on dialect, culture and politics. [...]

  9. Simon Cauchi said,

    December 19, 2009 @ 4:02 pm

    "Superbioso" exists in Italian. I can't find any record of "superbieux" in French.

  10. slobone said,

    December 19, 2009 @ 4:23 pm

    Perhaps French doesn't need "superbieux" — my dictionnaire gives "arrogant, haughty" as an alternative translation for "superbe", though they flag it as littér.

  11. rootlesscosmo said,

    December 19, 2009 @ 9:51 pm

    superbious

    Compare

    "And she has yielded!–yielded to her aunt,
    Her father and her brother–all her kin,
    And given her hand to that superb old Earl–"

    (Charles Mackay, "A Man's Heart," excerpted in Lewis and Lee, The Stuffed Owl: An Anthology of Bad Verse)

  12. Graeme said,

    December 20, 2009 @ 7:25 am

    Am I alone in having read "punkin'-sarse" crudely, rather than as a reference to a vegetable sauce?

    On the vaudeville nature of modern politics, I wrote an op-ed in The Age (Melbourne) a few years back: The Age of the Political Big Mouth

  13. Jesse Tseng said,

    December 21, 2009 @ 9:04 am

    @Peter Taylor @Simon Cauchi @slobone
    French used to have quite a few derived forms: the adjectives superbieux/superbeux, the nouns superbie and superbeté/superbité. Now there's only one word, superbe, for both noun and adjective. Because (1) English, in its cut-throat campaign to reach one million words, and destroy all other languages in the process, "borrowed" superbious and superbity and never gave them back, and (2) French, culturally, does not require such a large vocabulary for the semantic domain of “pride/arrogance/vanity”.

  14. Mark P said,

    December 21, 2009 @ 2:20 pm

    I read Bainbridge's phonetic spelling as a result of a bad ear or a lazy pen. It's the way most people not from the southern US think most people in the southern US talk. I also think that many people in the self-identified South don't really consider Texas to be in the South.

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