Getter better

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Yesterday on ADS-L, Doug Harris noted a surprise (boldfaced below) in a piece by TVNewser columnist Gail Shister:

With "CBS Evening News" on life support, Katie Couric should walk away.

Now.

So says Emily Rooney, former executive producer of "ABC World News Tonight," among others.

"She should do it sooner than later. I'd do it now," says Rooney, media critic for Boston's WGBH. "What's she waiting for? Will it getter better after the election? After the inauguration? Of course not.

(I'll post on "sooner than later" on another occasion.)

Was this just an inadvertent slip, with the -er of the comparative better anticipated on the preceding verb get (perhaps facilitated by the rhyme of get and bet-)? Almost surely not; Harris got 21,300 raw webhits for {"getter better"}, and even granting that there are many duplicates and that some might be slips, there are still many examples remaining that look like people are saying and writing just what they intend to. It looks like a new idiom — new to me and possibly to the usage literature, and possibly recent.

A few examples, first where getter corresponds to standard getting:

Read this and tell me things are getter better in Iraq. (link)

I still wouldn't take my chances, though that stuff IS getter better every year. (link)

With the exciting new vineyards we have coming on stream, the wines will just keep getter better,’ says Michael. (link)

and then where (as in the Rooney quote above) it corresponds to standard base-form get

Encoding MP3 to WAV will not getter better quality. (link)

Jan 30, 2007 … With competition, depth and knowing that it is not your spot just because you show up forces things to getter better and for the players to … (link)

and then where it corresponds to standard finite get:

Social connections getter better the more we use them. (link)

 they tend to have children with fewer alcohol and drug problems, and who getter better grades and are better adjusted,” Sansolo added. (link)

and then where it corresponds to standard finite gets:

Just means it getter better with age my friend. oh yeah!! (link)

It gets better (it getter better?).  Although getter better gets the most hits, you can also find getter tougher, getter harder, getter easier, getter longer, getter shorter, and who knows what else. And, in fact, getter with comparative more:

Are animals getter more and more inteligent [sic]? What do dogs/cats think about when they watch humans? (link)

And then, amazingly, becomer better:

The metalscene, to my opinion, is actually becomer better and worse at the same time. (link) [for becoming better]

its okay, we all make mistakes. the secret to move past them into that place where we becomer better. (link) [for become better]

It's early days on the getter better scene, but a reasonable hypothesis is that it all started with inadvertent slips of getter better for get better and getting better (as in the account above), which were then picked up by others as an idiom, and then generalized to comparatives other than better and to the inchoative verb closest in meaning to get, become. This would then be a case of a linguistic change originating in a speech error (of a sort that is likely to occur with some frequency). The crucial fact that allows the error to spread as a new variant is that those who hear (or read) the original slips don't know the status of the expression for those who produced it; for all they know, it's just an idiom that they might not have noticed before.  And the double -er makes the construction sound REALLY comparative. So some people end up with an emphatic inchoative-comparative.

Doug Harris noted that the hits he got go back about four years. If the construction had been around much longer than than, you'd have expected usage critics to complain about it. On the other hand, most of the hits are in informal speech and writing, so that perhaps it's been around for some time, but is only now spreading to contexts (like the opinions of Emily Rooney) where critics are likely to take notice of it.

(Notice that I'm saying the construction is now part of some people's grammars, and for them not an inadvertent error. I'm not saying that it's standard; it certainly isn't.)

 



20 Comments

  1. Bruce Rusk said,

    April 26, 2008 @ 2:50 pm

    A quick Google Books search suggests it goes much further back.

    From an 1886 book on West Somerset dialect:

    "Well, all I can zay is, nif her don't getter better purty quick, her'll zoon quirk."

    From a 1960s Ford Motor employee: ""This is a great culture, and it's getter better."

    More examples here.

    Also, there are a couple of recent hits for "getter worse".

  2. parvomagnus said,

    April 26, 2008 @ 2:53 pm

    As (admittedly anecdotal) support of the 'origin in speech error' idea, I'd note that where I've lived in the Texas Panhandle, 'get' is pretty universally pronounced [gIt], and I've never in my life noticed the 'getter better' thing.

  3. Kassy said,

    April 26, 2008 @ 5:00 pm

    Bruce, the list you posted has an even earlier date – A London Medical Gazette from 1848 that says "the joints, instead of getter better after a time, get worse."

  4. James Ashley said,

    April 26, 2008 @ 5:49 pm

    It's probably a variation on Larry the Cable Guy's catchphrase: "getter done", or "git 'er done". People familiar and comfortable with that formulation seem to be using is a simple replacement for "get" and "getting" in phrases like "getter better" == get well and "getter better" == getting better.

  5. Ed Cormany said,

    April 26, 2008 @ 5:57 pm

    this kind of anticipation seems more likely in writing than in speech. do we have any audio evidence for this phenomenon? this is the kind of thing that could just become an exceedingly common typo, especially when the base form of the verb is intended. i make anticipatory typing errors like that all the time, inadvertently tacking on a morpheme that should come on a following word. i think the cases where it actually replaces are the strongest evidence that it might actually be becoming grammaticalized.

  6. Mark Liberman said,

    April 26, 2008 @ 7:22 pm

    The other shoe also drops — searching for "gotter better" turns up some reasonably convincing past tense examples of this (weird) construction:

    Of course, it gotter better from there.
    I lost a lot of weight the first few months of being pregnant because of it; it gotter better as time went on.
    It gotter better for me, how, I have no idea, but it took too god damn long.
    Began my 2nd nervous breakdown……but then I gotter better when Pompey beat Blackburn 2-1…..AWAY frome home!!!!
    I started low to the ground and as he gotter better at it, slowly stood higher and higher. Now, he jumps all the way up.

    There are also some examples where get means "have" rather than "become", as in this little ditty:

    I gotter better insence than they do in church
    I can help you out with your market search
    When I choose the tracks that make you move your merch.

    I've left out all the examples of perfect "have gotter better", since those seem more likely to be typos for "have gotten better". Phrases like "it gotter better from there" and "as he gotter better at it" might be typos too, but the feeling is growing on me that this is a curious morphological weed (no disrespect intended) sprouting here and there in the broad fields of English usage.

    And while some examples discussed in this post might be re-spellings of the "get 'er done; got 'er did" expression, most are pretty clearly not that, it seems to me.

  7. Sili said,

    April 26, 2008 @ 8:00 pm

    The first examples seem clear enough, but to me the rap sounds like a non-rhotic version of "gotta better" = "got a better" in this case.

  8. parvomagnus said,

    April 26, 2008 @ 8:34 pm

    Could this be, at least partially, a result of flapping? Could these people, instead of pronouncing the 't' in 'get' or 'got' here as a glottal stop, or as an unreleased stop, be pronouncing the pronouncing it as a flap (I'm not really clear on the exact circumstances this happens under at the end of words), with the resultant [...ɾb...] interpreted as /…terb…/?

    If so it might be the result of people trying to fit an odd sound combination into English orthography, that is, the results of allophony producing such an odd sound combination, for English, that it jars some people out of ignoring it (no idea if that's possible) And of course that still doesn't explain the 'becomer' ones, or make much sense for the '-ing' replacement ones.

  9. Dan T. said,

    April 26, 2008 @ 8:50 pm

    Nabisco's Nutter Butter has similar prosody (though not meaning).

  10. Ingrid Jakobsen said,

    April 26, 2008 @ 9:27 pm

    I'm originally a Danish speaker, and when I reached the "becomer better" examples the whole thing suddenly clicked and made perfect sense to me – as applying Danish verb conjugation to English – and now I can transfer it back to "getter" and lots of other verbs.
    I realise it's not a very plausible origin of "getter better", but I thought it was amusing.

  11. Crwth said,

    April 26, 2008 @ 10:40 pm

    Along the lines that parvomagnus went, I suspected a phonological change as well. I considered the flap, too; this got me thinking about how I might pronounce "get better", and I think my "t" (Western Canadian dialect) is even less than a flap, almost a glottal stop as parvomagnus mentions.

    To correct for this, speakers might enunciate the "t", going so far as to leave a pause to avoid the combination "tb". This evolves into a schwa-like sound after the "t", and then possibly a type of progressive vowel harmony with the syllabic "r" in "better".

  12. Breffni said,

    April 27, 2008 @ 5:21 am

    In so far as some of those phonological explanations rely on /b/ following /t/, they're undermined by instances of "getter * better" – 91,800 raw hits, with the first page including

    getter slightly better
    getter much better
    getter significantly better
    getter noticeably better
    getter even better

    Intuitively that seems to me to weaken the anticipation-error theory too, though I don't know if the two words need to be actually adjacent for those to occur.

  13. Arnold Zwicky said,

    April 27, 2008 @ 9:39 am

    Following up on Breffni, who was responding to (among others) Ed Cormany: as Breffni understands, I was suggesting that anticipatory errors were the historical source of the phenomenon, but denying that they are the mechanism responsible for (most of) the examples we see now; Cormany suggests instead that it's all anticipation. Breffni's separated examples ("getter slightly better" and so on) don't bear on the claim about history, but are offered as still more evidence that we're looking at a new grammatical construction.

    But only weak evidence, since anticipation errors don't necessarily involve adjacent words. From my anticipatory-typos file: "I working [worked] on writing", "You're simply being very think [thick] about the whole thing".

    Anticipation, in speech as well as writing, often affects immediately adjacent elements, but also often affects parallel elements that are separated from one another, as in the typos above, or in these examples of word anticipations in speech: "motion verbs in languages [novels] written in these languages", "with only a few phrases [switches] to English for words or short phrases".

  14. Karen said,

    April 27, 2008 @ 10:44 am

    Check Literal Minded where Neal has recently looked at "sooner than later" and "safe than sorry"

  15. Arnold Zwicky said,

    April 27, 2008 @ 10:48 am

    Bruce Rusk says "it goes much further back", giving the results of a Google Books search. The first question here is what the "it" is: the occurrence of "getter better" or a construction of which "getter better" is an instance. (Googling on "getter better" also yields some irrelevant material — examples in which "getter" is part of the noun "go-getter", for instance — that I'm disregarding here.) The older examples might be nonce creations, expressions confined to very small dialect areas, or errors; we can begin to assess the status of more recent examples, but the older ones are sparse enough that their status is in doubt.

    And in any case, the important question is not when the expression was first used (non-erroneously, and in the relevant sense), but when it "took off" with some significant number of speakers and writers. (New types of expressions and new uses of older types are often invented again and again, by someone here and someone there, over long periods of time, before they gain some currency.)

    The apparently relevant Google Books hits include 12 from the period 2003 through 2007 and 20 from 1995 and before: one a West Somerset dialect example from the English Dialect Dictionary, one that I haven't been able to date exactly, 5 from U.S. Congressional hearings between 1956 and 1994 (which might be typos in transcribed speech or might be genuine examples from speech), and 13 others, scattered over the years from 1848 from 1995 (1848, 1914, 1920, 1931, 1933, 1956, 1968, 1969, 1979, 1987, 1989, 1992, 1995). The last 13 include some from quoted speech (interviews or speech in fiction) and a number from serious non-fiction (including the 1848 London Medical Gazette). The individual examples are hard to interpret. Some of them might be typos, but there probably are some that were written or spoken just as their sources intended.

    But things seem to ramp up in the 21st century. My tentative interpretation is then that the construction took off recently.

  16. Andrea said,

    April 27, 2008 @ 11:36 am

    Sorry to clutter this comment thread, but, the "getter better" topic reminds me of the construction "…if I every…", which strikes me as odd (and gets about 17,000 Google results, as opposed to over a million for "…if I ever…"), and which I can't find in the Language Log archives, if you've addressed it.

  17. Arnold Zwicky said,

    April 27, 2008 @ 11:37 am

    I agree with Mark Liberman that tracing the "getter better" construction back to Larry the Cable Guy's "Git-R-Done" (as James Ashley suggests) is not at all plausible, but it might be worth asking where such proposals come from. Two contributing factors, I think: free association of ideas and a regard for popular culture.

    Just mentioning a linguistic phenomenon is likely to prompt people to think of all sorts of things that resemble it in some way. As soon as I brought up the snowclone "Who are you and what have you done with X?" on Language Log (see posting #5226 on Language Log Classic), people wrote me about the Thurber cartoon with the caption "What have you done with Doctor Millmoss?" and the movie title "Who Is Harry Kellerman and Why Is He Saying Those Terrible Things About Me?", neither of which has anything to do with the "impostor" sense of the snowclone, but both of which resemble the snowclone in their form. Threads on ADS-L quickly drift away from the original datum or query and on to all sorts of phenomena that are somewhat similar (but are different in crucial ways). Free association at work.

    And this process of association is likely to pull up material from popular culture. People are more inclined to see linguistic innovations as based on, and spread by, expressions in popular culture than they are to look to ordinary people as the source of innovations and the agents of their spread. Now, some expressions do arise in popular culture and become widespread through its influence. But most linguistic change is not like that, so there's a problem when people turn first to popular culture for an account of innovation and spread.

  18. Jamie said,

    April 28, 2008 @ 9:47 am

    I don’t recall ever noticing “sooner than later” before reading this on Saturday, but now two days later I’ve found it in the wild:
    http://lists.apple.com/archives/Fed-talk/2008/Apr/msg00140.html

    Maybe in the past I always mentally inserted “rather” in there without noticing that the author had not.

  19. Rubrick said,

    April 28, 2008 @ 5:48 pm

    Surely this usage originated with Wagner's famous opera Gotterbetterung.

  20. Jo said,

    May 15, 2008 @ 1:44 am

    getter better – just typos not picked up by wordpress and not seen by people reading for meaning.

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