You diphthong!

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My wife's (very scholarly) Forbes Library book club is reading Jonathan Lethem's Motherless Brooklyn this month. The book seems to be full of wonderfully inventive swearing. Last night, my wife read this one aloud to me (p. 170):

If I wanted a gun, I'd get a gun, you diphthong.

Diphthong works remarkably well as a pejorative. Curious about whether this was Lethem's innovation, I searched the Net for "you diphthong", figuring that the initial pronoun would cut down on merely phonological discussions. Precision was still poor — a mixture of phonological discussions of you and fortuitous juxtapositions of these two words by programs for generating random text, but the search did turn up a few cases of genuine expressivity, and I discovered that the Urban Dictionary has an entry:

1. diphthong: 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 word.
There is a diphthong in "loud."
YOU'RE A DIPHTHONG.

More commonly? I think not in general, but perhaps in some spheres. In any event, when I next bumble something, I'm going to try a self-directed Chris, you diphthong! to see if that does the trick.

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52 Comments »

  1. Scott said,

    January 5, 2009 @ 7:44 pm

    Could it be a minced oath (for dipshit)?

  2. nenikhkamen said,

    January 5, 2009 @ 7:53 pm

    How about the occurrence of "you diphthong" where "diphthong" is functioning as a verb, as in this example:

    I felt that there was a moral judgement in the way you diphthong the vowel in ‘changes’

    http://www.tate.org.uk/britain/exhibitions/audioarts/cd2_mm_transcript.htm

  3. Nathan Myers said,

    January 5, 2009 @ 7:56 pm

    As an insult it seems like it should be pronounced with a hard "p". My faulty memory suggests I've already heard it that way in technical contexts, presumably because it's more comfortable ("comfterbul") to say that way.

  4. AJD said,

    January 5, 2009 @ 8:00 pm

    I'm reminded of "you dumb hotel", from the musical Annie.

  5. John Cowan said,

    January 5, 2009 @ 8:10 pm

    I agree that as an insult, dipthong (which sounds like an intensive of the existing insult "dip") is more suitable than "difthong". Perhaps by "more commonly used as an insult" the UD folks mean "more commonly used as an insult rather than praise", as in "This blog is very diphthong indeed."

  6. E Levin said,

    January 5, 2009 @ 8:17 pm

    "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.

  7. Dave M said,

    January 5, 2009 @ 8:40 pm

    I'm sure we could think of a lot of such words. Archie Bunker famously called his wife a "dingbat"; and in the Bible, Nimrod was a "mighty hunter," yet the insult intended by "you nimrod" is well established.

  8. Alexandra said,

    January 5, 2009 @ 8:51 pm

    If pronounced with a "p" rather than an "f" as Nathan Myers and John Cowan suggest, it could be heard as a compound of "dip" and "thong," on the model of "dipshit." I love it!

    This reminds me of the '90s Nickelodeon show "The Adventures of Pete and Pete," in which Little Pete would say things like "Shove it out your blowhole."

  9. BrianM said,

    January 5, 2009 @ 9:28 pm

    Since the Urban Dictionary listing was posted in 2007, and Motherless Brooklyn was published in 1999, isn't it more likely that Motherless Brooklyn inspired the Urban Dictionary listing, rather than UD having a separate instance of it?

  10. Mark Eli Kalderon said,

    January 5, 2009 @ 9:38 pm

    On first hearing, I clearly read it as a variant of "dipshit" as Scott and Alexandra suggest.

  11. Melissa said,

    January 5, 2009 @ 9:38 pm

    I prefer "Oy! You diphthong!"

    Sorry. :-)

  12. Wells Hansen said,

    January 5, 2009 @ 10:41 pm

    Motherless Brooklyn is narrated in the voice of a man with Tourette syndrome. It's been a few years since I read MB, but I do remember some excellent passages about how the 'sound' or 'feel' of a word would render the word "tick-able" for the narrator. That is to say that the sound, not meaning, of a word would cause the narrator feel the word cried out for compulsive shouting, repitition, or rhyming. If this utterance was in the voice of the detective with TS, then the posters above are in accord with Letham and UD: It is a legit funny word.

  13. dr pepper said,

    January 5, 2009 @ 11:36 pm

    I think the euphemism + "feels like a swear" idea is correct, and that it's pretty much the same usage as "dipstick".

  14. Reinhold Aman said,

    January 5, 2009 @ 11:56 pm

    To startle and disarm your opponent, try "You hapax legomenon!"

  15. Josef Fruehwald said,

    January 6, 2009 @ 1:37 am

    Reminds me of this clip from the Batman T.V. series. I know a thing or two about Philadelphia diphthongs, but I have no idea what Batman's going on about.

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-Jz0nTXYabA

  16. outeast said,

    January 6, 2009 @ 3:09 am

    I actually learned to pronounce the word (in legitimate contexts) as 'dipthong', and I had to check the dictionary just now to ascertain that this is not a recognized pronunciation… Although I guess I have not used the word in speech much I have certainly never been challenged over the 'p' sound. It could well be that the 'dipthong' pronunciation is actually quite widespread, which would possibly encourage takeup as an insult as speculated as above.

  17. Matthew Stuckwisch said,

    January 6, 2009 @ 3:32 am

    A diphthong? Well at least I'm not a monophthong like you, besides, I'm studying to be a triphthong like my dad.

  18. peter said,

    January 6, 2009 @ 4:38 am

    Studying to be triphthong? Ha! I'm already a polyphthong!

  19. Robert F said,

    January 6, 2009 @ 5:30 am

    The mathematics teacher who taught me when I was ten thought "trapezoidal prism" should be an insult. Some people suggest there are words that are inherently funny, could there also be a class of words that sound like insults?

  20. Zubon said,

    January 6, 2009 @ 8:44 am

    Another (Midwestern US) voice for "dip-thong." I have never heard it pronounced another way, not that it comes up much in conversation. Alexandra has the analysis right to my ear.

  21. greg said,

    January 6, 2009 @ 9:17 am

    I first learned about dipthongs in my first semester of Latin back in high school. I distinctly remember my teacher saying that dipthong was a great word to use as an insult because people wouldn't know what it was, but it sounded funny, so they wouldn't know how to react.

  22. Skullturf Q. Beavispants said,

    January 6, 2009 @ 9:32 am

    I also pronounce it "dip-thong" (I'm from Western Canada, born in 1974). Maybe it's because the "f" and "th" sounds together are a combination the language doesn't like very much.

    I also say "op-thalmology" even though I just looked it up and it too is spelled with "phth".

  23. AJD said,

    January 6, 2009 @ 9:35 am

    Dave: It's commonly said that the origin of "nimrod" as an insult is from Bugs Bunny calling Elmer Fudd "Nimrod" to make fun of him as a hunter, and people misunderstood the meaning. The OED has a citation of "nimrod" in the insulting sense from 1933 and the first encounter between Bugs Bunny and Elmer Fudd was in 1940, however.

    Josef: And Dick Clark isn't even from Philadelphia! He grew up in the New York City area, so presumably his diphthongs are from there too.

  24. Irene said,

    January 6, 2009 @ 9:39 am

    I learned the word as "dipthong" in grade school. The first time I ever heard it pronounced "difthong" was by Dr. Frasier Crane in the sitcom.

  25. Jacob M said,

    January 6, 2009 @ 9:53 am

    "Schwa" also works as an insult. I remember it being used after a freshman linguistics course: "you're such a schwa." The IPA symbol for the schwa was sometimes written with a marker on someone's belongings. "Diphthong" was also used as an insult, but more rarely.

  26. marie-lucie said,

    January 6, 2009 @ 11:17 am

    I just realized that I say "diphtong" (the French pronunciation) and nobody has ever called me on it.

    The use of funny-sounding words as insults: in the Tintin series Captain Haddock is notoriously foul-mouthed but his huge vocabulary of swearwords can hardly offend anyone as they are just that kind of long and unusual words.

  27. Robert Coren said,

    January 6, 2009 @ 12:16 pm

    The use of possibly "esoteric" words as insults made me go look for my Portable Mark Twain to find the letter from Twain to William Dean Howells in which he quotes an undoubtedly fictional dialogue with his gardener, who claimed that a visitor (subsequently revealed to be Howells himself) had called him "a quadrilateral astronomical incandescent son of a bitch". (The whole letter, dated February 13, 1903, is hilarious.)

  28. David Eddyshaw said,

    January 6, 2009 @ 12:35 pm

    I recall a not altogether sober party in Northeastern Ghana at which my colleagues in the Offthalmology [sic] department got into a tear of trying out which ophthalmic technical terms made the best sounding insults.

    Personally I would have gone for "you macular degeneration" but my Ghanaian friends by a big margin preferred "you drainage bleb".

  29. TootsNYC said,

    January 6, 2009 @ 12:41 pm

    Dick Clark may have been from NY, but his FAME (at the time) was from Philadelphia.

  30. David Eddyshaw said,

    January 6, 2009 @ 1:00 pm

    @Skullturf:

    "Fifth"? Not only together, but word-final.

    I reckon the "pth" pronunciation is basically a misreading of the admittedly odd looking spelling, rather than due to a problem with the actual sound combination for native English speakers.

    Incidentally, the chief duty of an ophthalmologist (such as I) is to go round aggressively correcting other people's misspelling of the word "ophthalmology". It's the first thing they teach you as an ophthalmic trainee ….

  31. Daniel Rhodes said,

    January 6, 2009 @ 1:24 pm

    @David Eddyshaw: The pronunciation of "fifth" without the second "f" is pretty common, however. In fact, I suspect it's more common than the pronunciation with it.

  32. Jean-Sébastien Girard said,

    January 6, 2009 @ 1:25 pm

    Certainly sounds like the kind of insult Captain Haddock would use…

  33. Skullturf Q. Beavispants said,

    January 6, 2009 @ 2:34 pm

    I think I insert a "t" sound between the "f" sound and the "th" sound in the word "fifth". I have no idea how common this is.

    By the way, I'm not sure what the usual conventions are when one wants to use IPA but one is using only plain text. (I have no formal background in linguistics.) Googling things like [IPA "plain text" conventions], I came across X-SAMPA. Can one get away with generally using this, and people who are IPA-literate and internet-literate will know what I mean? So for example, I could summarize the previous paragraph by saying I pronounce "fifth" as [fIftT], not [fIfT].

  34. Skullturf Q. Beavispants said,

    January 6, 2009 @ 2:37 pm

    I believe the above accurately describes how I would pronounce "fifth" as a stand-alone word, but I just heard myself say "Fifth Street" out loud, and it came out as [fIfT str\it]. Perhaps this was because there were so many consonants in a row.

  35. Sili said,

    January 6, 2009 @ 3:55 pm

    For what it's worth, marie-lucie, I fell into the 'diftong' category too for a long while until I got cought by a spellchecker somewhere.

  36. Nyiera said,

    January 6, 2009 @ 4:40 pm

    A very dear mentor and former professor was very adamant on the proper pronunciation of 'diphthong'. He used to say, "It's diphthong ('difthong'), not diphthong ('dipthong'). If you say 'dipthong', consider yourself a 'dipstick'."

    Cheesy, but I've never once used the "improper" pronunciation since.

    -N

  37. Ellen said,

    January 6, 2009 @ 7:33 pm

    Regarding fifth, I pronounce it, best I can tell, as fif of fift. That is, dropping the TH or pronouncing it as T.

  38. David Harmon said,

    January 6, 2009 @ 8:55 pm

    Another here who's previously pronounced it as "difthong" — I'll try to remember better, but mispronouncing words I rarely speak is an eternal problem to me…. I do pronounce the second "f" in "fifth", but I have to admit that both that "f" and the "th" come out pretty weak.

    In the "family" comic strip "Stone Soup", I've seen one strip where the middle child once came running to Mom, crying that her big sister had called her a "glockenspiel".

  39. dr pepper said,

    January 6, 2009 @ 10:51 pm

    Hmm. I always pronounce all the letters in "fifth". But ive always said "dip-thong" and "op-thamologist", i can say them just fine with f sounds, it's just that most of the time when i hear others say them it's with p.

  40. Dan T. said,

    January 7, 2009 @ 11:31 am

    How did "opthamologist" end up with the "th" when other similar words like "optometrist" and "optical" just have a "t", anyway?

  41. Dan T. said,

    January 7, 2009 @ 11:31 am

    I mean "ph" versus "p", actually, though the examples I gave also substitute "th" for "t".

  42. Dan T. said,

    January 7, 2009 @ 11:32 am

    And I meant "ophthamologist"… usually I can spell better.

  43. Ice Wolf said,

    January 7, 2009 @ 1:41 pm

    I (also Canadian, Ontario) learnt diphthong with /pθ/ (pth) instead of /fθ/ (fth).

    But then, coming to California, I've also been corrected on the Canadian pronunciation of asphalt as /æʃvɔ:lt/ (ash-vault) vs the 'correct' /sf/ sound

  44. Janice Huth Byer said,

    January 7, 2009 @ 3:25 pm

    The late great George Carlin created a character called the Hippy Dippy Weather-Man, Al Sleet.

    So gentle a slight is "dippy", it would seem to be an actual diminutive of "dip", a mild enough insult .

  45. Nathan Myers said,

    January 7, 2009 @ 3:59 pm

    Dan: Not to dwell on spelling, but that's "ophthalmologist".

  46. AJD said,

    January 7, 2009 @ 8:13 pm

    According to the American Heritage Dictionary of Indo-European Roots, the reason for the phth instead of pt in ophthalmo- is "taboo deformation". Not very satisfying, I think, but there you have it.

  47. David Marjanović said,

    January 9, 2009 @ 6:13 pm

    in the Tintin series Captain Haddock is notoriously foul-mouthed but his huge vocabulary of swearwords can hardly offend anyone as they are just that kind of long and unusual words.

    ORNITHOLOGUES !

    (More commonly just ZOUAVES and BACHI-BOUZOUKS, though.)

    Can one get away with generally using this, and people who are IPA-literate and internet-literate will know what I mean?

    Some use Kirshenbaum instead, and X-SAMPA is not the only SAMPA extension out there, though the differences are not great.

  48. mollymooly said,

    January 11, 2009 @ 12:42 am

    My Longman Pronouncing Dictionary lists /p/ as lesser-but-not-condemned variant of the /f/ version for diphthong, ophthalmologist, diphtheria, and naphtha, but not jephtha. OTOH, phthisis usually has a silent ph, but if you will pronounce it, it should be /f/, not /p/.

    It likewise for fifth lists /fIfT/, /fIftT/ and /fIT/; and for fifths you can also leave out the th for /fIfs/. I find a good Irish plosive TH steadies my tongue through those fricative thickets.

    More Captain Haddock curses here (English only, I'm afraid.)

  49. Uri said,

    January 20, 2009 @ 3:43 pm

    Here's another attested suggestive use of diphthong, from the highly recommended Sylvester Stallone movie (yes, really!) Oscar (1991). The following exchange is between the linguist Dr. Poole (Tim Curry) and the mobster Snaps (Stallone), regarding Snaps' daughter (Marisa Tomei) and her surprise pregnancy.

    Dr. Poole: She seems to have such nicely rounded diphthongs!
    Snaps: That's what got her into this jam!

  50. Leon said,

    September 19, 2010 @ 8:58 pm

    I have always been a fan of Captain Archibald Haddock. His alliterative invective is not foul language, but in his tone of voice, you would not seek to be called a "FLYING FLATULENT FLOUNDER!", "INTESTINAL INVERTEBRATE", or a "VOMITOUS VEGETARIAN".

    DiPHTHong, was always a difficult word, and when uses as an epithet, was applied as, "You weak-vowel diPthong!". (One could think of a really bad wedgie!) The actual combination was mixed by my teachers, some with the -p- and others with the -ph(f)-. The -th- was always the same, as I can remember.

    If the consonant diphonic is difficult here, then what about the chemical name -phthalate-?

  51. Jeff from Uketone said,

    November 25, 2011 @ 12:22 am

    Hah, I remember being in middle school English and learning what a diphthong was. We thought it sounded like a swear word/insult and we'd use it amongst ourselves. I guess we weren't the only ones to think of it!

  52. Neal Whitman said,

    December 8, 2011 @ 10:35 am

    I've written a column on "dip(h)thong" and other "dip"-based insults at Visual Thesaurus (subscription required), citing this post and some of the comments.

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