Beyond Barking

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Adrian Morgan pointed out to me a Usenet comment in which someone says of some course of action that it "can hardly be a sane policy for anyone who is not evincing signs of heading distinctly dagenham". In this context dagenham is apparently to be taken as a synonym for "insane", by a rather devious etymological route. Dagenham is a town in Essex, England. On the District Line of the London Underground, Dagenham is three stops beyond the town of Barking (after Barking are Upney, Becontree, Dagenham Heathway, and Dagenham East). To be barking mad is to be crazy; and being dagenham is therefore being three steps beyond barking. The allegation of being beyond barking was leveled at Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, according to this page at And this list of British idioms says a parallel use is made of the place name Becontree (two stops beyond Barking on the District Line).

So much for the etymology. Now for the syntax. Is it actually grammatical to say someone is "heading dagenham" (whether distinctly or not), under that interpretation of what dagenham means? I would agree with Adrian that it is not quite grammatical. Not too far out there beyond the boundary of the normal, but definitely somewhere out there. But why?

Well, the thing about the verb head is that it takes an obligatory complement, and demands that the complement should be a preposition phrase. You can't say *Let's just get into the car and head. You have to head into town, or head out of town, or head in some direction or other. It's a syntactic requirement to have a directional preposition phrase complement. In fact, the fact that you can say Let's head south is part of the evidence adduced in The Cambridge Grammar of the English Language (CGEL; chapter 7) that words like south should be regarded as prepositions that don't take noun phrase complements.

There are lots of other prepositions that don't take noun phrase complements: out, up, in, through, back, away, home, etc. Some of them (like up and in and through) can optionally be followed by noun phrases. Others (like away and home and back) never are. There are also plenty of other tests for prepositionhood that they pass; again, see CGEL.

CGEL also treats a class of words ending in -ward(s) as prepositions, for similar reasons. You can head homeward, or northward, or downward. If -ward(s) is fully productive, it should therefore be possible to say Let's head Dagenhamwards. But not *Let's head Dagenham, because Dagenham is definitely not any kind of a preposition, it's a proper noun.

So, Adrian and I both think, to say *heading distinctly dagenham is heading distinctly away from being grammatical in Standard English, though it's close that you can follow the drift if you pick up on the fact that Dagenham is three stops beyond Barking and thus dagenham means three steps round the twist or, in other words, cuckoo, crazy, insane, loopy, mad, deranged, nuts, loony, bonkers, gaga, out of one's gourd, out to lunch, off one's trolley, round the bend… (British English has so many words for mental illness and defectiveness that if lexical profusion were a sign of cultural importance you would think Britain was a nation of psychiatrists rather than shopkeepers.)

Heading round the bend is of course perfectly grammatical: although the complement round the bend is intended with the idiomatic meaning "insane", nonetheless round is a directional preposition, so the phrase satisfies the syntactic requirement that the verb head imposes. Heading for Dagenham also meets the requirement (this use of then preposition for is directional). But *heading dagenham does not. So that would be an explanation of why it sounds just a little beyond the syntactic fringe.


  1. judith said,

    June 25, 2008 @ 5:28 am

    FYI, I have a slang spotting for you related to this: I distinctly remember saying 'Let's head' (with no complement) for 'Let's go' during the 1990s in the southeastern US.

    I would, however, agree that to 'head dagenham' seems distinctly ungrammatical.

  2. Andy J said,

    June 25, 2008 @ 6:47 am

    I suspect many idiomatic/slang phrases are deliberately ungrammatical when first coined to increase their impact, cf 'my bad'. It is strange though not ungrammatical to say "he's barking" if you treat barking as a noun, rather than an adjective as in the idiom, cf 'He's a bit doolally' which is similarly derived from a place name []

  3. Andrew said,

    June 25, 2008 @ 8:51 am

    re Doelali – might I speculate that the ungrammatical version came into being to distinguish the metaphor from the literal?

    i.e. "going TO Doelali" = going to the British camp in India

    whereas "going Doolally" = losing one's grip on reality (in the way that men did when they were sent to Doelali).

  4. Nik Berry said,

    June 25, 2008 @ 8:56 am

    So is ' He went back home' ungrammatical? It's pretty common in British English at least.

  5. Randy Alexander said,

    June 25, 2008 @ 10:15 am

    "Head" can also be intransitive for me in extremely informal registers. I'm not sure when I first heard it, but it was pretty widespread in the NYC/NJ area in the 90s; "I'm gonna head" being synonymous with "I'm gonna head back", or "I'm gonna head out", etc.

    @Nik: Why would you think "He went back home" could be ungrammatical?

    @Geoffrey: "(British English has so many words for mental illness and defectiveness that if lexical profusion were a sign of cultural importance you would think Britain was a nation of psychiatrists rather than shopkeepers.)" — or maybe a nation of crazies. ;)

  6. Randy Alexander said,

    June 25, 2008 @ 11:22 am

    Just googled around and found a recorded example of it. This is from the TV series, Friends, season 4, episode 5 (The One With Joey's New Girlfriend):

    Josh: Well, it's getting late, I've got to get to the game, so I'm gonna… head.

    Rachel: Okay. (He starts to leave, and Rachel grabs him and gives him a passionate kiss.) I'll miss you.

    It's repeated by Ross a few minutes later.

    Can be heard here at (0:24):

  7. Karen said,

    June 25, 2008 @ 11:53 am

    Brits:crazy :: Eskimos:snow? ;-)

  8. Geoffrey K. Pullum said,

    June 25, 2008 @ 11:59 am

    To Nik Berry: One of the startling results of getting a good theoretical grip on what falls in the preposition category in English is that the word home is revealed to be very clearly a preposition. It's not just head home that shows it; there is also the fact that the word right is allowed the modify it. In Standard English, right can go before a word as a modifier (meaning something like "exactly, completely, or all the way") only with prepositions. We get right above the clock but not *right higher than the clock; right in line with my thinking but not *right compatible with my thinking; and so on. And you get He went right home. Of course, home is also a noun in phrases like They are building fifty new homes a week. But in heading home it's a preposition taking no complement.

    And to the various people who have heard "I'm gonna head": yes, there is a very recently developing colloquialism that involves deliberately leaving out the (normally obligatory) PP complement with this particular verb. I have seen the same thing happening with use: for many (perhaps most) speakers, use has to have an NP direct object, but not for those who deal with or participate in illegal drug use. For them, it is fully grammatical to say I heard Amy is using again. Change just keeps right on happening; you can't hold it back no matter what you do.

  9. Adrian Morgan said,

    June 25, 2008 @ 12:44 pm

    Just to tie recent Language Log posts together, the newsgroup where I came across the phrase "heading distinctly dagenham" is regularly posted to by John Wilkins (in fact, that's where I know John from).

    The reason I wrote to Geoff is because Geoff has written elsewhere about prepositions (in particular "head bush"), and although "heading dagenham" isn't standard English YET, if the phrase catches on then this will have been the birth of a new preposition. There's something exciting about that. Nouns get verbed all the time, but seeing a noun get prepositioned is rather special.

  10. Which Tyler said,

    June 25, 2008 @ 12:52 pm

    I think "heading distinctly Dagenham" is very rare, and appears to be a misconstrual of the standard joke.

    The usual facetious play on Barking and the District Line, in my experience, would be to describe someone as "Upton Park" – ie, two stops short of Barking. "East Ham" (one stop short thereof) is another variant.

  11. dr pepper said,

    June 25, 2008 @ 1:15 pm

    Do people who "head" also "go with"?

  12. Russell said,

    June 25, 2008 @ 1:24 pm

    At first I thought that the lines from the Beach Boys/Jan and Dean song Surf City contained another example of NP-as-PP (lyrics are as rendered by some contributor to a lyrics site):

    And we're goin' Surf City, 'cause it's two to one
    You know we're goin' Surf City, gonna have some fun

    But after an email to Geoff and listening to some recordings, I realized that (in most instances) there is actually a reduced preposition. What threw me (and what still does throw me) is that "going to" isn't reduced to "gonna" but rather to "goina" (or however you want to spell it). In my head that turned into "goin Surf City."

  13. CIngram said,

    June 25, 2008 @ 1:38 pm

    Geoffrey Pullum says that home in such expressions as 'go home' is clearly a preposition. I have always interpreted it as an adverb. And in 'right above the clock' surely 'right' is modifying the adverbial 'above the clock', not just the preposition 'above'. C.f. 'out behind the barn', 'over against the wall'. Would you say 'there', in 'go there', 'come right here' etc, is also a preposition. There is clearly something in your analysis I have not understood.

  14. Ann said,

    June 25, 2008 @ 3:23 pm

    Russell, I think the gonna/goina pair arose from the need to distinguish between "going to " and "going to ."

    It's common to say "I'm gonna watch TV," but not "I'm gonna New York."

  15. john riemann soong said,

    June 25, 2008 @ 3:56 pm

    Proof, perhaps, that there is a cognitive difference in processing the to-infinitive and the preposition-to?

  16. Chad Nilep said,

    June 25, 2008 @ 4:22 pm

    It seems to me that "to head dagenham" contains a sort of substitution code, in which the string "dagenham" replaces the string "beyond barking".

    Thus, at a certain level of abstraction, there is a PP involved in the construction.

  17. Russell said,

    June 25, 2008 @ 5:21 pm

    There are cases where a reduction of [going to NP] ends up sounding a lot like "gonna NP," but the result, I think, is not phonetically the same as [going to VP] reduction. The recordings of the song I listened to varied between essentially a "fast" pronunciation of "goin a" and something that approaches but never quite reaches "gonna."

  18. Richard Thomas said,

    June 25, 2008 @ 5:32 pm

    I've heard two further variations on "Dagenham". I've heard someone called Upney because they are one stop beyond barking. On the other hand someone may be described as not barking but certainly East Ham – one stop short of barking.

  19. David said,

    June 25, 2008 @ 7:42 pm

    I'm still baffled by this new, to me, definition of 'preposition'. If the 'bush' in 'head bush' is a preposition, then I don't see why the 'dagenham' in 'head (distinctly) dagenham' wouldn't be, too. But I still don't see what makes them prepositions. And if we apply the 'right' test, does that make 'here' or 'there' prepositions as in the phrases 'right here/there'?

  20. Adrian Morgan said,

    June 25, 2008 @ 9:15 pm

    David: I recommend Geoffrey's own explanation of this at – briefly, the first step is to agree that the "out" in "he threw it out the window" has so much in common with the "out" in "he threw it out" that it's silly to put them in different classes, and the second step is to agree the "out" in "he threw it out" likewise belongs in the same class as the "away" in "he threw it away".

    I think Chad Nilep makes an interesting point.

  21. Timothy M said,

    June 25, 2008 @ 10:56 pm

    This story reminds me of a phrase that we use in New Jersey that only New Jerseyans find grammatical: "go down the shore," when used to mean "go to the beach." No person from NJ will ever say "go down to the shore," unless they are standing near a riverbank and are suggesting that someone should go down closer. …But I think we use "to" normally in all other ways, so I guess this is just one unusual set expression we have.

    Interesting how this stuff changes though.

  22. mgh said,

    June 26, 2008 @ 12:01 am

    fyi, an example of "heading crazy" to mean "going crazy"
    although it seems rare (though it sounds fine to me).
    Obviously by extension "heading bonkers" would be ok, as would (I guess) "heading barking mad" and maybe even "heading dagenham"

  23. Oliver Neukum said,

    June 26, 2008 @ 6:17 am

    How about:

    I am heading home whose comfortable bed I am yearning for

    A preposition that can take a relative clause?

  24. Matthew Austin said,

    June 26, 2008 @ 8:15 am

    @Timothy M: A similar construction is used in Dagenham and elsewhere in (east) London/the south-east of England. It's not uncommon to hear someone say that they're 'going Ilford' (for example) or 'going football', without a preposition – or rather, "goin'…".

  25. outeast said,

    June 26, 2008 @ 9:53 am

    A preposition that can take a relative clause?

    Or a WTF construction? I can see what 'I am heading home whose comfortable bed I am yearning for' means (I think), but every cell in my body is going huhhhh???

  26. outeast said,

    June 26, 2008 @ 9:57 am

    It's not uncommon to hear someone say that they're 'going Ilford' (for example) … or rather, "goin'…".

    Or rather – to judge from a quick google – 'wats gud b u goin dagenham park yeh well dat wat is was called wen i went skul in ur area anywy cb hows u doe.' Sheesh.

  27. Bunny Mellon said,

    June 26, 2008 @ 5:37 pm

    @ Outcast:

    I'm not quite sure what you mean by 'sheesh'. In case it's a negative comment I must say that I think this sentence is a rather clever transposition of a difficult piece of spoken English: 'dat wat is was called', for example . But perhaps you agree with me, (it wasn't clear)?

  28. Anonymous Cowherd said,

    June 26, 2008 @ 8:07 pm

    An analysis that hasn't been mentioned yet:
    He is barking : He is [at] Barking on the subway line :: He is heading dagenham : He is heading [toward] Dagenham on the subway line

    Since the punny interpretation of "He is barking" requires inserting a prepositional "at" (or treating "Barking" as a noun carrying its own preposition along with it), it's perfectly analogous that the punny interpretation of "He is heading dagenham" requires inserting a prepositional "toward" (or treating, etc.).

    Makes perfect sense to me.

    And yes, Oliver Neukum's "comfortable bed" sentence is totally ungrammatical.

  29. gordonoz said,

    June 27, 2008 @ 7:26 am

    I'm afraid I can't agree that `out' can be called a preposition in `he threw it out'. I hear it as `He threw it [where?] out.' To parallel it with `he threw it out the window' again seems to me to be an answer to `where did he throw it?' The BrEng construction would be `he threw it out OF the window' which would give you two prepositions in a row. No, `out' in these examples is an adverb.

  30. Matthew Austin said,

    June 27, 2008 @ 7:37 am

    'Dagenham' could also just be a pure substitution for 'Barking [mad]', as the full name of the London borough is 'Barking & Dagenham'.

  31. Adrian Morgan said,

    June 27, 2008 @ 6:50 pm

    Gordonoz: if you reject "he threw it out the window" (and I would say it is an extremely well-established construction), there are plenty of equivalent examples. "He put it on the table" vs "He put it down", etc, etc.

  32. Adrian Morgan said,

    June 27, 2008 @ 7:02 pm

    Sorry, wasn't really thinking with previous comment. It's too early in the morning.

  33. ascidiacea said,

    June 28, 2008 @ 5:42 am

    @Timothy M:

    When Baltimoreans head to the Eastern Shore (typically Ocean City, MD) to go to the beach, they say, "I'm goin' down the ocean". The last three words are usually run together into something that sounds very much like, "dannyocean". Or, with the most extreme local accent, even, "dannyation" (the process of becoming danny-ified?). As in your New Jersey example, this seems to be a unique construction.

    I have a suspicion (untested!) that if you asked people to slow the sentence down, the preposition might creep back in. For me, I'm only capable of saying "down the ocean" in the run together way and stumble over it otherwise.

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