The return of "the boss of me"

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When I jotted off a Language Log post in October 2007 about searching for early occurrences of the expression "You're not the boss of me," little did I know that I'd eventually be supplying fodder for a New York Times article about Google Book Search. In today's Times, Motoko Rich uses my 1883 antedating of "You're not the boss of me" as the anecdotal lead for a piece on how Google Book Search is being used by researchers, and the prospects for even greater access to out-of-print material now that those pesky lawsuits have been settled.

Truth be told, the "boss of me" antedating nicely illustrates how dramatically research of this kind has been transformed with the advent of Google Book Search and similar digitized databases. If you search LexisNexis, the granddaddy of digital news archives, you'll find examples of "you're not the boss of me" back to 1993. And if you check the historical newspapers archived by ProQuest, that will take you back another 40 years, to a 1953 Washington Post article. But Google Book Search easily outstrips these databases, pushing the earliest known appearance back yet another 70 years. (And, notably, Google Book Search is free, while LexisNexis and ProQuest are subscription-based services.)

Since I checked up on the expression in October '07, Google has continued to digitize printed material at an alarmingly rapid rate (even if not all of that material is as accessible, or as properly dated, as it should be). So now we've got another 19th-century attestation for "you're not the boss of me" to join the 1883 cite in a story from the British periodical The Church: it also shows up in an 1899 novel by A.C. Stevenson, Unspotted from the World.

Not all of the antedatings turned up by Google Book Search are as drastic as this one, but even incremental movements in the documentary record can be enlightening. Take the expression "word up," made famous by the 1986 song of that name by the R&B group Cameo. The song title has made it into the Oxford English Dictionary entry for word, which now has a sense for the interjection "expressing affirmation, agreement, or admiration" as used in hip-hop circles. The interjection word on its own dates back at least to 1981, appearing in the lyrics to Jimmy Spicer's "Money (Dollar Bill Y'All)" ("Word… that's a good record, man").

But what about the "word up" elaboration? Did it come from the fertile mind of Cameo's Larry Blackmon? Thanks to Google's new magazine initiative, we can now easily see that "word up" predated the Cameo song, since it appears (twice) in the June 3, 1985 New York magazine cover story, "Hunting the Wolf Packs," about New York's "new-breed muggers."

One great thing about the magazine initiative (which covers everything from Popular Science to Ebony), is that Google provides fully browsable page images. That's another step toward ameliorating the woeful metadata for periodicals on Google Book Search, a subject I've often complained about. With these scanned magazines, at least, you can be sure you're getting the correct bibliographic information (publication date, page number, issue/volume number), since it's all verifiable from the page images. And you can also quickly skim surrounding context without the limitations of the irksome "snippet view." Here's hoping that Google continues with this strategy in the post-lawsuit landscape.


  1. John Lawler said,

    January 5, 2009 @ 12:13 pm

    "Wording up", in at least that participial form, goes back even farther in Linguistics. I have a copy of a 1974 paper with that name by Háj Ross, dealing with the facts involved in sets of examples like the following:

    He created the story. He made up the story.
    He created the story again. He made up the story again.
    He recreated the story. *He re(-)made up the story.

    I.e, phrasal verbs and Latinate prefixes (re-, de-, mis-, …) do not generally co-occur, even if they make good semantic sense together.

  2. Richard said,

    January 5, 2009 @ 1:08 pm

    At the risk of sounding flippant, we might expect some "predating" in an article entitled "Hunting the Wolf Packs".

    On a more serious note, we would all agree, I suspect, that multiple independent births of locutions are possible, whether close or distant in time or geography. It's worth highlighting the fact that even if there are antedatings, their existence doesn't necessarily mean that X couldn't have invented the phrase or usage (too), having been entirely unaware of them. Dictionaries and lexicographers can only record what there is evidence for, and users of dictionaries should be cautious of assuming that the earliest evidence is the origin of what they are looking for: not only might the origin be somewhat earlier (as we might expect when a dictionary relies on written sources) but it also might be later or different (if there has been some – necessarily undocumented – discontinuity). The real value of the ever-growing set of searchable sources is that it makes tracing the continuity of use far easier and helps to plug gaps in our knowledge not just of the earliest uses in absolute terms but of the earliest uses that have a direct reflex in a particular (for instance, modern) usage.

  3. Ransom said,

    January 5, 2009 @ 6:15 pm

    Though not particularly early, my favorite instance of the-boss-of-me is from Activision's 1997 text adventure "Zork: The Undiscovered Underground"

    "…Remember, who is the boss of you!" He [the Grand Inquisitor] pauses briefly as if awaiting a reply. Then without warning, he answers his own question. "Me! I am the boss of you! Now begone!"

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