Watch the Original Schoolhouse Rock Composers Sing “Conjunction Junction” and “I’m Just a Bill” Live in Concert

At first blush, Schoolhouse Rock!, the interstitial animations airing between ABC’s Saturday morning cartoon line up from 1973 to 1984, may seem like a catchy, educational equivalent of sneaking spinach into pancakes (and a major Gen X touchstone.)

Not so fast! It’s also jazz, baby!

Jazz pianist Bob Dorough recalled how an ad exec at a New York ad agency pitched the idea:

My little boys can’t memorize their times tables, but they sing along with Jimi Hendrix and the Rolling Stones, so why don’t you put it to rock music and we’ll call it Multiplication Rock?

Dorough, whose compositional preferences ran to “extravagant love songs” and vocal challenging numbers, realized that his first order of business would be to write a good song:

I hit upon the idea, let’s pick a number. Three! That’s a good number. And I sat down at the piano and started fooling around. It took me 2 weeks.

In his hands, three became a magic number, an ear worm to bring even the most reluctant elementary mathematicians up to speed in no time.

Eventually, Dorough was able to bring many of his jazz world friends into the fold, including, most famously, trumpeter and Merv Griffin Show sidekick Jack Sheldon, whose one-of-a-kind delivery is the hands down highlight of “Conjunction Junction.”

(Many Schoolhouse Rock! fans, viewing the excerpt of the duo’s mid-90’s live appearance on the KTLA Morning Show, above, professed disbelief that Sheldon’s soul was of the blue-eyed variety, even though the animated engineer who serves as his avatar in that three minute episode is white.)

In an interview with the director of the Fillius Jazz Archive at Hamilton College, Sheldon agreed that the series owed a major debt to jazz:

When we made Conjunction Junction, it was me and Teddy Edwards and Nick Ceroli and Leroy Vinegar and Bob Dorough played the piano. That’s a jazz band…it was really nothing to do with rock. It was always jazz, but we said rock and roll, so everybody loved it for rock and roll.

Another memorable collaboration between Sheldon and Dorough is the much parodied “I’m Just a Bill,” in which a weary scroll loiters on the steps of the Capital Building, explaining to a wide eyed youngster (voiced by his son) the process by which a bill becomes law.

Doroughs’ Schoolhouse Rock! contributions include the haunting Figure Eight, the folky Lucky Seven Sampson, whose sentiments Dorough identified with most closely, and Naughty Number Nine, which his protégé, singer-songwriter Nellie McKay singled out for special praise, “cause it was kind of weird and subversive:”

(It) made me want to gamble and win. I got hooked when I heard Bob’s jazzy rasp of a voice breaking the rules even as he explained them… this guy had a wild mind, which I figured out later equaled creativity.

She also paid the perpetually sunny Dorough, whom she first encountered “glow(ing) with health and good cheer, spreading sunshine wherever he went on the campus of East Stroudsburg University, the supreme compliment:

Lou Reed‘s idea of hell would be to sit in heaven with Bob Dorough.

via Laughing Squid

Related Content 

Schoolhouse Rock: Revisit a Collection of Nostalgia-Inducing Educational Videos

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Conspiracy Theory Rock: The Schoolhouse Rock Parody Saturday Night Live May Have Censored

– Ayun Halliday is the Chief Primatologist of the East Village Inky zine and author, most recently, of Creative, Not Famous: The Small Potato Manifesto and Creative, Not Famous Activity Book. Follow her @AyunHalliday.

Watch Cab Calloway Actually Perform “Mr. Hepster’s Dictionary,” His Famous Dictionary of Jazz Slang (1944)

Who’s up for a good dictionary on film?

Colin Browning, assistant editor of The Bluff, a Loyola Marymount University student newspaper, has some kopasetic casting suggestions for a hypothetical feature adaptation of the “Merriam-Webster classic.”

He’s just muggin’, of course. Still, he seems like a young man who’s got his boots on.



In that case, you’d best acquaint yourself with the only cinematic dictionary adaptation we’re aware of, the Mr. Hepcat’s Dictionary number from Sensations of 1945, above.

Musical team Al Sherman & Harry Tobias drew directly from Cab Calloway’s Cat-ologue: a Hepster’s Dictionary, a lexicon of Harlem jazz musicians’ slang originally published in 1938 ’ when choosing terms for Calloway to define for a young protégée, eager to be schooled in “the lingo all the jitterbugs use today.”

In between, Calloway, lays some iron in white tie and tails.

By the time the film came out, Calloway’s Hepster Dictionary was in its seventh edition, and had earned its place as the official jive language reference book of the New York Public Library.

As Calloway wrote in the foreword to the sixth edition:

“Jive talk” is now an everyday part of the English language. Its usage is now accepted in the movies, on the stage, and in the song products of Tin Pan Alley. It is reasonable to assume that jive will find new avenues in such hitherto remote places as Australia, the South Pacific, North Africa, China, Italy, France, Sicily, and inevitably Germany and wherever our Armed Forces may serve.

I don’t want to lend the impression here that the many words contained in this edition are the figments of my imagination. They were gathered from every conceivable source. Many first saw the light of printer’s ink in Billy Rowe’s widely read column “The Notebook,” in the Pittsburgh Courier.

And now to enrich our vocabularies…



  • A hummer (n.): exceptionally good. Ex., “Man, that boy is a hummer.”
  • Ain’t coming on that tab (v.): won’t accept the proposition. Usually abbr. to “I ain’t coming.”
  • Alligator (n.): jitterbug.
  • Apple (n.): the big town, the main stem, Harlem.
  • Armstrongs (n.): musical notes in the upper register, high trumpet notes.


  • Barbecue (n.): the girl friend, a beauty.
  • Barrelhouse (adj.): free and easy.
  • Battle (n.): a very homely girl, a crone.
  • Beat (adj.): (1) tired, exhausted. Ex., “You look beat” or “I feel beat.” (2) lacking anything. Ex, “I am beat for my cash”, “I am beat to my socks” (lacking everything).
  • Beat it out (v.): play it hot, emphasize the rhythm.
  • Beat up (adj.): sad, uncomplimentary, tired.
  • Beat up the chops (or the gums) (v.): to talk, converse, be loquacious.
  • Beef (v.): to say, to state. Ex., “He beefed to me that, etc.”
  • Bible (n.): the gospel truth. Ex., “It’s the bible!”
  • Black (n.): night.
  • Black and tan (n.): dark and light colored folks. Not colored and white folks as erroneously assumed.
  • Blew their wigs (adj.): excited with enthusiasm, gone crazy.
  • Blip (n.): something very good. Ex., “That’s a blip”; “She’s a blip.”
  • Blow the top (v.): to be overcome with emotion (delight). Ex., “You’ll blow your top when you hear this one.”
  • Boogie-woogie (n.): harmony with accented bass.
  • Boot (v.): to give. Ex., “Boot me that glove.”
  • Break it up (v.): to win applause, to stop the show.
  • Bree (n.): girl.
  • Bright (n.): day.
  • Brightnin’ (n.): daybreak.
  • Bring down ((1) n. (2) v.): (1) something depressing. Ex., “That’s a bring down.” (2) Ex., “That brings me down.”
  • Buddy ghee (n.): fellow.
  • Bust your conk (v.): apply yourself diligently, break your neck.


  • Canary (n.): girl vocalist.
  • Capped (v.): outdone, surpassed.
  • Cat (n.): musician in swing band.
  • Chick (n.): girl.
  • Chime (n.): hour. Ex., “I got in at six chimes.”
  • Clambake (n.): ad lib session, every man for himself, a jam session not in the groove.
  • Chirp (n.): female singer.
  • Cogs (n.): sun glasses.
  • Collar (v.): to get, to obtain, to comprehend. Ex., “I gotta collar me some food”; “Do you collar this jive?”
  • Come again (v.): try it over, do better than you are doing, I don’t understand you.
  • Comes on like gangbusters (or like test pilot) (v.): plays, sings, or dances in a terrific manner, par excellence in any department. Sometimes abbr. to “That singer really comes on!”
  • Cop (v.): to get, to obtain (see collar; knock).
  • Corny (adj.): old-fashioned, stale.
  • Creeps out like the shadow (v.): “comes on,” but in smooth, suave, sophisticated manner.
  • Crumb crushers (n.): teeth.
  • Cubby (n.): room, flat, home.
  • Cups (n.): sleep. Ex., “I gotta catch some cups.”
  • Cut out (v.): to leave, to depart. Ex., “It’s time to cut out”; “I cut out from the joint in early bright.”
  • Cut rate (n.): a low, cheap person. Ex., “Don’t play me cut rate, Jack!”


  • Dicty (adj.): high-class, nifty, smart.
  • Dig (v.): (1) meet. Ex., “I’ll plant you now and dig you later.” (2) look, see. Ex., “Dig the chick on your left duke.” (3) comprehend, understand. Ex., “Do you dig this jive?”
  • Dim (n.): evening.
  • Dime note (n.): ten-dollar bill.
  • Doghouse (n.): bass fiddle.
  • Domi (n.): ordinary place to live in. Ex., “I live in a righteous domi.”
  • Doss (n.): sleep. Ex., “I’m a little beat for my doss.”
  • Down with it (adj.): through with it.
  • Drape (n.): suit of clothes, dress, costume.
  • Dreamers (n.): bed covers, blankets.
  • Dry-goods (n.): same as drape.
  • Duke (n.): hand, mitt.
  • Dutchess (n.): girl.


  • Early black (n.): evening
  • Early bright (n.): morning.
  • Evil (adj.): in ill humor, in a nasty temper.


  • Fall out (v.): to be overcome with emotion. Ex., “The cats fell out when he took that solo.”
  • Fews and two (n.): money or cash in small quantity.
  • Final (v.): to leave, to go home. Ex., “I finaled to my pad” (went to bed); “We copped a final” (went home).
  • Fine dinner (n.): a good-looking girl.
  • Focus (v.): to look, to see.
  • Foxy (v.): shrewd.
  • Frame (n.): the body.
  • Fraughty issue (n.): a very sad message, a deplorable state of affairs.
  • Freeby (n.): no charge, gratis. Ex., “The meal was a freeby.”
  • Frisking the whiskers (v.): what the cats do when they are warming up for a swing session.
  • Frolic pad (n.): place of entertainment, theater, nightclub.
  • Fromby (adj.): a frompy queen is a battle or faust.
  • Front (n.): a suit of clothes.
  • Fruiting (v.): fickle, fooling around with no particular object.
  • Fry (v.): to go to get hair straightened.


  • Gabriels (n.): trumpet players.
  • Gammin’ (adj.): showing off, flirtatious.
  • Gasser (n, adj.): sensational. Ex., “When it comes to dancing, she’s a gasser.”
  • Gate (n.): a male person (a salutation), abbr. for “gate-mouth.”
  • Get in there (exclamation.): go to work, get busy, make it hot, give all you’ve got.
  • Gimme some skin (v.): shake hands.
  • Glims (n.): the eyes.
  • Got your boots on: you know what it is all about, you are a hep cat, you are wise.
  • Got your glasses on: you are ritzy or snooty, you fail to recognize your friends, you are up-stage.
  • Gravy (n.): profits.
  • Grease (v.): to eat.
  • Groovy (adj.): fine. Ex., “I feel groovy.”
  • Ground grippers (n.): new shoes.
  • Growl (n.): vibrant notes from a trumpet.
  • Gut-bucket (adj.): low-down music.
  • Guzzlin’ foam (v.): drinking beer.


  • Hard (adj.): fine, good. Ex., “That’s a hard tie you’re wearing.”
  • Hard spiel (n.): interesting line of talk.
  • Have a ball (v.): to enjoy yourself, stage a celebration. Ex., “I had myself a ball last night.”
  • Hep cat (n.): a guy who knows all the answers, understands jive.
  • Hide-beater (n.): a drummer (see skin-beater).
  • Hincty (adj.): conceited, snooty.
  • Hip (adj.): wise, sophisticated, anyone with boots on. Ex., “She’s a hip chick.”
  • Home-cooking (n.): something very dinner (see fine dinner).
  • Hot (adj.): musically torrid; before swing, tunes were hot or bands were hot.
  • Hype (n, v.): build up for a loan, wooing a girl, persuasive talk.


  • Icky (n.): one who is not hip, a stupid person, can’t collar the jive.
  • Igg (v.): to ignore someone. Ex., “Don’t igg me!)
  • In the groove (adj.): perfect, no deviation, down the alley.


  • Jack (n.): name for all male friends (see gate; pops).
  • Jam ((1)n, (2)v.): (1) improvised swing music. Ex., “That’s swell jam.” (2) to play such music. Ex., “That cat surely can jam.”
  • Jeff (n.): a pest, a bore, an icky.
  • Jelly (n.): anything free, on the house.
  • Jitterbug (n.): a swing fan.
  • Jive (n.): Harlemese speech.
  • Joint is jumping: the place is lively, the club is leaping with fun.
  • Jumped in port (v.): arrived in town.


  • Kick (n.): a pocket. Ex., “I’ve got five bucks in my kick.”
  • Kill me (v.): show me a good time, send me.
  • Killer-diller (n.): a great thrill.
  • Knock (v.): give. Ex., “Knock me a kiss.”
  • Kopasetic (adj.): absolutely okay, the tops.


  • Lamp (v.): to see, to look at.
  • Land o’darkness (n.): Harlem.
  • Lane (n.): a male, usually a nonprofessional.
  • Latch on (v.): grab, take hold, get wise to.
  • Lay some iron (v.): to tap dance. Ex., “Jack, you really laid some iron that last show!”
  • Lay your racket (v.): to jive, to sell an idea, to promote a proposition.
  • Lead sheet (n.): a topcoat.
  • Left raise (n.): left side. Ex., “Dig the chick on your left raise.”
  • Licking the chops (v.): see frisking the whiskers.
  • Licks (n.): hot musical phrases.
  • Lily whites (n.): bed sheets.
  • Line (n.): cost, price, money. Ex., “What is the line on this drape” (how much does this suit cost)? “Have you got the line in the mouse” (do you have the cash in your pocket)? Also, in replying, all figures are doubled. Ex., “This drape is line forty” (this suit costs twenty dollars).
  • Lock up: to acquire something exclusively. Ex., “He’s got that chick locked up”; “I’m gonna lock up that deal.”


  • Main kick (n.): the stage.
  • Main on the hitch (n.): husband.
  • Main queen (n.): favorite girl friend, sweetheart.
  • Man in gray (n.): the postman.
  • Mash me a fin (command.): Give me $5.
  • Mellow (adj.): all right, fine. Ex., “That’s mellow, Jack.”
  • Melted out (adj.): broke.
  • Mess (n.): something good. Ex., “That last drink was a mess.”
  • Meter (n.): quarter, twenty-five cents.
  • Mezz (n.): anything supreme, genuine. Ex., “this is really the mezz.”
  • Mitt pounding (n.): applause.
  • Moo juice (n.): milk.
  • Mouse (n.): pocket. Ex., “I’ve got a meter in the mouse.”
  • Muggin’ (v.): making ’em laugh, putting on the jive. “Muggin’ lightly,” light staccato swing; “muggin’ heavy,” heavy staccato swing.
  • Murder (n.): something excellent or terrific. Ex., “That’s solid murder, gate!”


  • Neigho, pops: Nothing doing, pal.
  • Nicklette (n.): automatic phonograph, music box.
  • Nickel note (n.): five-dollar bill.
  • Nix out (v.): to eliminate, get rid of. Ex., “I nixed that chick out last week”; “I nixed my garments” (undressed).
  • Nod (n.): sleep. Ex., “I think I’l cop a nod.”


  • Ofay (n.): white person.
  • Off the cob (adj.): corny, out of date.
  • Off-time jive (n.): a sorry excuse, saying the wrong thing.
  • Orchestration (n.): an overcoat.
  • Out of the world (adj.): perfect rendition. Ex., “That sax chorus was out of the world.”
  • Ow!: an exclamation with varied meaning. When a beautiful chick passes by, it’s “Ow!”; and when someone pulls an awful pun, it’s also “Ow!”


  • Pad (n.): bed.
  • Pecking (n.): a dance introduced at the Cotton Club in 1937.
  • Peola (n.): a light person, almost white.
  • Pigeon (n.): a young girl.
  • Pops (n.): salutation for all males (see gate; Jack).
  • Pounders (n.): policemen.


  • Queen (n.): a beautiful girl.


  • Rank (v.): to lower.
  • Ready (adj.): 100 per cent in every way. Ex., “That fried chicken was ready.”
  • Ride (v.): to swing, to keep perfect tempo in playing or singing.
  • Riff (n.): hot lick, musical phrase.
  • Righteous (adj.): splendid, okay. Ex., “That was a righteous queen I dug you with last black.”
  • Rock me (v.): send me, kill me, move me with rhythm.
  • Ruff (n.): quarter, twenty-five cents.
  • Rug cutter (n.): a very good dancer, an active jitterbug.


  • Sad (adj.): very bad. Ex., “That was the saddest meal I ever collared.”
  • Sadder than a map (adj.): terrible. Ex., “That man is sadder than a map.”
  • Salty (adj.): angry, ill-tempered.
  • Sam got you: you’ve been drafted into the army.
  • Send (v.): to arouse the emotions. (joyful). Ex., “That sends me!”
  • Set of seven brights (n.): one week.
  • Sharp (adj.): neat, smart, tricky. Ex., “That hat is sharp as a tack.”
  • Signify (v.): to declare yourself, to brag, to boast.
  • Skins (n.): drums.
  • Skin-beater (n.): drummer (see hide-beater).
  • Sky piece (n.): hat.
  • Slave (v.): to work, whether arduous labor or not.
  • Slide your jib (v.): to talk freely.
  • Snatcher (n.): detective.
  • So help me: it’s the truth, that’s a fact.
  • Solid (adj.): great, swell, okay.
  • Sounded off (v.): began a program or conversation.
  • Spoutin’ (v.): talking too much.
  • Square (n.): an unhep person (see icky; Jeff).
  • Stache (v.): to file, to hide away, to secrete.
  • Stand one up (v.): to play one cheap, to assume one is a cut-rate.
  • To be stashed (v.): to stand or remain.
  • Susie-Q (n.): a dance introduced at the Cotton Club in 1936.


  • Take it slow (v.): be careful.
  • Take off (v.): play a solo.
  • The man (n.): the law.
  • Threads (n.): suit, dress or costume (see drape; dry-goods).
  • Tick (n.): minute, moment. Ex., “I’ll dig you in a few ticks.” Also, ticks are doubled in accounting time, just as money is doubled in giving “line.” Ex., “I finaled to the pad this early bright at tick twenty” (I got to bed this morning at ten o’clock).
  • Timber (n.): toothpick.
  • To dribble (v.): to stutter. Ex., “He talked in dribbles.”
  • Togged to the bricks: dressed to kill, from head to toe.
  • Too much (adj.): term of highest praise. Ex., “You are too much!”
  • Trickeration (n.): struttin’ your stuff, muggin’ lightly and politely.
  • Trilly (v.): to leave, to depart. Ex., “Well, I guess I’ll trilly.”
  • Truck (v.): to go somewhere. Ex., “I think I’ll truck on down to the ginmill (bar).”
  • Trucking (n.): a dance introduced at the Cotton Club in 1933.
  • Twister to the slammer (n.): the key to the door.
  • Two cents (n.): two dollars.


  • Unhep (adj.): not wise to the jive, said of an icky, a Jeff, a square.


  • Vine (n.): a suit of clothes.
  • V-8 (n.): a chick who spurns company, is independent, is not amenable.


  • What’s your story?: What do you want? What have you got to say for yourself? How are tricks? What excuse can you offer? Ex., “I don’t know what his story is.”
  • Whipped up (adj.): worn out, exhausted, beat for your everything.
  • Wren (n.): a chick, a queen.
  • Wrong riff: the wrong thing said or done. Ex., “You’re coming up on the wrong riff.”


  • Yarddog (n.): uncouth, badly attired, unattractive male or female.
  • Yeah, man: an exclamation of assent.


  • Zoot (adj.): exaggerated
  • Zoot suit (n.): the ultimate in clothes. The only totally and truly American civilian suit.

That’s solid murder, gate!

If you’re not too beat, Jazz Night In America builds on Calloway’s dictionary with some additional vocabulary in the video below. Watch it for the meanings of stank, ictus, swoop, and scoop, defined collectively by drummer Ali Jackson as the sort of colloquialisms you use when you “don’t want everyone to know what you’re saying, but you want to express a point.”

Listen to poet Lemn Sissay‘s BBC history of Cab Calloway’s Hepster’s Dictionary here.

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Cab Calloway Stars in “Minnie the Moocher,” a Trippy Betty Boop Cartoon That’s Ranked as the 20th Greatest Cartoon of All Time (1932)

Watch a Surreal 1933 Animation of Snow White, Featuring Cab Calloway & Betty Boop: It’s Ranked as the 19th Greatest Cartoon of All Time

– Ayun Halliday is the Chief Primatologist of the East Village Inky zine and author, most recently, of Creative, Not Famous: The Small Potato Manifesto and Creative, Not Famous Activity Book. Follow her @AyunHalliday.

Watch Sir Ian McKellen’s 1979 Master Class on Macbeth’s Final Monologue

If only we could have had a teacher as insightful as Sir Ian McKellen explain some Shakespeare to us at an impressionable age.

Above, a 38-year-old McKellen breaks down Macbeth’s famous final soliloquy as part of a 1978 master class in Acting Shakespeare.

He makes it clear early on that relying on Iambic pentameter to convey the meaning of the verse will not cut it.

Instead, he calls upon actors to apply the power of their intellect to every line, analyzing metaphors and imagery, while also noting punctuation, word choice, and of course, the events leading up to the speech.

In this way, he says, “the actor is the playwright and the character simultaneously.”

McKellen was, at the time, deeply immersed in Macbeth, playing the title role opposite Judi Dench in a bare bones Royal Shakespeare Company production that opened in the company’s Stratford studio before transferring to the West End. As McKellen recalled in a longer meditation on the trickiness of staging this particular tragedy:

It was beautifully done on the cheap in The Other Place, the old tin hut along from the main theatre. John Napier‘s entire set cost £200 and the costumes were a ragbag of second-hand clothes. My uniform jacket had buttons embossed with ‘Birmingham Fire Service’; my long, leather coat didn’t fit, nor did Banquo‘s so we had to wear them slung over the shoulder; Judi Dench, as Lady Macbeth, wore a dyed tea-towel on her head. Somehow it was magic: and black magic, too. A priest used to sit on the front row, whenever he could scrounge a ticket, holding out his crucifix to protect the cast from the evil we were raising.

The New York Times raved about the production, declaring McKellen “the best equipped British actor of his generations:”

Mr. McKellen’s Macbeth is witty; not merely the horror but the absurdity of his actions strikes him from the outset, and he can regard his downfall as an inexorable joke. His wife pulls him along a road that he would travel anyway and he can allow himself scruples, knowing that she will be there to mop them up. Once her prosaic, limited ambition is achieved, she is of no more use to him and he shrugs her off; “she would have died hereafter” is a moment of exasperation that dares our laughter.

What fuels him most is envy, reaching incredulously forward (“The seed of Banquo kings?”) and backward to color the despair of “Duncan is in his grave.” The words, and the mind behind them, are rancid, and it is this mood that takes possession of his last scenes. Everything disgusts him, and his only reason for fighting to the death is that the thought of subjection is the most disgusting of all.

McKellen begins his examination of the text by noting how “she would have died hereafter” sets up the final soliloquy’s preoccupation with time, and its passage.

Tomorrow, and tomorrow, and tomorrow,

Creeps in this petty pace from day to day,

To the last syllable of recorded time;

And all our yesterdays have lighted fools

The way to dusty death. Out, out, brief candle!

Life’s but a walking shadow, a poor player,

That struts and frets his hour upon the stage,

And then is heard no more. It is a tale

Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury,

Signifying nothing.

McKellen makes a true meal of  “out, out, brief candle”,  relating it to Lady Macbeth’s final appearance, the fools proceeding to their dusty death earlier in the monologue, and Elizabethan stage lighting.

He speculates that Shakespeare’s description of life as a “poor player” was a deliberate attempt by the playwright to give the actor an interpretive hook they could relate to. In performance, the theatrical metaphor should remind the audience that they’re watching a pretense even as they’re invested in the character’s fate.

The production’s success inspired director Trevor Nunn to film it. McKellen recalled that everyone was already so well acquainted with the material, it took just two weeks to get it in the can:

The claustrophobia of the stage production was exactly captured. Trevor had used a similar technique with Antony and Cleopatra on the box. No one else should ever be allowed to televise Shakespeare…There is so much I was proud of: discovering how to play a soliloquy direct into the eyes of everyone in the audience; making them laugh at Macbeth’s gallows humor; working alongside Judi Dench’s finest performance.

For more expert advice from McKellen, Patrick Stewart, Ben Kingsley and other notables, watch the RSC’s 9-part Playing Shakespeare series here.

– Ayun Halliday is the Chief Primatologist of the East Village Inky zine and creator, most recently of Creative, Not Famous: The Small Potato Manifesto.  Follow her @AyunHalliday.

Who Decides What Words Get Into the Dictionary?

DICTIONARY, n. A malevolent literary device for cramping the growth of a language and making it hard and inelastic. — Ambrose Bierce, The Devil’s Dictionary

Once upon a time, we were made to believe that words could never acquire sticks and stones’ capacity to wound.

Talk about a maxim no longer worth the paper it was printed on!

Language is organic. Definitions, usage, and our response to particular words evolve over time.

Lexicographer Ilan Stavans’ TED-Ed lesson, Who Decides What’s in the Dictionary?, rolls the clock back to 1604, when schoolmaster Robert Cawdrey assembled the first English language dictionary “for the benefit of Ladies, Gentlewomen, and other unskilled folk.”

Other English dictionaries soon followed, expanding on the 2,543 words Cawdrey had seen fit to include. His fellow authors shared Cawdrey’s prescriptive goal of educating the rabble, to keep them from butchering the high-minded tongue the self-appointed guardian considered it his duty to protect.

Wordsmith Samuel Johnson, the primary author of 1775’s massive A Dictionary of the English Language, described his mission as one in which “the pronunciation of our language may be fixed, and its attainment facilitated; by which its purity may be preserved, its use ascertained, and its duration lengthened.”

Lest we think Johnson overly impressed with the importance of his lofty mission, he submitted the following gently self-mocking definition of Lexicographer:

A writer of dictionaries; a harmless drudge that busies himself in tracing the original, and detailing the signification of words.

150 years later, Ambrose Bierce offered an opposing view in his delightfully wicked dictionary:

LEXICOGRAPHER, n. A pestilent fellow who, under the pretense of recording some particular stage in the development of a language, does what he can to arrest its growth, stiffen its flexibility and mechanize its methods.

Stavans points to brothers George and Charles Merriam’s acquisition of the rights to Noah Webster’s An American Dictionary of the English Language (1828) as a moment when our concept of what a dictionary should be began to shift.

Webster, working by himself, set out to collect and document English as it was used on these shores.

The Merriams engaged a group of language experts to curate subsequent editions, striking a blow for the idiom by including slang and regional variants.

A good start, though they excluded anything they found unfit for the general consumption at the time, including expressions born in the Black community.

Their editorializing was of a piece with prevailing views — see “wife.”

But humans, like language, evolve.

These days, lexicographers monitor the Internet for new words to be considered for upcoming editions, including profanity and racial slurs.

If a word’s use is judged to be widespread, sustained and meaningful, in it goes… even though some might find it objectionable, or even, yes, hurtful.

Stavans wraps his lesson up by drawing our attention to Merriam-Webster’s tradition of anointing one entry to Word of the Year, drawn from statistical analysis of the words people look up in extremely high numbers.

“They” got the nod in 2019, a testament to how deeply non-binary gender expression has permeated the collective consciousness and national conversation.

The runner up?


Care to guess which word 2020 placed in the dictionary’s path?

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Ayun Halliday is an author, illustrator, theater maker and Chief Primatologist of the East Village Inky zine. Follow her @AyunHalliday.

A Tour of U.S. Accents: Bostonian, Philadelphese, Gullah Creole & Other Intriguing Dialects

You don’t have an accent — or rather, everyone has an accent, but we don’t notice our own, especially if we associate mostly with people of similar cultural backgrounds. For however we might like to describe ourselves, the way we speak reveals who we are: as dialect coach Erik Singer puts it in the Wired video above, “Accent is identity.” Among the forces shaping that identity he names not just geography but socioeconomic background, generation, ethnicity and race, and other “individual factors.”  The result is that a large and varied continent like North America has given rise to a wide variety of accents in the English language alone.

In the video Singer and four other specialist language experts demonstrate a great many of these North American accents, identifying the most distinctive characteristics of each. The classic Boston accent, for example, is “non-rhotic,” referring to the dropping of “R” sounds that make possible such classic phrases as “pahk yah cah in Havahd Yard.” It differs in many ways from those common in places like Rhode Island and New York City, relatively close together though all three areas may seem: the diversity of accents on the U.S. east coast versus its more recently settled west coast underscores the fact that regional accents need time, usually a matter of generation upon generation, to emerge.

The way Philadelphians talk illustrates what Singer calls “the ‘on’ line,” north of which most pronounce “on” as if it rhymes with “don,” and south of which — Philly and below — most pronounce “on” as if rhymes with “dawn.” You don’t even have to cross the Pennsylvania border to find another unique accent. Only in Pittsburgh do people “smooth the ‘mouth’ dipthong,” a dipthong being a syllable composed of two distinct vowels — here, the “ou” in “mouth” — the “smoothing out” of which turns it into a single (and to non-Pittsburghers, unusual-sounding) vowel.

By the end of these 20 minutes, Singer and his crew have made it only as far as the “Piney Woods Belt” of the American south, whose accents bring to many of our minds the voice of Scarlett O’Hara and Blanche DuBois. They’ve also touched on such linguistic curiosities as Gullah creole; the Elizabethan inflection of Ocracoke Island, North Carolina,” previously featured here on Open Culture; and in some ways the most curious of all, the broadly designated “general American” speech that has emerged in recent decades. This is only the first video of a series [update: it’s now available below], so keep an eye on Wired‘s Youtube channel for the next installment of the linguistic journey — and keep an ear out for all the subtle varieties of English you can catch in the meantime.

Related Content:

Mapping the Differences in How Americans Speak English: A Geographic Look at Words, Accents & Dialects

A Brief Tour of British & Irish Accents: 14 Ways to Speak English in 84 Seconds

One Woman, 17 British Accents

The Speech Accent Archive: The English Accents of People Who Speak 341 Different Languages

Meet the Americans Who Speak with Elizabethan English Accents: An Introduction to the “Hoi Toiders” from Ocracoke, North Carolina

Why Do People Talk Funny in Old Movies?, or The Origin of the Mid-Atlantic Accent

Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities, language, and culture. His projects include the Substack newsletter Books on Cities, the book The Stateless City: a Walk through 21st-Century Los Angeles and the video series The City in Cinema. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall or on Facebook.

Mapping the Differences in How Americans Speak English: A Geographic Look at Words, Accents & Dialects

In the 2005 PBS documentary series Do You Speak American? journalist Robert MacNeil traveled from fabled “sea to shining sea” to explore the mysteries of American English. Among the many questions he addressed at the time was the widespread idea that mass media is “homogenizing American language or making us all talk the same.” MacNeil, and the linguists he interviewed, found that this wasn’t true, but what accounts for the misperception?

One reason we may have been inclined to think so is that regional accents seemed to disappear from television and other media, as the country became more suburban, and middle class white Americans distanced themselves from their immigrant roots and from African Americans and working-class Southerners. Aside from several broad ethnic stereotypes, many of which also faded during the Civil Rights era, the more-or-less authentic regional accents on TV seemed fewer and fewer.

A rush of media in recent decades, however, from Fargo to The Sopranos, has reintroduced Americans to the regional varieties of their language. At the same time, popular treatment of linguistics, like MacNeil’s documentary, have introduced us to the tools researchers use to study the diversity of difference in American English. Those differences can be measured, for example, in whether people pronounce “R” sounds in words like “car,” a characteristic linguists call “rhoticity.”

In the past century, Ben Trawick-Smith of Dialect Blog writes, “American and British attitudes toward non-rhoticity diverged. Where r-lessness was once a prestige feature in both countries,” representing in the Southern planter class and Boston Brahmins in the U.S., for example, “it is a marker of working-class or vernacular speech in 21st-century America (typical of the broadest New York City, Boston and African American Vernacular Englishes).” In the short film at the top, you can hear several varieties of rhotic and non-rhotic American English in the mouths of speakers from 6 regions around the country.

Presented by linguist Henry Smith, Jr. the 1958 documentary details the phonetic differences of each speaker’s pronunciations. Linguists use certain words to test for a vernacular’s phonetic qualities, words like “water” and “oil,” which you can hear further up in a far more recent video, pronounced by speakers from different states around the U.S. Regional speech is also measured by the choice of words we use to talk about the same thing, with one of the most prominent examples in the U.S. being “Soda vs. Pop vs. Coke.” In the Atlantic video just above, see how those different words break down according to region, and learn a bit more about the “at least 10 distinct dialects of English” spoken in the U.S.

Related Content: 

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Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness

Meet the Americans Who Speak with Elizabethan English Accents: An Introduction to the “Hoi Toiders” from Ocracoke, North Carolina

I remember sitting in on a conversation with some old timers in the British village my parents grew up in, and one man remembered a time, very early on in the 20th century, where villages were so isolated you could tell where somebody was from in a radius of about 20 miles. That doesn’t exist so much these days, as radio, television, and now the internet exposes us more and more to accents at an early age.

So that’s why I found the above footage so fascinating. Taken from a documentary on regional accents (possibly this one) from the North Carolina coast, I could hear a bit of that East Anglia accent from my grandparents…but then a few words that sounded like Somerset or Devon in the south-west of England…and then some straight up southern American twang. And that was in one sentence! What’s going on here?

Isolation, that’s what. The island of Ocracoke has over the centuries developed its own dialect, “Hoi Toide” (as in “high tide”), that is also the name for a way of life. Even now, it takes a boat to reach the island–ferries only started arriving in 1957–and back in the 18th century it was a refuge for pirates.

One of them, William Howard, purchased the island in 1759 for £105, after King George I pardoned all pirates. Ocracoke, its name already a bastardization of a Native American word, became a fishing community, a mix of English, Scottish, and Irish settlers, natives, and pirates. The resulting mish-mash of borrowed and made-up words, along with pirate slang, make Hoi Toide one of the few American dialects not identified as American, as it also has its own peculiar grammar.

With a population of just over 900, Ocracoke has its own pace to life, which does attract tourists trying to get away from it all. As this BBC article points out:

Instead of cinemas, there are outdoor theatre groups. Local teashops, spice markets and other family-owned stores take the place of chain supermarkets. Cars are allowed on the 16 mile-long island, but most people just park them and walk everywhere. The island’s children all attend one school, while residents work as everything from fishermen to brewery owners to woodworkers.

Modern life is threatening the dialect, inevitably so, even as the community remains close-knit. By all accounts it will be gone in a few more generations, so let’s celebrate this particularly American brogue, born out of necessity, individuality, and most importantly, a lovely melting pot.

Related Content:

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Why Do People Talk Funny in Old Movies?, or The Origin of the Mid-Atlantic Accent

Ted Mills is a freelance writer on the arts who currently hosts the artist interview-based FunkZone Podcast and is the producer of KCRW’s Curious Coast. You can also follow him on Twitter at @tedmills, read his other arts writing at and/or watch his films here.

Why David Sedaris Hates America’s Favorite Word, “Awesome”

David Sedaris has made his name as a humorist, noting the absurdities of everything from life with his parents and siblings to the perpetual cycle of world travel and book-signing into which fame has launched him. But as his longtime readers know, he’s really a student of language: not only has his own voice on the page been shaped by close observation of English, he’s studied and continues to study a host of foreign languages as well. Longtime readers will remember how much material he got out of the French classes that gave his book Me Talk Pretty One Day its title, and he has more recently written of his struggles to get a handle on such diverse tongues as German, Japanese, and Slovene. (I myself wrote an essay about Sedaris’ language-learning in the Los Angeles Review of Books.)

Though he’s never explicitly cited it as part of his writing process, these studies have clearly honed Sedaris’ ear for language in general, especially when it comes to its local tics and eccentricities. “In France the most often used word is ‘connerie,’ which means ‘bullshit,'” he says in the audiobook clip at the top of the post from his latest collection Calypso, “and in America it’s hands-down ‘awesome,’ which has replaced ‘incredible,’ ‘good,’ and even ‘just OK.’ Pretty much everything that isn’t terrible is awesome in America now.” What once denoted a sight or experience filled with the emotion of “dread, veneration, and wonder that is inspired by authority or by the sacred or sublime” has become, in Sedaris’ view, a synonym for “fine.”

“It just got out of hand to me,” Sedaris explains to USA Today. “Everything’s awesome all the time. I was in Boulder, Colorado” — a city he has elsewhere described as “the ‘awesome’ capital” — “and someone said, ‘I’ll have a double espresso, awesome,’ and the other person said, ‘Awesome.'”

(In another interview, he mentions that he often fines people “a dollar a time at events for using the A-word. I warn them first, because it’s only fair, but I can make pretty good money that way.”) This may sound like a futile objection to inevitable linguistic change, but only to those who haven’t noticed the underlying debasement of meaning. If “awesome” can now describe a coffee, what word, if any, indicates genuine awe?

A similar fate has befallen other English words and expressions. “Great” preceded “awesome” into the semantic haze, and “to beg the question” has become a standard example of a phrase to whose original meaning only a pedant would cling. People now often use it synonymously with “raising the question,” but if we accept that as its meaning, we’re left with no way to refer to question-begging itself, a rhetorical practice still as rampant as ever.  To criticize the modern loosening of these usages is to keep sharp and complete one’s array of tools for expression and communication; we condemn the overuse of a word not out of pure hatred but out of understanding the necessity of its true meaning. Even David Sedaris grants “awesome” its proper time and place: “I went to the Great Wall of China once, and I have to say, that was awesome. But that’s the only thing I can think of. Not a latte.”

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Bertrand Russell Lists His 20 Favorite Words in 1958 (and What Are Some of Yours?)

The Largest Historical Dictionary of English Slang Now Free Online: Covers 500 Years of the “Vulgar Tongue”

Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities, language, and culture. His projects include the book The Stateless City: a Walk through 21st-Century Los Angeles and the video series The City in Cinema. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall, on Facebook, or on Instagram.

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Open Culture was founded by Dan Colman.