Luke’s Languages: Legen-wait for it-dary


Hello there! And congratulations on using your procrastination time to read instead of watching videos of cats!

Speaking of YouTube, I’m currently doing research by having six tabs simultaneously open of the looping video “Double Flanders: Legendary Edition” (which, incidentally, is an effective way to lose your sanity). I’m catching up on what we all remember about The Simpsons’ Ned Flanders: his nonsense words, most memorably “diddly”.

He does someone a favour and says, “You’re wel-diddly-elcome.” At a Flanders family reunion, a Mexican relative of Ned’s greets Homer, “Buenos ding-dong-diddly días, señor.” And so on.

Silly, I admit. But linguistically interesting. It exemplifies a relatively rare phenomenon in English: what I call “open word surgery”, or opening up a word to operate or implant something. You do find it as a normal feature across the world’s languages, but we can count the uses in English on one hand.

In fact, the only example I know of in so-called “formal” English is kind of complicated and doesn’t satisfy everyone that it’s really inside a single word. But when you look at colloquial English, you get some more interesting stuff.

Everyone knows “a whole nother story”, even if no one could tell you what exactly a “nother” is. It’s really the second half of “another”. In hip-hop slang, an artist might be the shiznit, in which case fans will cheer when they’re in the hizouse. We all spoke Pig Latin as children to outwit the grownups, but there’s also Pig Greek (also known as Ubbi Dubbi), ubin whibuch yubou ubinsubert “ub” inside syllables.

But my friend Amir just reminded me of the one that’s both my favourite and the closest to explaining Ned Flanders’ behaviour. It’s a form of swearing, one that you now see, shall we say, abso-f***in’-lutely everywhere. Yep, that’s it right there. Linguists have been looking at this phenomenon in English for a while, because it’s probably the most widespread case of open word surgery.

And the trend seems to be growing. Someone who watches How I Met Your Mother might already be thinking this is “legen-wait for it-dary”. Of course, there’s only one example of that one—for now.

Fascinatingly, none of this is random. Hip-hop slang, Pig Greek, swearing infixes (compare “prefixes” and “suffixes”), and even Barney Stinson are all following very clear rules. When people play language games or creatively insert swears, they tap into a subconscious knowledge of how their language works. Native English speakers don’t say “unbelieva-freaking-ble”—even the ones who would say “unbe-freaking-lievable”.

Amir, who mentioned the example of “Mani-freaking-toba”, also remarked on these constraints. A second-language English speaker he knew would sometimes misplace the expletive, not realizing how odd “absolute-freaking-ly” sounds. Funny, he said, they never teach you how to swear right in second-language courses.

There’s been serious linguistic work studying data collected on all of the above and positing rules for their use (and, since they’re all optional where and when people choose to use them at all). But there probably weren’t any linguists among the creators of The Simpsons when they wrote this very unique trait into Ned’s speech.

They also probably didn’t think hard about the other phenomenon we see in Ned’s speech: reduplication” Ned repeats parts of words—again, strategically but subconsciously selected—when he uses “diddly”. Look at “wel-diddly-elcome” again; it sounds better than “wel-diddly-come”, doesn’t it? Or when he gets a paper cut and cries, “Son of a gun-diddly-un!”, it makes the one-syllable “gun” a candidate for “diddly”. Similarly, we can’t say “Can-freaking-ada”, nor “Can-diddly-ada”, but the stress suddenly feels like it’s falling on the right place if Ned were to say “Can-diddly-anada”. It’s a brilliant but subtle way to make it sound more natural.

That’s probably the most detailed analysis worth doing here, but I hope it makes you think about such popular uses of language. Some readers are probably feeling that it’s no fun taking apart what should just be laughed at and enjoyed. But for me—and, I think, for anyone else who’s interested in knowing how things work, including language—it’s the shiznit.