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Abstract

This article examines a bounded episode of language play in one member diary posted to a well-known political weblog. The diarist-member employed a passive voice frame to make short, pointed remarks about the current state of American politics as well as about member behavior on the blog. The 863 comments these remarks elicited are classified and analyzed to describe the ways commenters fit their contributions into this grammatical frame to conform to the model the original diarist implicitly set out. The findings show that commenters were adept at manipulating existing lexical forms and crafting new words and phrases to fashion mock passives that enriched the playfulness of the interaction. In so doing, commenters played with language not just for amusement, but to create solidarity within the community of bloggers by using insider language and alluding to familiar topics of talk.

Introduction

The emergence of digital communication1 over the last two decades has led to innovative forms of inquiry into new media discourse across a spectrum of disciplines, including communication studies, anthropology, cognitive science, sociology, and linguistics. From a language-in-use perspective, scholars have uncovered much about the nature of computer-mediated communication (CMC), including how structure, meaning, interaction, and social behavior are (co-)constructed by language users (e.g., Cherny, 1999; Herring, 2013a; Myers, 2010). One aspect of CMC that has received theoretical and empirical attention in recent years is the (often) playful nature of digital communication (e.g., Danet, 2001; Herring, 2013b; North, 2007). The purpose of the current study is to delve into the construct of playfulness in a particular digital environment, political blogging. Specifically, it analyzes a bounded episode of language play in one member diary posted to a well-known political blog, Daily Kos. A diarist-member employed a passive voice frame to make short, pointed comments about the current state of American politics and member behavior on the blog. The 863 comments it elicited are examined to describe the ways that commenters fit their contributions into the grammatical frame set out by the original diarist in a playful and, at times, unexpected manner.

Background

Creativity and Language Play

Creativity is a theoretical and textual construction. Scholars who investigate the creativity of language-in-use have adopted multiple overlapping labels for this construct, including creativity (Carter, 2007; Carter & McCarthy, 2004; Jones, 2012; Maybin & Swann, 2007; North, 2007; Thurlow, 2012), humor (Herring, 1999; Maybin & Swann, 2007), and language play (Cook, 1997; Crystal, 1998; Gawne & Vaughan, 2011; Maybin & Swann, 2007; Thurlow, 2012). Various scholars (e.g., Carter, 2007; North, 2007) view creativity “as emergent processes of social construction and reconstruction” (Carter, 2007, p. 598) which are both collaborative and collective. Furthermore, “creativity almost always depends for its functions on the intentions and interpretations of the participants” (Carter & McCarthy, 2004, p. 64). This stance is consistent with current understandings of many language phenomena as not merely cognitive, individualist endeavors but rather as ones that involve listeners, speakers, writers, and readers in the co-construction of meaning and context.

According to Crystal (1998), language play occurs when “the rules governing literal discourse have been suspended” (p. 4) and language is used for fun, rather than (or in addition to) conveying information. Shared language play also fosters rapport and bonding. This “ludic” behavior (Cook, 1997) may play with language form, by utilizing sounds, words, or grammatical forms to create patterns of rhythm and rhyme, as well as with semantics, by combining units of meaning “in ways that create worlds which do not exist – fiction” (p. 228).

Jones (2012) proposes that discursive creativity operates on three levels. The first, “language beyond the sentence” (or “textual”; see Maybin & Swann, 2007), is familiar to scholars whose disciplinary roots reside in traditional and applied linguistics and who attach importance to language that exists above and beyond the level of syntax. The second is more functional, that of “language in use” (or “contextual”; Maybin & Swann). At this level, linguistic behavior is viewed in terms of social action, so that it is not only language itself that may be creative, but also the ways that users accomplish actions through discursive practices. In other words, creativity is often interactionally motivated. The final lens proposed by Jones (and Maybin & Swann) is a critical one, where language is situated as part of a broader range of social practices associated with power and the social construction of knowledge. For example, some of Thurlow’s (2012) observations about the “cultural politics of creativity” (p. 170) relate to young people – ‘non-elites’ – who do not possess the means to exert control over their representations in the media: Their “artful, pleasurable uses of new media language are frequently met with the censorious interventions of language workers such as journalists … and advertisers.” As a result, “they are denied an uncommodified, uncensored space for play” (p. 171).

With this brief overview of creativity and language play as background, we turn to a specific context in which playful language is a recurrent feature: CMC.

Creativity and Language Play

Numerous researchers (e.g., Cherny, 1999; Danet, 2001; Gawne & Vaughan, 2011; Herring, 1999; North, 2007) have remarked on the playfulness and creativity present in Internet communication. Danet, Ruedenberg-Wright, and Rosenbaum-Tamari (1997) claim that “CMC is an inherently playful medium” (n.p.), and North (2007) echoes this sentiment: “[O]nline environments seem to foster a particularly playful interaction” (p. 538). Thurlow (2012) puts forward a basic premise of much new media discourse research: “[D]iscursive creativity [in the new media] is often poetic, usually playful and always pragmatic” (p. 170; italics in original). A summary of two recent studies on language play in CMC should serve to illustrate these points.

North’s (2007) research focused on linguistic creativity in online chat groups, specifically on six threads that involved 50 participants over six months. Both the jointly constructed nature of humor in the chat data and the ways “in which participants encourage each other by signaling their appreciation by emoticons and other graphic symbols and by adopting and building on other people’s humor” were evident. “‘Playing along’ is an important strategy for supporting humor online” (p. 547). Not only did the participants engage in language play for humorous effect, they did so “with self-awareness, making the humor part of a form of online performance that wins appreciation from the rest of the group” (p. 548). That is, good humor is built on earlier posts and is recognized and added to by other posters, fostering both social and textual cohesion and furthering the topics that are in play.

North found that specific sets of features characterized the language play in her data. These included interaction management strategies such as nicknames, play frames, nonstandard spellings, and “enactments,” in which participants attempt to approximate behavior visually and textually (e.g., [slinks away], *spews coffee*; see also Virtanen, 2013, on performative predications in CMC). ‘Long conversations’ also typify creativity in North’s data. These are described as “particular themes and preoccupations [that] are repeatedly returned to across different conversations” (p. 545). She suggests that it is the interplay of these features that underlies “the textual cohesion built up through such jointly constructed humour[, which] is itself a reflection of the social cohesion of the group” (p. 553). North characterizes the textual cohesion present in her data as “dense,” “tangled,” and “chaotic”; nevertheless, “the chaos … is under control, conforming to the norms, values, and expectations of the group” (p. 553). It is through these and other discursive practices that an online group becomes an online community, with a shared “sense of we-ness, which includes referencing the group as a collective, creating a sense of belonging, and a situated understanding of how to do things” (Fayard & DeSanctis, 2010, pp. 383-384).

A recent study by Gawne and Vaughan (2011) investigated LOLspeak, 2 a phenomenon that has received scant attention as yet, as an important form of online language play.. Their purpose was to explicate the grammar of LOLspeak and to describe the ways it can be exploited to construct online dual-identities. Gawne and Vaughan maintain that language play involves “voluntarily step[ping] out of real life” (Slide 8) in the Internet context in order to “engage in entertaining activity with its own often unwritten rules.” They analyze portions of their data source, the LOLcat Bible ( http://www.lolcatbible.com/index.php?title=Main_Page ), at five linguistic levels, from phonetics/orthography to clausal structure. Gawne and Vaughan posit that manipulation of language forms at these various levels allows language users to adopt two identities simultaneously: that of a cat, through linguistic clumsiness, playful word forms, overexcitability, and cat world discourses; and that of an “Internet savvy person” (Slide 2), through metalinguistic and meme3 awareness, genre manipulation, and creativity.

It has been suggested that the playfulness in CMC noted by these and other researchers can be accounted for by (at least) three technological factors: disrupted adjacency, the textual record, and masked identity.

Disrupted Adjacency

Herring (2013b) notes that “relevance or relatedness across speaker utterances is a basic normative ideal of conversation,” specifically spoken communication, “in which logically-related utterances tend to occur adjacent to one another in temporal sequence. In text-based computer-mediated communication related utterances are not reliably adjacent” (p. 245). This ‘loosened relevance’ and ‘disrupted adjacency’ is no longer seen as strange in some CMC environments; in fact, “it has attained normative status” (p. 252). Herring observes that while disrupted adjacency may lead to incoherence, it also “has advantages, including fostering playful communication” (p. 250). Furthermore, “the creative play that arises from loosened relevance online can be viewed as users’ ‘making the best’ of what is in essence a limited communication medium” (p. 263). In other words, the interplay of sequential and temporal organization in CMC provides a textual space for playful interaction.

The Textual Record

The relatively persistent record left by textual CMC allows users to consider and respond to digital discourse-in-use. In fact, it is the textual record that makes CMC “cognitively manageable” despite its appearance as “incoherent” or “dysfunctional” (Herring, 1999). Unlike in spoken interaction, which is ephemeral, participants in CMC are able to reflect consciously on this text, which, according to Herring, “facilitat[es] a heightened metalinguistic awareness” (n.p.). This conscious state provides fertile ground for the production of and reaction to humor and language play in CMC.

Masked Identity

Danet (2001) describes public, multiparticipant CMC environments as “interactive, dynamic, and immersive,” as well as “doubly attenuated” and “doubly enhanced.” The absence of a nonverbal channel present in speech and the more ephemeral quality of “text as object” in writing are attenuated features, whereas the possibility of reexamining utterances and exploiting the (virtual) presence of the writer lends to its enhanced nature (p. 13). The ‘masking of identity’ in anonymous or pseudonymous environments – where clues about gender, ethnicity, etc. are absent – may predispose participants to engage in behavior they would normally eschew with little or no fear of repercussions. This “freedom granted by anonymity” (Androutsopoulos, 2006, p. 423) undoubtedly accounts, in part, for various forms of playfulness that have been detected in CMC.

The present study positions blog member discourse as a central focus in order to highlight user-related patterns of language play that may shed light on “the variety of group practices” (Androutsopoulos, 2006, p. 420) that blog participants engage in. As such, the literature reviewed above supplies a lens with which to confront the data presented, even though the particular type of syntactic language play described here has not, to the author’s knowledge, been reported elsewhere. The research question guiding this study is: What are the creative strategies that Daily Kos contributors employ to format their comments using a passive voice frame in the member diary under consideration?

Methods

Data Source

The data analyzed in this study were taken from one diary on the political community weblog Daily Kos (www.dailykos.com). According to the site,

founded on May 26, 2002, Daily Kos is the premier online political community with 2.5 million unique visitors per month and a quarter of a million registered users (1,049,185 as of July 2014). It is at once a news organization, community, and activist hub. Among luminaries posting diaries on the site are President Jimmy Carter, Senator [sic] Barack Obama, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, Speaker of the House [sic] Nancy Pelosi, and dozens of other senators, congressmen, and governors. Even more exciting than that however, are the hundreds of thousands of regular Americans that have used Daily Kos to shape a political world once the exclusive domain of the rich, connected, and powerful.

Logging on to the Daily Kos website takes the reader to the Front Page, which is arranged with diaries by the blog founder, Markos Moulitsas, and by a number of contributing editors prominently displayed on the left two-thirds of the screen. The right one-third of the screen is devoted to diaries written by Daily Kos members; these are grouped into a Community Spotlight list of 10, a Recommended list of 12 (based on member ratings), a list of the five Most Shared diaries, and then a chronological list of the 75 most Recent Diaries.

A Daily Kos diary is an individual posting that is read and commented on by other Daily Kos members. Comments are written in diaries in response to something in the original diary or to other comments posted to it. Diary comments are arranged in sub-threads, which are shown visually as embedded under the first post in the sub-thread. Finally, any contribution to Daily Kos constitutes an entry – something that is written and displayed as a complete unit, whether it be a diary or a comment within a diary.

I have been a regular reader of Daily Kos since 2006, and in early 2007 I became a member of the group. In this context I came across one particular diary posted by the member-diarist “BG” on Wednesday, March 14, 2007 at 10:28 AM (see the Appendix). The posting generated 863 comments from 289 unique posters over the 12 hours and 33 minutes it was actively commented on (until 11:01 PM that same day). The next day, Thursday, March 15, I downloaded the entire diary including all the comments made to it.

Daily Kos is an open access website that is publicly archived and viewable without a password. Research use of these data falls under the conditions stated on the Daily Kos web page:

© Kos Media, LLC
Site content may be used for any purpose without explicit permission unless otherwise specified

As it was not possible to obtain the informed consent of all participants who commented on the original diary, anonymity and confidentiality were achieved by removing all author identifiers (with the exception of the original diary author, who is identified by an initialization of her Daily Kos username, BG) from the data.

Because the diary writer and subsequent posters are anonymous (i.e., their identities are masked through the choice of a pseudonymous username, unless they choose to post using their real names), it is difficult to describe their demographic and ethnographic particulars reliably. Nevertheless, it is known that Daily Kos participants range in age from teenagers to senior citizens; they fall between the center and the far left on the political spectrum; and the vast majority appear to be well-educated native speakers of English.

This study focuses on the use of a passive voice frame by the original diarist and subsequent commenters who responded to her diary titled Accounts were f-ing requested to be deleted, Kos.4

Data Formatting

The data in their original form5 were reduced to just the comments. Text produced by the same individual is shown with the same identifier (A, B, C, etc.) within an example; the indented, nested structure of Daily Kos comments is maintained in order to depict how the comments appeared and were responded to by others. Items of interest are bolded, and the transcript source is given in the lower right of each example. The resulting format of a data fragment is as follows:6

It should be noted that Daily Kos comments are posted from oldest to most recent in a given diary, whereas individual diaries are displayed on the front page from most to least recent.

Analytic Methods

The Passive Voice

The passive construction in English is formed by means of a sentence transformation or derivation that involves switching the positions of the syntactic subject and object and adding an auxiliary verb (usually BE), conjugated for tense and number, before the transitive main verb, which is in the past participle form, followed by an optional by-phase. Transitivity is crucial; intransitive verbs cannot, prescriptively, be passivized because they do not take object complements.

In sentences using the active voice the subject of the sentence performs the action expressed by the verb, e.g.,

In a sentence using passive voice, the original object is acted upon and becomes the subject of the passive sentence – he or she receives the action expressed by the transitive verb:

The agent performing the action may appear in a by-phrase, as in (3), or may be omitted, resulting in an agentless passive, e.g., The boy was bitten.

In (4), to bed is a prepositional phrase, not a syntactic object; thus the “passive” version is prescriptively incorrect:

However, humorous effects can be created by violating these rules. Clauses containing an intransitive verb followed by a prepositional phrase can also be “misinterpreted” as transitive clauses and passivized for comedic effect, as in (5):

The active voice version of the riddle answer, So it could get to the other side, could be parsed in two ways. The correct verb phrase parsing is get…. to the other side, which contains an intransitive verb followed by a prepositional phrase, and cannot (prescriptively) be passivized. The clause could also be parsed (incorrectly) with the verb phrase get to as a transitive verb (cf. reach) and the other side as a direct object NP. Passivizing this structure results in the bolded construction in (5).

In the blog data analyzed in the present study, utterances with intransitive verbs, as well as idiomatic phrases such as sleep tight, are sometimes “passivized,” as in (6):

Moreover, although there is no indication in any literature that a word itself can be passivized by splitting and/or moving around syllables, the data in this study include several passivized words (e.g., the mallows were marshed, from marshmallows).

If prescriptive rules are ignored, noted Albrespit (2009), “there are few constraints on morphological processes: lexical creativity seems limitless” (p. 272). Moreover, as Sword (2012, para. 2) notes, “Any noun can be verbed.” This certainly applies to some of the lexical creations produced by the blog commenters. Perhaps these constructions should be considered nonce structures, which “create new formations in order to satisfy by lexicalization a terminological need which may be ad hoc and temporary as the formation concerned” (Quirk, Greenbaum, Leech, & Svartik, 1985, p. 1534). It is also possible to split words in English by inserting “assertatives” such as absofuckinglutely (pp. 1535-1536). Thus, although the creative passive constructions analyzed in this study may seem odd or incorrect, such linguistic creativity is not uncommon.

Analytical Procedures

The analytic approach adopted in this study is Computer-Mediated Discourse Analysis (CMDA; Herring, 2004). The CMDA framework is meant to “identify and describe online phenomena in culturally meaningful terms, while at the same time grounding [their] distinctions in empirically observable behavior” (Herring, 2004, p. 338); such analyses are based on “empirical, textual observations” (p. 339). CMDA is a form of language-focused “content analysis” that draws on a range of qualitative and quantitative discourse analytic methods combined with “paradigm-independent best practices” (Herring, 2010, p. 237) regarding research questions, data sampling, data coding, and the like.

A line-by-line reading of the comments in the diary resulted in a number of characteristics emerging as salient. For this phase of the study, the goal was to categorize utterances that comprise each comment as written in the active or the passive voice. Two criteria were used to identify the passives in the data. First, utterances with the formal characteristics of the passive voice – defined as an utterance that contains the past participle form of a transitive verb preceded by a tense form of the verb BE, where the semantic patient or benefactor is the grammatical subject, and the semantic agent is expressed in a prepositional by-phrase or omitted –– were included in the passive category.

The vast majority of the passive constructions in the dataset (91%; see Numerical Analysis below) exhibit the formal features mentioned above. All are in the past tense, as in the following:

The second criterion captured the (much smaller number of) ‘creative’ passive constructions, which I also refer to as ‘mock’ passives. All instances of creative passives – essentially words and phrases without a transitive verb (or any verb at all) but otherwise structured like a passive construction – were located and sorted (and resorted). The analysis was iterative and inductive – repeated readings of the data confirmed characterizations of utterances and led to additional characterizations and fine-tuning of these characterizations.

Seven categories of creative passives emerged from a close inspection of the data. These categories comprise mock passives formed from 1) intransitive verbs followed by a prepositional phrase, 2) nominalized intransitive verbs, 3) direct speech, 4) back-formed compound nouns, 5) noun-to-verb conversions, 6) split up phatic expressions, and 7) lexical items split into syllable clusters.

To provide an overview of the findings at an aggregate level, raw frequencies and percentages were calculated for the dataset as a whole and then for various categories of the creative passive constructions.

Findings

Numerical Analysis

The entire dataset consists of 863 comments (entries) written by 289 unique commenters (including the original diarist), for an average of 2.99 comments per participant. The 863 comments contain a total of 1303 utterances, or a mean of 1.51 utterances per comment.

Table 1 shows that of the 1303 total utterances, 875 (67%) were formatted as passives, while active utterances comprise 428 (33%) of the total.7 Of the 875 passive utterances 83 (9%) are of the creative type:

Table 1. Frequency of active and passive voice utterances

Table 2 gives a breakdown of the 83 creative passives by type:

Table 2. Frequency of creative passive types

These creative structures are the focus of the remainder of the article.

Textual Analysis

1) Passivized Intransitive Verbs followed by a Prepositional Phrase

The first category of creative passives includes utterances in which intransitive verbs followed by a prepositional phrase are passivized by fronting the post-verbal constituents and adding an appropriately conjugated form of BE between the fronted material and the intransitive verb. An example is the bolded construction in Ex. 7:

Commenter C found In there, was hung clever enough to compliment it with another mock passive, changing Hats off to Hat’s [sic] were offed.

The utterance Floor was rolled on in (8) is created in a similar fashion. The commenter passivized I rolled on the floor by fronting the noun in the prepositional phrase (the) floor and inserting a BE verb between it and the verb + preposition roll on:

Likewise, this strategy is invoked in creating a passive from an intransitive phrasal verb followed by a prepositional particle in (9). The phrasal verb give up is split and the prepositional particle is treated like a syntactic object (noun phrase) and passivized by fronting it:

Hang in there and give up are fixed expressions, so one might expect that they are less likely to be split (at least prescriptively). But because creative violations of prescriptive rules are part of the game being played, the more unlikely the structure as a source for passivation, the more amusing it seems to be when mock-passivized. This may also explain why habeus was corpsed (Ex. 33 below) was evaluated as especially witty.

2) Nominalized Intransitive Verbs

In other instances, the intransitive verb in the source phrase has no following elements to move, so commenters nominalize the verb, treat it as a subject, and supply the pro-verb do in place of the now-missing verb:

As in the first category, no new words are invented – ‘do’ as a pro-verb is part of standard English, as are the nominalizations in these examples.

3) Passivized Direct Speech

In addition to cases where intransitive verbs were nominalized, almost one-third (24/83) of the creative passives were derived from representations of direct speech. This was done by adding the verb BE and the past participle form of a reporting verb (including a newly coined verb, “ew”ed, in Ex. 19):

These mock passives call to mind the nominalized intransitive verb instances above where the pro-verb do was used to occupy the verbal position, in that a verb is supplied that was not necessarily present in the source utterance. Furthermore, they show that not only the lexical and grammatical components of a comment can be passivized, but also the manner of expression. This strategy even extends to speech sounds like sighs, gasps, and huffs (examples 26-29). Expressions such as STFU, WTF, ewww, meh, and heh show up regularly in comments made by members of the blog community.

The corpus also contains several passivized versions of the popular internet expressions LOL and (ROTF)LMAO (see also Ex. 43 below). In (29) Out loud laughs were heard results from the passive movement rule applied to the full form Laugh Out Loud, where laugh and out loud are inverted and then nominalized, BE is inserted, and (what looks like) a reporting verb hear is added in past participle form.

Only the commenter in example (30) makes reference to the textual CMC medium, where nothing is actually said, but rather typed. As Herring (2011) points out, “in casual parlance, Internet users often refer to textual exchanges as conversations, using verbs such as ‘talked,’ ‘said,’ and ‘heard’ rather than ‘typed,’ ‘wrote,’ or ‘read’ to describe their online interactions.” She suggests that this usage “attests to the fact that users experience CMC in fundamentally similar ways to spoken conversation, despite CMC being produced and received by written means” (para. 3).

In addition to the ‘mock’ passives created by the commenters, there are also instances of ‘mock pseudo-passive’ forms (pseudo- in the sense that no constituents are switched), including verbal interjections like Oys were vey’d, which maintains the same word order as the original expression:

This Yiddish expression is one where the elements seem tightly connected to each other (see also habeus corpus in Ex. 33 below). It is not clear why Veys were oyed was not produced; perhaps a commenter might find that creating a ‘true’ mock passive by switching the elements is more difficult to produce in the moment (and perhaps more complex to understand). Other mock pseudo-passives in the data such as Boos were hoo’d and me’s were tooed are created in the same way.

4) Back-formed Compound Nouns

Another category of mock pseudo-passives are those which comprise two-word/compound nouns that are back-formed creatively, as illustrated in (32) and (33):

The compound noun clusterfuck in (32) is split into its constituent lexemes, the BE verb is inserted between them, and –ed is added to the second constituent. This order makes more sense than the fucks were clustered, assuming that being (metaphorically) fucked (e.g., in the then-current political climate), rather than clustered, is what the commenter intended to emphasize. Likewise in (33), The Bible was belted (a propos of no prior discourse) maintains the constituent order of Bible Belt; although this violates the passive word order rule, the intended meaning is arguably clearer than The belt was Bibled. It is also more plausible because belt can be a verb, whereas Bible cannot.

Habeus corpus (literally, “have the body”) is a fixed legal expression borrowed from Latin. It is treated in the same way as Bible was belted to produce habeus was corpsed. This construction is arguably more understandable than the corpus was habeused, in that the former maintains the same word order as the original lexical item, and one can expect that corpus will follow habeas. It is possible to imagine something being corpused (included in a corpus?), but it is not at all clear what it would mean to habeus something, corpus or otherwise. It is noteworthy that Commenter B repeats and praises A’s construction and even rates it as “best of the lot!”. This compliment is likely not based on clarity of meaning, but rather on the playful creativity involved in passivizing a foreign language construction using words that are not obvious as to their status as nouns or verbs.

In the three examples above, the order of elements in the compound noun is maintained in creating a mock pseudo-passive. I would argue that for certain nouns, particular morphemes or elements are more predictive than others of what follows. It may be that if reordering elements obfuscates meaning too much, because of cognitive demands on either the producer or the recipient, the original element order – where the first element of the original noun stays in initial position – is preserved, resulting in a mock pseudo-passive. That is, a general principle of discourse processing can account for the apparent disregard for passive word order in examples such as these.

At the same time, there are certain “rules” for mock passives that should be obeyed. In (34), two commenters attempt to passivize each other’s usernames:

Commenter A mock-passivizes Commenter B’s username, Reef the Dog, to create the dog was reefed, to which Commenter B responds with a mock-passivized version of Commenter A’s name, Jon Meltzer,9 to create the Meltzer was Jonned. Commenter A shows his understanding of how this game is played by pointing out that for these constructions to work, there must be an element that can plausibly be interpreted as a verb. We might not know exactly what reefed means, but it is possible to imagine it as an action verb; not so for Jonned.

5) Noun-to-Verb Conversions

Noun-to-verb conversion is an extremely common word formation process in English, leading to utterances such as “We lunched at Juniors,” “It’s time to martini,” and so on. A number of creative passive structures in the blog comment thread were crafted by converting nouns into (transitive) verbs and then passivizing the implied transitive clause. This process is illustrated in examples (35) - (38):

Ascertaining the meaning of the converted verbs in these examples requires a degree of background knowledge and perhaps some additional effort to understand the inferences. In (35) we are to understand that politics, and specifically elective offices, were corporatized: Someone (=CEOs? George Bush?) CEO’d elective offices; in (36) a TV sitcom son-in-law named Darrin was treated badly by his mother-in-law (played by Agnes Moorehead in Bewitched), who refused to use his name and instead referred to him as Durwood; thus, Someone (=Agnes Moorehead) durwooded (her) son-in-law. In (37) other planets were demoted by being Pluto-ed: Someone (=scientists?) Pluto-ed planets, in the same way that Pluto has been reclassified as a dwarf planet in our solar system. Finally, calling someone a douchebag is a popular insult on Daily Kos; in (38) the noun is co-opted to complain about Bush-era policies regarding liberty: Someone (=Bush?) douchbagged liberty.

These examples highlight the improbability of the ‘sources’ as grammatical English utterances and the extent to which the creative passives diverge from canonical passives.

6) Split up Phatic Expressions

More than one-quarter (22/83) of the creative passives were formed by breaking up phatic expressions (those in which social tasks, rather than information exchange, are the goal):

These examples require considerable background knowledge in order to be understood. In (39) the two-word idiomatic phrase heckava job is mock passivized in the same way as previous mock passives, by fronting the second element, inserting the verb BE after it, and adding –ed to the second element (i.e., the new verb). Heckava job leads to Jobs were heckava’d. This reference is part of a long conversation on Daily Kos about Hurricane Katrina in 2005. Soon after the storm hit, President Bush (in)famously praised Michael Brown, the unqualified and inept director of the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), by stating "Brownie, you're doing a heck of a job." The phrase heckava job invokes a running theme in criticisms of the Bush administration. Passivization allows this commenter to show that s/he belongs to the community and is ‘hip to’ Kos-speak and its political targets.

Already diaried is another popular Daily Kos expression; it functions as a criticism of a diarist or commenter for posting on a topic that has already been written about. It is also mock passivized by moving the second constituent to the front and changing it to a noun (as appropriate for subject position), creating diaries were alreadied (40). Likewise, in (41) the Daily Kos expression Just saying is commonly used at the end of a comment that shows disagreement with a previous comment. This mock passive is also created by fronting the second constituent, adding a future form of the BE verb between the two constituents, and appending –ed to the second element to produce saying to be justed. In both cases, the commenters playfully evoke the insider lingo of the Daily Kos community.

In each of these examples, a more general ‘X-to-Verb’ conversion occurs. Heckava in heckava job, already in already diaried, and just in just saying are not nouns being converted to verbs, but rather adjectives (heckava) and adverbs (already, just).

In example (42) a fourth Kos meme that is passivized:

Goodbye Cruel World (GBCW) is used when commenters get so fed up with the discussions or the Daily Kos atmosphere that they decide to leave forever. It is considered tacky to post a GBCW diary because it is seen as a cry for attention. Commenter A creates a mock passive of the structure, but expresses doubt and requests confirmation about verbifying the formulaic greeting goodbye into goodbyeed. Commenter B does not respond to this question with a yes or no; rather s/he creates a list of goodbye-ed equivalents in six other languages, all in the same format. This is a nice example of playing along (what I call “riffing”) within a two-part question-answer sequence.

In (43) Ass was laughed off is derived from the non-decomposable idiomatic expression I laughed my ass off. The post-verbal noun (my) ass is fronted and a BE verb is inserted preceding the phrasal verb laugh off:

Lexemes Broken Into Syllable Clusters

The final category of creative passive constructions includes single and two-word (compound) nouns that are passivized by being split into smaller components (syllable clusters or words), leading to some of the most elaborate and nonsensical contributions to the diary. Sometimes these involve passive inversion, and sometimes the original order of elements is preserved.

The bolded elements in examples (44) and (45) illustrate passivized nouns created by splitting the syllables of a word, inserting a past tense BE verb between them, and appending the past participle –ed verb form to the constituent in second position, thereby producing a mock pseudo-passive:

In (46) a mock passive is created by switching the split syllables and then adding BE and –ed:

Why were the words passivized in these ways? In the cabb was aged (44) it would be possible to create the age was cabbed, but this would appear to be less preferable, first because the meaning of the switched phrase is not immediately obvious, and second because age is already a verb in its proper place. Of course, the joke is that cabb exists and can be aged (which it is, if fermentation is considered a form of aging to make sauerkraut).

In (45), the commenter splits the word oxycontin in half, producing oxy and contin, inserts the BE verb between the two, and adds the –ed past participle to the constituent in second position (the new “verb”). Although the contin(s) was/were oxy-d is possible, this variation seems harder to process because we do not come across contin used by itself. Oxy-, in contrast, is a semi-productive prefix, as in oxygenic and oxymoronic; once the reader sees oxy- in word-initial position, contin, if not expected, is at least a plausible guess as to what will follow.

In (46), the commenter separates and switches the first two syllables and the last one of barbeque to create the cue was barbied. Even though the meaning might not be immediately obvious in isolation, its position at the end of Commenter B’s entry (and near the end of the nested thread in which it is embedded) reinforces the subject of picnics and grilling. The barbie was cued is certainly feasible, however, especially considering that “barbie” is the Australian equivalent of barbeque. Because “cue” has as one of its meanings “line up” or “prepare,” perhaps this makes more sense.

In examples 44-46, participants passivized nouns to ‘play along’ with the original diarist and previous commenters. This can be a continuation or expansion of a local textual context, such as (44), where the immediately prior entry mentions St. Patrick’s Day, and (46), which follows eight prior entries (not shown) about Wisconsin, beer, and fried bratwurst that lead up to grilling. In contrast, (45) refers to an ongoing target of criticism on Daily Kos, Rush Limbaugh: Oxycontin; hearing was lost; and fat was gained imply that referent. Here the playing along functions not as a co-textual reference (as there is no prior mention of either Limbaugh or oxycontin) but rather exophorically, in that a blog community member invokes a shared DKos history of dislike for Rush Limbaugh as well as a shared vocabulary for criticizing him (he is a drug abuser, he is fat, etc.).

A second type of passivized noun consists of two-word and compound forms that are split into two parts and (sometimes) inverted. The mock passive The beef was corned appears in line 3 of Ex. (44) above as a play on corned beef. Although the corn was beefed is possible, its focus is corn, and not the beef that undergoes the corning (it is St. Patrick’s Day beef – bratwurst, specifically – that is discussed prior to this entry). In Ex. 46, line 2, hot dogs is modified to the dogs were heated (not the dogs were hot, which could imply actual living creatures, or the hots were dogged, which seems nonsensical – although admittedly that is not a constraint for contributions to this diary). The fries were frenched is derived from French fries; the French were fried has a different (albeit still humorous) sense, which may be dispreferred because it has a different meaning, in addition to taking the form of a pseudo-passive. Other passivized two-word/compound nouns in the comment thread include mock passives like mallows were marshed (marshmallow), and the Hoople was Motted (from Mott the Hoople, a British rock band from the early to mid-1970s).

Discussion

The language play documented in this article appears to be inspired by a desire to create constructions which a) are original in that they would not show up in standard English, b) fit the mock passive framework described in this article, c) include a verb (or an element that can be interpreted as a verb) in the past participle –ed form, and d) are made up of lexical units that are inverted in the case of ‘true’ mock passives; in mock pseudo-passives constituents retain their original positions. A key challenge for commenters is balancing innovation with adherence to the mock passive framework, and meeting that challenge reinforces the blog community through a shared practice that builds on common in-group knowledge and language.

The findings also indirectly highlight the English grammatical knowledge of the commenters. Over 90% of the passive utterances that were produced are prescriptively correct; that is, they include a transitive verb in past participle form, sentential subjects and objects that switch positions, and an appropriately tensed BE verb. The commenters’ linguistic awareness is especially evident in the creative passive constructions, where the general passive formation rule is stretched to allow the inversion of other constituents that follow verbs. This more lenient rule allows for constructions like tightness was slept, up was given, etc., where no transitive verb is present. There are also cases where intransitive verbs that have no following elements are passivized by including the pro-verb do to fill the verbal position vacated by the converted noun (e.g., Staggering was done). Equally clever are passivized direct speech (heh was replied), back-formed compound nouns (e.g., fries were frenched), noun-to-verb conversions (Elective offices were CEO’d) and phatic expressions (jobs were heckava’d). Perhaps the most complex and unusual creative passives are those in which single words are split into syllable clusters that occupy the nominal and verbal position in the new passive (i.e., cabb was aged instead of age was cabbed).

It may be that the technological aspects of asynchronous CMC, particularly its persistent textual record (Herring, 1999), contribute to the discursive creativity evident in the diary. The diary is very long by Daily Kos standards, and without the ability to look back at the past interaction, commenters would not be able to contribute appropriately in a sequential environment of just a few entries, much less within long nested threads. More generally, “the medium, the computer, invites participants to ‘fiddle,’ and to invoke the frame of ‘make-believe,’” and when this happens, “participants understand and accept the meta-message “this is play” (Danet et al., 1997, n.p.). The “performative” aspect of CMC (Danet et al., 1997; North, 2007; Virtanen, 2013) is ever-present in the participant comments to the diary: Commenters “do” ‘funny’ and ‘clever’ as co-constructed performances that are affirmed by others’ cooperation and praise.

In other words, a central factor in Daily Kos language play is its collective/collaborative nature. Danet et al. (1997) claim that playful online behavior “is present even when there is no apparent partner to play with. One is playing with the program and the machine, not a person” (n.p.). In reality, however, the interactive nature of much expressive CMC is linked with collective and collaborative action. Danet et al.’s description of a “virtual party” where six participants simulated smoking marijuana using emoticons in typed Internet Relay Chat illustrates jointly constructed play with identity, interactional frames, and typographic symbols. The ‘virtual’ party, like the diary thread in this study, was a collaborative achievement.

At the same time, while the original diarist explicitly sets out her contribution as snark (a blend of ‘snide’ and ‘remark’ that refers to sarcastic yet humorous speech or writing), and most commenters follow her playful lead, serious ideas are conveyed through these playful passive structures. The comment habeus was corpsed refers to the U.S. Department of Justice and issues related to constitutional rights and the Patriot Act, and elective offices were CEO’d expresses frustration with the corporatization of politics; both are ongoing targets of criticism on the blog. The intricate weave of play and commentary is one of the more remarkable aspects of the data examined.

Commenters on the BG diary must understand the language game under construction, the structure at its center, and the operative rules for its formation in order to play well. An interesting finding is what happens when a commenter ‘gets it wrong’ by ignoring the passive voice frame and producing an active voice comment. In response, some commenters take it upon themselves to point out and/or correct rule violations (see Exx. 1, 6, and 31), including their own, or to scold and even ridicule these ‘aberrant’ contributions; this contrasts with the praise and affirmation that the creative passive structures educe (Lazaraton, 2014).

Conclusion

The language play present in these data was not entirely spontaneous, in the sense that the particular form of play was modeled in the original diary (see the Appendix) and then adopted by commenters. The original poster, BG, established the frame to be used for the play, and it then became incumbent on subsequent commenters to format their contributions as passive utterances. The ways in which conscious, somewhat pre-structured language play differs from more spontaneous play episodes is not something the current study is able to address, but one might speculate that spontaneous play with the passive voice would not be as sustained or productive. Because commenters are presented with a structural model to follow, they likely have more cognitive resources available to construct clever passives that fit textually with prior talk.

This study is based on a single extended sequence of language play that occurred in rather special circumstances. Thus it cannot make any claims about how frequent or how likely such play is to occur. The particular form of language play described here – the playful manipulation of the passive voice frame – is certainly unusual and may not occur in any other context, online or otherwise. Nevertheless, there is evidence that syntactic language play occurs in other CMC contexts (such as Cherny’s [1999] study of creative morphosyntax on a MOO). Herring (2012) notes that the structural features of CMC have been exploited in innovative ways; however, “electronic language, as a new and still emergent phenomenon, has not yet had time (nor attained the requisite social status) to become formalized in ‘rules’; rather, it exhibits patterns that vary according to technological and situational contexts” (p. 2338). Even though “many e‐grammar innovations have been adopted by the wider community of Internet users” (p. 2843), it may be too soon to determine whether, and if so, how, these grammatical novelties could be codified more formally. Clearly, further studies from a syntactic perspective are needed of language use in playful online environments.

A further limitation is that the present analysis does not include information on commenter demographics, as such information was not available for consideration. Commenter characteristics such as age, education level, and native language all plausibly influenced the discourse produced, however. The Daily Kos membership is politically engaged and well educated, and almost all contributors appear to be adult native speakers of English. Thus they were able to engage in the sort of sophisticated grammatical language play documented in this article.

This study suggests a number of avenues for future research. It would also be interesting to explore the significance of agentless passives, for example, for masking and avoiding responsibility in this political blog and in online political discourse more generally. It is noteworthy that only 30 (3%) of the 875 passive utterances in the dataset (and none of the creative passives) included a by-phrase. It may be that the original diarist modeled the agentless form, and the commenters merely followed suit. Alternatively, the agentless passive structure may be fulfilling a particular function in this digital environment. A broader interdisciplinary study of language play in political blogs could include literature from political science and communication; a fruitful comparison might be with the use of passives in other contexts (e.g., face-to-face interaction) – both playful and serious.

Finally, more could be said about how language play functions to create solidarity within the Daily Kos blog community, including how memes and particular conversational topics invoke and build on the community. The Daily Kos weblog itself provides a multitude of possibilities for other sorts of analyses of discursive creativity. For example, a regular Saturday feature from 2009 to early 2013 was the blog owner’s weekly diary Hate mail-a-palooza, in which he posted and commented on various vitriolic mails he had received during the previous week. A large, devoted following for this series developed definable and playful ways of reacting to the hate mails of the current week and referring back to hate mails from previous weeks, months, or years. A deeper examination of these playful aspects of Daily Kos would reveal more about the how this particular blog community is constituted and maintained over time and across writers and readers.

Acknowledgments

I am grateful to two anonymous Language@Internet reviewers and to Susan Herring for their helpful critique, suggestions, and feedback on earlier versions of this paper.

Notes

  1. Many terms are used to refer to computer-mediated communication (CMC), including digital communication, digital discourse, new media discourse, Internet discourse, computer-mediated discourse, online discourse, and Internet communication. I use these phrases interchangeably in this article.

  2. LOLspeak is the “speech” of lolcats. “A lolcat is an image combining a photograph of a cat with text intended to contribute to humour [sic]. The text is often idiosyncratic and grammatically incorrect, and its use in this way is known as ‘lolspeak’” ( http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Lolcat ).

  3. An internet meme is a concept that spreads rapidly via the Internet ( http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Internet_meme ).

  4. There is a long history regarding the active version of this diary title, Delete my fucking account, Kos. The frame Delete _____ fucking _____, Kos is now widely used by blog members for a variety of purposes.

  5. Data in their original format appear as shown on the left below; my explanations of each line appear on the right:

    Subsequent comments are either listed separately, indicated by text alignment with the left margin, or nested via indentation from the left margin.

  6. The letters A:, B:, and C: in the data fragments represent the different commenters in a particular sequence.

  7. Not analyzed further are non-sentential, verb-less comments (n=100) such as metalicious, Nope, Oh, the humanity, and Ack! Active voice invader, or utterances written in Yodish (n=22), the artificial dialect of English spoken by the character Yoda in the Star Wars films. Yodish uses English words but with a rule-governed word order (specifically, verb initial) that differs from Standard American English ( http://www.yodajeff.com/pages/talk/likeyoda.shtml ). Yodish was also apparently dispreferred in the diary:

  8. These included identifiably creative passive utterances using nonsensical words. I could neither determine parts of speech nor decide in which of the categories to include them (e.g., klaatu was barata niktoed from The Day the Earth Stood Still).

  9. This is the only instance in which an actual name appears in the data. A Google search of “Jon Meltzer” generates thousands of hits, which suggests that there are a large number of people with that name.

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Appendix. Original Diary

Accounts were f-ing requested to be deleted, Kos

Wed Mar 14, 2007 at 10:20:28 AM CDT

This snark is brought to you today in honor of Attorney General Alberto Gonzales.
Accounts were f-ing requested to be deleted. Kos.
Blogrolls were trimmed, progressives were slighted. Community was frustrated, posters were confused.
TV show appearances were booked. Tempers were short. Statements were made.
People were upset. Friends were sympathetic.
Diarists wrote meta. Comments were made. More comments were made. More comments were made. More comments were made. More - the picture was gotten.
UIDs were thrown around. Troll ratings were given. Users were banned.
More meta diaries were posted. Diaries were recommended. Pooties were posted. Names were called.
Metajesus was made to cry.
Conspiracies were theorized. Accusations were hurled. Documentation was overlooked.
Lieberman was blamed. The DLC was accused.
Candidates were trashed. Voting records were invented. Republican talking points were used. Wayne Madsen was cited. Eyes were rolled.
Good diaries were missed. Issues were not discussed. Democrats were not supported. News was not made. Elections were not won. Legislation was not passed. Tears were shed.
Accounts were f-ing requested to be deleted. Kos.

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Biographical Note

Anne Lazaraton [ lazaratn@umn.edu ] is an Associate Professor in the Department of Writing Studies at the University of Minnesota. Her research interests include English grammar in use, second language writing, and language play.


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