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Can linguistics explain an enduring mystery?

Can linguistics explain an enduring mystery?

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Happy holidays. Forgive me for digging into the archives, but here’s one from back in 1994 that no one remembers, probably for good reason. In fact, I don’t know that it was ever published, probably getting wiped off the page by the big news of the time, which included Lorena Bobbitt going on trial for the unkindest of cuts and Queen Elizabeth II falling off her horse and breaking her wrist. Enjoy or endure, and I will be back next week with something fresh.

How do you get a great gig like this?

According to an Associated Press story last week, a man described as “a nationally known linguist” established the North Carolina Language and Life Project and promptly snagged a three-year, $186,000 grant from the National Science Foundation to travel from the coast to the mountains studying the way people talk.

"We get them to talk about whatever they are interested in, and we record it for about an hour or two," the nationally known linguist said.

(I had never heard of him, but, then again, I had to look up "linguist" in the dictionary. I got sidetracked when I saw the word "lickspittle," which I thought might be something dirty, and I wanted to fire off a letter to my congressman about how we can’t even go to the Webster’s anymore without having to endure pure filth, but then I just lost interest.)

After the famous linguist records people talking, he and his assistants study the tapes, the story said. It's unclear what the ultimate goal of this project is, but the nationally known linguist will probably sell the movie rights to his story and we'll someday see Harrison Ford star as a swashbuckling linguist battling against incredible odds in the jungles of Appalachia. (2020 update: It probably won’t be Ford at this point.)

When the linguist makes his cross-state trip, I hope he stops here in my hometown to do some of his linguisticating. We'll make him earn that $186,000. For starters, I might hit him with this sentence: "While Maw-maw was in the house commencing to fry up some okree for supper, Paw-paw was squirting a wasper's nest up next to the chimbley with a hose pipe, fell bass ackwards off the ladder and sprung his back when he hit slapdab on top of his Pony-ack vee-hicle."

(Here's a translation for the hillbilly-impaired: "While grandmother was in the house beginning to cook okra for the evening meal, grandfather was squirting a wasp's nest near the chimney with a garden hose, fell from the ladder and sprained his back when he landed atop his Pontiac vehicle.")

I'll let the linguist listen to the funny way I talk if he will in turn use his linguistical expertise and help me with a definition of a term that has perplexed me for many a year: What is "half-drunk?"

From barrooms to court rooms, I've heard "half-drunk" used to describe nearly every level of intoxication in the alcoholic spectrum, from slightly tipsy to knee-crawling, dog-kissing drunk. Never will anyone admit to being just "totally drunk."

Usually, half-drunk is used as an excuse for some kind of unlawful or unseemly behavior. "Mr. Jones, tell the jury why you repeatedly smashed your ex-wife's boyfriend's pickup truck with a crowbar then set fire to his mailbox while completely nude."

"Well, heck, I was about half-drunk."

Or:

"Yeah, I was about half-drunk when me and that ol’ gal went down to Chesnee, got married and robbed that liquor store."

Variations on "half-drunk" include "half-lit" and "half-looped."

As a service to my fellow man, I am applying for a $186,000 grant from the National Science Foundation to once and for all answer the question, "Just how drunk is half-drunk?"

(2020 update: I never did get that grant, so the mystery remains.)

Scott Hollifield is editor of The McDowell News in Marion and a humor columnist. Email him at rhollifield@mcdowellnews.com.

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