Don’t razz me, bro

Here is a short passage from Stuart Chase’s excellent 1938 book The Tyranny of Words, a layman’s introduction to semantics:

William of Occam (1300 A.D.) challenged the “absolutes” of the medieval philosophers. In a tactful way he razzed¹ the Schoolmen, holding that “absolutes” and “universals” were mental conveniences, and that God could not be proved by words. . . .
¹ A good example of a slang word created to fill a linguistic void.

Razz (v) is slang for heckle, tease, deride, criticise. It derives from razzberry, itself an informal variant of raspberry (the kind you blow, not eat). I have never used razz in this sense, and I have rarely if ever heard it spoken. So when I read Chase’s book, the word was immediately conspicuous, and not just because it directed my gaze to a footnote. In a pre-WWII book about the meanings of words, the self-conscious use of a (mostly North American?) slang word was bound to stand out. This is especially so since the use of that word remains quite limited, at least from this amateur linguist’s position at the elbow of Europe some decades later.

raspberriesChase’s decision to include it made me wonder about (though not doubt) the linguistic void razz was purported to fill. Voltaire’s description of the superfluous as “a very necessary thing” seems apt to slang; Chase’s razzed could be replaced with ribbed or ragged without losing substantial sense, but each term delivers unique nuances and subtleties. Needle and badger inhabit similar semantic spaces, but they are less colloquial and seem to connote a harshness missing from razz’s playful heckling.

No doubt Chase chose the term carefully, but its relative obscurity shows a shortcoming of putting slang to work beyond its natural terrain: readers (or listeners) may have to pause to parse the phrase or even delve into a dictionary.

The title of this blog post, by the way, is a play on this phrase.

[image source]

11 Responses to Don’t razz me, bro

  1. emculturate says:

    You raise an interesting point here. I haven’t read the book, but it’s on my long list of things to get to (I’m reading Lotman papers and Umberto Eco at the moment… while plying my day job too…)

    As a book written for a lay audience, and one embedded in the milieu in which the term “razz” perhaps evoked a more immediately recognizable understanding, I would have assumed he knew his audience would “get it”. It is still a term in use here in the US, although perhaps not as regularly as in 1938 (I wouldn’t actually know).

    You obviously understood it, even if it took you back a moment. I wonder if that’s just a sign that you are sitting more or less on what Lotman describes as the boundary between two semiospheres. Your self-description may be a good indicator of this. So while you have “an elbow” in Europe and obviously an interest in older American texts, and clearly are able to translate between these contexts, this term “razz” does not occur in sufficient frequency for you to read it and move on.

  2. […] Semiospheric Boundary Posted on September 23, 2009 by emculturate I was reading an entry at Sentence First on the surprise the author experienced when the word “razzed” was used in the body of a […]

  3. Stan says:

    Hello emculturate, and thank you for the trackback and thoughtful contribution. Yes, when I saw the word razz as Chase used it, I felt that I understood it – and the context strongly supported my feelings about it – but I looked it up in a few dictionaries and in various places online to better appreciate its usage. Everyone’s parole and perception are unique, after all! This short investigation confirmed what I had intuited about its meaning. Curiously, the word now seems most common as a name for a form of Poker.

    As to being on the boundary between two semiospheres, I might not be in a good position to judge, though I appreciate your point – and the part played by my geographical position, etc. For one thing, I am suspicious of all “boundaries”, though I recognise the limited utility of the word and the idea. To use permeable membranes as a model seem a better structural fit!

    But this is a mere semantic quibble, a subjective and probably unfair one, since I have read only a couple of papers by Lotman (including, some time ago, “On the semiosphere”) and I realise that he elaborated greatly on these semiotic “boundaries”. Still, the word presses alarm buttons in my reality-checking systems. Sometimes I wonder if humans developed language so that we would never run out of problems to solve… I do find it interesting that Lotman seems to have coined the term “semiosphere” after “biosphere” and “noosphere” as used by the great Russian geochemist Vernadsky.

    Your final sentence is an accurate deduction: the word razz was unfamiliar enough, and used unexpectedly enough, that it prompted a minor but not insignificant diversion. Chase’s book, by the way, is mostly very good.

  4. emculturate says:

    I’m no expert on Lotman, having only begun to read his work, and I also recognize and agree with you about the “permeable membrane” aspect of things. I don’t think from what I have read that Lotman would disagree with you on that point, as he describes the boundary in the following way:

    “Insofar as the space of the semiosphere has an abstract character, its boundary cannot be visualized by means of concrete imagination. Just as in mathematics the border represents a multiplicity of points, belonging simultaneously to both the internal and external space, the semiotic border is represented by the sum of bilingual translatable “filters”, passing through which the text is translated into another language … situated outside the given semiosphere.” (On the Semiosphere, Juri Lotman)

    I do like his biosphere analogy, and it brings to mind another possible analogy that might be useful, namely that of an “ecosystem”. I’ll be looking into that soon. My notion (and as always it is a laypersons notion) is that the problem of description of a particular ecosystem presents the same puzzle as the identification and description of a semiosphere.

    What’s in the ecosystem and what’s outside of it? If we’re talking about a salt marsh ecosystem, for example, where does the geographic border lie? Which creatures are part of the system and which ones are strangers to it (just travelling through)?

    If a predator in the woods abutting the salt marsh happens to occasionally eat a creature from the salt marsh when they stray too far from home, does that make the predator part of the ecosystem or not? What if they primarily eat forest critters? What if they primarily eat salt marsh critters? What if they eat equal amounts of forest and salt marsh critters?

    What we see in this example is that the predator is an edge creature. When we make this story about a particular individual creature, then whether the predator is in one or another ecosystem is dependent on how that ecosystem has been defined generally. To the creature, the distinction is meaningless. It lives in both places, eats what it can catch from either place.

    Now add to this the two individual prespectives of a salt marsh prey creature and a forest prey creature. Their typical experience, understanding and adaptation is of the more frequently encountered predators in their milieu. In fact they may have evolved special protections or strategies for foiling these common dangers.

    If our predator is mostly a forest feeder, then the forest prey may be well adapted to avoid it, while the salt marsh prey may not. The salt marsh prey in this case may not understand or recognize the danger at all. Or else, if the individual creature had spent some time with his pals at the edge of the forest, he may ultimately recognize the predator, although it might take a few moments to react.

    To turn this back into a discussion of semantics, then…

    If we equate our edge creature to a person with knowledge of two different domains (yourself, for example), then we get the same questions: which domain is that person a member of? If he primarily communicates in American vernacular but occasionaly uses Irish idioms, is he more American? If the reverse is true, perhaps he is more Irish?

    In my mind the distinction is not so important to the individual, but is certainly more important to the people who share more of the “core” and less of the “periphery” (as Lotman described it).

    I also think that in the case of the semiosphere, as with our ecosystem example, the “boundary” or “permeable membrane” is generated only by the existence of individual creatures who bridge it and cross freely between the domains. In the case of human communication, however, I think we all are “bridging” these gaps all the time, so much so that we don’t usually experience the shift until we are reminded of them by an unfamiliar word (or symbol).

    I hope you don’t mind, I like where this comment went so I’m also going to post it at my blog! I look forward to reading more here, you have many interesting pages!

  5. […] Posted on September 24, 2009 by emculturate I have been having an interesting discussion with Sentence First blogger Stan Carey regarding semiosphere boundaries, and I posted the following […]

  6. Stan says:

    Thanks for the kind remark and the quote from Lotman. After posting my last comment, I dug up “On the semiosphere” to refresh my memory of it. Funnily enough, I began in my last comment to write about biological ecosystems – more specifically, to show how they have sometimes been misunderstood as a model – but I removed it because I did not want to overwork the analogy. It’s a useful comparison but only up to a point. Our tendency to systematise everything has great practical advantages, but it can also foment confusion of the map with the territory.

    I’m reminded of I. A. Richards’s description of words as “part of the mind’s endless endeavour to order itself”. Categories and analogies are human fancies; the degree to which they map onto the natural world, or the semiotic world for that matter, is a game of abstract ideas. So I am cautious with them, even (or especially) if I’m writing poetry. As you put it: ‘In the case of human communication, however, I think we all are “bridging” these gaps all the time’.

  7. emculturate says:

    Reality and my experience of it is certainly more seamless than any discrete description you or I can express. I agree, the usefulness if an analogy is in the evocation of similar notions/feelings between individuals, not in the ultimate reality of them. The “evocation” I was going for with the ecosystem thread was of an “edgeless boundary” and how that might or might not be experienced/recognized by the creatures or persons residing there. I certainly agree that that’s where the analogy starts to lose its power for me.

    I also think, from my own experience and from studying Michael Polanyi years ago, that what I know and experience in my head is far richer material than I will ever be able to express. The mental trick is to find the right “communicative trick” of analogy and long description that can begin to evoke what’s in here to someone else.

  8. Sean Jeating says:

    Stan, right now browsing Beecher’s ‘Dictionary of Cork Slang’ to find some nice words I could address at the esteemed Jams O’Donnell Esq., by stumbling upon the following I thought it might be a nice tiny additive to this / your very post, and you might like to have a sconce at it:
    Razz, verb
    To tease, provoke, jeer at,
    Use: He razzed the players = He teased the players.
    Derivation: Probably abbreviation of ‘Raspberry’ (slang).
    Concise Oxford Dictionary.
    or see
    ‘To jeer at someone’ (Australian). Partridge.
    And note ‘Razzer’ – to vex, enrage (South Lacashire). Wright.

  9. Stan says:

    Sean: Thank you very much! I don’t have Beecher’s book, so I appreciate you sharing the entry here. There’s no mention of razz in Bernard Share’s Slanguage, Terence Patrick Nolan’s Dictionary of Hiberno-English, or P. W. Joyce’s English As We Speak It In Ireland, so it just goes to show that you can never have enough (Irish) slang reference books! I do wonder, though, how common the term is or was in Cork. I haven’t spent enough time in the city to have any real idea. The word is more familiar to me in the idiom “to go on the razz”, i.e. on the razzle, student slang for alcohol-fuelled hedonism.

  10. Sean Jeating says:

    Now that’s interesting, Stan.
    Once, 24 years ago, when this agnostic made Lough Derg, a certain Father Dick – who some years later would succeed Monsignore McSorley as Prior – taught him another definition: pub-crawl(ing).

    Mr Beecher’s dictionary I bought in the same year, following the commendation of a wonderful seanachie I had the privilege to stay with in Cork.
    Thus, I am not sure whether the book is still available; and, of course, I cannot judge whether “razz(ing)” is still or even frequently used.

    All we need – it seems – is a Corkonian to read this blogpost and enlighten us.

  11. Stan says:

    You visited Lough Derg, Sean? There’s a story I’d like to hear! Beecher’s book is still available — it was republished by The Collins Press in 2004 — so I will keep an eye out for it (an expression so common I sometimes overlook how strange it is when interpreted literally). I know a few Corkonians and I will, at the risk of being razzed, take the matter up with them when the opportunity arises.

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