Irregular verbs, dialects, and sockpuppets

I have a few new posts up at Macmillan Dictionary Blog. First up, Irregular ours considers irregular verbs, whose familiarity obscures their peculiarity – most pronounced in everyday words like be and go:

Irregular verbs can be awkward items for students, requiring to be learned (or learnt) by heart rather than by a simple rule. But they are also historical artefacts that have stubbornly withstood (not withstanded) the pressure to conform, and they shed light on the shapes and structure of English morphology – word formation – as it has unfolded over the centuries.

The post also looks at how new irregulars (snuck, knelt) sometimes appear; how old ones (holp, brung) survive in regional dialects; and how irregular forms, far from being chaotic, tend to follow patterns and sub-rules of their own.

Dialects in dialogue continues the theme, briefly discussing regional variation, how conformity squeezed it out of the emerging standard variety of English, and how authors continued to convey it through the technique of ‘eye dialect’:

Variation in language goes beyond inflection and vocabulary, of course. In everyday encounters it is most noticeable in our accents. As children we learn sounds from the people around us, typically our families, neighbours and peers, and we imbue our accent with qualities all our own. The signature sound of our voice is the result of a unique anatomy, personality, and social environment. . . .

Spelling became largely standardised as Middle English developed gradually into Early Modern English. But authors continued to exploit the features of regional speech, which retained – and still retains – old grammatical and phonetic variants. [read more]

Finally, On the metaphor of sock puppets addresses the term sock puppet in its new online incarnation. Describing it as “the use of a fake identity online for the purposes of talking about oneself, typically in a self-promoting way”, I examine the term’s connotations and appropriateness, especially in light of the etymology of puppet and the other metaphorical uses to which it is put:

The fun and friendly feel of sock puppets, perhaps helped by puppet‘s similarity to poppet and indeed puppy, seems awkwardly at odds with the sneaky behaviour it has come to mean. At first glance the term doesn’t fit well with the usual metaphors of deception, which evoke things that are dark, down, dirty and hidden – not playful and brightly coloured. But when we look at puppet’s other metaphorical uses, we see it’s not such a leap. [read more]

Older posts are available in my archive at Macmillan Dictionary Blog.

Slightly sinister sock puppet image via Wikimedia Commons.

8 Responses to Irregular verbs, dialects, and sockpuppets

  1. wisewebwoman says:

    I’ve heard the term “sock puppet” used in lieu of the rather British “poodle” in describing political sycophants.


  2. Stan says:

    WWW: Oh yes, I had forgotten about that use of poodle. Seems it’s been around for about a century, but it’s a while since I heard it.

  3. alexmccrae1546 says:


    I wonder if the Brit term that you referenced,”poodle”, used as a slang appellation for a political sycophant came about because of the ‘lap-dog’ connotation; in the political arena, a lap-dog suggests, perhaps, an individual having the character of a lackey, or fawning people-pleaser type person?

    Although frankly, most ‘real’ poodles I’ve met (the yappy, four-legged, fluffy variety, that is), are far from compliant lap-dogs, but more like feisty little tyrants, loyal to their masters, to a fault. (I’ll grant you, some individual poodles ARE very well behaved, and will take to one’s lap, now and again. IMHO, always dangerous to generalize about a singular breed.)

    My earliest exposure to an actual high-profile performing sock puppet had to be the TV character Lambchop, the adorable hand puppet so charmingly ‘articulated’ by ventriloquist/ puppeteer, Shari Lewis back in the early ’60s. Shari had her own fairly long-running TV show which seemed to appeal to both young kids and adults, alike.

    I believe she and Lambchop got their first major exposure on The Ed Sullivan Show, and Shari’s stellar career took off from there.

    Although Lambchop had sewn-on, pendulous, simulated ‘wooly’ lamb legs, he was still essentially a sock puppet character; wherein, Shari’s deft hand movements within the sock mimicked Lambchop’s talking action; the standard operational technique of sock puppetry performance.

    Of course Ed Sullivan also provided a vast nationwide (and Canada) TV audience for the great Señor Wensless (sp. ?), who was basically a hand puppeteer, but without the sock prop.

    As some of you early ‘boomers’ may recall, Wenless had this character, basically his scrunched-up hand w/ crudely draw eyes (at the base of his index finger), w/ lip stick on the inside of his thumb and index finger to simulate an open human mouth. Naturally, he would provide the voice, while manipulating his caricatured hand in sync w/ his schtick, as the camera stayed focused on his ‘talking’ hand.

    Who knew that this very simple form of puppetry would become such an overnight sensation? Wensless (and his talented hand HA!) appeared innumerable times over the long run of Sullivan’s highly-rated variety show.

    The hand’s classic line was, ” it’s all right…. it’s all right.” w/ a decidedly strong eastern European inflection.. (On the face of it, hardly hilarious….. but I guess you had to be there.)

    A number of years back, those zany cartoon pranksters at Comedy Central’s “South Park” did a very funny episode where Cartman, the obnoxious, pudgy, always-scamming character, decides to fashion a hand puppet, simulating the doppelganger of the super-star performer, Jennifer Lopez.

    Much like the aforementioned Mr. Wensless, Cartman slathers on some lip stick, draws on a pair of large black eyes w/ huge eyelashes, and then tops it off w/ a jet black mini-hairpiece. He comes up w/ a very heavy Puerto Rican inflected singing/ talking voice for his Jennifer, which was a bit odd, since the actual Jennifer Lopez has hardly a hint of her Puerto Rican/ NYC-honed accent.

    Of course, pure cartoon insanity ensues, as Cartman’s fake Jennifer hand puppet eventually gets a major recording contract deal w/ the real Jennifer Lopez’s record label, no less. (Lopez is released from her contract). The real Jennifer soon gets wind of this fake Jennifer interloper, is furious, and out for fatal revenge. Cat fight!

    Well I could go on, but I believe i’ve overstayed my welcome as it is, and then some.

    In the immortal words of the adorable Lambchop, “Not baaaaaaaaaaah-d, eh?”

    • Stan says:

      Alex: It would be interesting to know just how that usage of poodle originated. We give dogs a hard time with these slang senses, so often stressing negative qualities. It reflects on us more than them, of course.

      I’d heard of Lambchop, but my knowledge of Shari Lewis’s creation and other work is sadly limited. Cartman’s Jennifer Lopez is more familiar to me; it’s a typically merciless turn! In Ireland, the puppets I knew best from childhood TV appeared in the Wanderly Wagon show, which I loved.

  4. alexmccrae1546 says:

    Just got my latest hardcopy issue of Newsweek in the post yesterday, and in their opening NEWSBEAST* section, under subject ‘header’ “Caveat Emptor”, there’s a shortish piece (p. 10) by staffer Josh Dzieza on ‘detecting phony online reviews’, w/ the article headline reading, “To Catch a Sock Puppet”.

    According to this article, the online arena of recently-released book reviewing is rife w/ sock puppetry, many authors praising their own works under several different aliases.

    Apparently, some of the more careless self-promoting scribes will drop significant clues, or perhaps fail to cover their online cyber-tracks, and are, much to their embarrassment, eventually found out.

    *Basically, Newsweek and the online news analysis/ commentary sight, The Daily Beast, have merged, several months ago, under the stewardship of editor-in-chief, the imitable, bright, and feisty Brit expat, Tina Brown.

  5. Stan says:

    Alex: Yes, it seems to be a very popular strategy for many authors. Which doesn’t say much for their principles or for their confidence in the quality of their work.

  6. John Cowan says:

    I wonder if it would be possible to detect sock puppets by their characteristic use of irregular verbs and dialect forms!

    • Stan Carey says:

      Probably, John. Forensic linguists and other stylometric specialists could definitely help uncover sock puppets, not only by looking at irregular and nonstandard usages but also by comparing more mundane items like the frequency of certain prepositions or a preference for certain adjectives.

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