Jim’s body English

Watching a short documentary on the making of The Truman Show, I heard a phrase that made me turn on the subtitles and take a snapshot:

Spoken by visual effects supervisor Michael McAlister, “body English” struck me as a strange variant of body language. (He uses the more common phrase a little earlier.) At first I thought it might be a Hollywoodism, but the new American Heritage Dictionary lists body language as the secondary sense of “body English”. Its narrower main sense is:

Bodily movement in a usually unconscious attempt to influence the trajectory of a moving object, such as a ball.

The Straight Dope has a short discussion of this English. It’s a new one on me.

Edit: I liked this example in Jonathan Valin’s story ‘Malibu Tag Team’, which appears in Raymond Chandler’s Philip Marlowe, edited by Byron Preiss:

The kid stared desperately through the windshield as we tore through Pedro and Bay City, rocking back and forth on the seat, as if he were trying to urge the car on with body English like a jockey.

Another nice example appears in Don DeLillo’s novel Falling Man:

He glanced toward the far end of the adjacent table, where an old man with a white ponytail sat bent across the arm of his chair, watching horses in midrace and showing the anxious lean of body english that marks money on the line. He was otherwise motionless.

[end of edit]


Anyway, I kept the subtitles on (and my ears open) for other unusual items, and soon encountered an unexpected spelling of a word spoken by producer Edward Feldman:

This is a noun derived (I think) from the teenage slang exclamation Psych!, meaning “Fooled you!” or “Just kidding!” I’ve also seen it spelled psyche, sikesyke and sych, but never cyc before now. If I were reading Feldman’s line without context, I don’t know if I’d guess what he meant; I wouldn’t even be sure how it’s pronounced.

[EDIT: I was way off with this one. Feldman is abbreviating cyclorama, a term “adopted from theatrical staging technology and terminology”, as Mark puts it below. “Cyc” makes more sense now, as filmmaking jargon. See comments for descriptions and definitions.]

Finally, and perhaps most unusually: the relative pronoun whom is used to refer to an inanimate object (houses). Feldman again:

You can see the full context for the line in this animated GIF.

Some sticklers dislike that being used to refer to people, though there’s nothing wrong with this and there never has been. And some dislike whose used with inanimate antecedents (“the house whose windows were open”), though this is also common and standard – and useful, since English has no genitive form for which and that.

But whom is normally restricted to people, groups of people, and sometimes animals. I don’t recall ever hearing it paired with anything like houses before, so “four hundred houses, all of whom were built to three-quarter scale” took me by surprise.

Update: Arnold Zwicky has sent me a link to his Language Log post (2007) on a curious usage of whom, from Slavoj Žižek in the New York Times: “his stance was, ‘Whom do you believe, your eyes or my words?'” See Zwicky’s post for an analysis.

18 Responses to Jim’s body English

  1. Harry Lake (age 66, freelance translator since 1972) says:

    Body English is interesting, the cyc bit leaves me wondering what on earth it’s supposed to mean (but don’t forget subtitlers can make extraordinary mistakes)(please don’t ask me for examples!), and as for ‘whom’ of things, that’s just plain daft. Just my humble opinion, of course, hoho.

  2. I don’t know the context of Mr. Feldman’s remarks but I would venture the guess that he is using the standard professional shorthand term for “cyclorama” a curved white or neutral color wall or screen on which light effects or projections provide a backdrop to the scene. As with much movie jargon it is adopted from theatrical staging technology and terminology.

    As for body english, I am very familiar with the term. Perhaps the ultimate display of body english is Carleton Fisk’s gyrations on the first base line trying to coax his long drive in Game 6 of the 1975 World Series to stay fair. It worked.

  3. korystamper says:

    Ah, body English. Such a great Americanism. Body English is on prominent display in the bowling alleys of my fair country, particularly on amateur night and after the bowler under observation has imbibed a few beers.

    Mark is right: this cyc is a common abbreviation in theater and film for cyclorama. We give the abbreviation in the Third and define this particular sense of cyclorama as “a curved cloth or wall forming the back of many modern stage settings and used to eliminate shadows and to suggest unlimited space (as of the sky).” Ten points to Mark.

    As for that odd use of whom, I don’t think I’ve ever seen this construction before. I think I’ll make a citation for it.

  4. Stan says:

    Harry: Turns out I was wrong about “cyc”, as you may have seen from Mark and Kory’s comments. Inanimate whom is certainly unusual. I wouldn’t call it daft, but I’d be interested to know if the same speaker uses the construction regularly, and if so what its scope and motivation are.

    Mark: “Cyc” = cyclorama makes more sense – thank you. I’ve updated the post with a note. I knew the word a long time ago but had completely forgotten it. From the Straight Dope page I got the impression that body English is quite common in baseball circles. I don’t follow the sport but I appreciate your vivid example, and once I learned what the term meant (in its primary sense) I recalled many instances of the action it refers to in my own experience. I must ask sporting fans I know if they’re familiar with it.

    Kory: Body English is growing on me, and bowling “leans” (n. pl.) conjure it nicely. I wonder how the phrase originated. Thanks for the additional information on cyc. As for inanimate whom, if it’s new to you it must be rare indeed. I wasn’t sure how to search effectively for it elsewhere.

  5. Alan Gunn says:

    In the U.S., making a ball spin to affect its motion is called “putting english on it.” Nobody knows why. A plausible speculation (OED, I think) is that English billiards players were so good at this in the late 19th century that we were impressed and named it after them. If this meaning of “english” is older than “body English” it would explain both why we call it “body English” rather than “body language” and why “body English” is an Americanism.

  6. marc leavitt says:

    The hurricane who hit us several days ago was a monster of a storm. Whom? The one whom we’re now calling “Super Hurricane Sandy.”
    I don’t think so.

  7. marc leavitt says:

    My apologies. I hit send too quickly. Please consider “Whom?” through “Super Hurricane Sandy” as deleted.

  8. languagehat says:

    Body English meaning body language is an interesting usage but not one I’ll be adopting. Body language uses language loosely to denote nonverbal communication, conscious and unconscious, in the form of gestures, postures and facial expressions. English is verbal, deliberate, and particular: too specific for the phrase, to my mind.

    I see others have covered this, but just to add my two cents: “English” here does not refer to the English language but to M-W’s definition 4, “spin around the vertical axis deliberately imparted to a ball that is driven or rolled.” “Body English” is thus not at all the same as “body language.” And I too am very fond of that sense of “English” (“put some English on it”).

  9. Stan says:

    Alan: Billiards is an interesting possibility for the phrase’s origins.

    Marc: Nor do I; it’s definitely an anomaly, hence my curiosity.

    Hat: Yes, that’s fair enough. My earlier remarks were off-target. The phrase is new to me, as is this sense of English, but I’m getting used to them now.

    • Charles Sullivan says:

      As an American I find the billiards answer the best. When you play pool (8-ball) at the tavern, and a guy puts a clever spin on the cue ball that makes the shot, and leaves the cue-ball in a great position for the next shot, that is ‘English. We use the helping verb ‘put.’ For example, ‘put some english on it.’

  10. Emily Brewster says:

    I was just working on this term! It’s often used in golf. I’ve also seen it–very occasionally–used in phrases like “putting body English on the data,” to mean basically “manipulate” or “massage.” We’ll see if that one goes anywhere.

  11. Jo Hawke says:

    I recognized the term “english” as representing spin or curve from my obsession with playing Yahoo! online pool. You can add english to your cue ball in a certain place to make it spin a certain way. Yes. Well. Apparently, we Americans call it “english,” while the British call it “side”: http://billiards.about.com/od/e/g/e_english.htm

  12. alexmccrae1546 says:

    Seems like many earlier commenters on the “body English” notion agree with Stan’s above-cited definition there of, from the new American Heritage Dictionary.

    As a youngster growing up in eastern Canada back in the late ’50s, I have to confess that I had a bit of a passion for the televised sport of curling; even though most barely familiar with the game may regard this enterprise involving a bull’s-eyed target, smooth sheets of ice, bulky woolen sweaters, tams, brooms, and rounded granite boulders as exciting as watching paint dry, or grass grow.

    Nonetheless, I would often hear the rather serious CBC TVSports curling commentators, in slightly hushed tones so as not to disturb the curlers, use the descriptive term, “body English”, when referring to say the action of a shotmaker, who would be leaning decidedly in one direction as if his bit of “body English” might affect the arcing of the ‘shot rock’, or curling stone, along with somehow psychokinetically directing it closer to the desired target.

    Of course, this bodily ‘assist’ (plus the wishful thinking) was merely an unconscious manifestation of magical thinking. Whatever contortions the shotmaker would assume after releasing his stone, or no matter how hard he positively concentrated, the ultimate fate of that gliding rock was literally out of his hands.

    I must say the occasional display of animated body English in a dull curling match did enliven the affair to some degree. Otherwise, for many, it would just be like watching a boring game of darts, on ice.
    Hmm… now there’s a thought. HA!

    Clearly the term “English” referring to the imparting of spin to the cue ball in billiards to usually arc around a partially blocking ball, or perhaps draw back the cue ball to set up the next shot for best position, has little to do with “body English”….. a point that was made earlier. Although I’ve witnessed a fair share of body English employed by pool players of all stripes, trying to maybe coax that ball into a particular pocket, or will a just-hanging-on-the-rim ball to drop.

    Jo Hawke, thanks for the term “slide”, the Brit version of “English” in billiards. I did not know that.

  13. Stan says:

    Charles: Looking it up in the Chambers Slang Dictionary, which I should have done sooner, I see that English = “spin, deceptiveness, duplicity” appears as billiards jargon dating from the mid-19th century.

    Emily: Well there’s a coincidence! I wonder if it’s mainly a US usage, or if sports commentators use it much in this part of the world. I don’t listen to them enough to know, but I’ll ask around. Applying the expression to data is an interesting offshoot.

    Jo: Thanks for your input, and for the link. It clarifies something I was wondering about: whether English could refer to topspin and backspin. Apparently it’s supposed to mean sidespin only. I’ve played some pool and snooker, and always used (and heard) spin and derivations thereof.

    Alex: Ah, curling! Once I began thinking about “body English”, the sports that came particularly to mind were bowling, golf, and various throwing events in athletics. Oh, and computer games. Never considered curling, but I see what you mean, and it reminds me also of bowls, which also attracts this form of bodily object-willing, or psychokinetic directing as you put it. Yes, it’s a kind of sympathetic magic, and one most of us are prone to in the right circumstances I think.

  14. alexmccrae1546 says:


    Your addition of computer games to the list of pursuits where ‘body English’ might pertain, got me harkening back to my avid pinball playing youth, where leaning every-which-way-but-loose while tracking that little metal spheroid seemed to be par for the course; at least for the more ‘intense’ players. (Although there were some who played like they were in a Zen state; methodical, calm, almost robot-like, w/ minimal animation.)

    Of course, these bodily gyrations would, according to the commonly understood rules of the game, preclude actually grabbing the pin-ball machine and forcibly lifting, and tilting it off its moorings to potentially influence the roll of the ball; a big no-no in pinball circles, almost up there w/ kicking one’s golf ball from behind a tree, or boulder to gain a better lie, or more direct line to the green.

    On a personal note, I recall from the early ’70s while at art college back in Toronto, that myself and a couple of other resourceful, devious, classmates began fashioning steel slugs in the school metal shop, exactly the size of a Canadian quarter, and would use them to have free goes at the two in-house pinball machines. (Our little ruse was short-lived.)

    I can recall these slugs would often still be hot-to-the-touch from being hastily shaped on the grinding wheel, as we anxiously plugged them into the machine slot to play away.

    Of course, within a few weeks our petty little deception was found out by college officials, and sadly the pinball machines were summarily removed from the premises. I still feel slightly guilty about our knuckle-headed actions. In essence our little bit of mischief spoiled it for everyone. Live and learn….. hopefully.

    It’s true… cheaters never prosper.

  15. […] So the choice of itself, made on the spur of the moment, lets McMahon avoid constructions that are problematic for various reasons – but in doing so objectifies the referee in an unusual way. (Compare with the use of whom to refer to houses, which I heard in a documentary on The Truman Show.) […]

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