I don’t want to neglect to write about the recent death of John Ashbery (NY Times obit). I’ve posted his poems here a number of times (2009, 2005, 2004); here’s a recent (May 5, 2016) one from the LRB (which is temporarily making their entire archive of Ashbery poems available without a subscription):


It’s beautiful, and all that:
the corner student with the carpet tunnel
or you just don’t know
where to get one
which is all that matters.
I didn’t know but what
during our recent homecoming special
very good plastic muffins were featured,
(the cement trees yesterday),

and that probably wouldn’t be a surprise.
Turn the window off.
The stars, what happens next?
Replacement issues, timid leftovers
burning in reality.

Bear with me, bears.
The radar committee (woman in bathrobe, man
in bad mood) backed down. The chosen honorees arose
or are you going up? I don’t sit with smaller operations.

The ant farm, tossed on frozen seas –
didn’t they have an old pin-up of yours?
The hairnet (stay away) protects my great big head.
In your smart capacity summon the ambassador.
And the infection? It grew.
In 1951 I really, really am, little chum.
Sorry about the vegetables. Stones’ll be pretty with that.

What do you want, John? Informally, a
new body, and an assistant.
I’ll bet the place is swarming with printers.
I wrote them yesterday. Really reached out,
plugnutty. Like the noiseless farts of antiquity
squeamishness is best, yet still.

I laughed at “very good plastic muffins” and “Bear with me, bears,” and I plan to quote “In 1951 I really, really am, little chum” to my grandsons (that was the year I was born). And “plugnutty” appears to be old slang, short for “nutty from being plugged (hit with fists)”; compare these Google Books quotes: “manned by no plug-nutty, cauliflower-eared gangsters and gunmen” (1933), “he is failing in mental calibre, and boxing circles have designated the condition of the boxer by the term ‘plug-nutty’ and other similar names” (1938).


  1. I was familiar with “slugnutty” with the same meaning. I think I have encountered it only once, in a Boys’ Life fiction story (about a patrol with a time machine, who have to get their Scoutmaster onboard to be healed, after he hits his head in a landslide, leaving him slugnutty). I have used the word occasionally since then and sometimes gotten weird looks in response.

  2. They’re both great words; let’s bring ’em back!

  3. So sad. What a great writer.

  4. David Marjanović says

    They’re both great words; let’s bring ’em back!

    Petty violence has 1) decreased and 2) shifted to guns, so these words don’t relate to people’s personal experience anymore. I’ve never encountered anyone who had been beaten up so much they had trouble thinking.

  5. Yeah, but they could be used in an extended sense: “You seem a little plugnutty today — didn’t sleep well?”

  6. I assume that “silent farts of antiquity” refers (doubtless indirectly) to the IE root *pezd- > Latin pēdō, English fist (with the PRICE vowel, but now obsolete).

  7. As I mentioned, where I encountered “slugnutty” it referred to somebody who had gotten hit on the head, but not by a punch.

    And “punch drunk” is still in use, both literally and figuratively.

  8. Good point.

  9. David Marjanović says

    Yeah, but they could be used in an extended sense:

    I think a metaphor can only be introduced while it still makes sense. Once introduced, it can stay for centuries after it stops making sense, but introducing it after it has stopped making sense probably won’t work.

  10. I’ve always wondered about plug ugly. I guess it means ‘has had his face rearranged’.

  11. I’ve never read Ashbery before. Aside from his marvelous way with the language, I must say, as they say, I don’t get it. Almost every line of this poem is an allusion opaque to me.

  12. Oh, opacity is his stock in trade. You just have to give up on making sense of it in the normal way and just roll with the music of it.

  13. I find it counterintuitive that slugnuttiness apparently arises from a blow to the head *not* as a result of having been slugged?

  14. I followed Hat’s “As seen on LH” link, which motivated me to look up “fizzle” at etymonline. It suggested it was from fist (to break wind, cognate with ‘feisty’), plus the ‘frequentative suffix’ -le. I had never thought of -le in that way, and clicked on ‘jostle’ as an example. The word ‘jostle’ also appeared in the definition for ‘punch’, and upon clicking that I noticed this sentence at the end of the discussion of its noun form:

    “Punch line (also punch-line) is from 1915 (originally in popular-song writing); punch-drunk is from 1915 (alternative form slug-nutty is from 1933).”

    Full circle to “slug-nutty”! Clicking links on the internet certainly is an amusing pastime.

  15. David Marjanović says

    plus the ‘frequentative suffix’ -le. I had never thought of -le in that way

    Very common, also in German, where it’s likewise extinct.

  16. Squiffy-Marie van 't Blad, Dutchman-at-large says

    My sadness is somewhat mitigated by the fact he was after all 90 but unmitigated by the fact they don’t make them like that anymore and then remitigated by the fact that I’ve barely dipped a toe in his oeuvre despite the fact I turn out to love it to bits and then purely selfishly unmitigated again by the amount of lucidity I ingest as part of my contemporary poetry intake.

  17. I share your complicated mix of mitigations and unmitigations, mitigated by having dipped more than a toe (but less than an entire leg) into his oeuvre.

  18. The cite r found saying “slug-nutty” was synonymous with punch drunk suggests that contrary to Brett’s Boys Life data it ought to apply to a possible result of being slugged/punched in the head …

  19. To avoid thread-jacking, while still wanting to share, I’m going to put it here at what is likely to be the end of discussion of this topic:

    I went to my daughter’s kindergarten open house last night, lovely event, in a suburb of Chicago, and was linguistically startled when the teacher explained her method of teaching phonics (or at least phonemes – teaching phonics probably has a particularly meaning.) She had the alphabet up, and off to the side, the digraphs – ch, sh, th … and wh.

    That’s right, “wh” as a distinct phoneme! In a suburb of Chicago!

    I went back and told my daughter some of what we’d heard, and asked her about the letter clusters (she’s already reading, so she’s able to handle these questions.)

    >So, you learned about th like in ‘the,’ and wh like in ‘hwat’ or ‘hwere’?

    But those words, she uses regularly in speech, in the normal regional manner, and would never pronounce them with hw- so she looked at me like I was crazy. And said:

    >No Dad, (a common phrase in our house), not like in what. Like in hwale!

    I immediately went to my wife and complained that they’re teaching her in a foreign tongue!

    Just thought I’d ask how many of you don’t have the wine-whine merger?

    I’ve certainly heard the hw-pronunciation. But prior to doing some research today, I would have thought it was almost entirely archaic. Laughing about this around the office today, no one else even seemed familiar with hw-. The only two people my mind’s ear can hear saying it that way are both well into their 80’s. But I read that this pronunciation is current in some Southern dialects, along with perhaps most Scottish and Irish varietals.

  20. This map shows the regions of the U.S. where the whine-wine contrast is largest. As you can see, it’s not much, and likely reflects only a bare majority of speakers, not all of them even in the purple zone. Elsewhere, the contrast remains functional only in Scotland, Ireland (but not Belfast), and among older people in NZ, per WP.

  21. Apparently I got it — to the extent I in fact have it — from the Ozark side of my family.

  22. Thanks. That’s interesting. I’d love to see that map from 1900.

    One of the people I think used hwat is the former minister of our Unitarian Church, who is from rural Ohio. (He began his career as a pastor in a different denomination and moved when the congregation rejected his approach to civil rights.)

    Another is my uncle, now deceased. He grew up in Chengdu, China, son of a missionary from Texas. I’m not clear how his accent was formed. His father was Texan, his mother I’m not certain. His teen years when accent should solidify were spent largely in China. I read elsewhere that Taiwanese students of English were religiously taught the distinction until very recently (and realized that a recently retired co-worker, Singaporean Chinese, used wh-.)

    How long ago did the wine-whine merger begin to predominate in American English?

    I just found a map on english.stackexchange of American pronunciations in 1997, showing John Cowan’s area, but also a wide scattering of similar usage:

    Am I wrong in thinking that in least in the archaic pronunciation, hw- went hand in hand with a different vowel (at least in the word what) not unlike the discussion I think I read here recently about archaic was being pronounced with (I don’t know the proper linguistic term) a non-schwa vowel?

  23. I think that is separate. Mark Twain writes wuz for his black characters, was for the white ones, whereas now wuz is pure eye-dialect with no distinction in pronunciation for most Americans, and likewise with what and whut, though he does not happen to use the latter in Huckleberry Finn.

  24. @JC Elsewhere, the contrast remains functional only in Scotland, Ireland (but not Belfast), and among older people in NZ, per WP.

    Hmm. In NZ there’s plenty of older people with hyper-correct British pronunciation — they sound more British than me who grew up there. But I’ve never heard hw- or even a voiceless/aspirated labio-velar approximant. Must pay attention next time. (I suspect WP’s info is out of date.)

    My grandparents (born 1896, London suburbs) definitely said hw-; but I put that down to hyper-correction/spelling pronunciation. (For example they said a ‘h’ on hotel and put indefinite article `an`.)

  25. map from 1900

    Or 1960. I was raised about half-way between ryan and the top in that present-day map and I still distinguish hw-.

  26. I’ve mentioned an acquaintance of mine named Whitlock who refuses to answer to Witlock, calling it “witless”.

  27. I’m from the apex of the northeastern purple bulge, and I maintain the distinction, but my daughter doesn’t. For that matter, she also has the COT-CAUGHT merger.

  28. When I taught in the Southern United States none of my students had the /hw/-/w/ contrast, but most if not all had older relatives (mostly grandparents) who did: when I taught in the Canadian West none of my students had the contrast, but unlike their Dixie counterparts most had never encountered anyone who had it either, and as a result many thought that the contrast, where it existed, could only be some kind of spelling pronunciation.

    Conversely, in the Southern United States my students had trouble believing me when I told them that most non-Southerners kept the vowels of “pin” and “pen” apart even before learning to read, i.e. that this distinction was not a spelling pronunciation.

    One thing that is interesting about the /hw/ to /w/ change is that it is the final chapter of what could be called a single sound change in the transition from Old to Modern English: /h/ becomes zero if followed by any non-syllabic phoneme.

    Echoing something Antoine Meillet once wrote, from a practical point of view this change is real, but the fact that /hw/ was alive and kicking long after all other /h/ + non-syllabic phoneme clusters had lost /h/ shows that this rule, descriptively adequate though it is, did not apply all at once in transforming all Old English /h/ + non-syllabic phoneme clusters into their Modern English /h/-less counterparts.

    And indeed, if in the future some h-less variety of English becomes sufficiently prestigious to cause this phoneme to be wholly lost in all English varieties, we could amend the above and simply speak of the /h/ to zero change separating Old from (this particular) Future English.

  29. That description of /hw/ > /w/ as part of a single sound change is also complicated by the fact that most present-day speakers of a prestigious variety of English do not have [hjuː] > [juː] (hence the somewhat common mocking of Trump’s pronunciation [juːdʒ] for “huge”). Of course, [hj] cannot be dated back to an Old English consonant cluster, but presumably the synchronic activity of a sound change in modern English is not conditioned on historical information like that. The phonological analysis of [juː] in present-day English is somewhat arguable, but a/an allomorphy and rhyming show that it may behave in at least some respects as if the [j] is a non-syllabic phoneme.

  30. David Marjanović says

    Echoing something Antoine Meillet once wrote, from a practical point of view this change is real, but the fact that /hw/ was alive and kicking long after all other /h/ + non-syllabic phoneme clusters had lost /h/ shows that this rule, descriptively adequate though it is, did not apply all at once in transforming all Old English /h/ + non-syllabic phoneme clusters into their Modern English /h/-less counterparts.

    That’s all the more remarkable because it did apply across the board at the same time in Rather Early Old High German; or at least I’ve never encountered a description of huu falling out of use later than hl, hr, hn.

    Perhaps phonetic pedantry offers an explanation. The few Unmerged-Americans I’ve heard don’t actually pronounce a sequence [hw], but a coarticulated [hʷ], which doesn’t contain a [h] that could be dropped. Scots (also unmerged) famously use [ʍ]. Perhaps similarly, lots of people have contracted /hj/ to [ç].

  31. In the 1970’s I knew a teacher from Oregon who made a definite difference between [hw] and [w].

    Some time before that I had an Irish landlord who said [fw], as in for a fwile (slightly less rounded).

  32. With the exception of one older high school teacher (the one who insisted that wh could never alliterate with w – I think I’ve mentioned this before), I’ve never encountered anyone from here in New England who distinguished them.

    @m-l: That reminds me of Maori, which uses wh for a labial phoneme that’s now most often realized as [f]. But apparently the 19th-century Maori perceived it as different enough from English /f/ that words with the latter were borrowed with /p/.

  33. Anecdotally, I’ve observed that a lot of people around my age who (like me) speak dialects with the wine-whine merger really love the distinct /hw/ in the speech of Hank Hill, hero of the animated cartoon series King of the Hill. Even in Japan I have heard (white) people say “I tell you hwat” in obvious homage. I don’t think it ever escaped the mimic-a-specific-character zone (I assume this is somewhere in Broca’s area, someone else can do the MRI work), but the series is apparently about to be revived, so who knows.

  34. Lazar: (Irish English fw) That reminds me of Maori, which uses wh for a labial phoneme that’s now most often realized as [f]. But apparently the 19th-century Maori perceived it as different enough from English /f/ that words with the latter were borrowed with /p/

    Some years ago I saw a movie about a teacher in a Maori village (probably based on a real person, with Shirley MacLean and Laurence Harvey). One of the main characters was a boy whose name sounded almost (but not quite) like “Matafero”. I later realized that it must have been “Matawhero”, correctly pronounced by the teacher.

  35. Debate continues about how to pronounce the name of our fine city.

    A reader believes as there is no f in the Maori language, the name should not be pronounced as Fangarei.

    He says Whangarei should be pronounced with the wh sounding like the formal English pronunciation of where or whence.

    He has drawn mixed reaction from Maori, with some older Maori saying he is correct. But others have been so irate that he does not want his name published.

    Te Wananga o Aotearoa tutor Ross Smith says Whangarei should be pronounced with an f sound and not with a w sound.

  36. Correction: I meant Shirley MacLaine. The film was called “Two Loves”.

  37. Marie-Lucie, here’s the real person:

  38. Lars (the original one) says

    Alack I am too lazy to look up the exact history of /h/ before non-syllabics in North Germanic, but [hj-] and [hw-] still stand in Jutland north of the line from Esbjerg to Kolding where hj- and hv- are written, and in Nynorsk there is even what looks like Verschärfung to kv-. Otherwise it has fallen on the continent, but Icelandic and Faroese keeps it before all resonants too.

  39. I’m a little shocked. W & wh are different for me, & I remember being taught this all the way through elementary school in Seattle in the ’50s. (I will now quiz some of my schoolmates.)
    & it was perfectly harmonious with the way we spoke at my house–father born in Arkansas & mother Seattle born & bred. Resident (maternal) grandmother born in Devonshire, but emigrated in childhood.

  40. My wife Gale, born in North Carolina in 1943, has the distinction in full, whereas I, born in New Jersey in 1958, do not. However, she was quite surprised when I told her I don’t make it; she actually hears it when I don’t say it. (I can and do use it if I need to distinguish a minimal pair.)

    The Atlas of North American English says the distinction was current in Vermont as late as the 1970s, which agrees with my memory of going to summer camp there in the 1960s and hearing it from local residents.

  41. Standard contemporary Māori pronounces wh as [f]. However older pronunciation varied between [f]~[ɸ]~[w̥]~[hʷ], even within the speech of one speaker (see Maclagan & King, ‘The pronunciation of wh in Māori—a case study from the late nineteenth century’ Te Reo 45: 45-63, 2002.)

  42. Thanks, very useful information and reference!

  43. Speaking of the different fate of hw versus hr etc. in English — it’s an interesting parallel that parts of Nordic (Icelandic, Norwegian, northern dialects of Swedish) also have maintained *hw the longest, though by different means: fortition to *kw > kv.

  44. A Māori dictionary can be found here:

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