Thursday, February 25, 2010


After all the uproar over the "Coastie Song" last year (covered in a string of posts on this blog, leading up to this), the guys who did that released a Valentine Day song for/to our Chancellor, Biddy Martin. "Baby be my Biddy" has been written up for a while (like here), and you can see the video / hear the song here:

You gotta love lines like
I'll answer ya
I'll dance for ya
We can run this city
my chancellor.
And the chancellor's got the sense of humor to appreciate the song. That's good since this seems to be a trend, with an Irish "Biddy Martin's Polka" (here), and rumors of a campus band forming that's considering calling itself the Biddy Martins. All of it, as far as I can tell, in a spirit of real affection. Even if you don't agree with her about everything, you gotta like this atmosphere.

But you know Team Verb … always looking for some little language angle. The story, now familiar on campus, is that Carolyn Martin came to be called 'Biddy' from a childhood nickname that stuck. At the same time, there's a little bit of English word history here too, with OED having three separate entries, leaving aside bitty, which is homophonous for most people. The earliest form seems to be the word for 'chicken, fowl', used by Shakespeare, according to the OED. The origins are uncertain, but one possibility is an imitative source (from calling chickens). OED also notes "Gaelic bîdeach "very small'".

The most common use in American English, I suspect, is in collocations like 'old biddy'. This meaning of 'old woman, gossipy', and so on is reported in OED as an Americanism, reckoned as a diminutive of Bridget and used for Irish maids (see also DARE).

From this, it wouldn't be surprising for folks to think of 'Be my Biddy' as negative, but in fact the word has developed a remarkable range of connotations, as UrbanDictionary makes clear, here. It's now used specifically for young girls as well as old women, used for attractive women and women not regarded as attractive, for 'girlfriend' and for women regarded as obnoxious, etc. Even figuring in the necessary (and wide) margin of error for UrbanDictionary data, it's pretty interesting: The word seems to mean both 'X' and 'not X' depending on speaker along at least a couple of dimensions.

There's an old, minor point about patterns of 'semantic derogation', where certain positive or neutral terms develop negative meanings. This has been remarked on especially about terms for women,* where once parallel pairs of terms have diverged, like mister versus mistress or bachelor versus spinster. This might be the reverse case, where a negative word for women has become positive, if in a restricted way. There are all kinds of caveats and limits there obviously, but I'm figuring that some of these uses are genuinely intended as positive.

In the end, in fact, it parallels the situation with coastie, where the word ranges from utterly innocent ('non-Wisconsinite') to, apparently, directly anti-Semitic. Is Zooniversity specializing in lyrics built around lexical-semantic tofu, that is, words that depend heavily on context for their meaning?

*This is may be the classic work on the topic:
Schulz, Muriel. 1975. The semantic derogation of women. Language and Sex: Difference and Dominance. Edited by B. Thorne & N. Henley. Newbury House.


Stan said...

Very interesting post, and the song is surprisingly not-awful for its type.

"Biddy" is a common nickname for women named Bridget, at least in Ireland. There's a whole constellation of similar names and nicknames, such as Brigid, Brighid, Brighit, Bridgie, Bridie, Bride, and Bríd. In some other contexts though, the derogatory sense is clear (e.g. "that oul' biddy").

There's quite a cult around Saint Brigid, the 5thC–6thC Abbess of Kildare. The only real exposure I had to it was in my childhood, through the tradition of weaving "St. Bridget's crosses" on 1 February — her feast day and the first day of spring in Ireland. One sees these crosses in many houses here, at least those inhabited by older generations.

T. P. Dolan's Dictionary of Hiberno-English suggests that there may be a connection to the name Brig, meaning valour or might; he refers to Farmer's Oxford Dictionary of Saints, which I don't have. See also Dolan's entry on brídeog (Bríd + óg, i.e. young Bridget).

The Ridger, FCD said...

After being on the (so-called) losing end of the whole Mary-merry-marry thing, it's nice to find something I'm not. We may level our vowels, but biddy and bitty remain distinct! So, too, baddie and batty, which came up at work a while back courtesy of a co-worker for whom they're homophones.

Mr. Verb said...

Thanks, both.

Yeah, the song works better than you would figure.

So, Stan makes a stronger case for the neutral nickname than I had figured based on the dictionaries I looked at.

And, Ridger, I wonder how common that distinction is? My sense is that it's like wh/w, where it's gotten pretty limited.

Stan said...

The best known "Biddy" in Ireland, at least among my generation, is probably the character played by Mary McEvoy in the long-running Irish drama Glenroe. There's a picture of her in a lovely geansaí halfway down the Wikipedia page.

(It seems appropriate that the captcha asks me to type "mushi", which is very nearly the very Irish musha.)