“Bobbing For Words” (E49)

  • Originally printed:  The New Yorker, July 16, 1932
  • First reprinted in:  Never Reprinted
  • Original Byline: Robert Benchley  



Here Benchley pokes fun at a brand of navel-gazing ethnography that has persisted as a popular timewaster into our own day. In the 1930s, they called it “A Linguistic Atlas of the United States and Canada”; now, it’s a BuzzFeed Quiz. Unnerved by the prospect of having to hear about this study for the rest of the decade (Benchley tells us that these intrepid dialect cartographers have gotten bogged down in Eastern New England, where the quaint residents of Block Island, Rhode Island insist upon calling a seesaw a “tipity-bounce”), the author undertakes to jolly the infernal project along by contributing a few Manhattan-based observations.

As a connoisseur of the Litvokshire dialect and its subvariants, Benchley can pinpoint the exact pier a New Yorker dangled off as a child, based solely on their preferred term for a paper-clip used in lieu of a pipe-cleaner. Having settled that matter, he takes us to Long Island, where the word “fox” has undergone some startling metamorphoses in a misguided effort to avoid the appearance of baby talk.

Favourite Moment:

In the neighborhood of Fifty-second Street, and as far north as Sixtieth, where the speakeasy influence has crept in, vowels and consonants are used interchangeably and whole syllables are lopped off simply to make the going easier.

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