In Principio . . .
Mabel was the daughter of a Baptist pastor; she played the organ in her father’s church. It would not have occurred to her to appear on the sidewalk without her hat and white gloves. But those hands could also slaughter a hog, or inspire an errant child to reform, and the voice that could so soulfully croon “Just As I Am” had been heard to criticize the mealy-mouthed sort that “wouldn’t say shit if he found himself with a mouthful.” It was understood that when Mabel said, “Jump!” the only conceivable response was “how high, ma’am?!” Mean enough to hunt bear with a switch if it came to that. . . . Mabel was my personal introduction to a traditional, if for the most part unrecognized, genre of verbal performance.
Crowdsourcing a Corpus
For many years, at the Missouri Folklore Society website we’ve maintained an archive titled “Colorful Language of the Rural Midwest, with special emphasis on Missouri and Missourians” (http://missourifolkloresociety.truman.edu/expressions.html). The header is descriptive, if inelegant. The collection began with my own list, accumulated over a number of years from my own family’s oral history, with the nucleus of the collection consisting of speech-items collected from my famously profane grandmother. Although she lived nine-tenths of her life in Missouri, her native speech was primarily that of Western Kentucky, thus exemplifying the much-travelled nature that we will see to be common for such forms. Even within my own family, these speech-items were understood as a definable corpus that was meaningfully referred to as “grammaw’s sayings.”
In the years that followed, the collection’s rapid growth proved both gratifying—we were clearly on to something—and frustrating, specifically for the professional folklorist. Classically, the scholar pursues a subject according to the pattern collect—classify—interpret (to which we might then also add assimilate to existing theory, and propose modifications to theory). But in the case of this collection, such discrete parts of the folklorist’s process became quickly intermingled, thus mirroring the characteristics inherent in the medium in which we chose to archive the collection. The World Wide Web, as is now generally recognized, is not merely an extension of print culture, capable of faster turnarounds on publication and revision, but a transformation of it. The abilities to search and collaborate have had special significance for folklorists and linguists doing corpus studies, most particularly when that corpus is maintained and developed on the web itself.1
Evidently, in our case what was happening with some regularity was that an individual would begin by searching via Google for a recently recalled phrase that had been heard once long ago. For example, if one searched for the phrase “slick as a jar full of eels,” our site was one of the top results that would be retrieved.2 Following the hyperlink, the user would find an archive of hundreds of entries provided in no particular order. And at least in some instances, there would come a moment of illumination. Reviewing our collection, the visitor would find duplicates of, or variations on, many other remembered phrases as well. Such an encounter with familiar but distinctive constructions would then act as a sort of key to a memory vault. The Anglo-Saxons called it a wordhoard, a treasure-chest of verbal riches.3 Commonly, visitors would even augment their visit by communicating further, often through messages with a typical form: “Your site made me laugh so hard . . . I remember all these old things. . . .” And there would then follow a list, often long, as the single key opened another box within the first. I would sometimes exchange emails with these informants, hoping to get basic ethnographic information on the sample in question, for example, the alleged originator’s native place and birth year, gender, and level of education.4 Without exception, correspondents focused on the vividness of the imagery in these expressions, with special appreciation for the humor involved, though they frequently felt the need to apologize for salty content. This reaction is hardly surprising, as flirting about...