Daily Archives: April 11, 2015

wugg

This word may seem familiar to linguists – familiar but misspelled. To just about everyone else, it probably looks like some made-up expressive or imitative word. But it does have an entry in the Oxford English Dictionary, and it’s not marked “archaic” or “obsolete” (though they may just not have revised the entry recently).

I will explain first why it looks familiar to linguists. There are a few ways in casual conversation to quickly smoke out someone with an education in linguistics. One is to see if they pick up on an oblique reference to Noam Chomsky’s sentence “Colorless green ideas sleep furiously,” grammatically coherent but semantically incoherent. Another way is with a reference to wugs.

Back in 1958, Jean Berko Gleason was doing some research with small children to determine how they learn language. She showed that young children (but not the very youngest) could apply generalizable morphological rules. A most famous example was this: She showed a picture of a vaguely bird-like thing and said, “This is a WUG.” Then she showed a picture of two of them, and said, “Now there is another one. There are two of them. There are two________.” And although the children had never seen the word wugs before, they readily inferred that it would be the plural of wug. Without overt encouragement, they knew how to go forward.

But that is a one-g wug. You know that a one-l lama is a priest while a two-l llama is a beast, so you can imagine that a two-g wugg is not a one-g wug. And indeed it is not. In fact, it’s not even a noun. It’s an intransitive verb.

So what do you suppose it means? It sounds like a wet ball landing in a drain, maybe, or some sodden dipsomaniac being aroused abruptly from snoring: “Huh? Wugg? Wugg you wong?” It has a wave of an onset, nothing abrupt, and a blunter stuck ending, but not a crisp one. The double g could make us think of wiggle or nugget or bugger or any of a fair few other words. It also makes me think a bit of walk.

And, actually, I rather wonder whether walk is related. You see, wugg comes from a southern English dialect word used to call a horse. You may call a pig by shoulting “Soo-eee!” but, at least in some parts, you would call a horse with “Wugg!” And you would likewise use the word to encourage it to go forward. “Wugg, you nag!” It could also be used referentially: “Nothing I could do would make that horse wugg.”

So there that is. A little lexical souvenir, a tiny tin horseshoe for the trinket shelf, bound to gather dust… starting now. Because why would you ever have use for it?

But at least you know about wugs. You still won’t pass for a linguist, though, not with just that. The moment someone asks you for some sib you’ll be lost…

You want to know the good linguist in-group stuff? Wugg now, go on, get learning.