Friday, 8 March 2013

Pub crawling

There's a game for various iDevices called The Simpsons: Tapped Out, in which you have to rebuild Springfield. It's good; I'm obsessed. 

Every now and then it gets seasonal updates, and today it got an update for St Patrick's Day, which seems to be a bigger thing in the US than it is in England, where no one particularly cares about it. (I expect they do in Ireland.) Anyway, in the game, to introduce the new storyline, Homer says this: 

Notice that he says 'The day we all pub crawl to celebrate St Patrick', using 'pub crawl' as a verb. This strikes me as ungrammatical. I'm quite fascinated by this because 'pub crawl' must certainly be a British expression, borrowed into US English for the purposes of British-style (or perhaps Irish-style, in this case) pub crawling. It's my impression that in US English, the usual term for a drinking place is a 'bar'. We do use this word in UK English too, but it's not used for the more traditional pub-type places, only for the trendier type of establishment. And of course it is the place in a pub where one is served.

So what of this 'pub crawl' verb then? Well, the origin of the expression is clear: a compound noun was formed from a zero-derivation of the verb 'crawl' plus the thing that is crawled, to indicate an occasion of 'crawling' pubs. Zero-derivation is when you change the category of a word without changing its form, and is fairly common in English for the purpose of verbing nouns and nouning verbs. This noun 'pub crawl', however, seems to have been zero-derived back again into a verb in Homer's idiolect. I don't think compound nouns are very commonly turned into verbs at all in English: we have lots of compound nouns from verbs, like tin-opener, but hardly any verbs ('babysit' is an example, backformed from 'babysitter'). In fact, Homer seems to be particularly fond of them. In my morphology class, I use an example from the Simpsons of a very rare instance of a process called 'noun incorporation', and this is an exactly comparable example, also spoken by Homer:
Did I ever tell you about the time I babyshot my boss?
Here, the instrumental noun 'baby' is incorporated into the verb, giving a complex verb 'babyshoot', meaning 'to shoot someone via one's baby'. What I want to know is who in the Simpsons writing team is putting these verbs into Homer's language? I'm a big fan of their work, whoever they are.


  1. We have bars, pubs, and taverns in the USA, as well as cocktail lounges, saloons, and even a few alehouses. We also have many people of Irish heritage - many more than remain in Ireland, I think.
    We don't have bar crawls or tavern crawls, only pub crawls, and once you have them, the most efficient way to describe the activity is with a zero-derived verb.
    The other option would be some kind of light verb (do a pub crawl) or general action verb (go on a pub crawl), but that would be a little like saying "apply paint to my walls" rather than "paint," or "propel my canoe with a paddle" rather than "paddle."
    It might be significant that crawl was already a familiar verb (and a zero-derived noun) before the compound became familiar.
    Sorry about commenting as Unknown, but the Blogger interface is awkward.

  2. That's OK, Unknown - I agree, the Blogger interface is good for posting but bad for interaction. Thanks for persevering and commenting anyway!

    Your point that the most efficient way to describe such an activity is with a zero-derived verb is exactly correct, but in the UK we don't do this, and in fact we do exactly what you say in your next paragraph: we say 'go on a pub crawl'.

    Also, I'm pleased to know you have such varied drinking establishments. Taverns, alehouses and saloons would sound hopelessly affected to me. Although a few pubs include such words in their names, none would describe themselves as a 'tavern'. But then, Moe doesn't describe his place as a tavern, despite it being named Moe's Tavern. He and all the regulars call it a 'bar'.

  3. You may like to know that I've just used this post as an example of how to cite a reference available only online, in the Guide to Writing Linguistics Essays for the first-year Intro to Linguistics class!

  4. I quite agree with Sir Walter Scott there (your first commenter). A pub is no more a bar in the U.S. than chips are French fries, though both of the latter are fried potato products and they have somewhat analogous roles in the overall cuisines of the U.S. and the U.K. This is not at all like bonnet/hood or railway/railroad or similar true equivalences.

    But I have seen linguists using the zero-derived verb backform quite often.