The Wintergrass bluegrass festival was held last month at the Bellevue Hyatt just down the street from where I work, miraculously combining my twin obsessions of playing acoustic guitar and hanging out in luxury hotels. In addition to the concerts and random hallway jam sessions there were a series of mostly useless workshops. One good thing about musicians is that they’re used to being in front of a crowd, so even when they get dragooned into babbling away in front of an audience of earnest ponytailed guitarists for a few extra bucks they come off natural enough to make things painless all around. Perhaps the most entertaining presenter that weekend was master luthier Wayne Henderson who just kind of hung out on stage for an hour or so. He’d tell a story about the first guitar he ever made, which he sold to a moonshiner for $500 and bought back years later from a different moonshiner for $200 with a bullet hole in it. Then he’d field a couple of technical questions from the audience about obtaining Brazilian mahogany, and then segue into killer fingerstyle versions of “Deep River Blues” and “Sweet Georgia Brown”. The guy’s a natural, but that’s not what’s linguistically interesting.
To describe the act of praise, Henderson used the transitive verb-plus-particle expression “bragging on”, as in, “He was bragging on this guitar I made for him.” “Bragging on [NP X]” means saying good things about X. It doesn’t have the negative connotations of “bragging” in the sense of vain self-praise. Presumably this is a rural-Virginia/Appalachia expression because that’s where Henderson is from. Mostly I thought it was cool because I’d never heard it before, but it also seems to fill a very specific semantic niche. I tried to think of how I would express the same concept. “He was saying good things about this guitar I made for him” is too wordy and descriptive of a specific speech act. “He was praising this guitar I made for him” is too formal. I think I’d end up saying something like “He liked the guitar I made for him” which is aspectually different and not focused enough on a specific speech act. My dialect lacks an informal transitive verb for the act of saying something positive.
There’s a striking parallel with the transitive verb “to dis [NP X]” meaning to say something bad about X. When I go looking for synonyms, I find myself painted into a similar corner. “He insulted me” is too serious and too far away from the speech act. The dative preposition in “He showed disrespect for me” makes the whole thing mealy-mouthed. “He disrespected me” sounds like I’m going to slap him with my glove and challenge him to a duel. My dialect also lacks an informal transitive verb for the act of saying something negative.
Sadly, I think I’ll have to make do without either “bragging on” or “dis”. Both would sound hopelessly affected coming out of my mouth. Which is a shame, because I really don’t know how anybody gets by without them.