Bragging on “Dis”

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.

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6 Responses to Bragging on “Dis”

  1. Alan McConchie says:

    My dialect (and yours, I imagine) has “bragging about,” as in “He was bragging about this guitar I made for him.” Does that still have too much self-flattery–look how special I am because he made this guitar for me–compared to “bragging on”?

  2. W.P. McNeill says:

    I hadn’t considered that. I think “He was bragging about this guitar I made for him” isn’t part of my dialect because for me you can’t brag about something you didn’t do. This sentence is felicitous if what he’s bragging about is his possession of a nice guitar and the fact that I made it is just extra information. But it is infelicitous if he is bragging about my construction process. (Compare this to “He was bragging about this guitar that he made”, which sounds fine no matter how you slice it.) The “bragging about” usage you describe doesn’t jump out at me the way “bragging on” does because that bigram is one I hear all the time, but its semantics seems odd. I have no sense of whether it is more or less vain.

    This, by the way, is a perfect example of why treating a linguist’s intuitions as objective evidence for or against their own theoretical claims is a laughably bogus methodology. I put forward a hypothesis about what “brag” means so of course anything that contradicts that hypothesis is going to sound “odd” to me. The real test would be to see how “brag about” is used in some corpus.

  3. Andrew Condon says:

    I was thinking that i hadn’t ever heard that turn of phrase, perhaps because with the bluegrass / luthier story i was thinking of white folks using it but just today i realized that it’s been used in hip-hop for a long time – see:

  4. Andrew Condon says:

    I was thinking that i hadn’t ever heard that turn of phrase, perhaps because with the bluegrass / luthier story i was thinking of white folks using it but just today i realized that it’s been used in hip-hop for a long time – see:
    http://www.allthelyrics.com/lyrics/the_dismasters/small_time_hustler-lyrics-1219568.html

    That’s from 1987, and it reminded me of this better known (to me) use:

    that won’t front
    braggin’ on your stunts
    coke in ya nose
    knock out ya gold fronts
    Here comes the Nazarene
    look good in that magazine
    Haile Selassie
    they look after i
    god will receive us
    got me like jesus
    god will recieve us
    got me like jesus
    mary magdalaine
    that’d be my first sin

    from “Tricky Kid”

    (ps plz ignore previous post – tab-return in wordpress dunt do what a wan it to)

  5. W.P. McNeill says:

    The interrelatedness of African American English (AAE) and various white southern dialects is a well-studied area of sociolinguistics. (cf. “y’all”) This is one of many instances where ethnic hostility and cultural overlap intertwine.

  6. Pingback: Linguistics, Literature, and the Louvre | Corner Cases

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