Who Gives a Grunt?

Article excerpt

Anil has a very good question, an obvious one that I never really considered, a general question about a specific phenomenon. He wonders, "Why are some words not in the dictionary? For example, the ubiquitous yes/no grunts "U-HUH" and "UH-UH" and the common comic book onomatopoeias "POW! BAP! BAM!" are not in any of my dictionaries. But neither I nor my local library has OED or Web 2 or 3. Are they in any of these? Is there a chapter in a book somewhere--or in Word Ways--that satisfactorily Discusses this issue? DO dictionaries have the right (or power) to obliterate a used word? (And why do we only use used words anyhow? Can't we afford new ones?)

The grunts are especially interesting. I once suspected they might be common to all languages. (They are readily recognized but not widely used in Australia.) I was about to speculate that, since yes and no are arguably the most fundamental of all concepts, these two might be the oldest surviving "words" in all of human language! Stereotypic caveman grunts. Then I finally did find them, in "The Facts on File Encyclopedia of Word and Phrase Origins," by Robert Hendrickson (Revised Edition, 1997, Facts on File Inc.: New York (EWPO); my paperback book club edition is called QPB EWPO). I learned to my disappointment but amusement that, instead of being my fancied caveman first words, they are pure Americanisms dating back to "at least the 1830s" according to S. …