Friday, June 26, 2009

(Oh) for ____!

When I was living in North Dakota I heard the phrase 'for cute!' alot. (Never in reference to me of course.) I understood it to be close in meaning to 'that's (so) cute!' or 'how cute!' or something along those lines. I heard it from teenagers to forty-somethings. From the Dakotas and Minnesota. I was going to write about this a while ago, but I'm glad I put it off.

Since I don't remember hearing 'for ____' with anything other than cute filling the blank, I was thinking that it was a single idiomatic phrase and not a productive construction. The only variation I heard was the occasional 'Oh!' introducing the exclamation. Not relevant.

That's why programs like Antiques Roadshow are so wonderful.

A couple weeks ago I was watching, enjoying all the Northern Prairie/Upper Midwestern dialect features from the show's stopover in Bismarck. Plenty of open Os, defricated dentals, raised pre-velars, and yah you betchas. Unfortunately I didn't hear any ufdahs. That was one of my favorites.

But during the closing credits two treasure hopers were whooping about the good time they had. For fun! said one. For neat! said the other. And earlier today, when I mentioned elsewhere that I want to be recycled when I die, a North Dakotan friend commented That's icky. For gross.

So if we know that 'for ____' is productive, the next step is to find out what constraints there are on productivity. It looks like adjectives fit in the blank. But all adjectives? Semantically it looks like the adjectives are more likely to be those of judgement and quality. It's not very likely that someone would say 'Oh, how pleated!' unless they find pleats particularly exciting. Similarly I wouldn't expect to hear something like 'for transparent!' or 'for polished!' even though there's really no syntactic constraint. But for all you Northern Prairie/Upper Midwest speakers: are there any adjectives that wouldn't fit in the blank?


  1. No answer to your question, but one of my more Midwesterly colleagues use to say "Oh, for dumb!" when she did something, you know, dumb. Just sharing, I guess.

  2. very relevant. as will be any other variations my fine reader(s) can report.

  3. I'm not from Northern Prairie/Upper Midwest, but I still would like to chime in. I'm from New Orleans where locals often use the phrases "for real" and/or "for true" in conversations to emphasize that their account of what they describe is accurate; locals often remark "for real??" or "for true??" when they doubt the accuracy of a fellow speaker.

  4. I am a native of North Dakota and can attest to the open o's as a distinctive feature. A few years ago, a fellow ND resident and I went into a California credit union office to sign up for an account. The teller immediately asked my friend if she was from North Dakota. When asked how she knew, the teller replied that it was because my friend held out her oh's for a long time.

    The North Dakota "oh" signifies through intonation as well as duration -- [low-high-low]. It functions as a kind of tonal with the implicit message, "I get it," "Gotcha!," "I understand," "Okay, now I know," and can serve well as gossip attractor as it can imply that there is more here than meets the eye.

    I have always read it as a Scandinavian hold-over even though it is used in German communities, such as the Bismarck ghettos as well.

    Thanks for posting this.


  5. Hey--Just read this. A woman on my panel at last year's ADS session at MMLA gave a paper about this. Here is here blurb from the site, along with her information. Interesting:

    “Oh For” as a Scandinavian-Influenced Linguistic Feature of Minnesota and Utah

    The Dictionary of American Regional English (DARE) reports that the phrase oh for, with primary stress on the oh, is a linguistic construction used in parts of Minnesota and Utah. In both regions it is used as an intensifier before an adjective, as in the phrases oh for dumb and oh for cute. While the DARE entry shows that this construction is conceived of as unique to each region – it appears in Howard Mohr’s well-known How to Talk Minnesotan, and is noted by one informant as a “Utahism” – no speculation is offered as to its origin. Because this construction is so distinctive, it makes sense to speculate that its usage in Minnesota and Utah can be traced to the same source. This paper presents evidence which suggests that the oh for construction is due to the influence of a proportionately large Scandinavian population in both these states, and is, in fact, a borrowing (not a translation) from Scandinavian languages.

    Janna Graham

    Idaho State University

  6. Just a very short note on the restriction-of-adjectives issue: there might be preferences, of course, as there are with many other parts of speech (if such a classification exists), but my intuition (and I admit that I lack native judgments, especially if we are talking about Dakotan English) suggests that the syntax allows all adjectives in that environment. If you find a situation, in any of the possible worlds, that the construction 'for transparent!' makes sense, there is nothing in the syntax that would disallow it.
    In short: preference, yes; restriction, I am not so sure...

  7. IM from australia and as I child I remember hearing in loony tunes cartoons - bugs to be exact saying the line "FOR TRUE!!" so i think its older than you think

  8. i certainly don't think it's recent. i'm sure it's much older than i am. and older than the oldest people i heard using it.

  9. It's definitely not something from the last 40-50 years...much older - people I knew who were born in the 1880s and died in the 1970s said it...and they weren't exactly "with the times." It's definitely a Scandinavian-Minnesotan (and apparently ND and SD)saying that is old.


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