Phrase of the Day: Helicopter Parents

We originally ran this story back in February. Today a talk-show producer in New York asked us for more stories of very involved "“ or over-permissive "“ parents. If you fall into either category, they may want you on the show.

I really like the phrase "helicopter parents." While it's been around for a while, it's new to me.

My first job after college involved answering the phone in my alma mater's Office of Student Development.* During orientation, students and parents were given pens with my phone number beside the words "Need Help?" I did not realize this for months.

"We're planning a trip over fall break," a concerned parent told me early in my tenure. "Does my son have a lot of studying to do around then?" After politely explaining my limited psychic powers, she turned it up a notch. "Well, can't you call his professors and find out?"

"Get out a pad and write this down," an angry dad once ordered. "I'm giving you instructions for installing an air conditioner in my daughter's window."

One mother asked for her daughter's mailing address. Armed with a phone book and aiming to please, I filled her in. "What are you doing?" she scolded. "How do you know I'm really her mother?" She had called to test me.

I can't believe the term "helicopter parent" never came up. But now it's everywhere. And not just on campus.

According to a survey of the young and employed, "25% said their parents were involved in their jobs 'to the point that it was either annoying or embarrassing.'" The Times' Lisa Belkin wrote about a mom who contacted the CEO of the PR firm that employs her daughter. She wanted his help planning her a surprise sushi lunch.

This area is rich with anecdotes. If you've been buzzed by helicopter parents "“ or you are a helicopter parent "“ we want your stories.

*This statement is not true. My first actual job after college was power washing, staining and painting decks. I spilled an inordinate amount of paint in my hair and was quite happy to accept a job with internet access.

How Do You Stress the Word: THANKSgiving or ThanksGIVing?

Here’s something else to stress about for Thanksgiving: where to put the stress in the word Thanksgiving.

If you’re from California, Iowa, or Delaware, you probably say ThanksGIVing, with the primary stress on the second syllable. If you’re from Georgia, Tennessee, or the Texas Panhandle, you probably say THANKSgiving, with the primary stress on the first syllable.

This north-south divide on syllable stress is found for other words like umbrella, guitar, insurance, and pecan. However, those words are borrowed from other languages (Italian, Spanish, French). Sometimes, in the borrowing process, competing stress patterns settle into regional differences. Just as some borrowed words get first syllable stress in the South and second syllable stress in the North, French words like garage and ballet get first syllable stress in the UK and second syllable stress in the U.S.

Thanksgiving, however, is an English word through and through. And if it behaved like a normal English word, it would have stress on the first syllable. Consider other words with the same noun-gerund structure just like it: SEAfaring, BAbysitting, HANDwriting, BULLfighting, BIRDwatching, HOMEcoming, ALMSgiving. The stress is always up front, on the noun. Why, in Thanksgiving alone, would stress shift to the GIVE?

The shift to the ThanksGIVing pronunciation is a bit of a mystery. Linguist John McWhorter has suggested that the loss of the stress on thanks has to do with a change in our concept of the holiday, that we “don’t truly think about Thanksgiving as being about thankfulness anymore.” This kind of thing can happen when a word takes on a new, more abstract sense. When we use outgoing for mail that is literally going out, we are likely to stress the OUT. When we use it as a description of someone’s personality ("She's so outgoing!"), the stress might show up on the GO. Stress can shift with meaning.

But the stress shift might not be solely connected to the entrenchment of our turkey-eating rituals. The thanksGIVing stress pattern seems to have pre-dated the institution of the American holiday, according to an analysis of the meter of English poems by Mark Liberman at Language Log. ThanksGIVing has been around at least since the 17th century. However you say it, there is precedent to back you up. And room enough to focus on both the thanks and the giving.

TAKWest, Youtube
Watch Boris Karloff's 1966 Coffee Commercial
TAKWest, Youtube
TAKWest, Youtube

Horror legend Boris Karloff is famous for playing mummies, mad scientists, and of course, Frankenstein’s creation. In 1930, Karloff cemented the modern image of the monster—with its rectangular forehead, bolted neck, and enormous boots (allegedly weighing in at 11 pounds each)—in the minds of audiences.

But the horror icon, who was born 130 years ago today, also had a sense of humor. The actor appeared in numerous comedies, and even famously played a Boris Karloff look-alike (who’s offended when he’s mistaken for Karloff) in the original Broadway production of Arsenic and Old Lace

In the ’60s, Karloff also put his comedic chops to work in a commercial for Butter-Nut Coffee. The strange commercial, set in a spooky mansion, plays out like a movie scene, in which Karloff and the viewer are co-stars. Subtitles on the bottom of the screen feed the viewer lines, and Karloff responds accordingly. 

Watch the commercial below to see the British star selling coffee—and read your lines aloud to feel like you’re “acting” alongside Karloff. 

[h/t: Retroist]


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