Linguistic Features in “How I Met Your Mother”. A Linguistic Analysis

Bachelor Thesis, 2015
40 Pages, Grade: 1,7
I. Magel (Author)


Table of Content

1. Introduction
1.1 Definition of „How I Met Your Mother“
1.2 Structure of paper

2. Simple Forms
2.1 Acronyms
2.2 Affixes
2.2.1 Prefixes
2.2.2 Infixes
2.2.3 Suffixes
2.3 Backformation
2.4 Blending
2.5 Borrowing
2.6 Clips
2.7 Compounds
2.7.1 One word compounds
2.7.2 Two word compounds
2.7.3 Three word compounds
2.8 Eponyms
2.9 Homophony

3. Mixed Forms
3.1 Backformation + Inference
3.2 Eponym + Backformation (+ Metonymy)
3.3 Eponym + Hypocorism + Metonymy + Backformation
3.4 Clips + Compounds
3.5 Clip + Compound + Eponym
3.6 Splinter + Compound
3.7 Splinter + Borrowing + Eponym
3.8 Splinter + Borrowing + Compound
3.9 Compound + Metonymy
3.10 Compound + Hypocorism + Backformation
3.11 Compound + Borrowing
3.12 Compound + Borrowing + Clip + Eponym
3.13 Compound + Suffix + Splinter
3.14 Blending + Hypocorism
3.15 Blending + Eponym
3.16 Set phrase + Metonymy

4. Non-defined word formations

5. Miscellaneous Features
5.1 Alliteration
5.2 Set phrases

6. Conclusion

7. References

Linguistic Features in “How I Met Your Mother

A detailed analysis of the most valuable word plays and their underlying types of word formation with special focus on the combination of different word formations being involved at a same time.

1. Introduction

1.1 Definition of „How I Met Your Mother“

How I Met Your Mother - often abbreviated to HIMYM – is an American sitcom that follows a non-linear story in which the life of five friends living in New York is described.

As a framing device the main character Ted Mosby tells his children how he met their mother. Using retrospective view he recounts in how far different actions and events in his and his friends past finally made him get to meet his future wife. His narration covers a time of 25 years and is told throughout eight seasons in 208 episodes. Throughout the story different kinds of linguistic word formations are used, often in types of puns and word plays to create humorous situations. Especially Barney Stinson, one of Ted Mosby’s best friends uses recurring puns by inventing new terms which he uses over and over again throughout the story.

To be able to follow all puns which are mostly used in spoken language it is necessary to introduce the main characters at least at a minimum. Ted Mosby is the narrator who tells the events that led to meeting his future wife Tracey McConnell who is introduced in the final season. His best friends are Marshall Eriksen and Lily Aldrin who are in a relationship since the beginning of the storyline and marry in one of the later seasons. In addition his other best friends are Barney Stinson and Robin Scherbatsky, a woman with whom Ted as well as Barney are in a relationship for a while.

1.2 Structure of paper

This paper tries to sort and to examine the most important and recurring word formations that are used in How I Met Your Mother - from now on abbreviated to HIMYM - and to compare it to existing studies. As HIMYM is a comedy show in which humour is often based on puns there exist plenty of examples which could be examined. This study focuses on the most common ones which are mostly even used several times. The puns were mostly known from watching the series regularly, additionally all puns have been looked up on a website that features the scripts of all episodes. Spellings have been taken over from that website, there might exist other alternative forms of spelling depending on where they are looked up.

First all puns were examined regarding the different types of linguistic features they contain, afterwards a taxonomy was set up. Regarding the final appropriate classification, it was necessary to distinguish between simple forms and mixed forms. The first section contains all linguistic word formations that match each one particular type, such as acronyms, blending and compounds. The second section is more difficult to classify as several word formation processes can be found in one expression.

As far as possible the taxonomy of the simple forms follows an alphabetical order, in which each examined wordplay is mentioned chronological regarding the order in which it has been first mentioned throughout the series. If no special episode is mentioned, it was not possible to clarify the first appearance. Usually at the beginning of each section the examined studies are stated with regard to their relevance concerning the given wordplays.

2. Simple Forms

2.1 Acronyms

Acronyms seem to be a type of word formation that is easiest to identify just by looking at it. Bauer states that “an acronym is a word coined by taking the initial letters of the words in a title or phrase and using them as a new word” (1983: 237), a definition that is easy to apply for the given examples in HIMYM.

Points not covered in the above definitions include the fact that non-lexical words from the source phrase such as “and” and “on” are sometimes included in the acronym as in Trask's cited radar from Radio Detection And Ranging and sometimes left out as in ASH from Action on Smoking and Health, also cited by Trask (1994: 22). This difficulty can be neglected throughout this study as no examples with omitted letters are found.

Mostly acronyms are written in capital letters which separate them from normal words. But there do also exist other forms of acronyms naming aids as example that used to be written in capital letters, but now have a tendency to be used as a normal word. Secondly when working with acronyms one needs to separate between obvious acronyms and the ones that seem to form a new word and cannot be identified as an acronym if no further background knowledge is given. In the sitcom both mentioned types of acronyms are used.

In S3E19 (“Everything Must Go“) Lily, one of the main characters talks about “GCWOK”, an abbreviation that stands for “gay couple without kids”. This is an example for the typical prototype of an acronym, in which the initial letter of each word is used as capital to form the acronym. What needs to be mentioned is that the lexeme “without” is the base for two letters of the acronym instead of just using the initial letter <w>.

In contrast in S9E15 (“Unpause“) the acronym “PLEASE” is used. An explanation about the meaning of that acronym is given by Barney, it stands for “provide legal exculpation and sign everything” is given. If written in capital letters, it is obvious that “PLEASE” is an acronym. As it is always used in spoken language throughout the episodes, it does not become that clear. “PLEASE” is a running gag which appears in several episodes, giving the explanation of its meaning at a very late point of the whole story. It is Barney’s standard answer whenever asked what he is actually working and is understood by the others as an evasive answer. This conversation takes place several times throughout the story, its misunderstanding being revealed not until the final season. So “PLEASE” is a perfect example for how difficult it is for an uninformed listener to separate between a normal given word and an acronym if there is no hint given that shows to the reader/listener that one needs special background knowledge to be able to understand.

In addition these two examples show perfectly another possible difference regarding acronyms. “GCWOK is a so-called alphabetic acronym: it consists of initial capital letters but cannot be pronounced as a word. In comparison “PLEASE” does also exist of initial capital letters but is pronounced as a word which classifies it as an orthoepic acronym (Cannon 2000: 975). So the definition given by Cannon probably seems to be the one that is working best as it gives a more detailed background analysis of acronyms as the ones from Bauer and Task.

2.2 Affixes

Affixes need to be separated into prefixes, infixes and suffixes. Whilst prefixes are put in front of a word, infixes are splinters that are added in the middle part of the word and suffixes describe a word formation where a splinter is put at the end of word.

2.2.1 Prefixes

In S3E16 (“Sandcastles In The Sand“) Marshall invents the term “revertigo” which describes how meeting someone from your past again can cause you to behave as the person you were when you met the other person first, described with the example of Robin who starts to do the same mistakes again when she meets her former boyfriend. “Re-“ is a typical prefix being of Latin origin which indicates anything that has to do with back or again.

Usually prefixes are added in front of a word. In this special case vertigo is not a given word but as re is a prototype of a prefix ”revertigo” can be examined in the category of prefixes.

2.2.2 Infixes

As mentioned earlier Barney Stinson is the character that invents the most puns and set phrases throughout HIMYM. One of his most important and probably the most popular statements is the set phrase “Legen [...] wait for it […] dary”. This term airs first in season two in the very last episode (“Something Blue“) starting with “Legen [...] wait for it […]” , being completed in the first episode of season three („Wait for it“) with “[…] dary”.

This is an unusual example for an infix. Usually infixes are added somewhere in the middle of an expression whilst in this special case the infix is part of a set phrase in which all given rules are ignored as “wait for it” is not a typical infix. In this combination “wait for it” is more a set of words which is used as an infix. This special use creates an effect of drama and tension as the listener is excited about the possible ending of the pun.

Due to Danks the usage of infixes is a process that is rarely used in English language anyway (2003: 163). So the use of “wait for it” is a special type of a word formation process, as “wait for it” cannot really be classified as an infix but as a set of words that is used as an infix.

2.2.3 Suffixes

S5E5 (“Dual Citizenship”) mentions the term “mannerism”, describing how Robin’s typical Canadian behaviour sometimes puts her into trouble. The term “manner” can be seen as synonym for the term behaviour. To the given term “manner” the suffix “-ism” is added.

According to Danks the form “-ism” used to be a splinter, that turned into an affix due to its highly productivity what means that is nowadays used in many terms such as sexism, racism, usually indicating something that is negatively associated (2003: 37).

2.3 Backformation

Robin Scherbatsky used to work as a singer when she was a teenager in Canada. Her artist name was Robin Sparkles which can be seen as a backformation. The verb “to sparkle” refers to her look as a teenage pop singer when she used to wear glittering outfits. So the surname “Sparkles” can be classified as a verb to noun backformation from “to sparkle”.

A running gag between Ted Mosby and Robin Scherbatsky is the usage of “general” described as the so-called “mock salutes” in season 9. They salute whenever another person used a military rank before any expression in a sentence. That habit started when the two were dating but they somehow stopped it after their breakup as they only started to share awkward looks when someone did it. Nevertheless from time to time both still salute unconsciously when they do react before thinking about it. This private joke is first mentioned in S3E9 in the episode “Slapsgiving“. In this episode a minor character uses the expression “major buzzkill”, which causes Ted and Robin to salute without being aware. After their thanksgiving dinner Ted talks about a “major clean-up”, making all present people salute.

In S5E23 which is called “The Wedding Bride“, the friends talk about a “major baggage that every single person carries with him or her, resulting in Ted and Robin saluting.

Throughout S9E23 (“Last Forever – Part One“) Ted says goodbye to his friends, saying it has been a "major pleasure". In “Last Forever – Part Two“ there used to exist a scene that has been deleted for the final version that aired on television. In this scene, Robin tells Ted that she does not have any “major problems”, leading to Ted turning back to Robin when leaving and saluting.

Recapitulating it can be stated that “major is a running gag throughout the series that is based on a noun to adjective backformation.

In S5E12 (“Girls Versus Suits“) Barney uses for the first time one of his future favourite expressions, which is “Nothing suits me like a suit“. It needs to be explained that throughout the series except of a very few moments, Barney is only seen in a suit as due to his opinion a suit is the only suitable dress for a real man. In the given episode he even invents a song about his favourite kind of clothes, making the episode one of the few musical episodes. That pun is not only based on the similarity of “suits” and “to suit” but also on the given noun to verb backformation.

Another example of backformation is “hooked” which occurs first in the same-named 16th episode of season five. It describes a phenomenon when someone falls in love with another person who is still emotionally bound to someone else, mostly a former partner. This usually leads to a chain reaction in which the person that is adored has more power over the person that is in love than the other way around, defining the dependent person as “hooked” deriving from the symbol of a person hanging on a “hook”. Again this word formation progress is an example for a noun to verb backformation.

In S6E7 (“Canning Randy“) the plot deals with Randy, a co-worker of Marshall who is fired due to his bad working skills. As Marshall feels sorry for him he wants to rehire Randy, finding out that he has no interests in working for GNB (Goliath National Bank) again as he used his severance to follow his which includes starting up his own beer brewery. Finding out that the brewed beer is one of the best beers the group ever drank, Marshall finally agrees in letting Randy follow his dream. These actions lead to a new nickname for Randy, naming him “Canning Randy”. Here again the word formation is based on a noun to verb backformation from the noun “can” to “canning”.

2.4 Blending

Blends are a very common and useful feature throughout comedy series. Pound points out that “many genuine conflations are punning nature” (1914: 6). Danks agrees that “It is this clever and funny aspects of blending that renders it such an attractive process, to not only the linguist but also to advertising executives, script writers and to bad joke composers alike.”(2003: 2). Additionally Danks states that “one measure of the contemporary popularity of blends is that, often, the biggest laugh in a comedy series or film comes from a timely introduction of a blend” (2003: 2) because of the “attention grabbing nature of such words” (2003: 3).

Trask defines blends as “arbitrary portions of words clipped off and stitched together” (1994: 39), a definition this thesis does not follow as it neglects the fusing nature of blends and gives a definition that seems to be too general.

Bauer notes this difficulty when stating that “…under blends, there is a set of formations whose precise status in the taxonomy is difficult to discern. These are words which function like blends, but which keep one of the two bases intact. As a result it is not clear whether they are in fact blends or compounds made up of one instance of clipping and one unaltered lexeme” (1983: 236). Therefore these examples will be examined in a later section, being analysed as a combination of clips and compounds.

Danks states that “a blend occurs when two (or possible more) elements “blend” together, so that at the point(s) of fusion something is either lost from at least one source element, or shared by both” (2003: 21). According to Danks “blends should be categorised into forms with overlap and blends without overlap”. (2003: 25).

Gries even goes further as he states that “ideal blends then would be naturally be ones where the ending of the first source word and the beginning of the second one overlap, resulting in a way in no deletion at all” (2004: 417). Although this definition is a very hypothetical one, it definitely excludes many types of blend, so this thesis will follow the broader definition of Danks.

The following section tries to classify all given examples of blends in HIMYM by matching them in the category that fits best regarding overlaps. For better understanding letters that are omitted in the blend are parenthesized while letters that are present in both source words being underlined.

In S2E3 (“Brunch“) the five friends talk about going for a brunch as the title already suggests. “Brunch” is one of the most prototypical types of blend as many studies mention it as an example. Its base words are “breakfast” and “lunch” which form the blend “breakfast without any overlap:

Br( eakfast) (n) + (l)unch (n) à brunch (n).

Remarkable is the fact that it cannot really be stated in how far these two lexemes “fuse into each other” as there is no overlap between the two source words. Nevertheless all given studies analyse it as a blend rather than a combination of splinters, what can be explained with the definition of splinters. Splinters are bound forms so they need another free form to combine with, what is impossible here as the new term would consist of the two splinter forms “br” and “unch” and no free form would exist in the compound form.

In S2E5 (The World’s Greatest Couple”) the term bromance is introduced for the first time what works perfectly as an example for a blend form as it does not only contain some overlap but even remains the second source word completely:

Bro( ther) (n) + romance (n) à bromance (n).

Especially Gries mentions the option that with regard to blending there exist forms where “either the first or the second source word respectively are entirely present in the blend” (2004: 415). Although this thesis focuses on Danks definition of blends, this feature is important. It is quite rare but nevertheless important.

In S3E9 (“Slapsgiving”) the recurring theme of “slapsgiving” is introduced, a blend of the terms “slap” and “Thanksgiving”. The first source word is kept completely in the blend whilst from the second source word only the final part is used what is typical for the definition of blends:

Slap (n) + (thank)sgiving (n) à slapsgiving (n)

Another blend in HIMYM is mixed together with the use of eponyms in S7E7 (“Noretta”) with the invention of the term “Noretta” what is a blend of the two names Nora and Loretta who are Barney’s girlfriend and his mother. The blend is built with the initial part of W1 and the final part of W2 together with some overlap:

No( ra) (n) + (L)oretta (n) à Noretta (n).

S7E19 (“The Broath”) mentions the term “broath”, also sometimes used as “bro oath” what will be analysed in a later section. Whilst “bro oath” is a combination of a clip and a compound, “broath” is an example for a blend. The two source words are “brother” and “oath” and fuse together with overlap whilst the second source word is fully present in the blend:

Bro (ther) (n) + oath (n)à broath (n).

In S8E4 (“Who Wants to be a Godparent”) the term “broller” is invented by Barney what is a combination of the two nouns brother and stroller, the American English term for a baby buggy. The creation of this new can be analysed regarding different types of word formation processes. On the one hand one can argument that Barney uses his favourite word “bro” what in turn is a clip form of “brother” as stated earlier and a splinter from the term s troller and put them together in a compound term:

Bro(ther) (n) + (stro)ller (n) à broller (n) .

On the other hand one can state that due to the fusing character and due to the overlap of the letters “ro” it needs to be classified as a blend what leads to the following analysis:

Bro ther (n) + (st)roller (n) à broller.

As this analysis matches Danks definition of blends, this classification is the one that matches best.

S9E14 (“Slapsgiving 3: Slappointment in Slapmarra”) mentions the term “slappointment” what resembles to the term “slapsgiving” but is produced in another way as both source words are entirely present in the blend. This special case is not mentioned by Gries or in any of the other studies but as the two words perfectly fuse into each other together with two overlapping letters, this thesis tends to define it as a blend instead of any other process of word formation. For better understanding this time not the remaining parts are underlined but the overlapping ones:

Slap (n) + appointment (n) à slappointment (n)

Remarkable features that all of these blends have in common deal with stress and length as in all of the given examples stress as well as length of the blend term follow stress and length of the second source word.

Arndt-Lappe and Plag (2013) already state that blend stress corresponds to W2 stress, a feature that Danks neglects in her thesis but that is remarkable.

2.5 Borrowing

In HIMYM there exist several examples of borrowing. Remarkable is that almost all given types of borrowing derive from German what leads to problems in translating the episodes for German TV. As this thesis only deals with the English version of HIMYM this difficulty can be neglected but is important to mention.

Borrowing is “perhaps the most frequently encountered product of cultural contact (…) that follow from intercultural communication. Borrowing is the process of importing linguistic items from one linguistic system into another, a process that occurs any time two cultures are in contact over a period of time” (Hoffer 2002:1). Here Hoffer describes the importance of how different languages influence each other, without any contact between the source languages, no types of borrowing could exist. So the process of borrowing describes a more cultural phenomenon.

Additionally Al-Mashkoor states that “Words travel from one language into another as a result of language contact stimulated by a number of linguistic and extra linguistic motivations. Environmental, sociopolitical, and economical motive like war invasion, intermarriage, immigration, trading and financial bargaining, beside other instances of linguistic motivations behind contact among communities like the need for lexical gap filling, the need for new words, the tendency to use more prestigious variety, etc. are all factors that might lead to borrowing “(n.d.).

He states the different motives for using borrowed terms, also known as loan words with borrowed terms in which “the form and meaning are borrowed with no or some modifications” are named as pure loanwords(n.d.). All of the given examples in HIMYM belong to that category as no modifications exist.

In S5E2 (“Double Date“) the friends discover the first “doppelgänger”, a theme that reoccurs several times in the following seasons as each of the five friends has his or her own “doppelgänger” somewhere in New York City. In the given episode the recurring theme of the five doublegangers is mentioned for the first time.

In 2009 Marshall and Barney visit the strip bar „Lusty Leopard“ together where a female stripper named Jasmine is working. She looks exactly as Lily, just having a Russian accent which makes the friends giving her the nick name “Stripper Lily”. Especially Barney is thrilled about this discovery, being explained with the fact that Jasmin is already the third double-ganger the group discovered. In several flashbacks the discovery of the first two double-gangers is told. The first one was “Moustache Marshall” whom the friends discovered some time during or prior to 2002 in a big advertisement of “Senor Justicia” on a bus showing a picture of a man who looks exactly as Marshall, the only difference being an enormous moustache, giving him his name. The second one is the one of Robin, called Lesbian Robin, being first met some time during or after 2005, a short-haired woman who had a boyish appearance.

Ted’s and Barney’s double-gangers (“Mexican Wrestler Ted” and “Kristoff Doppelgänger”) are being revealed in later episodes than “Double Date“ and are therefore not mentioned yet.

Important to examine is the fact that the group always describes them as “doppelgänger” instead of mentioning them as lookalikes or double-gangers. So the more remarkable way of naming them using borrowed words from German origin instead of using an existing English word has been chosen.

Another type of borrowing in HIMYM is a very common in English language: the word “kindergarten”. There do exist English alternatives such as preschool, playschool or nursery school. Nevertheless it is always said that Lily works in a kindergarten. Here again the innovators of HIMYM decided to choose a word that is from non-English origin instead of using a given English word. No special account of comedy is created thanks to this decision, it does not have any further effect on the show but it is definitely a remarkably decision.

Another form of borrowing that can be found is used in Barney’s invention of the “everyday boutonnière” what he mentions first in S6E9 (“Glitter”). The term boutonnière describes the flower that men sometimes use to pin on the lapel of a tuxedo. As Barney states that there is a correlation between the boutonnière and the chance of having sex, he supports the idea of wearing a boutonnière every day.

The term boutonnière derives from French and is commonly used in American English whilst in British English there exists the English term buttonhole or the term spray in British English as well as in American English. So there would have been several alternative English terms instead of boutonnière but the innovators of HIMYM chose to use the borrowed term instead of the English one. Boutonnière is the only borrowed term that could be found in HIMYM that does not derive from German origin.

Despite the fact that Al-Mashkoor mentions several motives for inventing new terms by using loanwords, none of them can really be applied for the mentioned examples. For each of the borrowed terms there exist a synonym that naturally occurs in English language. So the motive that fits the best is the desire for inventing new terms in general, for the sake of creating funnier conversations.


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Linguistic Features in “How I Met Your Mother”. A Linguistic Analysis
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