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In Standard English, the word “because” can be used two ways. One of them is to introduce a clause, as in “Aardvark was late because he was waiting for the repairman to show up.” Used this way, “because” is a subordinating conjunction. The other is to team up with “of” to form what’s called a compound preposition. For example, “Aardvark was late because of heavy traffic.” In the past three or four years, though, a new usage for “because” has been developing.
“Because Evil Emperor Zurg!”
So what is this new way of using the word “because”? Listen to these quotations from opens in a new windowan article in Slate this past summer, in which young children were asked to choose their favorite Pixar movie. A five-year-old chose Toy Story 2, quote, “Because Evil Emperor Zurg!” A four-year-old liked Monster Inc. “Because the day care.” A six-year-old chose Monsters University, “because the part where Sully has the big roar and scares all the policemen.”
“Because” as a Preposition
The new usage of “because” treats it as an ordinary preposition, by having it introduce noun phrases instead of clauses or the word “of.” I’ve also heard teenagers say things like, “I’ll do that when school’s out, because more time.”
This construction got a name just last year. In July 2012, two linguists independently decided to call it “because NOUN.” On July 2, Laura Bailey called it this in a post on her opens in a new windowlinguistlaura blog, and on July 12, Mark Liberman independently did the same in opens in a new windowa Language Log post.
But where did this “because NOUN” come from? I have the same suspicion as a few of the commenters on the Language Log post: It has its origins in what I’ll call “because hey” sentences. If you’re old enough, you may remember Jack Handey’s Deep Thoughts, a recurring joke on Saturday Night Live. One of them, written in 1987, went like this:
If you ever fall off the Sears Tower, just go real limp, because maybe you’ll look like a dummy and people will try to catch you because, hey, free dummy.
In the early 2000s, someone took the saying “If life gives you lemons, make lemonade” and turned it into:
If life gives you lemons, keep them, because, hey, free lemons.
Before the “hey,” we have a regular English sentence. After the “hey,” we have an extremely condensed and abbreviated thought, represented by just a noun phrase. The humor in the “free dummy” and “free lemons” sentences comes from the speaker’s assumption that all he or she needs to say is “free dummy” or “free lemons,” and naturally you, the listener can fill in all the rest. A free dummy? Heck, yeah, who wouldn’t want a free dummy? Doesn’t everybody want one?
Linguists call this kind of construction because NOUN.
In these sentences, the “hey” works like an adaptor, letting you shift from the ordinary speech register to this casual and condensed register. It’s like a verbal shrug, as if to ask, “What more do I need to say?” In fact, I can’t even say the “free dummy” or “free lemons” sentences without shrugging.
In the 2000s, these “because-hey” sentences seem to have become a meme. The “free dummy” and “free lemons” versions turn up again and again on the Internet, and Google also turns up examples such as “because, hey, free pizza,” “hey, free bucket,” and “hey, free hug with opens in a new windowhandsome guy.” You can also find versions without the word “free,” such as this opens in a new windowexample from 2009, about people who predict the end of the world: “Then they were all over 2000 because, hey, new millennium and all that.”
Somewhere along the way, some speakers began to leave out the “hey,” but managed to keep the hand-waving you-know-what-I-mean overtones for the noun phrase they put after “because.” The earliest example I’ve found for this is from August 2008, and it puts this hand-waving into words. It goes like this: “[M]arket capitalism leads to political liberalism because… well, opens in a new windowbecause FREEDOM, that’s why!” There are probably earlier examples and examples with other nouns, just waiting for you to type in the right search string to find them. The most recent one I’ve seen is from my Facebook feed, where a man wrote about his sweetie, “he now uses a hammer to break up coffee beans for the French press rather than using a coffee grinder because: carcinogens.” He used a colon after “because” instead of a “hey” or a “well.”
Examples like these are the kind that the linguists blogged about in 2012. Laura Bailey’s example involved the video game Skyrim, which came out in late 2011 and became part of an online catchphrase: “because Skyrim.” For example, “I didn’t finish my homework because Skyrim.” The idea seems to be that the speaker is so preoccupied with Skyrim that he or she can’t be bothered to string enough words together to explain it coherently. You should just be able to get it from the context, because everyone knows how consuming Skyrim is, right? Mark Liberman noted that sentences like these are “usually to be associated with an implication that the referenced line of reasoning is weak.” He gave an example from a headline: “Louisiana GOP Bigot Changes Mind on School Vouchers Because Muslims.”
A blogger named David Weinberger made a similar observation in opens in a new windowa post from January of this year. He used the example of “We invaded Iraq because freedom,” and observed that it “had a mocking edge, indicating that the explanation for an event was inadequate; people didn’t think past a blind, simplistic support for freedom.” And just last month, in opens in a new windowa message posted to the online forum alt.usage.english, a poster named Richard Yates wrote: “The implication is that the ‘reasons’ that follow ‘because’ are simply rote talking points and catch phrases that do not actually support the premise.” You can almost imagine the speakers vaguely waving their hands and pausing for a half-second before they utter the noun after “because.”
An interesting side note is that there are even similar sentences, with and without “hey,” that use “but” instead of “because.” For example, “I disagree with him, but hey, freedom of speech.” I also watched a late 1990s episode of Buffy the Vampire Slayer in which the character Willow shyly asks the character Oz if he’d like to make out with her. He admits that he’s thought about it, and that when he does, it’s like time stands still, like a freeze frame, while he imagines how it would be. Even so, he turns down her proposal. Hurt, Willow sputters, “But … freeze frame!” In the alt.usage.english thread that I quoted earlier, another poster named Mark Brader links to opens in a new windowa poignant episode of Randall Munroe’s xkcd web comic, in which Randall is trying to enjoy every moment with his wife, who has been diagnosed with cancer. In one frame, they’re playing Scrabble, and he says, “‘Zarg’ isn’t a word.” She protests “But … caaaancer!” and he lets her take the points.
Now, back to “Because NOUN.” As for the transition from the sarcastic usage to the sarcasm-free usage by younger speakers, we know that irony goes right over kids’ heads. As they’re learning the language as toddlers, they hear “Because NOUN” and just put it in with all the other grammar they’re learning. That’s true for the kids who rated their favorite Pixar movies just this year, and today’s young adults who learned their English in 2000s. Consider the adult who responded to opens in a new windowa post about “Because NOUN” on the blog All Things Linguistic by saying, “[A]bsolutely every example sentence above is acceptable to me.”
Of course, all this doesn’t mean that “Because NOUN” has become an accepted part of Standard English. In fact, one use of “Because NOUN” went viral and became an Internet joke, in large part because it’s not grammatical in Standard English. In January 2011, a Craigslist user selling a 1992 Mazda wrote that it was “[c]ompletely stripped inside because race car.” A writer on a car-devotee website quoted the ad, and within two months, “because race car” was an Internet meme, complete with a website devoted to “why” questions that all had the same answer: “ opens in a new windowbecause race car!” Ironically, even though “because race car” spread because of its nonstandard grammar, its popularity probably assisted the spread of “Because NOUN.”
In the future, “Because NOUN” might fade away like other language fads, but on the other hand, it might become at least as acceptable as, say, “ opens in a new windowgraduated high school.” As David Weinberger wrote in his blog post, “I think there’s a good chance it will stick, because efficiency.”
This podcast was written by Neal Whitman, who blogs about linguistics at opens in a new windowliteralminded.wordpress.com and is a regular columnist for the online resource opens in a new windowVisual Thesaurus.
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