LINGUIST List 3.992

Wed 16 Dec 1992

Sum: Wannabe

Editor for this issue: <>


  1. Larry Horn, Summary wannabe
  2. Larry Horn, Wannabes, Part 2 (and last)

Message 1: Summary wannabe

Date: Tue, 15 Dec 92 14:52:05 ESSummary wannabe
From: Larry Horn <LHORNYALEVM.bitnet>
Subject: Summary wannabe

First of all, profuse thanks to all 67 respondents--too many to acknowledge
individually--who replied either directly or through Linguist to my December 4
posting on the origin and distribution of 'wannabe'. This is clearly an item
that hasn't yet exhausted its 15 minutes of fame, as demonstrated by the fact
that the popular press of the last week has produced the following exemplars:
1) from the N. Y. Times, 12/9/92: a reference to fruit roll-ups and Gushers
as '"fruit wannabes" that pass themselves off as real fruit when they are no
different from candy'
2) from the Times Book Review of 12/13/92, a letter in response to a critical
review by Caryn James of Madonna's "SEX" that claims that 'Although she
begins on a sophisticated, world-weary note, Ms. James soon exposes herself as
a world-weary wannabe'.
3) a N. Y. Times Magazine ad (12/13/92) for the Toyota 4Runner with the lead
'NO PLACE FOR WANNABES'. (The ad pictures the vehicle at the edge of a cliff
and the text continues 'Do you wanna go...where there are no crowds? Do you
wanna do...the things other people only dream of?', where the puzzling
ellipses are in the original.)
4) a drawing caption in the current New Yorker that runs 'Michelle Pfeiffer
plays a Jackie wannabe in "Love Field",...set in the days following the
Kennedy assassination
5) An exchange in the syndicated Beetle Bailey strip of 12/9/92, brought to
my attention by Georgia Green and Kate McCreight:
 --I'm working hard so I can be a general someday.
 --He's just a pathetic wannabe.
 --I'd rather be a wannabe than a hasabeen.
Yes, that's right, hasabeen. That particular reanalysis aside, it clearly
emerges from these citations that 'wannabe' is, in the first place, now
standardly spelled that way. Earlier citations range from 'wannabee' to
'wanna be' to 'wanna-be(e)', but evidently the formation is frequent enough
now that writers no longer fear a naive reader who might be misled (as in
MAY-zuhld) into reading it as wan nabe (a neighborhood theater with poor
lighting, presumably). Oh, and mea culpa on my earlier pronunciation guide:
wannabe rhymes with 'on a bee' only for those speakers who pronounce 'on' the
way I do. As several of you pointed out, I would have been better off rhyming
it with '(u)pon a bee'.
 Nobody agreed with me on the purported third person plural origin, and 17
respondents argued that a first-person origin is more plausible. In
particular, David Powers, Vern Lindblad, Benji Wald, and Bruce Nevin argued
for various versions of an 'as-if' source: an X wannabe is someone who is
characterized as saying 'I wanna be X'. Others were more agnostic, but there
is a clear consensus that 'wannabe' involves a NON-THIRD-SINGULAR source. In
this respect, as a couple of you pointed out, it's parallel to other derived
nominals (albeit with different distributions): he's a go(*es)-getter, a
Johnny-come(*s)-lately, a go(*es)-between, a look(*s)-alike, a do(*es)-gooder,
a do(*es)n't-care and even a get(*s)-it-right-the-first-time kinda guy... Then
there are others (a can't-miss, a must-see, a will call [thanks to Ellen
Kaisse], a couldn't-care-less kinda guy) where no inflection would appear
anyway. (I suspect that the 'come' of 'Johnny-come-lately' is a participle
rather than a finite form, so the absence of a 3d sg. marker is indecisive.)
But the only nominal that seems to occur with the third singular affix is
'has-been'. (Or hasabeen, if you prefer.) Any thoughts from anyone on this
 The Toyota and Beetle Bailey citations reveal that contrary to my earlier
surmise, 'wannabe' occurs quite freely in the appropriate context with no
explicit goal argument. In fact, perusing the entry for the word in American
Speech ("Among the New Words", Am.Sp. 65 (1990): 246-7; thanks to Dennis Baron
for the citation), we find that the earliest written citing is a free-stander:
 The flood tide of surfers first started building in the early '60s...
 Before long, the beaches were jammed with hordes of novices known as
 wannabees (as in, "I wanna be a surfer"). (Newsweek, 7/6/82)
The other citations in the entry are all 1987 or later (they include surfer
and Madonna wannabees, a witch-burner wannbe, a wanna-be T. E. Lawrence,
Vandals characterized as Roman wannabees, Rambo wanna-bees, Carson wannabees
[e.g. Joan Rivers], 'would-be gang members, known as "wannabees"', a Woody
Allen wannabe ["When Harry Met Sally"], the wannabees of Spike Lee's 'School
Daze (a film released in 1989), the wannabe super traders of Wall Street,
Gubernatorial Wannabes, Joyce Brothers wannabes, the 'yupscale
mom-and-pop-wannabes' of "The Accused", high court wanna-bes, a Henry VIII
wannabe, and a Christian wannabe daughter-in-law.
 Most of these entries, and most of the other recent ones I've come
across are of the form 'an X wannabe', where X is either a proper name or an
unmodified common noun (note that one can be 'a blond [surfer wannabe]', but
not 'a [blond surfer] wannabe'), but several are free-standing wannabes where
the goal is recoverable from the context. While several respondents mentioned
the relation to 'would-be' or to 'has-been', there's a difference in that the
former can't occur as a nominal and the latter can't occur EXCEPT as a
free-standing noun. Thus neither occurs in the frame 'an X ____'. What can,
inter alia, is 'look-alike' (although only after names) and, as Bruce Nevin
points out, words like clone, groupie, follower, fan, etc. (although again
only after names). There seems to be a possible derivation along the
following lines:
 He's a wannabe linguist (*a wannabe Chomsky) [as in 'a would-be ...']
 He's a wannabe
 He's a Chomsky/?linguist wannabe
 (as in a Chomsky look-alike)
But clearly, for the majority of respondents, there's no problem now in
getting 'an X wannabe' where X names a category. (No citations, though, of
'a wannabe X', where X is a name rather than a category.)
 Solving for X in the original equation: who was the first goal X of 'an
X wannabe'? This question will be addressed in the second half of this
posting. Stay tuned.
 Larry Horn (lhornyalevm.bitnet)
Mail to author|Respond to list|Read more issues|LINGUIST home page|Top of issue

Message 2: Wannabes, Part 2 (and last)

Date: Tue, 15 Dec 92 22:47:22 ESWannabes, Part 2 (and last)
From: Larry Horn <LHORNYALEVM.bitnet>
Subject: Wannabes, Part 2 (and last)

OK. The argument from the first part was that 'wannabe' originated, ex
hypothesi, as a pre-nominal modifier akin to 'would-be' (where 'a would-be X'
is possible only for common noun X), then nominalized into
a free-standing epithet akin to 'has-been', but unlike 'has-been' continued to
develop (possibly influenced by the existence of 'an X look-alike/clone/...')
--or, for that matter, 'an X manqu'e' (as noted independently by Karen Kay and
me)--into the head of a nominal compound taking a(n unmodified) common noun or
(possibly more frequently) a name as its argument.
 Now, the principal remaining question is where this all started. The most
popular hypotheses are:
 (i) Black English (5 votes), as represented by Spike Lee in his film
'School Daze', featuring a culture war within the high school between the
black-identified jigaboos and the white-identified wannabees. There is a
perception that the latter term predated Lee's use of it, and that 'wannabee'
was around earlier than the 1980's as a derisive term for Afro-Americans
adopting the values and externals of white bourgeois culture, but no specific
pre-School Daze citations were offered. Curiously, another attested context
for free-standing Wannabes is to describe whites who hang out with or emulate
blacks (one recent example is in the just released movie "Zebrahead", and
another is in the entry for 'wannabe' in the Oxford Dictionary of New Words,
as cited by Dennis Baron). Both trans-racial 'wannabes', however, are
attributed to use by black speakers.
 Related to these uses is that of that notorious Indian tribe, the
Wannabees (or Wannabee Indians), mentioned by Scott De Lancey, Amy Dahlstrom
(who points out the psuedo-Algonquian flavor of the 'wana-' prefix), and Mark
Mandel. Actually, this use (again somewhat derisive, since the label is
attributed to the native Americans of non-Wannabee tribal origin) is
especially appealing to me; I can even imagine a summer camp somewhere in
Maine, Camp Wan-Na-Bee...
 And then, of course, there are the infamous Madonna wannabes, first
sighte/cited in the mid-1980's, with their 'street urchinny style', their
dozens of plastic bracelets, crosses, fingerless lace gloves, etc., wearing
their underwear out, and so on. 18 respondents mentioned this putative
origin, although some surmised that Madonna's wannabes were not necessarily
the first, just the ones that--as it were--spread the word. In fact, as we've
seen from the earlier cites, the role of Madonna here was somewhat akin to the
role of Wayne's World in popularizing then already existing retro-NOT device.
Several people pointed out the particular role of assonance in 'Madonna
wannabe' as helping the spread along.
 As mentioned in Part I of my summary, the first documented 'wannabe' had
neither blacks, Indians, nor Madonna as their (explicit or implicit) goal, but
rather surfers. The six-year gap in the citings of the American Speech entry
is a bit puzzling, though, and it should be pointed out that the majority of
the Algeos' instantiations are from the sources to which they have the most
access, namely the newspapers of Atlanta and Athens, GA. Thus the jury is
still out.
 A couple of other random suggestions. Dwight Tuinstra recalls ads in the
musicians' freebie paper from the 1970s in Seattle specifying "No wannabes"
(i.e. pseudo-musicians). Neal Whitman remembers a series of toys--'little
plastic doll/action figures of doctors, firefighters, etc.'--being marketed in
the 1970s with the copy "You can be what you wanna be, with Wannabees!" Dave
Braze recalls the term used in the mid-70s in Fresno for someone in his junior
high school who was not, but aspired to be, in the in-crowd. And Benji Wald
remembers from the 70s in Los Angeles a whole slew of wannabe actors,
greasers, 'soshes', hippies, etc., anyone who 'wears the clothes/talks the
talk/walks the walk' of an X but is not an X. Finally, though not suggesting
it as a source, Martin Haspelmath draws our attention to the well-established
German equivalent: ein Moechtegern-Chomsky (-Madonna, -Linguist,...),
< moechte 'wants, would like' (1st/3d sing.). Of course, we might regard
this as corresponding more to 'a would-be X' than to 'an X wannabe'.
 I think I'll end this latter half of my summary as my file ends, with
Michael Kac's query: If you aspire to be the new spinner on 'Wheel of
Fortune', does that make you a Vannabe? (Or if you've set your sights on the
Donald, are you an Ivanabe? Are the more obscure South American species of
lizards just iguana wannabes? I know, time to quit.)
 Larry Horn (lhornyalevm.bitnet)
Mail to author|Respond to list|Read more issues|LINGUIST home page|Top of issue