LINGUIST List 6.290

Thu 23 Feb 1995

Sum: Grasshopper Mind

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  1. Michael Carr, Summary: "Grasshopper Mind"

Message 1: Summary: "Grasshopper Mind"

Date: Thu, 23 Feb 1995 12:45:35 Summary: "Grasshopper Mind"
From: Michael Carr <>
Subject: Summary: "Grasshopper Mind"

 Short Answer: "Grasshopper mind" is British English, not

 Summary Answer: Thanks to those LINGUIST readers who responded to my
query (5.1431, 94/12/11) about "grasshopper mind," an expression that is
entered into Kenkyusha's Japanese-English and English-Japanese dictionaries
(1974, 1980) and Roget's Thesaurus (1982), but apparently not found in any
monolingual English dictionaries. The respondents, in alphabetical order,
were: Deborah Milam Berkley, Marie Egan, Ted Harding, Steven Schaufele,
Steve Seegmiller, Todd Sieling, and Stephen P. Spackman. The inquiry asked
four questions:
)Do other English language reference works enter "the grasshopper mind"?
)Is it a varietal or dialectal term? When was it first recorded? Are
)there analogous "grasshoppery" words in other languages?

 (1) Looking up "grasshopper mind" in English dictionaries is a
lexicographical dead end. I've checked dozens -- including old and new,
standard and slang, UK and US, -- and not one enters it. Some larger
dictionaries record a derogatory sense of _grasshopper_; e.g., The New
Shorter Oxford English Dictionary (1993): "2. _fig._ A person held to
resemble a grasshopper in character or behaviour; an inconstant, flighty,
or frivolous person. L16." And the near-synonym "grasshopper brain" is
Webster's Third New International Dictionary (1971) usage example for
_grasshopper_ meaning 3.2 "light and frivolous : untouched by care for
the future."

 (2) Harding definitively answers the second question:
)"Grasshopper mind" is well-known standard UK English usage. To say
)someone "has a grasshopper mind" means that their focus of attention
)jumps unpredictably from subject to random subject.
None of the other respondents, including three widely-dispersed speakers
of American English (Berkley, Egan, Seegmiller), had seen or heard this
collocation, but all agreed they could readily understand what it means.
In terms of _grasshopper_ meaning 'frivolous, careless,' the semantics of
"grasshopper mind" are fairly self-explanatory.

 (3) Dating the "grasshopper mind" coinage is moot. Harding says:
)I'm sure it's not particularly recent in origin. ... I'm pretty sure it
)must be possible to trace early uses of the phrase "grasshopper mind."
Sieling suggests checking Aesop's "The Ant and the Grasshopper," and Funk
& Wagnalls New Standard Dictionary (1913) defines _grasshoppering_ as:
"1. An unsettled and unsteady course of life; improvident living: from
the fable of the grasshopper and the ant."

 (4) "Grasshopper mind" has cross-linguistic analogues. Schaufele
describes it as:
)like all those complex words in German that you can't find in
)any dictionary but which are crafted for the nonce by completely
)productive strategies and are perfectly understandable to any
)reasonably-intelligent speaker of the language (I had to coin one
)of these myself the other day, 'Lehrgangsprotokoll', to mean what
)we mean here by a 'school transcript').
Spackman thinks "grasshopper mind" reads like a loan translation of a
foreign expression, and mentions an interesting Ojibwa calque:
)the phrase "fire stick" which has been given in novels and movies
)to Ignorant American Natives is apparently a literal, morpheme-by-
)morpheme translation of the Ojibwa word for a gun. Except for one
)thing: it's not stupid. "Fire" here translates "launch a projectile"
)and "stick" is the classifier for a rigid rod. "Rigid projectile
)launcher" is not so snappy, but a rather tighter word than "gun"
)don't you think?

 The semantically transparent "grasshopper mind" reveals a
lexicographical gap between English dictionaries published in the United
States and the United Kingdom. While unknown to most American Anglophones
and familiar to many UK Anglophones, lexicographers have overlooked this
metaphor for orthopterous mentality. Modern lexicography is benefiting
from computerized corpora and machine-readable dictionaries. For instance,
searching for adjectival _grasshopper_ + noun combinations in CobuildDirect's
on-line corpus ( reveals three occurrences of
"grasshopper mind," two of "grasshopper warbler," and one each of
"grasshopper leap," "weather," and "Nijinsky." Many dictionaries enter
_grasshopper warbler_ (Locustella naevia, characterized by its buzzing call)
but none _grasshopper mind_. Further research is necessary. Any information
about this expression's historical origins or distributional usages
(Seegmiller asks about Australian English) would be gratefully welcomed.

Michael Carr, Otaru University of Commerce, Otaru 047 Japan
EMAIL FAX 81+(0)134-22-0467
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