Because X: The New Use of an Old Word

On January 3, approximately 200 linguists at the American Dialect Society conference gathered to vote on what their 2013 Word of the Year should be. While creative coinages sharknado, doge, bitcoin, selfie, Obamacare, and twerk all received nominations, it was an old word used in new ways that most excited linguistics this year: because.

In the official ADS press release, Ben Zimmer describes the “new grammatical possibilities” of because: “No longer does because have to be followed by of or a full clause. Now one often sees tersely worded rationales like ‘because science’ or ‘because reasons.'” Jessica Love captures the tone of because saying, “It’s a fun, pithy, hand-wavy way of summing up a situation.” Mark Liberman notes that the new because “seems usually to be associated with an implication that the referenced line of reasoning is weak.”

English speakers have been having a lot of fun with this new construction. My favorite recent sighting comes from a November 2013 film review of About Time on the NPR blog Monkey See. In this movie Bill Nighy’s character reveals to his son that all the men in their family can travel back in time to a moment they’ve already lived. Chris Klimek writes:

Nighy claims he’s used his life-extending powers to get more reading done. I inferred that he’s also spent off-the-books eons whoring around Bangkok or wherever, because: Bill Nighy.

Where did the new because come from?
The origin of this use is uncertain, though there are theories. Neal Whitman presents one idea: because x is an extension of the older construction because, hey with the hey lopped off as in this line from a 1987 Saturday Night Live sketch:

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.

Gretchen McCulloch, however, is skeptical of this origin story. She instead looks to the meme “because of reasons,” as popularized by the Three Word Phrase comic #139 published in 2011. She finds it more likely that this phrase was shortened to “because reasons” than that a hey was dropped. Stan Carey points out the meme “because race car” made the Internet rounds around the same time, but quickly adds that because x was used before 2011, and offers a slew of examples. Perhaps because x developed from a combination of uses coexisting on the linguistic landscape. Or maybe it’s something else entirely.

Note that this sort of linguistic development is happening beyond just because. Carey also observed similar constructions with but, also, so, in conclusion, and thus. Think: I haven’t had coffee yet, thus grumpy. Whether or not this alters etymological theories is still up in the air.

What should we call it?
Linguists use various titles for this construction; some refer to it as because NOUN, others as because x, and still others refer to it as prepositional because. As its usage evolves, some names appear to be better suited than others. Because NOUN has already been proven to be too narrow for the versatility of this new use. While this covers some common examples, it doesn’t capture because followed by other parts of speech including verbs (I’m buying this jacket because want), adjectives (Must sleep now because tired), adverbs (I’m not going out in sub-zero degree weather, because honestly), or interjections (because yay!).

Many experts have been calling the new because a preposition, though this is up for debate. Neal Whitman calls it a preposition. Joe at Mr. Verb also prefers the prepositional distinction thanks to because’s accepted origin–from the two-word prepositional phrase by cause. McCulloch, on the other hand, breaks down why she thinks the name prepositional because falls apart, discussing how some noun phrases are okay with this new because while others are not. This, she says, is not typical of prepositions. Geoffrey Pullum over at Language Log address these concerns with a counterargument, saying that prepositions are far more flexible than “standard dictionary definitions” make them out to be. There is currently not any sort of consensus among linguists over the part of speech of this new because, though this might change as the discussion continues.

I personally feel that because x is the safest moniker for the time being. As far as the part of speech goes, the grammar classification might further shift as English speakers play with and develop the new uses of because x.

Have you heard or seen examples of this construction? Do you use it yourself?

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