radondoran: Perry the Platypus in a musketeer uniform, wielding a saber (Default)
radondoran ([personal profile] radondoran) wrote2013-01-27 01:57 am

"Look, You Cobber...": Semantic and Statistical Notes on Bigman Jones's Favorite Epithet

"To Sun-center with the Sirian cobbers!"
Isaac Asimov's Lucky Starr series has all kinds of fun things going on with the dialogue. Probably a good deal of this arises from the fact that it's a kids' series, and so the characters weren't even free to use the mild damn and hell that show up in the Robot stories. That, coupled with the fact that the series takes place in a spacefaring society circa the year 6945, means that the dialogue is absolutely packed with fictional slang.

Most of the fictional slang is classic Asimovian astronomical future slang: "Great Galaxy!", "what in space", "Mars-forsaken". But there's one prominent word that shows up in the series that doesn't arise from outer space, and does not to my knowledge usually show up in real twentieth-century American English either. This word is cobber, the insulting noun used by Lucky Starr's Martian sidekick John Bigman Jones.

This post will go over some observations about possible real-world origins of cobber, and some analysis of Bigman's use of the term in the books.

So what is a cobber, anyway? For one thing, it's Australian and New Zealander slang for "pal", but that obviously isn't what Bigman means by it. In the Oxford English Dictionary, the "pal" meaning is listed under cobber, n.2. There is also a listing for cobber, n.1. This listing doesn't have a definition per se, but it does give quotations:
(See quots.)
1778   W. Pryce Mineralogia Cornubiensis 234   The picked Ore..is put to a number of girls called Cobbers, who break it..to the size of a chestnut and less.
1864   J. E. White in Parl. Papers XXII. 402   He was however only one of the ‘cobbers’.
1921   Dict. Occup. Terms (1927) §056   Cobber; breaks ore into small pieces with small hammer, and sorts it according to value.
1921   Dict. Occup. Terms (1927) §334   Cobber; in fellmongery trims shanks and neck portions of sheepskins free of hair and offal after wool has been removed, and cuts them off.
So the term "cobber" seems to have been used in varying contexts to indicate someone who did menial labor. This, to me, seems like a logical insult for Bigman to use, considering his Martian farmboy background. We don't get a lot of information about how Martian farming actually works in David Starr, Space Ranger, but we know from Benson's description that because the Martian farms are largely automated, "farmboys are machinists more than anything else". We also know that Bigman has a specialty--he is a seeder--and that he is also skilled outside his specialty, since he claims to be able to operate a rocket as well as Tim Jenkins. (Not to mention the fact that he later proves himself to be a skilled pilot and marksman, and able to operate various complex controls aboard the Shooting Starr.)

So we know that although Bigman is working-class and does not have the formal education of Lucky Starr and the other scientists in the stories, he does have specialized skills. A cobber, somebody who does menial labor like breaking apart rocks, would be somebody even lower on the social scale than Bigman.

This interpretation is supported by the first token of "cobber" in the stories, in the first chapter of Lucky Starr and the Oceans of Venus. When Tor Johnson comments on Bigman's size, Bigman erupts in a cry of, "Why, you soup-straining cobber--". A soup-straining cobber, presumably, would be someone who did menial labor in a kitchen context--rather like Bigman and "Williams" did in Space Ranger, in fact.

So we can make a definite case for cobber, n.1. as the origin of Bigman's cobber. But just to be thorough, let's check out the OED's entries for cob, v.1 and cob, n.2., which are listed as probable etymologies for cobber, n.1. For cob, v.1., we find:
†1. intr. To fight, give blows. Obs. 
 2. trans. To crush or bruise (ore).
Sense 2 goes along with cobber, n.1. But sense 1 also seems worth noting--it's possible that Bigman's insult derives from a generalized "cobber" meaning "fighter" or "tough guy" that developed into an unflattering term for "man".
3. To strike.
a. esp. Naut. To strike on the buttocks with a flat instrument.
That's probably not it.

Now let's see if cob, n.2. yields anything interesting.
 I. Containing the notion ‘big’ or ‘stout’.
 1. a. A great man, big man, leading man; in mod. dial.expressing pre-eminence, as ‘chief’, ‘leader’, rather than state. (In the later use, the notion of ‘head’, ‘top’, may have entered in.)
†b. A wealthy man; a miser. Obs.
Not quite--a cobber in the Bigmanian sense is really the opposite of a leading or wealthy man.
1. †c. A huge, lumpish person. Obs.
That's a little closer.
 II. Containing the notion ‘rounded’, ‘roundish mass’ or ‘lump’.
5. c. A testicle. dial.
Interesting, but probably not the origin of an insult in an Asimovian kids' book.
 III. With the notion ‘head’, ‘top’.
11. The cylindrical shoot or rachis on which the grains of maize grow.
(That one's not relevant at all to this discussion; I just thought it was amusing that it took so long to get to the definition of "cob" that is most obvious in my own dialect.)

So I think it's not unreasonable to assume that Bigman's cobber comes from cobber, n.1. But how did he end up with the expression in the first place? This is a harder question to answer.

I did a Google Book Search for [cobber -australia -australian -zealand -zealander], in an attempt to weed out all the books about Australian slang, and set the date to everything before 1954, the year Oceans came out. Most of the hits were still the "pal" meaning, but I did find a couple references to cobbers in the mining sense. A 1922 Popular Mechanics has a reference to a "magnetic cobber", which is a magnet that sorts ore, and a 1941 book about arsenic (only available in snippet view, alas) refers to a cobber as a person who works at a bench in some capacity. (I also found a reference in a 1937 Popular Science to a newfangled corn de-cobber. Awesome.)

I did find one other book which uses cobber as an insult--it appears liberally in Police Your Planet, by Lester Del Rey writing as Eric van Lihn. But that book came out in 1956, two years after Oceans and in the same year as Lucky Starr and the Big Sun of Mercury, so it can't have been much of an influence.

I suppose Asimov probably heard the word cobber in the mining sense somewhere, and adapted it as an insult for Bigman. I wish I knew precisely where he picked it up, but as a scientist and jack-of-all-trades, it's not too surprising that he'd heard the word.

That's all I've been able to find about the real-world origins of cobber as it's used in Lucky Starr. But how about in-universe? How does Bigman actually use the word?

Here is a link to my spreadsheet of all the tokens of cobber or its variants in the series.

First of all, it is worth noting that cobber does not appear at all in Space Ranger or Lucky Starr and the Pirates of the Asteroids, and only appears three times in Oceans. It is not until Big Sun that it becomes a frequent and distinctive part of Bigman's idiolect. Curiously enough, "Sands of Mars!" appears for the first time in Oceans as well. And yet both expressions are so well-suited to Bigman that I can't fault Asimov for introducing them out of nowhere.

He wasn't the first to do something like that--for example, Dumas's Twenty Years After tells us that Athos calls d'Artagnan "my son" in moments of affection, despite the fact that this does not happen at all in The Three Musketeers. In both of these cases, my preferred approach is usually just to hand-wave it and assume the character was saying the distinctive thing the entire time, but the narrator didn't report it for some reason. It's easier than trying to come up with an in-universe reason for a Martian to start using distinctively Martian oaths after two years off Mars…

(Although, maybe one could pursue the idea that Bigman started using the Martian slang more as an attempt to reassert his heritage as he started to lose touch with Mars on his and Lucky's travels…? No, I said I wouldn't do this. Besides, to use my other example, there really is no good explanation for Athos's sudden adoption of a pet name for d'Artagnan after twenty years out of touch with him, especially when Athos has a biological son.)

Anyway, whenever it started, there are 54 instances of cobber or its variants in the Lucky Starr series, although 2 of these are quotations of the same utterance. 53 (well, 52) of these are nouns--I will discuss the one anomalous token below.

Of these, 36 (69%) are mentions of a cobber to someone else, usually Lucky ("that cobber"), while 16 (31%) are addressed to the cobber in question ("you cobber").

In 19 (37%) of the instances of nominal cobber, the word is modified by a descriptive word. A modifier appears before 44% of the second-person instances, and only 32% of third-person cases. This pattern, if a pattern can be established from only 19 data points, makes sense. In many of the third-person cases, Bigman's primary intent is to express or request information about a given cobber, not just to insult him. But when he calls someone a cobber to his face, then he has more of an intent to insult, and he would be more likely to go to the trouble of adding an unflattering modifier.

The most repeated modifier is dirty, appearing four times. In 8 cases, the modifier is non-literal: "that dirty cobber", "you soup-straining cobber". In the other 11 cases, the modifier is something that literally applies to the character in question: "you foul-fighting cobber", "that soft Sirian cobber".

In the cases where Bigman calls someone a cobber to his face, it is prefaced by you every time except one: his jeer of "Fight, cobber" to Jonathan Urteil in Big Sun.

In the cases where Bigman refers to someone as a cobber to a third party, he uses the determiner a once ("Urteil was a lying cobber"). He refers to someone as "the cobber" 20 times (54% of third-person tokens). "That cobber" (or "those cobbers") appears 12 times, while "this cobber" appears only 4 times. This difference, too, makes sense--even Bigman won't usually talk bad about somebody right in front of him.

There is one instance of cobber in the series that doesn't fit into any of these categories: Bigman's lament in Oceans, after discovering his heroic efforts in the air vents were for nothing, that "I was fifty kinds of cobbered fool."

This is the only instance of cobber as a verb or as a modifier in the whole series. In the real world, cobber [up with] is Australian/New Zealand slang meaning "to make friends with", but again, that's obviously not the meaning here. I also find references in Google Books to "cobbered" meaning "of a nut, broken in the game of cob-nut", but that is not especially promising either. There are two references in Google Books to "cobbered" having something to do with car repair, I think, but they're both from the 1960s.

So what's up with "cobbered fool"? What I find especially interesting about this phrase is that it's only the second appearance of cobber in the series. I would be less surprised if it appeared in, say, Lucky Starr and the Moons of Jupiter--it would seem like only an extension of an existing catchphrase. But in Oceans, it's a brand-new word that isn't used in the same way it will be established later. Did Asimov introduce it as an all-purpose swear, and then later decide it was only a noun after all?

I don't know. I'm not sure what to make of that bit.

One more thing I thought was interesting. In recording all the instances of cobber, I made a note of who Bigman used the epithet to refer to each time. There is one instance of the word used to refer to a hypothetical person: "A robot is no smarter than the cobber who runs him." Most of the time, though, it's a specific person--usually a total jerk (Urteil, Summers), but occasionally an unhelpful person (Donahue), an apparently suspicious person (Norrich), or just a smugly annoying person (Wess).

For all the times Bigman says cobber, though, and for all the talking he does in the series, and for all the time he and Lucky spend together, there's only one example of him using cobber to refer to Lucky Starr. I will quote this example in full, because it's one of my favorite speeches in the series:
"Lucky, if you want to order me to stay here because there's something for me to do here, okay. I'll do it, and when it's done I'll join you. But if you just want me to stay here to be safe while you go off into danger, we're finished. I'll have nothing more to do with you; and without me, you overgrown cobber, you won't be able to do a thing, you know you won't." (Lucky Starr and the Rings of Saturn)
I guess what I like about this is that, for all the insults Bigman throws around, the only time he ever calls Lucky a cobber is when things are really serious. He's always so utterly loving towards Lucky, and the fact that he does go so far as to call him a cobber in this exchange shows how strongly he feels about the prospect of Lucky abandoning him instead of letting him help. I love this bit, and I love it even more now that I've realized the singularity of that word choice.


Um, yeah, so anyway, that's about everything I've discovered about the word cobber. If anybody's reading this, I'd love to hear your thoughts on the word, or about ridiculously specific linguistic elements from your own fandoms, or whatever!