Raspberry or Zerbert? A Case Study in Shockingly Poor Research Methods

My husband and I were at his folks’ house with our baby, and as it will, the topic of blowing kisses on a baby’s belly came up. His family repeatedly used the term “zerbert,” which I had never heard before. I didn’t say anything, because I am a descriptivist by training, and so stuffed my objections of, “It’s called a raspberry, you weirdos!” into my pocket and turned my attention to pondering whence came our divergent terms. The purpose of this study was initially to examine if regional origins of the family member who passed the term along were responsible for the difference.

Research Methods

“Wait one blooming minute,” you will be saying, if you know thing one about research methods, “isn’t this where the literature review belongs?” Gold star! Well done! In a quality piece of research, this IS where the literature reviews belongs. This, however, is not a quality piece of research. In fact, one might argue that it’s a brilliant exemplar of how NOT to do research. Therefore: more on the lit review later.

As John’s family qualifies under the most restrictive definition of Mainers (both of his parents and theirs were born and raised in Maine) and mine are still classically considered Flatlanders (both parents are either from or spent a significant portion of their childhood in Massachussetts), I hypothesized that “zerbert” might be a Maine thing and “raspberry” might be a Mass. thing. I used snowball sampling via Facebook, where the population of my friend list is mostly from New England and homogeneous like milk. (To be clear, this is a statement of fact acknowledging that I am shockingly bad at stepping outside of my bubble. It is a limitation with my sampling method, not a point of pride.) My sampling method turned up 11 participants, so while I can’t speak to who did or did not participate or their specific demographic information (which I didn’t collect), it’s safe to say it’s old (30+) and extremely white.

A three-question survey was offered with absolutely no attempt to assess reliability or validate the instrument. Participants were asked

  1. What is the name of a kiss blown on a baby’s belly?
  2. Who did you learn this word from?
  3. What state or country did that person grow up in?

While participants were given the chance to answer freely given the inclusion of an “other” option, the first two questions offered multiple choice solutions that distinctly reflected my wildly unfounded hunch that these two terms were reasonable offerings to provide and that the point of origin was likely to be either an immediate family member or member of your parents’ immediate family or a friend of either generation.

Data Analysis & Results

What is the name of a kiss blown on a baby's belly? 72.7% answered raspberry.

I was unsurprised that most participants answered raspberry, because that’s my personal bias to begin with. I was surprised that no one entered any additional answers in “other.”

Who did you learn this word from? 45.5% answered parent or sibling.

Parents and siblings, the way immediate family was operationalized for the sake of this study (itself a limiting way to ask the question, in retrospect), were the most common source, but given the diverse responses from the majority of the participants and the fact that the 45.5% is equal to an n of 6, it would be remarkably poor form to suggest we’ve learned much from this.

What state or country did that person grow up in? 30% answered Maine.

I was surprised that only 30% of participants learned the word from someone who was raised in Maine. Those answers provide me with pretty decent guesses as to who participated because of the aforementioned issue with the problematic homogeneity of my social sphere, and also presents problems with protecting the anonymity of my participants. This study will definitely not qualify for federal funding.

Review of the Literature

John asked me why I was giggling to myself after posting this survey. I blame the sleep deprivation of grad school layered with the sleep deprivation that comes hand-in-hand with parenting an infant. For the giggling, I mean. I can’t blame sleep deprivation for this kind of nonsense… just for the degree to which I found it funny. John squinted at me and said, “Isn’t ‘zerbert’ from The Cosby Show’?”

So, um. Yes. A quick Google would have made it patently obvious that this entire inquiry was completely pointless and also a little awkward to draw attention to right now. And also, it’s spelled “zrbtt.” Which is why you do your lit review BEFORE your research. Don’t forget, kids: quality lit reviews justifying the need for the study in context of the current state of the field? Essential marker of quality research.

Also, another quick Google turned up a longer list of terms for blowing kisses on a baby’s belly, of which, my favorite by far was this:

In the south we called it ‘blithering,’ or blowing blithers. When you look at the definition of ‘blithering idiot’ it makes sense. It’s an old term.

Elise – Stack Exchange – Aug. 18, 2016

It gives me such a vivid mental picture of the phrase “blithering idiot” and adds rich cultural context to my own behavior as a parent. Also, the etymology trace is delightful. Blither <v.>, variant of blether (Scottish, to talk nonsense), probably from blaðra (Old Norse, wag of the tongue), possibly either imitative in origin or from *blodram (Proto-Germanic, something inflated)…which is also the source of bladder. Fun stuff, people. Fun stuff.

Discussion & Limitations

I hope it is deeply clear to everyone reading this that I have presented you with a study is one limitation stacked ever so carefully atop another to craft an absolute masterpiece in wasting time. One of the ethical concerns in research is equity in sharing your results and benefits thereof with participants. In this instance, however, I think keeping this monstrosity to myself might have been the more beneficial act, so I’m blowing it on that front too.

What I have learned is that a non-representative and underpowered sample of my friends and family have a preference for raspberry over zerbert and learned the term from a parent or sibling. I have also learned the term “blowing blithers,” which is all the retrospective justification I need. How do you learn stuff you don’t know you don’t know? Sometimes, you just muck about and sometimes, you get lucky.

What you have probably learned from this experience is that it’s probably better for the world if I go get ahead on the reading for my research methods class. I already knew that, however, and I can’t imagine that the information enriches your lives, so the best I can hope for is that my mucking about gives some of you a laugh.