“You’re Causing a Row”

[Update: I have added a few additional comments about “causing a row” at the end of this post]

While watching Baz Luhrmann’s The Great Gatsby the other day, I was struck by the climactic scene in which Tom Buchanan barks, “What kind of a row are you trying to cause in my house anyhow?” The uninitiated might assume this to be the result of Australian screenwriters “slipping up” and using the rather un-American-sounding “row” to mean “argument.”

Being a Gatsby afficianado, however, I immediately recognized this line as being lifted from the novel. Furthermore, a quick Google Books search reveals many examples of “row” being used this way in older American literature. So when did “row” become something that Americans don’t say? 

I’ve known that “row” can be used to mean “argument” since an early age, but probably only learned this word through literature, having only realized that this type of “row” rhymed with “cow” (i.e. ɹaʊ) as an adolescent. I can’t say I’ve encountered many Americans seriously using the term in spoken conversation since then.

So what happened? Upon putting “causing a row” into Google NGram Viewer along with similar terms like “causing an argument,” “causing a scene,” “causing a fight,” and “causing a disagreement,” an unexpected pattern emerged:

NGram

Startlingly, most such phrases stayed at roughly the same degree of frequency throughout the 20th Century, with the notable exception of “causing a scene,” which took off after the 1950s. This proves nothing, of course, especially given NGram Viewer’s many caveats. But it would be worthwhile to investigate the hypothesis that “scene” possibly replaced “row” in American English.

On the other hand, “scene” has a somewhat different meaning from “row.” One can “create a scene” entirely on their own (e.g. a child throwing a tantrum) while a “row” ostensibly requires at least two to tango. If two people are screaming at each other, we can say that they are “making a scene,” but we can’t really suggest they’re “having a scene.”

An alternative proposal, then, might be that “scene” exemplifies a particular class of words meaning “argument” that overtook “row.” Either way, you don’t hear many Americans “creating rows” these days.

Update: As a few commenters have rightly pointed out, “causing a row” is an unusual phrase. I plugged it into Google NGram Viewer because it is a rare construction when one is discussing the other meaning of “row” (i.e. a line of things). Using NGram’s Part-of-Speech Tagging function would not help disambiguate the two, because a “row” is a noun in both cases, and constructions like “[verb] + a row” would also make sense in both.

I had the same problem with the more commonly-used phrase “having a row.” Compare its first five (unique) Google Books results …

“…the combination with a depositing device having a row of nozzles…”
“…an intermediate section having a row of transverse slots…”
“…comprising a bar having a row of openings…”
“…composed of an upper section having a row of ducts…”
“…’We’re having a row.’ ‘What do you mean?’ ‘We’re having a row, an ordinary row,…”

…to the first five unique “causing a row” results…

“…You’re causing a row. Please have a little self-controll…”
“…but also of having actually been guilty of causing a row…”
“…Ain’t nothing you could say about it without causing a row about it…”
“…and in causing a row-galley to ply on the Ohio…”
“…flew into a temper with the sweep, causing a row on the front door-steps…”

“Causing a row” is used much more exclusively to mean “causing a spat” (although obviously not in that last example). All that being said, you’ll note another notable pattern when we compare “having a row” with “having an argument:”

having a row

Another contender, then, for what may have replaced “row” is simply “argument.” The word’s narrow sense meaning “quarrel” has been around since at least the early 1800s, but it seems to have increased in frequency thoughout the 20th Century. (As opposed to the logical, rhetorical, legal or linguistic senses of “argument”).

Of course, it’s still unclear why Brits have maintained “row” while Americans have largely eschewed it; to my knowledge, an Englishman can speak of “having an argument” just as an American can. And like “scene,” “argument” and “row” do not have the same meaning. An “argument” can be quite friendly, whereas a “row” is unmistakably a fight.

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About Ben

Ben Trawick-Smith launched his dialect fascination while working in theatre. He has worked as an actor, playwright, director, critic and dialect coach. Other passions include linguistics, urban development, philosophy and film.
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7 Responses to “You’re Causing a Row”

  1. Jamie says:

    As a speaker of British English, I am a bit surprised to find that row isn’t used in the US (despite having lived there for a while). However, the phrase “causing a row” does sound a little odd. “Having a row” would be more common and, for someone who was trying to provoke an argument, I would have thought “starting” would be more natural than “causing”.

    A quick look at the ngrams for “having a row|fight|argument” does show a slightly more obvious decline for “row” in US in the 1940s.

    I assume that Americans don’t use row in the more general sense of making a lot of noise, either? Interestingly, the online etymology dictionary gives rowdy as American (1808) “probably from row”.

  2. Marc Leavitt says:

    “Causing a row” usually surfaces when two people are describing someone else, as in, “he and his wife were having quite a row last night”; but I don’t think “causing” a row is very common; more likely to hear, “they were arguing, and causing quite a commotion.”

  3. dw says:

    “Row”, being only 3 characters wide, is popular with British headline writers. They love to use it in in noun pileups — here’s an example.

    • I found the “George row doc in U-turn” especially interesting. It could be translated as “The doctor having a row with George (Harrison) does a U-Turn” but the way it’s constructed, “row” takes on an adjectival quality, as if it were suggesting “the argumentative doctor.”

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  5. CNH says:

    ‘row’ to rhyme with ‘cow’ is quite common in BE. There is also another meaning of row = noise.

    ‘Causing a row’ would be somewhat ambiguous to Brits – it could mean making a noise.

  6. judy coburn says:

    daisy also tells to nick (when he comes to alert her that tom was looking for her at gatsy’s party), that she and gatsby “are having their first row over the future of things”. thank you for the page and the spelling, I remember the phrase used mostly in some early movies and asking my parents for the explanation of a row, back in the fifties.