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Pixies, Sheilas, Dirtbags and Cougar Bait: Modern Slang | The Nation

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Pixies, Sheilas, Dirtbags and Cougar Bait: Modern Slang

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Like poetry and pornography, slang is easier to recognize than to define. Most of it is disapproved of by someone, but obscenity alone doesn't qualify. It isn't slang, for example, to refer to manure with a four-letter word. But if you put the article "the" in front of that four-letter word and equate the president-elect of the United States to it, then slang it is, and very complimentary. Further complicating matters, a great deal of slang is completely inoffensive. Journalists call the first sentence of an article the lede, the last the kicker, the motive for reading it the hook and the paragraph that encapsulates its argument the nut graf--terms that might puzzle an outsider but won't scandalize anyone.

About the Author

Caleb Crain
Caleb Crain is the author of the novel Necessary Errors, recently published by Penguin Books.

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One comes a little closer to a definition of slang by thinking about context. Dirty words suggest that the audience is no better than the speaker, and vice versa. Slang, on the other hand, usually suggests that speaker and audience share membership in a group. A prostitute who describes a slow-to-satisfaction customer as a thirty-three, thereby analogizing him to the standard speed for long-playing vinyl records, is probably not speaking to a police officer. A gay man who describes a lover with a similar quirk as long-winded is probably not speaking to a heterosexual. The implied identifications are flexible, however. If a gay hairdresser in London offers to zhoosh you, it's safe to accept his titivation even if you're a straight man. The word might make you blush, but it won't compromise your orientation; it merely dignifies you with honorary membership in the group of people who understand how he talks.

Sometimes a slang word or phrase springs free of the people who coined it, but it remains slang only for as long as it trails groupiness of some kind, however attenuated or abstract. You needn't work for the sanitation department to call maggots disco rice, a term recorded by the New York Times in July 2004, but the term nonetheless implies that a vivid acquaintance with the larvae was picked up somewhere. In September, when a writer for New York magazine hailed Sarah Palin's promised son-in-law for attracting "the cougar vote," the writer probably didn't intend to signal that he and his readers belonged to the romantic community that unites older women and younger men. But he probably did expect that he and his readers shared an urbane taste for following pop-culture reportage on sexual behavior into its sillier vicissitudes.

To a lexicographer, slang's abundance may present an even greater challenge than its definition. Although humans coin words as prolifically as bees make honey, dictionaries of standard English only include lexemes that have become a stable currency among strangers. Slang is not confined by this useful limit. My boyfriend and I refer to going online as checking our bids, in memory of a bygone fascination with eBay. Because we once elaborated the no-chicken label on a box of vegetarian broth into a fowl-friendly warning--"No, no, chicken! Keep away from the boiling water!"--we now always call the broth no-no chicken. The glossy young rich who crowd us out of our favorite restaurants are known to us as kittenheads, on account of a bus-side ad I once saw that juxtaposed an enormous fluffy white feline head, a crystal goblet full of glistening diced organ meats and the slogan "Next Stop, Uptown." This is just the tip of the iceberg of our private slang, and we're only two people. Multiply our sample by all the groups, large and small, who improvise with the English language for their own convenience and pleasure, and you see the problem. Slang is virtually infinite. It helps to exclude slang that hasn't been published, but in the Internet age it doesn't help much.

To steer successfully between the normal and the too-peculiar, a slang dictionary must be an exercise in tact as well as linguistics. As a result, it's likely to evince personality. Stone the Crows, the second edition of Oxford University Press's dictionary of modern slang, is eccentric and risqué, like a well-read, intermittently potty-mouthed uncle. The charms of The Routledge Dictionary of Modern American Slang and Unconventional English, on the other hand, are somewhat coarser, and bring to mind a younger brother with troubled friends who has memorized long stretches of dialogue from movies starring stoners or mobsters. To explain the word "fairy," the Oxford quotes Evelyn Waugh. To explain "dirtbag," the Routledge quotes Ferris Bueller's Day Off. It isn't quite fair to compare the two, because the Oxford collects English-language slang in use anywhere (but predominantly in Britain) since World War I and the Routledge restricts itself to America since World War II. Accordingly, the Oxford features "Joe Bloggs" (an average fellow) and "Joe Soap" (a gull), while the Routledge has "Joe Sixpack" (a blue-collar type), "Joe Schmo" (a representative dimwit) and "Joe Cool" (someone who aspires to the sang-froid of Snoopy in sunglasses). But the difference in catchment areas cannot alone explain how little overlap there is. The Oxford claims that the Swiss itch, a style of tequila drinking that involves licking salt beforehand and sucking lime afterward, is American and dates from 1959, but the Routledge doesn't know about it. The words "love apple," "ladies' aid" and "joybox" look naughty but have innocent meanings, a contrast that might be expected to appeal to the Oxford's whimsical spirit; but only the Routledge reveals that they refer to a tomato, a pool-cue support and a piano, respectively.

And that's as it should be. There's more slang in the world than dictionaries can capture, and there's no reason for them to repeat one another's labor. Absent from both the Oxford and the Routledge, for example, are "lede," "hook" in its journalistic sense (unless you count the seventeenth meaning given by Routledge: "in a confidence swindle, the stage in the swindle when the victim is fully committed to the scheme"), "nut graf," "disco rice," "cougar" and "kittenhead." (I ought to confess, though, that the Oxford taught me "zhoosh," and the Routledge "thirty-three" and "long-winded.") It is easy and uncharitable to prolong such a list, but I'm unable to resist adding that neither dictionary mentions "beemo," the mildly pejorative word for a zealous student that haunted my 1970s childhood in central Massachusetts; "gaybait," a generalized taunt from the same milieu, whose literal meaning occurred to none of us there, I'm fairly sure; "demap," a synonym for kill coined by David Foster Wallace in Infinite Jest; "muzzleloader," gay slang for someone who shares what is said to have been Alfred Kinsey's chief sexual perversion and which means what you think it means; "sketchy," an adjective that I overheard on the subway just last night in reference to a potentially dangerous situation; or "money quote," a piece of blogger's cant patterned after a term of art in the porn industry and used to introduce a crucial excerpt--the nut graf as seen from the other side of the table. Both dictionaries dip into Internet slang--the Routledge knows what it means for a McCain adviser to complain that Sarah Palin didn't have the "bandwidth" to prepare for her media interviews, and the Oxford is down with "warez" as a synonym for pirated software or media--but neither mentions the new Internet-accelerated interjections "meh" ("I am unimpressed") or "teh" ("I am emphasizing and ironizing simultaneously by deliberately mistyping the word 'the,'" often used in conjunction with the spurious plural "Internets," which was pioneered by George W. Bush during the 2004 presidential debates).

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