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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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Yet these dictionaries contain riches. As one sifts them, one may even be led to imagine that they reveal our deepest preoccupations. People used to spend themselves in sexual climax; later they came, and I've long wondered what shifted the metaphorics underlying the highest human pleasure from commerce to presence. Nowadays people merely cum, as if the very spelling of the word rebelled against anything so grand as immanence and insisted that the act was no more than physiological. As research for further such speculations, I tried for a while to keep score while reading the Routledge--toting up the dingle-dangles, meat whistles, one-eyes and jing-jangs to see whether they outnumbered or were outnumbered by the maw-maws, chi-chis, dubbies and jigglies--but in the end I despaired. My psychoanalysis is therefore no more than impressionistic.

About the Author

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

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It nonetheless seems to me that the American id, viewed through the lens of slang, dwells much on human worthlessness, failure, drug addiction, homosexuality (imagined as a come-down, not a turn-on), oral sex, penises and breasts--as if the nation collectively feared that it might be sucking hind tit (suffering deprivation on account of low status) and were in search of compensation. At the end of Stone the Crows there's a very clever subject index where one may see at a glance all the slang for, say, a drinking spree: "on a whizzer; on the bash; on the batter; on the bend; on the piss; on the skite." The collective id of the Commonwealth nations is therefore easier to assess, and my sense is that it highly values intoxication, foolishness, money and cheating. Perhaps these are more complex vices than the American ones, or perhaps the slang of one's own people inevitably becomes monotonous. In any case, I found myself tiring of deep-dicking American macks and the deprecation of knobslobbers, pratt boys and morphodites. But those kiwis and limeys! Those gumsuckers, bananalanders and their corresponding sheilas! They track with one another instead of merely dating, put anchovies on toast and call them whales, shout one another drinks, get squiffy together, go home for a little rumpty-pumpty and complain the next morning that they must have been starkers. It's irresistible, as are the Oxford's usage examples. This 1945 quote from Lawrence Durrell, for instance, illustrates a word for an angry letter: "I was afraid...that you would write me a stinker calling me a peach fed sod." (The peaches are not explained.) I even found strangely compelling this 1970 line from the Daily Telegraph that instanced a synonym for addiction: "Hundreds of domestic pets die each year after becoming 'hooked' on slug bait." One almost wants to try some.

The Oxford's etymologies are also entertaining. The affectionate moniker "toots," for example, ultimately derives from "foot," and the Australian put-down "warb" ("an idle, unkempt, or disreputable person"), from the maggot of the warble fly. The Routledge, for its part, excels in its explanatory notes, which give a word's originating or most famous-making context. The entry for "tea-room," for example, follows gay restroom sex from the late nineteenth century through Laud Humphreys's acclaimed 1970 sociological study to the recent travails of Idaho Senator Larry Craig. A note for "gonzo" credits its coining to a friend of Hunter S. Thompson's, and one for "hillbilly heroin" refers to the oxycodone addiction of radio personality Rush Limbaugh. It transpires that "pixie" became celebrated after a reference to the amours of Roy Cohn during the McCarthy hearings.

One of the most amiable kinds of slang is the micro-joke, as in "deep sea fishing" (medical slang for exploratory surgery) or "dorm rot" (college slang for a hickey). The Routledge reports that a gay man who flits from one doomed romance to another is known as a Camille and that ordering Navy recruits to tread water at length is called drown-proofing them. But I think my favorite slang genre, which I hadn't previously realized was populous enough to constitute one, consists of phrases derived from the names of pop-culture figures, remembered and unremembered. The Routledge contributes a few American examples: to pull a Hank Snow is to leave, in allusion to Snow's chart-topping 1950 country song "I'm Movin' On," and a John Wayne is an exaggerated punch. But the British and the Australians are fonder of them, so many more are to be found in the Oxford. A Jimmy Woodser is a drink one drinks alone, named for the Australian poem "Jimmy Wood," about a "solitary Briton" who, according to teh Internets, denounced "shouting" and preferred to "drink his poison--solus--nice and quiet." In drinking or any other endeavor, solitude may be described as being on one's tod, because the last name of the jockey Tod Sloan rhymes with "alone." Indeed, rhymes motivate quite a few. A Captain Cook is a look, a Harry Tate is a nervous state and Britney Spears are beers. More ingeniously, Harriet Lane is canned meat, in memory of a famous murder victim, and Fanny Adams is meat stew for a similar reason. A Kathleen Mavourneen is an interminable prison sentence, evoking the refrain of a song with that title: "It may be for years, it may be for ever." The V-for-victory gesture that Americans associate with Nixon is in Britain called a Harvey Smith, because there a horseman by that name popularized it. "Gordon Bennett" expresses astonishment by its resemblance to "God blind me" and in honor of the scurrilous nineteenth-century newspaper editor James Gordon Bennett, who no doubt deserves to be remembered in his afterlife as an expletive. And if you suspect me of having sucked this review out of my thumb, as a South African friend of mine used to put it, feel free to dismiss it as all my eye and Betty Martin. No idea who she is, but apparently she's been around since the 1780s.

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