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Welcome to The Mad Lexiphile. It is my intent to explore words here; their origins, evolution, usage. Words are fascinating. They are alive; they are born, they change and, sometimes, they die. They are our principal tool for communicating with one another. There are millions of words yet only an estimated 171,476 words are in common current use. As a lexiphile, I enjoy discovering new words, using them and learning about their origins. Why yes, I do read dictionaries for fun... don't you?

Okay. We're up to "our" time period. From the J.D.s with their D.A. to the cellphone Macarena, let's look at some interesting and useful slang.

I had a request last week to check on the word gone as used in beatnik slang. "Gone" referred to something very good or quite desirable as in, "That girl is one gone lady." Author Jack Kerouac introduced the phrase "Beat Generation" in 1948, mining his New York City social circle to characterize the burgeoning underground, anti-conformist youth movement. At the same time the Beat movement was getting underway, bebop jazz was going strong, especially in New York. Bebop was a style of jazz characterized by smaller combos with a focus on virtuosity and improvisation. The Beat authors like Kerouac, Ginsberg and Burroughs borrowed many terms from the jazz slang of the '40s. Words such as "square," "cats," "nowhere," and "dig" were sprinkled through their works. Many of these words became and remained popular with the youth of the era and on into the 70s.

Many a young man (and maybe a few young ladies) in the 1950s was called a J.D. even if he wasn't a juvenile delinquent. One of the biggest issues in the 1950s was the "teen problem." Like every generation before or since, the teens of the 50s were blamed for much of the evils of society. Their pastimes, comic books, rock and roll, fads and fashions were all suspect. Even their hairstyles came under suspicion; the DA or duck's ass, was the hallmark of a J.D. just as their girls sported beehives. Of course, the 50s teens were no more the downfall of society than the teens of the 20s or the 80s. In fact, they (and their slang) proved very popular when they saw a revival in the 1980s in Grease, Happy Days and American Graffiti.  

The 1950s brought the word nuke into our lexicon. Short for nuclear (not new-kew-lar), it originally referred to the weapon itself or to its action. Now, we've added the meaning of "to cook in a microwave oven." If you're a gamer then you know that nuke can also mean a weapon in a multi-player online role playing game or in the game of Starcraft. Additionally, it can refer to destroying a meal or snack as in, "Dude, you totally nuked that pizza!"

In 1927, Philo Farnsworth applied for a patent for his Image Oscillite and the rest, as they say, is history. The most enduring slang associated with television is its nickname of the Boob-Tube. The Online Dictionary tells us that this dates to 1965–70. It sprung from the notion that television programming is foolish, induces foolishness, or is watched by foolish people. While that may still be arguably true, the advent of cable and the blossoming of specialty programming has helped to alleviate that. The term may have come from a book of essays published by Harlan Ellison in 1970, The Glass Teat: Essays of Opinion on Television. A related phrase is talking head, a reference to newscasters. It now refers more widely to the pundits and others who offer opinions, commentary and analysis. It apparently came into use in 1968.

When something isn't as we would like it, we may call it a bummer. According to Tom Wolfe's Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test (1968), the word is from the Hell's Angels describing a bad trip: "The Angels were adding LSD to the already elaborate list of highs and lows they liked: beer, wine, marijuana, Benzedrine, Seconal, Amytal, Nembutal, Tuinal. Some of them had terrible bummers — bummer was the Angels' term for a bad trip on a motorcycle and it very quickly became the hip world's term for a bad trip on LSD." The OED however, dates its use to 1967 by Joan Didion in the Saturday Evening Post. Either way, we use it today to denote a sad situation.

There are many ways to describe something as great or terrific. Many came to us via jazz slang. Cool, groovy and far out are all jazz terms. But cool has stayed with us since it entered the general vernacular in the 1940s. Slang expressions meaning the same thing have not had the staying power or continued appeal of cool. Maybe that's because cool is easy to say and write...? Cool, in jazz meant excellent, usually in reference to the music. When a musician was playing at his best, he was said to have got "into his groove," which gave rise to groovy as something cool. Now, if the music was far out it had gone beyond the norm and into experimentation, something very much desired in bebop jazz. These words were picked up by beatniks and then by hippies. As noted, only cool is still in general use.  

A word that has undergone some interesting changes while basically sticking to its root meaning is freak. Derived from an African word meaning "to dance" it meant "a capricious notion" as early as 1563. It went on to describe "an unusual thing" such as a "freak of nature" (1847). In the 1940s it came to refer to a drug user and, logically, to what a drug user did when under the influence. The term "to freak out" in the general sense (i.e. not drug related) came into use around 1965. All of those may be considered, in a strange way, to be dancing. The final way we use freak - as an overzealous advocate (health freak, Jesus freak), entered the vernacular in the early 20th century.

Once again, we turn to jazz for the definition of funky. From the French funkière "smoke," funky was originally "old, musty" (1784), in reference to cheese, then it evolved into describing "something repulsive." It began to develop an opposite meaning in jazz slang in around 1900, probably on the notion of "earthy, strong, deeply felt." In 1954, it was used in an article in TIME magazine about jazz. This exposed it to general use and it acquired a meaning of "something fine, stylish or elegant." It is still used in its original sense, however by anyone who has ever had a slob as a room mate.

Thanks to Hunter S. Thompson, or more accurately, his editor, we know exactly where the word gonzo came from. The Online Etymological Dictionary tells us:

1971, Amer.Eng., in Hunter S. Thompson's phrase gonzo journalism, from Italian, gonzo "simpleton, blockhead." Thompson in 1972 said he got it from editor Bill Cardosa, and explained it as "some Boston word for weird, bizarre."

The term gonzo journalism refers to a unique form of journalism, written in the first person. Often, the reporter is integrated into the narrative as s/he blends facts and fictional elements to tell the story. Thompson's editor Bill Cardosa, who dubbed Thompson's style "gonzo journalism", claimed that "gonzo" was South Boston Irish slang describing the last man standing after an all night drinking marathon. It is a rather interesting bit of synchronicity that my favorite Muppet, Gonzo the Great, was "born" the same year as this term entered American slang.

The person who runs errands at the office was coined a gofer in the 1960s. A alteration of "go for," it was somewhat derogatory but it now is an official position in movie credits (as Production Assistant).

In the 1980s, the word Yuppie entered our collective consciousness. An acronym of "young urban professional," it began as descriptive and ended up as derogatory. At first, being a Yuppie meant that you were a young, upwardly mobile, well-paid and ambitious young professional. But soon other adjectives were piled on; materialistic, faddish, greedy. Suddenly, being a Yuppie was a bad thing. Syndicated columnist Bob Greene was said to have coined the term in 1983 when writing about the networking parties held by Jerry Rubin at a New York City disco. But he insists that someone at his table used it and he had no idea where she had got it from. Still, when Newsweek wrote of 1984 as The Year Of The Yuppie, they accredited the word to Greene. Yuppie eventually became a joke and then a symbol of the "greed is good" 1980s.

I would describe the great majority of Kossacks as a mensch. Mensch (also spelled mensh) comes from Yiddish by way of the German word meaning "person." Standard dictionaries define mensch as "an admirable or honorable human being." The Oxford English Dictionary has a more expansive explanation: "In Jewish usage: a person of integrity or rectitude; a person who is morally just, honest, or honorable." Being called a mensch is the ultimate Yiddish compliment.

Many Kossacks are also a nerd. The first documented use of the word nerd is in the 1950 Dr. Seuss story, If I Ran the Zoo. The word appeared a few months later in a Newsweek article about modern slang; "In Detroit, someone who once would be called a drip or a square is now, regrettably, a nerd, or in a less severe case, a scurve." There are several lines of thought as to the coinage of nerd. Some think that Seuss created it. Others, that it came from an old Krazy Kat cartoon. It appeared in the closed captioning of a 1933 film, Dinner at Eight on Turner Classic Movies, but that was likely a misinterpretation of "nertz" (an exclamation like "nuts!"). One suggestion is that it comes from the Research & Development department of the Canadian Northern Electric company; the letters N.E.R.D. creating an acronym on the lab coats of the staff. This is pure speculation but a humorous picture nonetheless. The similar geek, was originally an insulting term referring to denizens of a carnival sideshow. A geek would do disgusting things like biting the heads off of chickens to the delight of onlookers. Men who played this role often had a physical type; tall, gangly with protruding eyes and prominent Adam's Apples. Hence the term, "pencil-neck geek." As an insult a geek was originally someone with unbecoming habits and few social graces. The two terms became popular at around the same time and began to merge. Nowadays of course, being called a nerd isn't such a terrible thing while geek is still somewhat derogatory.

Feeling a bit peckish this far into the diary? Perhaps you'd like to grab a quick nosh. Back to Yiddish we go for this word, from Yiddish nashn, "nibble" in turn from Middle High German naschen, "to eat on the sly." It entered the American vernacular around the 1930s as a word for a snack. It went on to be used as a term for the actual food itself. Eventually, it came to mean any meal or the eating of food.  

If you like to nosh while watching TV, you might be called a Couch Potato. This is one term we can trace to a specific time and person. On July 15, 1976, "couch potato" was uttered by Tom Iacino of Pasadena, California, during a telephone conversation. He belonged to a California group which was protesting (tongue-in-cheek) the fads of exercise and healthy diet. They protested by eating junk food while sitting on the couch watching TV, calling themselves "boob-tubers." Iacino took the brilliant mental leap and substituted potato as a synonym for tuber and adding that to their seat of choice. With the invention of the remote control in the 1980s, the couch potato found a purity of purpose. The term couch potato made its way into the vernacular and has been with us long enough now that dictionary editors recognize it as a permanent member of our slang lexicon.

Hey, remember the CB radio craze? About the only bit of slang that survived from that is the nickname for a State Trooper, Smokey. Of course some CB terms were adopted from other jargon; city nicknames, the radio alphabet, even some surfer slang. But the CB words for police and Troopers have stayed with us, albeit in a sarcastic sense.  

While perusing my dictionaries, I found a fascinating bit of banking slang. To smurf is to split a large financial transaction into smaller ones, each below the limit beyond which a bank must identify or report the transaction. As a method of money laundering, it is quite popular. But why, I mused, is this called after those blue cartoon characters? According to one source it was the brainstorm of a US law enforcement official watching the Smurfs cartoon on TV with his kids. His mind was multi-tasking as he wondered how drug dealers could launder so much money undetected. It occurred to him then that it moved about in small amounts like little smurfs running around. It is unknown whether this etymology is actually correct but it makes for a good story. Of course, someone who practices this is called a smurf.

If you are a viewer of Buffy, The Vampire Slayer, you may still use the suffix -age as a modifier. This practice began in the mid-to-late 1980s in college culture. Its purpose was to change any word to which it is added into an abstract and mass noun. For example, "My parents didn't come through with the fundage" or "The weather is major rainage today." It became popular with Internet users as part of leetspeak. It is popular with teens and older people who still watch Buffy. Like me.

The 1980's gave us some strange slang. Very little of it stayed in the vernacular, though. One that did (later evolving) is ghetto blaster. This was the somewhat racist term for a huge portable stereo popular with urban teens and twenty-somethings. It is thought to have been coined in New York City where the blasters were ubiquitous. The term boom-box supplanted the earlier one as the stereo's popularity widened.

Also in the 80s we were introduced to Valspeak. Frank Zappa introduced the Valley Girl and their slang to the rest of the country in 1982. Though we soon tired of it, a few words popularized by Valspeak have stayed with us. Bitchin' which was borrowed from surfer slang is a classic beach word that dates all the way back to the Beach Blanket Bingo days. Another borrowed word was airhead. This word is pretty self-explanatory; if someone has air in their head instead of brains, they aren't very smart. The term seems to date back to the late 60s /early 70s. The Valley girls claimed that they originated it but, oh irony! was actually used to describe them! Other words still in use include; awesome, chill, hacker, networking, sucks and wannabe.

If you work in an office you might see a prairie dog. Not the rodent, but a term describing the behavior of office workers who pop up out of their cubicles. Also known as turtle-necking, this is a purely late 20th century phenomenon. As businesses found ways to keep costs down, the individual office died out and the cubicle was born. It gives each worker a semi-private space but creates a sort of worker warren or "cube farm." Often, workers will prairie dog to talk to one another or the entire office may be seen to pop up. In researching this term, I found an interesting glimpse into cubicle society here. Apparently, prairie dogging is seen to be a breach of etiquette.

The hip-hop scene has given us several slang terms. Arguably, the one used most in the general lexicon is bling. Coined in 1999 in a song called Bling-Bling by a New Orleans rapper named B.G., bling-bling (bling for short) applies to big showy jewelry. The sports world adopted the term when Shaquille O'Neal and his Lakers teammates used it to refer to their 2001 Championship rings. CNN added it to their headlines and graphics in a tragic attempt to stay hip and relevant. It now refers to showy clothes, cars and other accessories and even to people who are arrayed in bling.

In the waning years of the 20th century, when the Internet was becoming more and more relevant as a news source, the web log was born. At first it was more of an online journal or diary but it developed into an important method of disseminating information. Web log eventually was shortened to blog. William Safire says that "... what makes this online daybook different from the commonplace book is that this form of personal noodling or diary-writing is on the Internet, with links that take the reader around the world in pursuit of more about a topic." To my mind what makes the blog different from a simple diary is its possibilities. Just look at what we have been able to do; call for change, help raise grassroots support for candidates, spread information about important causes... There is no place left to hide from the Internet anymore.

I want to wind this up with a hilarious term I found in my American Slang Dictionary. The cellular Macarena is the dance that occurs when a cellular phone rings in a public place. As everyone reaches for their coat pocket, front pants pocket, back pants pocket, etc. they appear to be dancing. And it looks similar to the Macarena. Just watch next time you are in public and a generic ring tone goes off. And try not to laugh too hard.
Well, that's a wrap for American slang. Of course there is much more. And we'll get to slang from all over the world eventually. But first, tell us what slang term that may be considered passe' do you still use? Grody, maybe? Or good buddy? You can share with us, we won't bag on you, we promise.

Wow! My first trip to the Rec List. I am gobsmacked... thank you!

Originally posted to The Way The Wind Blows on Sun Feb 01, 2009 at 05:38 PM PST.


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