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The Word

Out of the gutter

How slang sneaks into the language

By Erin McKean
December 12, 2010

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Conniption. Jamboree. Flunk. Pub. Wallop. Awfully, in the sense of “very.” Bogus, in the sense of “fake.” Today they’re English, but if you’d used them a century ago, you’d have found educated people looking down their noses at you.

These words haven’t significantly changed their meanings since 1914, when they were clearly marked as “slang” in the wonderful Century Dictionary. We’ve just changed how we feel about them. Long use has rubbed off their rough edges and made them fit for polite company. Likewise, kibosh, flummox, and lambaste have all moved one step up the ladder from slang and are now considered merely “informal” by most dictionaries — as is shellacked, whose recent use by President Obama may add a bit to its gravitas.

Slang words aren’t the only ones that clean up their acts and join the ranks of the upright citizens of the dictionary. Arcane science terms also settle down into mundane boring lives. There was a time when calorie was a laboratory term, not a word printed on the wrapper of everything in the grocery store. And then there are terms like acid test and fallout, where the original technical meanings have been largely overshadowed by their figurative uses.

Although sometimes it may seem as though every new counterculture or high-tech word eventually ends up on a label or in a business meeting, not all slang and jargon words actually make that transition, and two new books show us how rich both ends of that spectrum can be. The first of these two new books is, in fact, very old: Under the new title “The First English Dictionary of Slang, 1699,” it reprints (with the addition of an excellent foreword by John Simpson, chief editor of the Oxford English Dictionary) a book originally published as “A New Dictionary of the Terms Ancient and Modern of the Canting Crew,” subtitled “In its several Tribes, of Gypsies, Beggers [sic], Thieves, Cheats, &tc. With An Addition of some Proverbs, Phrases, Figurative Speeches, &tc.,” ostensibly by one B.E., Gent. (This new edition was put out by the Bodleian Library; a version is also freely available online at the Internet Archive, www.archive.org.)

As with any slang dictionary, “Terms” is a fantastically browseable book. Almost every page turns up quaint curiosities that didn’t become standard (Dimber-cove, “a pretty fellow”; Mulligrubs, “a Counterfeit Fit of the Sullens”); phrase-bookish constructions such as Fib the Cove’s quarrons in the Rum-pad, for the Lour in his Bung (“Beat the Man in the High-way lustily for the Money in his Purse”); humorous entries (e.g., Ambidexter, “a Lawyer that takes Fees of a Plaintif [sic] and Defendant at once”); entries that highlight differences in worldview and knowledge (Otter, “an Amphibious Creature, betwixt a Beast and a Fish, a great destroyer of Fish, affording much sport in Hunting”) all alongside words we now consider everyday: defunct, (“dead and gone”), elbow-grease (“a derisory Term for Sweat”), hick (“a silly Country Fellow”).

The second book is about as far from the London of 1699 as it is possible to get: “Virtual Words,” by Jonathon Keats, who writes the Jargon Watch column in WIRED magazine. We might even be able to argue that his book is from at least a few minutes in the future — these are the jargon words that might become consumer-grade English.

“Virtual Words” isn’t really a dictionary, but a collection of essays on new terms, and Keats makes no claim to be a lexicographer (although his author photo includes a very lexicographical bow tie). Instead, he refreshingly divides his book into six categories: Discovery, Innovation, Commentary, Promotion, Slang, and Neologism.

Each category covers a few words in depth. There’s anthropocene — one of my favorite words, it refers to the current geological epoch, and acknowledges the influence that people have had on the planet, variously dated as beginning as far back as 8,000 years ago or as recently as the 1960s. Steampunk is science fiction with a Victorian bent, or, as the science-fiction author Charles Stross put it, “what happens when Goths discover brown.” Exopolitics is diplomatic relations with life forms from other planets. From the tech world, there’s bacn — e-mail you asked to get, and thus isn’t spam, but isn’t especially interesting, such as updates and newsletters — and the ubiquitous text-message response k for OK. And of course tweet, since it’s now obligatory to include tweet in any discussion of technologically motivated words.

Keats is about as much of a sociologist as B.E., Gent — that is to say, only incidentally — but the subcultures his words emerge from (scientists, hackers, science-fiction writers) are every bit as interesting as B.E.’s “Tribes” of wrongdoers, and both authors aim to provide more than a list of “diverting” words. B.E. suggested that his work would help people “secure their Money and preserve their Lives” through an understanding of thieves’ terms, while Keats posits that his entries are case studies in how the back-and-forth between words and ideas leads to innovation in both areas.

And both books highlight something else important: that what we consider “standard English” isn’t just one pool of words, but really the conjoined flow of many tributaries, whether from the “canting crew” of thieves and beggars or from the enclaves of science. If they’re useful, they’ll end up in the mouths of ordinary people who will never pick a pocket or split an atom.

Erin McKean is a lexicographer and founder of Wordnik.com. E-mail her at erin@wordnik.com.