- Historic Sites
It’s the poetry every American writes every day—a centuries-old epic of abuse, taunt, criminality, love, and bright, mocking beauty.
October 2003 | Volume 54, Issue 5
There has not been much of a detectable influence of Hispanic terms, or Spanish-language terms, on American slang. Of course, if you go back some decades, you will find a few terms. For example, dinero , the Spanish word for money, is occasionally used more or less humorously in an English context. Savvy may be from Spanish—or, most likely, a combination of French and Spanish.
Any relation to Kemo Sabe ?
Kemo Sabe was invented by the creators of the Lone Ranger. Compared with the size of the Spanish-speaking population, both now and in the past, the number of Spanish terms that have entered English as slang—as opposed to technical terms used by cowboys, such as chaps , from chaparajos , or lasso —is still small.
More slang terms seem to have come from Yiddish. Yiddish words were popularized by writers, especially in the 1930s and 1940s. S. J. Perelman, in particular, used a lot of them in The New Yorker week after week, month after month. They are easily recognizable, especially the ones that begin with an sh sound plus a consonant— schmuck and schmo , for instance—which is new in English.
But you would class these as slang rather than translations?
AMBROSE BIERCE DESCRIBED SLANG AS “THE GRUNT OF THE HUMAN HOG.”
I think so because they’re used by people who don’t speak Yiddish, and they’re used more for their evocative power, more for their amusing connotations, than for anything else.
What about black English?
It has contributed a very large number of terms, particularly since the period of the great migration of African-Americans from the South to the rest of the country. It is not always easy—in fact it’s usually impossible—to determine precisely which ethnic group produced a specific slang term. Words don’t have any essential ethnicity, but there are many words that were associated with jazz and with swing, and with ghetto life, that undoubtedly come from black English, and these have become more popular and more widespread over the years.
At the same time, hardly any slang terms can be confidently traced to African languages. Juke is one of the few. It almost certainly is derived from a Gullah word meaning “disorderly,” which in turn came from Wolof, a West African language. Jazz is sometimes said to come from some African language, but no one has produced a convincing etymology for it. Its origin is unknown.
Am I right in thinking that jazz originally referred to sexual intercourse?
That appears to be the case. In fact, in the 1963 revision of H. L. Mencken’s The American Language , the great American dialectologist Raven McDavid, who came from South Carolina, included an amusing footnote about an announcement in a local newspaper in 1919 that a jazz band was on its way to town. McDavid’s father couldn’t believe his eyes. He knew the word only in its sexual sense. This was the first time he had seen it in print, and whatever might be meant by a “jazz band” was almost too much for him to absorb.
Do meanings, or connotations, change regularly? Negro is a polite word in one period, but it can become an insult—an attack word—in another. Black is good at one time but not another. Do you find this happening often?
Well, one interesting thing about the words that you mention is that they are not even slang. This shows how, depending on various factors, even standard words can undergo unpredictable changes in terms of whether or not they are felt to be proper.
A classic example of this kind of change is the word occupy . During the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, occupy was used so frequently as a euphemism for sexual intercourse that writers stopped using it in its primary sense. As a result, when the Oxford English Dictionary was being compiled, the editors had a hard time finding printed examples of the word from that period because of what they called its “vulgar employment.” Eventually the sexual connotation wore off, however, and occupy is a perfectly inoffensive word again, with the same meaning it originally had.
In general, though, the accepted meanings of established words change slowly. But no word is utterly stable.