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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
Your example of occupy brings to mind the way in which new words are formed. For example, the word rooster appears to date from the eighteenth century. And it seems to have become popular because people didn’t want to say cock . This led to a whole series of shifts— haycocks became haystacks —and Louisa May Alcott’s father changed the family name from Alcox.
Yes. People were very jittery about these things in the nineteenth century.
So, would you call rooster slang when it came into the language?
No, I’d say it started out as a Standard English euphemism. It wasn’t much of a semantic leap to take a word which literally means something that roosts and apply it to the male barnyard fowl. Slang doesn’t usually have a euphemistic quality. When we think of euphemisms, we think of words that are substituted because their connotations are less distressing than the words they replace. In slang you frequently have the opposite phenomenon, dysphemism, where a relatively neutral word is replaced with a harsher, more offensive one.
Such as calling a cemetery a boneyard ?
A great example. Another, maybe not quite as dramatic, is the use of tin can for naval destroyer. Even money was called tin more than a hundred years ago. Broadly speaking, each is an example of dysphemism.
Referring to electrocution as taking the hot seat would be another, I suppose .
Right. Even more dysphemistic would be to fry .
As you’ve worked on your dictionary, have you found anything distinctive about American slang as opposed to the slang of other countries. Can American slang be compared to jazz as a contribution of the United States to world culture? Slang certainly seems to be an artistic creation in many ways.
It certainly is. Slang can be very close to poetry, as George Eliot observed more than a century ago. S. I. Hayakawa, the semanticist and, later, senator from California, called slang “the poetry of everyday life.” On the other hand, Ambrose Bierce defined slang as “the grunt of the human hog, Pignoramus intolerabilis .” That was in 1911.
But to answer your question, one distinctive thing about American slang is that there is so much of it. The slang vocabulary has increased manyfold since the time of the first census in 1790, when there were about 3 million Americans. Now we are approaching 300 million, so you have more people, more minds at work, more minds networking with one another. I think this partially accounts for the growth of all sorts of language in all sorts of ways. At the same time, if you look through a dictionary of British slang, you come away with the feeling that a great number of the entries not only are unfamiliar but seem to be very different in inspiration from American slang. In some intangible way, British slang is different from American slang.
It may not be fair to ask you about words that come at the end of the alphabet, but I wonder if you have found out anything about the origin of Yankee .
Many theories have been suggested—that it comes from the Dutch Jan Kees , a diminutive of John Cornelius, for example—but none have been proved. The latest edition of the Oxford English Dictionary has several citations that show Yankee being used apparently as the name or nickname of at least one pirate in the 1680s. This suggests a new avenue of approach, that the term may come from a surname.
In the eighteenth century, when Yankee was first applied to New Englanders, they adopted the term with a certain degree of pride. Eventually it was extended to all Northerners and then, of course, during the Civil War, Yankee became a strongly derogatory term in the South. In Britain, today Yankee or Yank refers to any American. The con-notations, and sometimes the meanings, of words—and Yankee is a good example—change more as a result of changing social attitudes more than because of anything that is intrinsic to the word itself.
In our time would it be fair to say that queer in a sexual sense Is traveling a similar trajectory from hostile to positive?