- 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
It depends on the person you’re talking to. The resurgence of queer has been deliberately promoted by some gay rights groups, which thought that they would make a point more forcefully if they adopted this word in preference to gay . However, I really wonder how many homosexual Americans react positively to the word queer even today. On the other hand, in academia, we even have ...
Queer studies , right?
Which is the only term for that phenomenon, and I suppose queer in that particular context really is Standard English, because we have no other term for it, and it is the name chosen by those undertaking many of those studies.
Are there differences between men’s language and women’s language?
That’s very difficult to say. Stuart Flexner, in the 1960 edition of the Dictionary of American Slang , suggested that men use more slang than women, and the linguist Otto Jespersen said something similar in the 1940s. My own impression from collecting is that novels by men are more likely to have more—and more varied—slang than novels by women. But this is just an impression. Researchers should get busy trying to answer questions about the distribution of slang, its frequency of use, and who uses slang and why. Studies of this sort are difficult to do, and very few of them have been carried out. Part of the problem is that language does not much resemble anything else. It is very difficult to prove things about language, because language is an abstraction; words are extremely fluid, and everybody has his own take on the nuances of words. We need more real data as distinguished from simple impressions.
How do you gather words yourself?
I do my primary research in the library, but I also read a lot of books and listen to a lot of TV—old movies, CNN, FOX News, “The Simpsons ”—and, of course, if I hear anything in everyday speech that’s of interest, I’ll make a note of it.
One of the interesting things you notice when monitoring current usage this way is how many words you encounter that you might have thought were long dead. Take twenty-three skiddoo . This had something of a vogue around 1905, and it is frequently cited as an example of utterly obsolete slang. Well, almost nobody still uses it, but almost everybody is familiar with it, and every so often I’ll come across a twenty-three skiddoo . It’s nearly always used humorously and with the knowledge that it’s archaic, but that is not quite the same as being completely obsolete and forgotten. Any word or phrase that has had the popularity of twenty-three skiddoo will tend to stay around for a long time before it fades away completely. And some words can make a comeback. I think most people first heard the phrase out of sight in the 1960s. It was associated with hippies, and it continued to crop up frequently in the 1970s. Since then it has faded away, but what’s remarkable to me is that out of sight also appears frequently in Stephen Crane’s first novel, Maggie: A Girl of the Streets , which was published in 1893. The book is about life on the Bowery in New York, and various characters use out of sight , with essentially the same meaning that we’re familiar with.
Could it be that out of sight was an independent invention—or reinvention? Is there a paper trail from Crane to the hippies?
All we really know is that Stephen Crane used it in the 1890s. This certainly doesn’t mean he invented the phrase. The examples from Maggie just happen to be the oldest anybody has found. And this is not a great deal of information. It doesn’t tell you what you really want to know.
There is almost always a lag time between the first use of a word and its first discovered appearance, and the lag may be anywhere from days to decades. Nowadays, thanks to radio, television, and the Internet, someone can make up a new word on the air, and if the circumstances are right, millions of people will be using it tomorrow. There wasn’t much lag time, for example, for shock jock to become common. Or after the first space flight in 1961, when Alan Shepard used the expression A-O.K . Except for the seven Mercury astronauts and some of their associates, nobody had heard A-O.K . before. Overnight it became a part of the general vocabulary. More than 40 years later it is still around at some low level of currency.
You mentioned the Internet. What sort of effect is it having on slang?
I think the medium is still too new to try to quantify its impact on language. In the long run, I suspect, it will prove to be more influential than radio and television in circulating and popularizing new words. With the Internet anybody can be published, and practically everything that is written can be accessed by anyone. The Internet preserves new vocabulary permanently.