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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
It may also speed up the rate at which new words and meanings are incorporated into Standard English. An example is spam , which surfaced only a decade or so ago as slang meaning to cause a computer program to crash by overloading it with data. The term appears to have been inspired by a Monty Python sketch involving a restaurant whose menu was overloaded with dishes featuring the canned meat product—not, as is sometimes said, from the mess that it makes when hurled against a wall or as an acronym for “stupid pointless annoying messages.” Within a short time, though, spamming has become standard for flooding the Internet with the electronic equivalent of junk mail. It seems to have filled a vacuum. A simple word was needed to describe a new phenomenon in a new medium.
Are there many slang words that can be attributed to one person in particular?
Slang tends to rise from the anonymous public rather than from identifiable individuals. One exception may be nerd . Dr. Seuss used nerd —a word that he apparently made up—as the name of an imaginary creature in his book If I Ran the Zoo , published in 1950. Then, some years later, you find it being used by teenagers to refer to a person whom they once would have called a drip or jerk. Had the teenagers read the book when they were children? Did nerd stick in their minds, or was the word independently reinvented? The odds are that it came from Dr. Seuss, but we’ll probably never know that for certain.
Insults and slang certainly do seem to go together. What topics do you think have inspired the most slang terms?
Drinking has inspired a huge number, but sex has inspired even more. Mainly because we are so interested, I think. When people begin to feel that existing terms, slang or otherwise, do not adequately express the emotional aspects of an idea, they seem to create new words almost spontaneously. Another category that has generated a vast number of slang terms is money. We have lots of synonyms for particular denominations, such as fin for a five-dollar bill.
For a ten.
For a hundred-dollar bill, the C of course being the Roman numeral C, which appeared on hundred-dollar bills in the nineteenth century. And there have been strange words, like moola and spondulix .
Spondulix is a new one on me. What does it come from?
It may derive from a Greek word meaning shells, although I don’t know if that connection has been proved either. And moola is anybody’s guess.
And what about Dixie ? Different dictionaries give different explanations of the origin of this name for the South. Did it really come from the French dix , ten, on a bank note?
That seems unlikely to me, although prior to the Civil War at least one bank, the Citizens Bank of Louisiana, issued notes that had dix on them. The difficulty in deriving Dixie from dix is that as far as anybody knows, the word on the notes was never used to refer specifically to Louisiana, or to New Orleans, or even to money itself.
As it happens, the earliest example of Dixie that anybody has been able to find is in the name of the song, originally entitled “Dixie’s Land.” Dan Emmett, the minstrel showman who composed it in 1859, said that he’d heard show people refer to the South as Dixie when he was performing in the 1850s or before.
SPAM IS NOT AN ACRONYM FOR “STUPID POINTLESS ANNOYING MESSAGES.”
Of all the theories that have been proposed, the most likely one, I think, is that Dixie has something to do with the Mason-Dixon Line—that “Dixie’s Land” was south of the line. But Dixon and Dixie may be just a coincidental resemblance. We’re simply not sure where Dixie comes from, and that, of course, makes it another example of a word that started out as slang of anonymous origin but is pretty much Standard English now.
Do Americans use relatively more slang today than in the past? Is our language loosening up as time goes on?