February 27, 2018

Words of the Month - Prose Promotion

        Slang comprises the second-class words that live in ordinary, everyday conversations, but aren’t usually permitted past the velvet rope into the more respectable regions of serious speech and writing.  Slang words come and go, often appearing mysteriously, hanging around for a while, and then fading away unmourned.  Most slang has a high turnover rate, but some continues for centuries in a perpetual state of not-quite standard usage.  Here are a few examples:

beat it - used by Shakespeare with the meaning “go away,” the phrase has lasted over 400 years without either disappearing into the oblivion of so last year or becoming elevated to a standard usage.  It would sound equally plausible that it was coined in 1860, or 1920, or by Michael Jackson in 1982.
bones - from the late 14th century meaning “dice,” and from 1887 meaning “surgeon,” both these informal usages have stuck around in a perpetual state of slangdom.
duds - meaning “clothing” dates back to the 1560s, from a word meaning “cloak.”  It’s still listed as “Informal” in the 1991 Random House Webster’s.

        Some lucky slang words, however, do manage to bootstrap their way into polite society and become accepted, in time, as words in good standing, appropriate for even the most scholarly prose.  Here are a few of those successful lexical social climbers:

phone - telephone was first used of our modern device in 1876, shortened by 1884.  It was still labelled as “Colloq.” in Webster’s New International Dictionary of 1919 .  Now that we use primarily mobile phones, cell phones, iphones, and other devices that don’t include tele- in their names, it has become less a mere abbreviation and more a word in its own right.
bus - omnibus entered English in 1829, already abbreviated from French voiture omnibus meaning “carriage for all.”  By 1832 we see the colloquial abbreviation bus.  It was still defined as “short for Omnibus” in Chambers’s Twentieth Century Dictionary in 1908, and listed as “Colloq.” in 1919.
        You can see the theme here: technical words are coined with their complicated Latinate derivations and then instantly subjected to the grinding down of everyday speech.  It’s hard to pin down when these slang abbreviations become truly accepted.  Phone and TV are still understood to be short forms of longer words that are also still current, but bus really is just the standard word for the vehicle.

fan - 188o’s, short for fanatic, originating with baseball.  Newspaper articles through the 1880s usually wrote the word in quotation marks, indicating that it was still new and non-standard.  Neither The Century Dictionary, published ten years later, nor Chambers’s ten years after that, so much as mentioned it, and Webster’s New International of 1919 included it labelled “Slang.”  By now, however, I think very few people are aware that it was ever a non-standard word.
mob - 1680’s, short for mobile or mobility, from Latin mobile vulgus meaning “fickle common people”.  In 1710 Jonathan Swift complained, “I have done my utmost for some years past to stop the progress of mobb and banter, but have been plainly borne down by numbers.”  By The Century Dictionary of 1889-91 it was treated as standard.
banter - 1670s, see above.  Swift said it came from London street slang.
zoo - c.1847, short for Zoological Gardens.  The Century Dictionary (1889-91) said of the word zoo, “From a mere vulgarism, this corruption has passed into wide colloquial use.”  The disapproval was clear.  It was still “Colloq.” in 1919.

blimp - 1916, of obscure origin, but certainly began as slang.  It was still not included in Webster’s New International Dictionary of 1919.
hot dog - c.1890  In 1900 it was considered college slang, and it was not in the regular dictionaries as of 1919.
jazz - as music, 1913, probably from Creole patois jass “strenuous activity” especially sex.  Presumably the word became respectable when the music became respectable.

        It would be easier to trace this if I could access mid-twentieth-century dictionaries on-line, but copyright keeps them from being digitized.  Still, it’s interesting to see how most slang disappears, but some persists, and some sheds its slang associations and goes standard.

[Pictures: Ex Libris Václav Grégr, wood engraving by Pavel Simon, mid-20th century (Image from Robin Prints);
London A-Z, color wood block print by Tobias Till, 2011-12;
London Zoo, color wood block print by Till, 2011-12 (Images from Tobias Till web site);
Miles Davis, resingrave engraving by Eric Hoffman, 2011 (Image from Spofford Press).]

The Century Dictionary of 1889-91 (on Internet Archive)
Chambers’s Twentieth Century Dictionary of 1908 (on Project Gutenberg)
Webster’s New International Collegiate Dictionary of 1919 (on Hathi Trust)

1 comment:

  1. A comment that my filter seems to have too zealously deleted said:
    "That etymology of jazz is spurious. Here's some better research:

    http://wbgo.org/post/where-did-jazz-word-come-follow-trail-clues-deep-dive-lewis-porter#stream/0 "

    It's an interesting argument about the origins of the word "jazz," highlighting the uncertainty of trying to trace the etymologies of slang words.