The Power Of Slang
Slang is everywhere and exerts enormous power
Buffy did more than ward off vampires
Born in the USA
American slang has become global
Slang & Sociability
Over the past two centuries, American college students have hit the books and spoken slang with equal vigor. In her book Slang & Sociability, Connie Eble examines campus trends in colorful casual language, uttered by everyone from chums to dweebs, in words both out of sight and sweet. (The research cited in this essay was first published in 1996.)
Like buildings, household utensils, and decorative artwork, words are indicators of human culture. They even offer an advantage over physical objects, in that words can communicate information about the tangibles of life — about the thoughts, beliefs, and values of their users. Even though the Indo-Europeans of five thousand years ago cannot be identified by a trail of physical objects, in a well-known essay in The American Heritage Dictionary, Calvert Watkins is able to speculate about their culture by examining their words. Watkins writes, “Though by no means a perfect mirror, the lexicon of a language remains the single most effective way of approaching and understanding the culture of its speakers” (1992, 2084). This chapter traces the slang lexicon of American college students over the years as a way of coming to a better understanding of their culture.
Creative use of language by students dates back to medieval times
Our knowledge of college slang in the United States during the nineteenth century relies heavily on two sources, B.H. Hall’s College Words and Customs (1856) and Lyman Bagg’s Four Years at Yale (1871). Hall’s work, the more valuable for linguistic information, is a five-hundred-page listing of words and customs and draws examples from British universities as well as from thirty-three U.S. colleges. Four Years at Yale, a memoir, contains a seven-page alphabetized list of words from the author’s undergraduate years at Yale in the late 1860s. In addition, the novel Student Life at Harvard (1876) purports to “give a faithful picture of student life at Harvard University as it appeared to undergraduates there” during the 1860s. These three sources reveal a slang vocabulary concerned with campus landmarks, rivalry among the classes, making a fashionable appearance, eating and socializing, and studying as little as possible.
The privy inspired the largest number of slang synonyms
By current standards, the mid-nineteenth-century college slang lexicon is spare both in size and in meaning, reflecting a social reality: higher education was still rare. Most of the colleges were private or church affiliated and for young men. College students were younger then, usually entering at age fourteen or fifteen. Those who attended were ordinarily from privileged backgrounds or intended for the ministry. Even if they used slang to talk about delicate topics with their college chums, the norms of social interaction prevented their mentioning the topics or disclosing their slang in wider circles or, especially, writing such words down.
During the 1880s and 1890s, college enrollments almost doubled. The number of colleges likewise increased, particularly public ones. Many were coeducational, admitting women as well as men. The children of small farmers, merchants, and immigrants now claimed seats in college classrooms. Public interest in college slang at that time is shown by the many short and usually anecdotal articles on the topic published in the newspapers and magazines. American Notes and Queries, for example, in November 1889 carried a list of twenty slang expressions from Harvard and three weeks later a comparable list from Hampden Sydney College in Virginia. The cleverest item is Hoi Barbaroi, from Hampden Sydney for ‘members of no fraternity’. This Greek expression alludes both to the English word barbarian and to its source, the Greek word meaning ‘foreigner, one who is not Greek’. In college social circles, fraternities and their members are called Greeks. One who is not Greek, then, is not a member of a fraternity — and by implication is also a barbarian.
In 1895 Willard C. Gore, Ph.M., of the University of Michigan undertook what I believe to be the first systematic and sizable study of American student slang at a single university. In the spring and fall semesters of 1895, he asked two hundred second- and third- year students in a rhetoric course at the University of Michigan to collect and define current student slang that they heard or read. Anticipating my methodology by eighty years, he did not define slang for them but accepted an expression as slang “because it was so regarded by the students who handed it in” (1993, 23). Gore submitted the list of about five hundred words and phrases to the vote of a class of sixty-five students. “A large number were unfamiliar to many. Very few, however, were regarded by any as having emerged from the slang stage” (23).
Gore’s collection seems contemporary in many ways. About 10 percent of the entries refer to types of people still familiar on college campuses: a blug is ‘one who is very stylish’; a little tin god on wheels is a ‘superior person (said ironically)’; and ice wagon is ‘someone who is slow’; a prune is a ‘disagreeable and irritable person’; a huckleberry is a ‘sweet and agreeable person’; a grind is ‘someone who studies too much’. Almost as many terms are evaluative adjectives: chiselly means ‘unpleasant, disagreeable’; rank means ‘unfair or arbitrary’; skatey means ‘ill-bred, vulgar, cheap’; woozy means ‘pleasant, delightful’; and out of sight means ‘first-rate, superior’. Several are expressions of support, like I should say and too utterly too too. About one-fourth of the items refer to academic matters, like flim for ‘to cheat’; con for ‘to get the grade condition’; tute for ‘tutor’; fruit for ‘a lenient teacher’; heathen for ‘an unreasonable teacher’; and crust the instructor for ‘make a good recitation’. However, unlike more recent collections, the 1895 Michigan list contains fewer than ten items each that refer to females or to overindulgence in alcohol, and words with sexual implications are almost entirely absent.
Within five years of Gore’s study, Eugene Babbitt and fellow members of the New York branch of the American Dialect Society conducted the most ambitious national survey of American college slang to date. After a pilot study that circulated thirty words to several leading colleges for confirmation and additions, an expanded list of three hundred items was sent to “all the colleges and universities in the country, as well as to a number of secondary schools” (1900, 5). The results of responses from eighty-seven schools are reported in a thousand-item word list accompanied by a perceptive seventeen-page essay. “College Slang and Phrases,” published in 1900 in Dialect Notes, is the baseline for the historical study of twentieth-century U.S. college slang.
The privy continues to inspire…
Fully one-third of the items in the national survey refer to the persons, places, requirements, rituals, and difficulties that students encounter in their role as students. The time-honored horse metaphor for ‘using a translation’ has elaborated into animal, beast, bicycle and wheel. A ‘user of a translation’ is a jockey or equestrian, and ‘a bookshelf for translations’ is a stable. A race course is a ‘meeting of several students to prepare a pony’, and a racetrack is the site of such a meeting. Some synonyms for ‘failing to attend class’ are adjourn, hook, skip, sneak, and snooke. A safety is ‘a slip of paper handed to an instructor at the beginning of a recitation stating that the student is unprepared’, and attendance at recitation under those circumstances is called a dry cut.
There are more terms for failure than for success
There are several terms for using unfair means to pass examinations, for example, to frog, roguethrough, or shenannygag. The various ingenious devices prepared for the purpose of cheating have their own names: cribs, panoramas, rolls, skins, and winders. A winder, for instance, is ‘a crib constructed of a long strip of paper rolled on two pencils’. But more contemptible than cheating as a way to succeed academically is currying favor with a teacher or someone else in authority. A student who does this is said to bootlick, chin, coax, drag, fish, suck, or swipe.
The polite reserve noticed in the college slang dating from the 1850s and 1860s is barely broken at the turn of the century. The slang still contains few terms for drinking, women, or groups discriminated against in society at large. For example, only about a dozen terms refer to drinking alcohol and a comparable total to Jews, Italians, and African American. Babbitt thinks that the lack of such terms shows that college students have not developed a distinctive vocabulary of their own for talking about these topics (11). It is possible that the use of offensive slang among students was much more limited and cautious a century ago when rules for behavior were stricter. However, it is also likely that terms considered common or vulgar in general conversation are underreported in Babbitt’s collection. I imagine that both students and faculty of the Victorian era would have felt uncomfortable writing down and mailing lists of such words to the American Dialect Society even if they knew or used them.
Buck, buzz, fuss, go double, pike, swing, and turf …
Nonetheless, the small set of slang words and phrases that refer to women and to relationships between men and women do give a hint of the collegiate culture then. A female domestic employed in college dormitories rates almost as many names as does a female student, being called an Amazon, grace, or Venus, as well as the less lofty sheet-slinger and kitchen mechanic. Bird names are the standard in referring to a female student, for instance, canary, hen, pullet, and quail; and a female residence hall is a hen coop/ranch/roost, quail roost, or jail. Another term for ‘female student’ is calico and its shortened derivative calic, which gives rise by synecdoche to dry goods. Synonyms for ‘pretty girl’ include geranium, peach, and peacherine. Several terms mean “to call on, escort, or entertain a lady’, including buck, buzz, fuss, go double, pike, swing, and turf. Keeping company with the opposite sex is viewed in the context of marriage: a college widow is ‘a girl whom new men meet from year to year but whom no one ever marries’, and to take acottage course is ‘to marry before graduation’.Babbitt’s study in 1900 was the last major undertaking in the scholarly study of American college slang for seventy years, until Gary Underwood’s project (1975) at the University of Arkansas from 1970 through 1972. Mencken’s admirable chapter on slang (1963) — which documents the in-group vocabulary of such diverse groups as aviators, jazz musicians, railroad workers, and prisoners — gives college students short shrift. To be sure, over the years journalists have continued to keep the public up to date on the latest zany expressions from college campuses. And beginning in 1925, the journal American Speech frequently printed brief word lists from various campuses and served as the primary outlet for the publication of scholarly studies of college slang, like that of Dundes and Schonhorn in 1963. The short-lived periodical Current Slang, which was issued quarterly from the English Department of the University of South Dakota from summer 1966 through winter 1971, focused mainly on college slang, documenting the sudden burgeoning in the college lexicon of terms from African Americans and from the drug culture.
During the period from 1900 to 1970, the scholarly collection and analysis of American college slang was at best sporadic. However, in these scattered treatments can be seen traces of the major changes that transformed college slang and college culture by the 1970s. By 1926-27, slang at Kansas University depicted not only “loose women” but also women students as having sex appeal, with terms like hot-sketch, and mean-baby (Pingry and Randolph 1928). University of Missouri slang of 1931 called a ‘chic, up-to-date coed’ a hot number and ‘one who necks on a date’ a giraffe (Carter 1931). The collection from Johns Hopkins published in 1932 includes slang in three areas barely evident in student slang from 1900.
After World War II, the GI Bill altered the collegiate population of the United States and set into motion changes in higher education that are still being felt today. During the 1950s and 1960s American institutions of higher learning relinquished the philosophy of in loco parentis under which they had functioned in a parental role toward students. As a consequence, many college regulations for controlling student behavior outside the classroom were eventually abandoned — such as dress codes, curfews, and mandatory attendance at chapel or assemblies.
By the time Gary Underwood collected his lexicon of 750 slang items at the University of Arkansas, from 1970 to 1972, American college slang had taken on its current shape. For instance, in the Arkansas collection there are multiple synonyms for drunk and words with sexual connotations. As a whole, the terms Underwood reports from Arkansas parallel in meaning and effect the terms in the University of North Carolina collection. Both collections show plainly that since the turn of the century drastic changes have taken place in what college students are willing to reveal about their talk with one another.
Unlike antilanguage, slang invests little in vocabulary pertaining to scholarship
Many of the hundreds of items of North Carolina slang used as examples throughout this book suggest various facets of college culture in the late twentieth century. For instance, bro, sister, and homeboy/homegirl/homey are the primary kinship terms in the college lexicon—and also among the most frequently used nouns of address. This usage implies a speech community formed on peer relationships rather than on hierarchy. Another example is provided by admonitions like get a life, get a job, get a real job, and get with the program for instructing others to conform to the expectations that society holds for adults. These expressions show that, despite the need of college students to merit the favorable judgement of peers, it is ultimately the standards of the world of work beyond college that count. Other slang presented throughout this book confirms that the current college culture is firmly rooted in the general culture. Unlike an antilanguage, in which the lexicon is highly developed specifically in those areas that set the users apart from mainstream culture, college slang invests little in vocabulary pertaining to the users’ status as scholars. Instead, the focus is on relationships with other students and on activities that reinforce those relationships. College student vocabulary about relationships echoes the discourse of American society at large. Ubiquitous popular discussion about openness and honesty in relationships, for example, is the context for college expressions like DHC ‘deep, heavy conversation’, as in “I’m afraid that when my grades arrive, I’m in for some DHC,” and DTR ‘defining the relationship’, as in “It’s time for John and me to have the DTR conversation.”
Another approach is to generalize from a sizable and coherent subset of the corpus. Such a subset of the Carolina corpus is based on the number of submissions per item. Appendix 1 lists the University of North Carolina “top forty”— the lexical items that were submitted by a total of thirty students or more during the period extending from fall 1972 through spring 1993.
The “top forty” can be classified semantically with respect to the twenty-eight categories of meaning identified by Fiorenza. Thirty-two of the forty fall into these categories:
‘excellent’: sweet, killer, bad, cool, awesome
‘socially inept person’: dweeb, geek, turkey
‘drunk’: wasted, catch a buzz, trashed
‘relax’: chill (out), veg (out)
‘fads’: not!, word up
‘fraternity/sorority member’: bagger, Suzi
‘disregard’: bag, blow off
‘kiss passionatey’: grub, hook (up)
‘attractive person’: fox/foxy
‘have a good time’: jam
‘do well’: ace
‘eat rapidly’: pig out
‘out of touch’: clueless
‘worst situation’: the pits
The remaining are slide ‘an easy course’; crash ‘to go to sleep’; cheezy ‘unattractive, out of favor’; trip (out) ‘have a bizarre experience’; granola ‘one who follows the lifestyle of the sixties’; homeboy/homegirl/homey ‘friend’; dude ‘male, any person’ ; and slack ‘below standard’. The meanings of these eight are not unusual or unexpected for slang; they simply do not fall into one of the categories of meaning Fiorenza identified as generating high frequency synonyms.
The forty most frequent lexical items imply a community of speakers concerned with relationships among people, particularly with judgments of acceptance or rejection. They divide almost evenly between terms with positive associations and connotations and those with negative ones. Those that convey negative judgments are rather mild. None of the most frequently submitted negative labels is as vivid, memorable, or offensive as low-frequency derogatory terms.
One can’t go about the business of living using only slang
The studies of anthropologist Michael Moffatt (1989) and folklorist Simon J. Bronner (1990) both verify the primacy of social relations and activities in the lives of recent American college students. It is not academic concerns that shape undergraduate college culture or college slang — it is human ones. College students put more of their time and youthful spiritedness into figuring out who they are in relationship to others, what they like and dislike, what they can and cannot do, and what they will and will not tolerate than in trying to figure out their textbooks, lectures, and professors.
It is also possible that recent generations of college students are creating, appropriating, and using more slang than their counterparts did a century ago. This may be in part because in the United States colloquial vocabulary and slang are generally more widely used now than in the nineteenth century. Lighter notes a stylistic shift toward the highly informal with the advent of writing intended for mass circulation early in the century. The mass media explosion that began then has provided the context for an increase in slang: “for the tone of all current mass media, spurred by the demands of competition, plunges on in the direction of the breezy, the startling, the tough-minded and terse — attitudes that slang is born to impart” (1994, xviii). Undoubtedly because of the influence of the mass media, a type of national slang that conveys attitudes rather than identity with a group, what Chapman calls “secondary slang,” has become more noticeable (1986, xii). Thus students arrive at college with a lifelong exposure to slang and its social functions. What’s more, when first-year students join their newly forming speech community on the first day of registration, they have already survived an important sociolinguistic testing ground. As Danesi (1994) shows, they are already veteran users of the social dialect of their high school and the cliques to which they belonged. Slang, then, is not among the new and threatening features of college life.
What is the future for American college slang?
Early indications are that the national debate over the rights of minorities and disadvantaged groups, the issue of “political correctness,” will manifest itself in interesting ways in college slang. More than any previous generation, students of the 1990s are the beneficiaries of textbooks, lectures, workshops, and conferences designed to analyze critically the assumptions and consequences of discrimination of all kinds. In their public and academic discourse, they can cite facts about differential wages for males and females, explain the high incidence of African American households without an adult male, and advocate the reasonableness of including gays in the military and women in the Roman Catholic priesthood. They have learned, and many believe what they have been taught. But in their casual discourse among friends, in the circles in which they vent their frustrations and express their opposition toward those they feel control their lives, the same students are uttering offensive, stereotypical slang referring to people unlike themselves whom they intellectually and morally support. This abandonment of political correctness among friends is perhaps a sign of trust in others, like telling a secret. It may also be a sign of the fear that in the increasing fragmentation of American society into groups demanding a fair share, they may wind up among the “have-nots.”
Acquiring the kind of knowledge transmitted in books and classrooms is ultimately an individual experience and therefore potentially lonely. No longer apparent are the well-defined groups that were once a natural outgrowth of a rather simple academic system where everyone followed the same curriculum, had the same professors, and lived on the college grounds — and where the students were a fairly homogenous lot. American college student bodies are now much more diversified in age, national and regional origin, race, ethnicity, social class, financial resources, and academic preparation. Institutions of higher learning are larger, with more bureaucracy than ever. As a result, contemporary college students must take greater personal responsibility for identifying and becoming a part of groups that can fulfill their needs for companionship during their college years. An increase in slang use in this would not be surprising.
I find myself in agreement with folklorist Simon Bronner, who
studied the rituals, customs, legends, and jokes of college students in
the 1970s and 1980s: “Students seek to strengthen their social
identity, value system, and emotional growth, but find that the
academic setting once noted for assisting this cultural passage has
alienated rather than involved them. Increasingly students turn to one
another for support, but struggle to create group harmony in a mass
society stressing the uprooted, competitive individual” (1990, 239). A
large part of that struggle for group harmony for college students is
internecine verbal skirmishing; and the terms for negotiating the
struggle are slang.
Excerpt Reprinted from Slang and Sociability: In-Group Language Among College Students by Connie Eble. Copyright © 1996 by the University of North Carolina Press. Used by permission of the publisher.
Editor's Note: The formatting of this article has been left in
its original form.
William and Flora Hewlett
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