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Tales Told by Idioms

Two new slang dictionaries take on the language of the street--with mixed results.

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Do kids still read the Gettysburg Address in school? If they do, its majestic cadences must sound pretty odd to their pierced little ears, as antiquated as anything they might dig out of Cicero. (I mean the dead European male, not the suburb.) As they know him, the president of the United States is some oaf drawling, babbling, or dozing in front of the mike: will they believe that anyone from that low fraternity could utter poetry like "of the people, by the people, for the people"? The fall, sad to say, is only recent. Living memory can still cherish "The only thing we have to fear is fear itself," and even those in the first Pepsi generation may fondly recall the challenge to "Ask not..." It would be easy to argue that such words were misleading, even the exact opposite of the truth--but how picturesque they were, and how fitting! That elevated sense of occasion, a mere token of the pride our elected masters once took in their profession, has suffered a swift and withering decay. It was already a thing of the past by the time Nixon bequeathed "I am not a crook" to posterity, though what was coming next stayed dormant during the long rhetorical snooze of the Reagan years, an era that featured performance, not dialogue. But when the nation woke up in the 1990s and heard those two manly, democratic watchwords being delivered, crying out for marble and chisel, we knew the future had finally arrived: "Read my lips," said one, to which the other replied, "It's the economy, stupid."

In our city that sort of common touch has worked beautifully for decades, but politicians who try it on the national level may be playing with fire. The last couple of elections ought to warn them that if they issue their pronunciamentos in the vulgar, instantly recognizable language of TV talk shows they run the risk that the people might actually take them seriously; or worse, America's statesmen will be so distracted by all the loose talk that they'll start to fall for their own humbug, especially those--and here etiquette demands that we draw a veil over the obvious candidates--who incline toward the vulgar themselves. It's an alarming prospect, but it also promises plenty of light entertainment along the way. Even those dismayed by the country's shift to the right may find consolation, however mild, when FDR's "date which will live in infamy" comes back as President Dan Quayle's "bad-hair day."

Any spectacle this good deserves a handbook, and now we have just the thing: the Random House Historical Dictionary of American Slang. The day some congressman returns from a human-rights mission to the Far East and does not say, "We look forward to further discussions with the Chinese leadership," but simply, "They dissed us," is closer than you think; and when it comes this manual will not only help translate, it will do full justice to the tradition behind his remarks. For the real value of this dictionary lies not in its definitions, but in the way it illustrates each one with a series of quotations showing exactly how the word has been used, from its first appearance as slang right up to the present, if it is still viable. By citing only the most impeccable American sources--from the Book of Mormon to Sally Jessy Raphael--and by spacing them evenly through time, this method lets you see the complete evolutionary profile of every item at a glance. Before your eyes the peculiar dog on it turns into the homely and familiar doggone; you watch as frig, once a robust Elizabethan obscenity in its own right, degenerates into the lowly euphemism of TV cop shows; and you may even feel a slight pang when gay leaves behind the "gay girls" of the last century (i.e., prostitutes) and enters the perfectly correct vocabulary of today.

This historical approach is the same one used by the Oxford English Dictionary, and there's no doubt that anyone who already has El Supremo will want this new dictionary up on the same shelf, right where it can elbow the elder and somewhat gouty OED like a cheeky adolescent. To the others who normally flinch before such monuments to scholarship, I say go ahead and open this dictionary. What you'll find inside, stripped naked yet utterly without shame, is simply your own culture--and that, fellow Americans, is anything but dull. In fact it's all the more riveting when set down before you by the rubber gloves of science, which lets you inspect as you wish and judge only if you choose. Although the editor, Jonathan Lighter, is a professor at the University of Tennessee, he doesn't stalk these pages with the birchman's rod and neither does he sting your eyes with the dust of the pedant. His editing is transparent, with a result that is profound but also devilish good fun. There are few things more revealing about people than the words they invent for themselves once they're safely outside the schoolroom and the tabernacle, and the Historical Dictionary of American Slang seems certain to remain, for the next couple of decades anyway, the Bible of our own superb vox populi.

The HDAS is no field guide, obviously. This is only the first installment (A-G) of three volumes, and it's more than a thousand pages, all with the unmistakable stamp of authority. That impression could be a little misleading since no dictionary, however definitive it may seem, can really hope to corral a darting colt like the vernacular of a great nation. The energy and experience of Mr. Lighter and his associates must have their limits. But they have gone a very long way, supplementing their prodigious research in the library with years of taking notes on TV, movies, and conversations overheard in the classroom and on the street corner. So there's plenty of student slang, always a rich vein anyway, and possibly a slight regional bias. We find Arkansas credit card (a tube for siphoning gas), for example, but neither cheesehead, as applied to our rustic neighbors to the north, nor their rebuttal, fip ("Fucking Illinois Person," in case you didn't know). Everyone will notice favorites missing. I looked in vain for can belto, which neatly reverses opera's "bel canto" to describe divas of the Whitney Houston/Linda Ronstadt persuasion. But gaps like these are microscopic in a dictionary that delivers such obscure wonders as gomer, a hospital term for the homeless that may have come from "Get Out of My Emergency Room," ghost turd, a philosophical interpretation of the dust bunny phenomenon, and the fact that flaming asshole was first used during WWII to refer to the insignia on Japanese warplanes, the rising sun.

This last phrase is instructive as a classic bit of slang since it is at once harshly derogatory, the product of men in a group, and based on a "dirty" part or function of the human body. I forgot to say that it's also stunningly vivid, and for that reason, it works. As you flip through the pages of the HDAS it's hard not to notice that for every entry like compadre there are a thousand designed specifically to mock, wound, or destroy. The Dutch, for some reason, have inspired more than two pages' worth of derision, including Dutch act (suicide), Dutch cap (diaphragm), Dutchman's hurricane (a calm), and of course, in Dutch. Hans Brinker may take a steady beating, but it's pretty mild compared to what the great churning engine of American malice has spat out consistently for the last couple of centuries. There's no need to dwell on this material, except to say that Mr. Lighter doesn't seem to mind handling it at all, even when it gets truly offensive--that's what the rubber gloves are for. You'll have no trouble finding historical curiosities like Chinese ace, another flying term from WWII that refers to a pilot who lands with "one wing low," or any of the recent innovations in this line, including dot head, meaning an Indian, and dune coon, an Arab. Enthusiasts of this genre will be looking forward to two more volumes filled with shrapnel like Jewfro, which describes the hairstyle of the early Abbie Hoffman, for example, and Puerto Rican doorbell (a blaring car horn), and I doubt they'll be disappointed.

The bald contempt may be distasteful, but it's locked into the essence of slang, which is after all language developed by and for specific fraternities. The argot criminals use to hide what they're doing is a clear example, but all slang, even the most benign, is about some group defining itself, and that usually means at the expense of another one. The straight world talks about fagolas and gays come back with breeders, soldiers call craps African billiards and blacks go greyhounding when they date whites. What beasts people are! The HDAS can be read as the spoken record of all these subgroups: teenagers, politicians, mobsters, policemen, bond traders, tradesmen, etc, etc. The mere existence of a group doesn't necessarily mean it's going to be a slang champion, of course. It's doubtful that graduate students in the humanities, for instance, will ever understand, much less match the gifts that carnival barkers have given to the lore of this country. A sense of exclusion seems to be part of what's required (thus the wealth of black and gay slang), and it certainly helps if the group is composed of men. The reasons for this may not be obvious, but a quick look into the dictionary will settle the facts. Even the editor, who is generally loath to draw conclusions, names that archetypal male society, the military, as his single greatest contributor. Its creations are also among the most pungent: baby shit (mustard), armpit sauce (a Vietnamese condiment), fartsack (sleeping bag), and crispy critter (napalm victim) are typical.

Mr. Lighter is not telling the whole truth, however, for the group leaving the most abundant spoor across his pages is bigger than the army--it's an army of armies, in fact. I refer to that order of brutes known simply as "men." It would be an exaggeration, but not a great one, to say that if the editor had for some reason chosen to take out all the words pertaining to various sexual acts from the man's point of view, to women as sexual objects, to salient parts of the female body, and to one part in particular, not salient, which itself has been made to stand for the whole of the female person in a number of gaudy and grotesque figures of speech, and which was so sacred to earlier generations that lexicographers dared not even spell out its name but could only allude to it obliquely as "the monosyllable"--if Mr. Lighter had eliminated all that he might easily have gotten by with just one handy book instead of three fat tomes.

Slang is a largely male domain; but will anyone outside it feel bad for not being in on the invention of gazongas? Can those on the inside take any special pride in watching American manhood flog its very favorite word up and down more than 12 pages of this dictionary--in double columns and small print? And finally, turning to a subject of at least potential relevance to women, consider the following synonyms for the membrum virile, most of them apparently self-inflicted, if not the whole lot: arm, auger, bacon, baloney, banana, bat ("Men with short bats stand close to the plate"), bishop, Charley, chingus, dingus, choad, cob, cod, cream stick, cucumber, dirk, dob, doodle, dork, enchilada, flagpole, and gun. To the question this list will raise in some minds, namely, What fun am I missing by not being invited to that party?, there is no answer I can think of.

Juba to Jive: A Dictionary of African-American Slang is issued by Penguin Books; its editor is a widely published author with seven novels and nine books of poetry to his credit; he is also "the recipient of many awards," as we are told: why then is there so little substance to the result?

The rich and voguish slang of black Americans deserves a competent survey, at the very least; this dictionary, I am sorry to say, is not it. The root of the problem with Juba to Jive (a new version of a dictionary originally published in 1970) is that its editor, Clarence Major, is confused about just what the mission of such a book should be. In his introduction he says he intends to stick to terms developed by blacks themselves, adding others only if they have been "adapted and altered by black speakers." That's a sensible plan, and it would have worked well if he'd just kept to it. But with entries like broad, can, come, crabs, dyke, piss-poor, and wolf (in their usual slang senses) on almost every page, it's impossible to know what's specific to blacks and what isn't. Mr. Major also includes quite a bit of material that few would regard as slang. There are dialect terms like ax and bof (for ask and both), names of famous blacks, from Sojourner Truth to Ice-T, historical items such as the Black Codes, and others that defy logic altogether, like dishrag ("a small cotton cloth"), devil ("a troublesome Christian deity"), and smack ("a slap, especially on the cheek").

This confusion is nothing, however, compared to the mischief worked by the editor's stated goal, "to help bring to the language we call slang a better name, a better reputation." This is worse than unnecessary: it's unscientific. Mr. Major seems to have forgotten that a dictionary can only reproduce reality, not improve it. In his mind slang embodies a "quest," which is "to create a coherent cultural construct of positive self-images." In other words, slang is a kind of superorganic role model. Since that is so, slang must be strong, it must be admirable, and most of all, it must be our own. And that is exactly how Mr. Major presents it in Juba to Jive.

There is no place in the book, as far as I know, where the editor sees a chance to assign an African origin to a word and does not take it. His method is simple: he finds a form in one of the many African languages at his disposal that seems to match the word in question, and then he claims descent as self-evident. Here are a few things we learn this way: massa is not a corruption of "master," but a Mandingo word for chief, masa. Man, as in "Hey, man," is also a Mandingo usage, ce in the original, which was "brought into popular use by black males to counteract the degrading effects of...'boy.'" (The use of "man" as a vocative in English dates from the 15th century, according to the OED.) Poop is from the Wolof pup, meaning "a small child's bowel movement." Sometimes Mr. Major finds that a coincidence of sound alone is sufficient, as in the case of palooka: this one is from the Bantu word paluka, meaning muscle spasms. So, Marlon Brando may not have known it, but when he got into the back of that fateful sedan next to Rod Steiger and started kvetching about his "one-way ticket to Palookaville," he was actually speaking Bantu.

Once you're inside this linguistic fun house even words with attested African roots--for example, juke, tote, hoodoo, and goober--just look like more of Mr. Major's flapdoodle. That's sad, but in the end it really doesn't matter. Etymologies are often obscure, and most people probably ignore them anyway. The real meat of a dictionary is in its definitions, and this is where Mr. Major commits his greatest atrocities.

Slang, as we've seen, is not always pretty; so if your idea is to give it "a better name, a better reputation," clearly you're going to have to do something. What Mr. Major does is take careful aim at the truth and then calmly shoot it right between the eyes. Among the casualties: bitch is "nonmalicious"; Goldberg (a Jew) is "sometimes derogatory, sometimes not": riceman (a Chinese) is "mildly pejorative"; and cracker is described neutrally as "any poor, uneducated white person," with no indication of its real force. Conk, which refers to straightening hair with a chemical treatment called congolene, makes Mr. Major uneasy for a different reason: he defines it simply as "pomade." Colorstruck presents a similar problem. This time he explains it accurately (as the choice some blacks make to seek light-skinned dates or spouses), but goes on to call it "another American social abnormality," leaving no doubt about who gets the blame.

There are times when Mr. Major can't avoid unpleasantness; white trash, for instance, announces itself too plainly. His strategy in these cases is to accept the words at face value, as if they were not a view of reality, but reality itself. Thus white trash: "a poor, immoral, uneducated white person, originally of the Deep South; lower-class white person with questionable morals and ethics." The word may be ugly, but so are the people. Or try redneck: "a poor white person in rural areas of the Deep South, especially one who is bigoted and crude." How far would Penguin Books USA Inc. get, do you suppose, with a dictionary offering this definition of nigger: "a poor black person in urban areas of the North, especially one who is lazy and degenerate"?

I don't want to give the impression that Juba to Jive is devoid of merit. It covers many areas quite well, such as pimping and the current drug scene. It has a lot to offer on gang life, especially in Los Angeles. And there are plenty of older items with a saucy ring of truth, like fry-meat preacher (one who preaches for a meal), ham fat (a mediocrity), ham snatcher (looter), mash the fat (have sex), and nose wide open (infatuated). It is instructive to read that Negro is now a synonym for Uncle Tom, and that a black man with a PhD might be called Dr. Thomas. But when you come across something like this gloss for hot jazz, your heart sinks: "a loud, unpolished style of music, usually with a very heavy beat." Is this any way for a professional culture broker to treat race heroes like Louis Armstrong and Sidney Bechet? At first I thought Mr. Major must have mistakenly switched the definitions of jazz and rap, but I was wrong: a rapper is "a singer who performs rhyming political or socially conscious songs."

After a certain point, all the posturing, the touchiness, the pseudoscholarship, and the patent errors begin to work a spell, and Juba to Jive starts to seem like it cannot have come from a renowned publishing house in New York City, but must be the product of some small country in the third world, recently decolonized. You expect the pages to be yellow, blotched, typographically erratic, and falling out in fistfuls. In fact the book is clean and physically well made; yet it still has about it that unmistakable air of the autodidact who undertakes his projects with equal parts knowledge, ignorance, and pride. The mix is so confusing that when Mr. Major defines first base as "a woman's breasts," for instance, not many readers will know whether this is a simple mistake, a usage "adapted and altered by black speakers," or just more cultural bravado. Few, in any case, will care.

According to one of the most appealing fictions about slang, it is a language of the oppressed. It is known to be caustic and profane, it thrives in places like the underworld, the factory, the gay bar, and the ghetto, so it is also assumed to be a secret tool of "the people" in their struggle against the society that keeps them down. The editor of Juba to Jive, needless to say, is warmly enthusiastic about this idea: "Since the days of slavery," he assures us, "this secrecy has served as a form of cultural self-defense against exploitation and oppression." Mr. Lighter is more circumspect, advising that "we should suspend judgment on such claims." But if numbers count for anything the evidence is not good, even in Juba to Jive. If you took all the honkies, crackers, and ofays and threw them into the same cage with the pigs, the oinks, and the gray dogs, and then invited the large extended family headed up by Uncle Tom to stand around and gawk, they'd still be hard to notice inside that huge carnival thronging with bantams, cupcakes, easy rides, fine fryers, main squeezes, minks, stone foxes, and their many, many friends. This genre and its allies take up at least as much space in Juba to Jive as they do in the HDAS: will those on the receiving end think of these words as revolutionary?

There is a subtle prejudice at work in the notion of slang as a language of "the people." It is the belief that because slang is not proper speech, it must also be the product of the uneducated and the low, the very ones found at the bottom of the heap; these lumpen are then supposed to fight back with their hardy and essentially uncouth idiom. This idea is not only condescending, it's also wrong. Why else does "little slang of any kind" (according to Mr. Lighter) appear in the 41 volumes of testimony of former slaves collected by the WPA? Why have prostitutes (as opposed to pimps) not produced much slang either? And farmers almost none at all? To understand what's going on here you don't need to go as far as H. L. Mencken, who explained the last case by saying simply that "farmers, as a class, are extremely stupid." You only need to realize that although slang is formed in groups, it has to be thought up by individuals one word at a time, and those guys have to have brains.

"The unconscious genius of the people no more invents slang than it invents epics. It is coined in the sweat of their brow by smart writers." That was written by a classical scholar in the 1920s, perhaps the heyday of American slang. And as Mr. Lighter is at pains to show in his introduction, the makers of slang go to work only after a standard language with a standard lexicon becomes generally accepted. Slang is far from being a primal stage in the development of language; it may even be a mark of language at the highest stage of its evolution, though Mr. Lighter doesn't say so directly. What he does say is that we're now entering a period when the boundaries between slang and nonslang are becoming blurred, perhaps returning us to an earlier phase of English when, for example, the translators of the King James Bible saw no reason to avoid words like stones (for testicles) and piss. Mr. Lighter is not a pessimist, and he doesn't see this trend as a sign of decay. He says only that we may be looking toward a time when "dignity in discourse [is] imparted chiefly by subject and occasion rather than by the elegant use or avoidance of individual expressions." That could be half right, anyway. Think about those phrasemakers we started off with: it's certainly true that they're not threatening us with anything like the "elegant use" of words, but concerning "dignity in discourse," where are we supposed to look for that?

Random House Historical Dictionary of American Slang, Volume 1, A-G, edited by J. E. Lighter, Random House, $50

Juba to Jive: A Dictionary of African-American Slang edited by Clarence Major, Penguin, $14.95 (paperback)

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): illustration/Dorothy Perry.

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