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Mining Graffiti for Slang

Update: 2017-05-30


John McWhorter talks to Ben Zimmer about the Vietnam Graffiti Project and other slangy topics.

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lexicon Valley is brought to you by Lexus experience the first ever five point two liter V eight L C five hundred with ten speed Direct shift transmission and the first ever multi stage hybrid LC five hundred eight experience amazing the following podcast contains explicit language the New York City this is what's on the Alley podcast about language and on the quarter I teach linguistics at Columbia University this week will be doing something that we i e I should've already done eons ago as in talking to Ben Zimmer you may remember him as the Wall Street Journal's language columnist before that he was the New York Times is lined with columnist and then had the honor of doing lexicon graffiti at the Oxford University Press anyway then I seem to me almost monthly at a conference or event or even house party and now we meet here in the valley and going to start that idea that we're doing this in the valley instead of in a booth and then it spent slang that's on your mind lately is that correct slang is pretty much on my mind all the time I'm fascinated by the slang particularly American slang I just wanna get to the bottom of where slang terms come from it involves a lot of detective work to figure out the roots of slang particularly slang that might be a bit indecent the funds lying and yet exactly but that is obviously documented less in proper print sources that may abstain from that kind of language so I have lots of fun trying to find those sources of slang which might be a bit off the beaten track yet to be a little inventive sometimes and figure out where to look and once you find the slaying in older source is trying to figure out what to do with them what to the terms actually mean at the time that they were used so there are a lot of sort of fascinating challenges for the study is lying so you know I'm going to ask you this before we dive in this is the question that people like you me always get what is flying in your definition of what you say it is non standard but then what as more than just non standard I mean in a way the slang is oppositional to standard language that part of the definite and I would say so yeah and so it can be playful can be irreverent but it's irreverent in terms of its stance toward what we think of as more standard language and so very often we're dealing with terms where there is some sort of standard term that people know but this is the term that you would use if your with your friends if you're with a particular age group or some other demographic or subculture where you're sharing in lingo that can be kind of an in group marker doesn't have to be subgroups that something you find a lot of the standard definitions that it's not everybody in society that is using slang it has to be some segment of society young people or people or some people that part of a general yeah and when the slang goes mainstream and to the extent that everybody knows that sometimes it loses its cachet as slang but then again you know there are some terms that we sort of recognizes slang me that everybody knows I mean if you say that school is that's lying well you couldn't say that it belongs to any particular group that no pretty universal and he's also at one point but it started this in a particular subculture that particular usage of that school or his school starts in jazz circles in the nineteen forties the fourteen You are not yet seen here Lester Young people like that Dexter Gordon might have been the original users of that kind of slang eventually by the fifties these offers are using it to her beat Knicks yeah but you know it's fascinating even with something to become the first widely used like that it can wax and wane so in the sixties I don't think the word cool was very cool it had a bit of a comeback in the seventies in part because there is a kind of a revival of the nineteen fifties nostalgia I never thought about that what about the word dis in my last so I was talking about whether or not something is a word and I think it's going to the point that this is a word and disrespect is a separate word but is this the firearm in the eighties thinking of it is lying and using it in quotation marks now I think I just spit it out nobody will call me a very slimy person is that slang are one sign that another case where a slang term can go relatively mainstream but at the same time if you're using it in the New York Times or Wall Street Journal for instance it's not something you consider just drop into an article without being a bit self conscious about it and so slang can make appearances in more standard language like that but even if the actual quotation marks on around it can have kind of invisible quotation marks because it sort of scene is marked in some way talk about dis and cool in terms that exist on a certain precarious point between not slang but informal is swell which I discussed this something that maybe isn't a word in my last show two people have sent me not one to two people who sent me this email from an early episode of I Love Lucy this is Lucy and Ricky an Ethel and Fred and the guest is Hans Kohn Reid who seem to pop up in about every fifth episode and they decided they want to speak well and listen to how swell and lousy sat in the culture in nineteen fifty two the rate of speechless lah now has five K I want you all to promise me that there was that you would never use one of these this whale and the other one involves the the uh it's whale of a long involved the lousy one for the I don't believe you quite understand the explain the remark just tell us what the Army won't use them the help possible to the gay Haniyeh I would say OK at this lady get off the the the thank you folks for reminding me of that and I'm beginning to forget the early I Love Lucy is in a case Ben you've actually pointed me to the Vietnam graffiti Project yeah this is one place you can look for slang it's definitely a sort of a nontraditional source in fact there've been no attempts to mine graffiti for quite a long time there's a wonderful collection by Allen Walker Read who went on a trip out west in the US in nineteen twenty eight inches went around collecting graffiti that he found in laboratories and things like that and actually provides a lot of the early citations for various taboo term is that you might find you know as the first citation in the Oxford English Dictionary one of my favorites there actually is somebody who seems to be trying to combine scat Allah je with sophisticated syntax This is shit else thinks likes it because it is so shady wonderful graffiti dough but continue yes so if you look up city in the Oxford English Dictionary one My you'll find that exact quotation graffiti is interesting because of course nobody really dates graffiti said I wrote this on such and such today it says there and someone has to write it down a particular time were lucky that Allen Walker Read had the foresight to write down on all of this graffiti that he found back in nineteen twenty eight who keeps track of graffiti who would actually think to keep something so ephemeral and an archive of any sort well we're lucky for the Vietnam era at Texas Tech there is a collection of the Vietnam graffiti Project and they have about four hundred canvas bunk bottoms that are covered in graffiti so these were on Navy ships originally transporting troops to Vietnam and what do you do while you're there on your bunk then well you're going to scrawl some graffiti on the canvas there and there's a perfectly wonderful etymology that one gains I knew somebody once who had their face slapped for saying it sucks that wasn't it wasn't me but the idea was that sucks refers to something this person's mother said and you get some insight into the birth of sucks and yet source right that's one of her fascinated me for awhile because people are very different judgments about that sucks or it sucks is there something rude about it isn't really that vulgar or is it just the mothers out there saying oh no no don't say that that something being sucked right imagine what it exactly so the unspoken thing that people worry about is does this formation originally have to do with Palacio you went there well we have to go there sometimes you know for the for the scholarship and it's a complicated question because that word sock has been involved in a lot of slang the expressions having to do with someone or sorting socks exactly so for instance suck when to suck eggs sucks it also when you're sure all of these things have perhaps contributed to this in transit of use of sac but were missing evidence for how it was getting used in the nineteen sixties by groups that first circulated that slang term which then became more widely known in the seventies although we get some light said right from the source in terms of transfer diverse as in transit of uses of suck here exactly and so what you find if you go through this searchable database graffiti from these Vietnam sources is that the people who are writing graffiti well say something sucks in transit event that sort of what would have been a very new use at the time but transit of use as well for instance you very often would see someone their bunk bed canvas the army socks just the army sucks then you would also get plenty of variations on the theme involving vulgar objects the army sex deck the army Sex Big dicks the army sex big slimy decks all the variations you could think of show up in this graffiti and it's very clear at least for this population of army recruits who are stuck on these transport ships going across to Vietnam suck for them you know transit in transit or they were just freely interchange these things and so from that evidence it would seem that there really was this or implied sexual object even when they're using it in transit to flee so transit as in having an object and so eats a banana as opposed to any transit where there is no object and so something like Billy eats and then leaves I feel moved to say that some of the Vietnam graffiti is almost strictly an imaginative like a primitive comic strips that become more anti American for some well just wrote fatty or one person wrote Sex yeah yeah I know that it was this quandary didn't you know it's clearly motivated by boredom or even necessarily having needing some creative outlet the The The The The before we get back to the show let's talk about the exits what started as pure concept launched a new era of performance and design the first ever lets SLC five hundred is collection ideas ten speed Direct shift transmission near perfect weight distribution and innovative suspension system that defies conventional logic accommodating available twenty one inch wheels within a ground hugging profile the DLC is also an uncompromising approach to design although the first C technically perfect it was the fiftieth prototype that has the exact fit and feeling the compliment the unique spear this intense dedication to craftsmanship result of the level of refinement you've never felt that sound you've never and the feeling yet the introducing the first ever five liter V eight C five and multi stage five hundred Experience the future of lessons experience a mate show and then I have a bone to pick with you all were off the subject of slang especially vulgar slang in the past and you probably know where we're going to go on to play this clip from a previous show we are at a theater watching a Warner Brothers cartoon in nineteen thirty three and listen to what little boss ko ung pleasantly Simeon tunes character pops off with while he's playing the piano for silent know the the the dead you and I have had conversations about Bonds go and whether nine he is hurling off with the F word in that film and you you think he is and remind me what your take on it as well I mean the way you presented it's you know you said well this was before the Hays Code was being enforced in so yeah they were just free do drop an f bomb of this cartoon because that's just what you did in nineteen thirty three and that's not what you didn't really have to pass a very high bar for me to accept that the creators of the cartoon wanted Bosco to say you dirty fuck and that that actually was released in that way I think that there is quite odd yes I think it's more likely that was originally produced in this cartoon was You dirty Fox but why would he say that well Fox itself is a slang term going back centuries meaning a cunning or duplicitous person and even though the character who is being called a dirty something is not as not an animal not an animal that's fine I mean there's also in this very same cartoon a title card that says dirty Dalton the ker ker like a dog is not actually a dog either write these terms could be used instead of a slimy way so buckle could be saying You dirty Fox I'm guessing that because of what the vowels sounds like an in the audio there and then perhaps there was some sort of post production mischief perhaps you could have left off that final s sound but the question really is how did that get by again if it got by a sensor why were people complaining in the theater I openly admit it's bizarre yeah I think it's a complicated question that we may answer to unfortunately but I think there's also a danger in trying to sort of look back on this old evidence very often audio evidence and kind of look at it through our present day eyes and give it a certain understanding based on what we think about the language which might not have been true that I'm fine example from roughly the same time period is from nineteen twenty eight there's a song kind of a bluegrass song that a lot of people I'm sure are familiar with called Big Rock Candy Mountain it was recorded in nineteen twenty eight by Harry Mac McLean talk which was actually something that he originally wrote back in the eighteen nineties and the contact himself was a former hobo and he sang this song Big Rock Candy Mountain which kind of imagines the hose paradise I want you to listen to this and listen to the clarity one thing that you young uns don't understand is that not long ago you could never hear something this old so clear the very first time I heard a CD of Benny Goodman was nineteen eighty seven it was one of the most electric moments in my life that now that kind of sound was available the one before that was when I first experienced a VCR that was nineteen eighty one and you know there's been none electric sense I hate to say I guess that makes me dull but listen to this clip and most importantly to what happens at the end the clip is short here we go the winning Yale in the new ride as you are in lag things you sleep all long the jerk that invented in that thing rocks ok so in that part of the sun you can hear Mac Linux A where they hung the blank that invented work Nelson's it again no lag the thing the you sleep all day long winter that invented in the rock them it sounds like it could either be a jerk or turkey jerky from the Prophet yeah I said a present this at talks and I ask the audience would you tear jerker Turk sometimes it's about half and half sometimes more people here jerk than Turk if it really was the word jerk that would be actually quite interesting because it would be the earliest known appearance of jerk to refer to someone who's stupid or annoying or mean currently the earliest citation A O E D is from nineteen thirty five so it would be remarkable for it to appear in a song recorded in nineteen twenty eight and even more remarkable if this was something that was in the Clint acts original version that he had written back in the eighteen nineties now if it was the word Turk that would be interesting too because that would be in a very old slang word that would have been dying out by the time that cleantech used it Turk to means of a cruel hearted man or a Savage fellow shows up in slang dictionaries going all the way back to the very first slang Dictionary of English in sixteen ninety nine it shows up in a nineteen o four work by Farmer and Henley called slang and its analog the past and present it a wonderful resource but when they were writing about it in nineteen o four this word Turk clearly not a very politically correct term was already marked as old so which one was and wasn't brand new slang or was it the sort of old slang that had been falling out of use well we're lucky to actually know the answer to this question because of the Clint actually appeared in court as part of a copyright dispute and he had to provide the lyrics to his song as he sang them and he transcribed it as Turk with the tea and you know what a way you want the person to be saying are we like to read ourselves into the past away and in this is a clip with you provided of something we wish Elvis Presley was saying in nineteen sixty eight let's listen to him the election but the So apparently Elvis was saying chill lax and he doesn't that make him mods and you know the truth is I've seen probably almost every film musical except I have never seen an Elvis musical I'm not sure why I haven't seen them live a little of a little but I've heard this clip is he saying chill ax yet so this was brought to the attention of fellow member of the American dialect Society list is that and yet ye that sow came to my attention someone very excitedly said I was presently used to lax in nineteen sixty eight and that would truly be remarkable because if you look in the slang dictionaries for chill ax which is sort of this combination of chill and relax the earliest we get to is maybe nineteen ninety three around their nineteen sixty eight that would be an incredible and to dating as the lexicon for say I had certainly never seen live a little of a little nineteen sixty eight This is like right before Ella said that comeback Special on TV so his career wasn't doing too well these said later Monday all these musicals are actually good Viva Las Vegas with some of them are this one not so much I mean it did have the song A Little Less conversation in it that maybe the high point of that movie also you might be interested Rudy Valley is in this movie is well over the valley the valley like and how to succeed movie wow yeah this is character is a photographer he has like two jobs in one of them is reporting to the valley for this conservative advertising firm he's also working for this sort of Playboy style magazine in the same building and so what you hear in that clip is him he sort of running back and forth up and down the stairs in his building and so he says that line and I listen to it sadly I had to conclude that that's not to lax and all most likely what he's saying is just relax about ten minutes but if you say it Elvis style critically Elvis was out of breath and just relax becomes so i should relax relax something like that so he wasn't here is one that's a lot of fun though Laurel and Hardy when they first start talking in nineteen twenty nine clearly we're not use to the microphone and sometimes especially when things got a little improv that or you can listen to them mumbling things you can tell they're used to there being no sound and that includes their supporting players this is a perfect day in nineteen twenty nine at one point Edgar Kennedy was always angry is having trouble and is trying to get out of a car and if you listen closely enough to the soundtrack you can hear that he actually says Oh shit and they left it then because it's so quiet listen to this woman to turn it way up the plate twice in the car listen to the guy in the background the reason one more time the uh so that's one of my favorite examples because I think it's pretty clear that he was saying Oh shit and nobody noticed because it's kind of as they say some women say Mr. Mister who creates Lang who makes it where does it come from and what people want to hear these days is something about Drake and Yolo and so let's play here here to the thought of you already we only my body a K I was the Yolo Live Once he created it or he actually waited as we linguists say does flying come from single people it's almost impossible to say that about any particular slang term you certainly can't say the Drake invented yellow I wrote about yellow for the Boston Globe back in twenty twelve and yellow had its big moment that Drake saw it come out earlier in the air and by the end of the year had already been sort of played out that shows you how quickly slang can become passe I identify the moment when Katie Couric started using yellow her daytime talk show that was the death of yellow as far as I was concerned however lang I just found out what the acronym Yolo means y o l l it means you only live once and it's kind of the Senate and for a bucket list so that lots of yellows I think one of my top yellows is to star in a Broadway musical I wanna know what's your yellow but Drake certainly wasn't the first one to use it you know there are certainly examples I believe going back to the nineties that far but yeah if you google Yolo my Boston Globe article is still is one of the top few returns for that because as a very kind of search engine friendly headline What is yellow only teenagers know for sure in awe at the time it was mostly slang that young people use and totally baffled older people I remember so this is very often the case I mean sometimes a particular song or movie or some other pop cultural source will help to popularize a bit of slang but hardly ever is it the case that song or movie was the first ever known use of that bit of slang what are your tips on using the Urban Dictionary is a wonderful source but boy does one get avalanche to make that into her when you look something up like Yolo and of course some of the people or chuckle heads some of them are gentle person experts how do you approach the Urban Dictionary it's not worthless but then it's also dangerous the largest problem with Urban Dictionary is that a very large percentage of the user generated entries are people who are not just reporting slang that they hear but just putting things in there for the hell of it sometimes they're making fun of a friend of theirs sometimes they're just putting it out there to see if people start using it it gives you very little sense of what people are actually using out there in the real world it can be useful as a kind of evidence if you're looking for the early uses of something that you know they exist sometimes Urban Dictionary is a place where people start wrestling with What does this word mean how to use it who uses it who do use it about that sort of thing you can occasionally get some very valuable information from that one of the things that I do I'm editor for among which is a quarterly feature in the journal American Speech it's been going since nineteen forty one you don't mean your contribution oh yeah white ball and are started in American speech back in nineteen forty one I've been chief editor for just the past five or six years and you know one thing that we do is when we are looking for evidence for new words were creating sort of OCD style entries for things that are very new and we've often have to look at sources like Urban Dictionary like it or not just to see how is anybody using it there and are finding it very often now if we look at social media like Twitter which is very searchable now you can find examples of people using new slang terms in a relatively un self conscious way as opposed to an Urban Dictionary where people are being very conscious in terms of thinking you know how should I define this word in trying to be funny about it usually at the same time nine times outta ten it feels like they're trying to make some sort of sexual slang out of any given word but it was like looking up hey oh right so actually things like Twitter other social media are providing a kind of a Corpus that we can use that is more like spoken interaction that way obviously they're all sorts of conventions that people are using Mike has tags and so forth which you would never actually use in speech but it does help us very often paint a picture of how a new slang term enters the language and who it's coming from that's important to identify so often these days as it has long been the case young African Americans very often young African American women are the ones who spread certain slang terms or other linguistic innovations and we can actually get a sense of that through social media in a way it's is more kind of egalitarian source for understanding where this amazing source of creative the language may come from I never quite understand how you hold it all down thank you for giving it your wisdom to me on this show and we of course will continue to see one another in various venues but this is Banda a lot of fun Ben thank you very much thank you folks only give you a little treat in closing a word that used to not really be a word that now is there's an example I forgot last show brunch brunch used to be in quotation marks and I'm just old enough to remember and here's an example of how that word fell in nineteen seventy five This comes from the late Grady frankly late TV show The Jefferson's and if you are a little black boy in nineteen seventy five this so had Talmudic significance this is episode number five Jordan we are talking about it here it is not what we eating is the time we eating at eleven o'clock on a Sunday morning we guess having breakfast bath and no it was a trip has brought the the folks that were bad enough to make the requisite too early plus the uh what do we even get up till the afternoon then the and in the meantime tell us your thoughts about the show you can reach us at lexicon Valley at slate dot com that is lexicon Valley at slate dot com Follow us on Twitter at lexicon Valley this show is edited by Mike hello I'm John water thanks so much for listening and see you back here in two weeks
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The Euphemism Treadmill


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Whither Didst Thou Go?


Word Sex


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Seven Centuries of F--ks


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Mining Graffiti for Slang

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