This month we’ve been looking into the murky world of subcultural English. As we did last month, we’ve asked our wonderful guest bloggers to answer a question on the topic and have put their answers in a single post for your enjoyment. The question was: ‘What’s the weirdest subcultural English word you’ve heard and what makes it interesting?’ Some wrote in with their weirdest word and some with their favourite, either way, it’s a good read.
Now a weird one for me is from the sublanguage of fashion, specifically millinery. The word fascinator (that decorative bit of frivolity worn in place of a hat at weddings and the races). It just seems such an odd word, completely incongruous in relation to the actual concept it represents (are they really that ‘fascinating’?!) – so much so that I find it difficult to bring myself to use the word, let alone wear one! It actually dates right back to the 1700s and originally described a lacy or crocheted headscarf. In the mid 20th century, it almost had a place booked in the lexical graveyard (where it belonged IMHO), but interestingly was suddenly reborn a few years ago with the new meaning of a funny little feathery, fake-flowery headpiece.
My favourite subcultural English word is … swag.
Swag is a word that reflects some of the conflicting currents at the heart of street slang. On one level it’s a very old word and on another level it’s been pimped up to give it new and quite different meanings. All of the different meanings and usages seem to exist at the same time, just to make it more complicated!
Originally, swag seemed to share the same Old Norse etymology as sway (and perhaps swing), so it’s linked to a particular way of moving. The OED cites this gem of an example: “I swagge, as a fatte persons belly swaggeth as he goth”.
This then seems to have become swagger (as explained by Nancy Friedman on her Fritinancy blog) and has picked up connotations of moving in a strutting, confident way.
But not content with this, swagger has recently become both swagga (in the same way that gangster has become gangsta) and been clipped back to swag. Still with me?
Swag is also used to refer to a bag of stolen goods, and in Australia to a bag used to put your bedroll in when you walk from one place in the outback to another. So was it called a swag bag because it swung from one side to the other as you walked? Maybe.
But swag also has a negative meaning in slang. Describing someone’s trainers as swag would be seen as quite derogatory. And this usage seems to be linked to the subcultural slang of drug users where swag was low quality marijuana. This meaning also seems to be applicable (as does the bag of stolen loot meaning) to a more recent usage of swag as promotional items given away free by promoters and publishers (t-shirts, baseball caps, beermats and the like).
So swag: something for everyone, and meaning different things to different people all at the same time.
Dan Clayton from The blog formerly known as … English Language @ SFX
Yo, everyone! That’s my word: Yo! It intrigued me to hear it used as a greeting when I moved to Philadelphia. You’ve probably heard it in rap music, or the Rocky movies with the classic ‘Yo Adrian, I did it’.
But as well as being a simple greeting, it can also have a sort of ‘Oi’ quality to it as in ‘Yo, what’s going on here?’. And then there’s another use where it can be tagged onto almost any sentence, rather like innit. Yo’s a cool word, yo.
Vicki Hollett from Learning to speak ’merican
A piece of youth slang that always make me smile is the use of missions, to mean ‘far away’ or ‘hard to do’, as in ‘Moseley? But that’s missions!’. It makes a 20-minute bus ride sound like some kind of major military operation.
When I read the question the word that immediately came to my mind was boo. Its most common usage in English is as an informal interjection used to frighten or surprise people. However what I am referring to in this context is this word being used as a noun in English slang meaning ‘boyfriend’ or ‘girlfriend’. The first time I heard it was several years ago listening to the song ‘Dilemma’ by American rapper Nelly. As I was listening to the song, whenever she sang “No matter what I do, all I think about is you, even when I’m with my boo, boy you know I’m crazy over you,” my mind would automatically stick to the word boo and I’d start conjuring up ideas about its meaning. In fact, it wasn’t so difficult to conclude from the lyrics of the whole song that it might have the meaning that it’s being used as nowadays, but as a matter of habit I’d often discuss it with my friends. From that moment onwards, whenever there’s a new and interesting word in a song I always start searching for its meaning and usage in dictionaries and online. In addition, just recently I found out that boo is a Cajun slang term, used only in informal situations, denoting a term of endearment regarding the person being spoken to (that person being a close friend or family member only). Now who says that sublanguages are not ‘good enough’?
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A schoolfriend who is a chemical engineer told me about a paper he was writing on debottlenecking. I was very taken with the term – based on two nice basic Anglo-Saxon base nouns – bottle and neck – transmuted to compound, metaphor, verb, gerund, negated, and back to noun again, all wearing its meaning on its face so it’s pretty clear (in the context of chemical engineering plants where you want to get the correct flow through the plant) what it means.
Not that weird but rather charming: the expression (used in linguistics) garden path sentence. This is a sentence which we start processing in one way, then eventually realise we have analysed it wrongly. A nice example (from Wikipedia) is: “The cotton clothing is made of grows in Mississippi”: until the word grows we’re likely to interpret the sentence as being about how “cotton clothing” is made. It then becomes clear the sentence really means: “The cotton from which clothing is made grows in Mississippi”. The clues we have been given turn out to be misleading – so we have been “led up the garden path”.
Homie – a friend was musing on the origin of this word the other day and said: ‘Comes from Homer Simpson, right?’ I had to inform him that like so many recent arrivals (crib etc) it comes from US gang slang. Still, I could see the source of the confusion – homie sounds affectionate, sentimental even when used by Marge to address her hapless husband. It sits a little uneasily with gun toting teenagers.
Dude – has become a pretty all-purpose way of referring to a male amongst the young. Curiously, for such a hip, happening and now word, it can be traced back to the late 1800s. Cowboys would refer to dandified city-dwelling tourists from east of the US as ‘dudes’. Oscar Hammerstein recreates this usage when he wrote the words for Oklahoma in the 1940s.
Somehow, however, all the irony drained away over the next thirty years. By 1972 David Bowie was able to use the word to describe his groovy chums (‘All the Young Dudes’) and two years later Steely Dan sang of ‘Every Major Dude’. But it was probably the film Dude! Where’s my car? that took the word to the premiere league of subcultural language.
When I started birding about ten years ago (and don’t roll your eyes in that patronising way) one of the things that delighted me was the discovery of a whole new sublanguage. There are many candidates for my favourite birding term (twitch and its derivatives are not among them, for reasons too complicated to go into here) but the one I offer up is tick. I first heard it uttered by a lady of rather mature years, who was talking excitedly about a life tick she had just achieved. The thing is, serious birders make lists: lists of the birds they see in a year, or in a particular area, or over their whole lives. You can buy printed lists of, say, all the birds you might hope to see in the UK, and if you are making a year list, as you see the birds you tick them off on the list. So a tick to a birder is not an unpleasant parasitic insect, the sound of a clock, or even just a mark on a page, but an experience; a bird you have seen. If you are seeing the bird for the first time that year it’s a year tick, and if for the first time ever in your life, it’s a life tick. The longer you have been birding, the less likely you are to get life ticks. So my birding friend was right to be excited.
How’s this for a weird subcultural term, this time from journalism. In yesterday’s ‘Guardian’, Alan Rusbridger wrote – a propos the change of tactic towards anti-capitalist campers at St Paul’s Cathedral – that the Bishop of London had “performed the most dramatic reverse ferret in modern church history”. He later explains: “Reverse ferret is, technically speaking, a term used in Fleet Street …to describe the moment when an editor executes a startling editorial U-turn”.
That made me smile too. I wondered if the origin was something to do with the practice of putting ferrets down trousers; or perhaps just a reference to the speediness of those particular mustelids…Love the use of ‘technically speaking’ too.
I drew a blank before when trying to think of a weird subcultural word, but here’s one that might qualify: helmer, meaning film/TV director. I come across it every so often, always in the same context (a film review or filmmaking report), and it always strikes me as strange. I expect it comes from helm as a fanciful synonym for direct in this specialised sense. I don’t think I’ll ever use it, and secretly I hope it doesn’t spread more than it already has. It makes me think of Elmer Fudd.