Showing posts with label slang. Show all posts
Showing posts with label slang. Show all posts

10 March 2021

The Language of Thieves




My pal Carolyn first noticed this story in Psyche.  It’s popped up in some other places, and eventually made it into CrimeReads, so it hasn’t been flying under the radar.

Martin Puchner is a linguist who teaches at Harvard, and his book The Language of Thieves is a about a slang going back to the Middle Ages, called Rotwelsch.  It borrows from Yiddish and Romany, but it mostly seems to be German in origin.  It’s a language of the road, of tinkers and other itinerants, people who were mistrusted by folk who lived in housen: Gypsies and Jews, hoboes and fugitives.

The secrets of Rotwelsch make for a fascinating history, but there’s another thread, which is the determined effort to stamp it out.  The first part is that it’s regarded as a criminal argot, and the second is that it’s tainted with Jewishness.  You won’t be surprised that the Nazis have a cameo.  The point is that clannishness (and hiding in plain view) is protective coloration.

Here are the links.  (I bought the book.)

https://psyche.co/ideas/how-a-secret-european-language-made-a-rabbit-and-survived

https://www.theneweuropean.co.uk/brexit-news/the-story-of-rotwelsch-6890538

https://news.harvard.edu/gazette/story/2020/12/professor-shares-his-familys-secret-language/

https://crimereads.com/on-rotwelsch-the-central-european-language-of-beggars-travelers-and-thieves/

 

03 March 2021

Digging Shirley Jackson


 


During the last year I have developed the habit of reading humor at bedtime.  I find this better than  perusing the latest volume in The Man Who Chopped Off People's Heads For Brunch series, which  tends to give me nightmares.

I just finished reading a book by Shirley Jackson, who handed out plenty of nightmares with her novels The Haunting of Hill House and We Have Always Lived in the Castle, not to mention her classic story "The Lottery."  (Although, as I always say when bringing up this author, I prefer her "The Possibility of Evil.")

Raising Demons (1957), in spite of its title, is not horror.  It is domestic humor, describing the joys and miseries of taking care of a home and raising kids.  See Jean Kerr, Erma Bombeck, etc.  (Two obvious questions: Are there any books like this written by men?  And are any women still writing them?)

I finished the book but I didn't think it was wonderful. (I have heard that her previous memoir, Life Among The Savages, is better.)  I found the parts about the children cloying, but  there were occasional moments of brilliance.  Take this scene at a party given by some  of the students at the girls college where the husband of the nameless narrator is a professor.  A student addresses her:

"Listen, when you were young - I mean before you kind of settled down and all, when you were -- well, younger, that is - did you ever figure you'd end up like this?"  She waved a hand vaguely at the student living room, my "nice" black dress, and my glass of ginger ale.  "Like this?" she said.

"Certainly," I said.  "My only desire was to be a faculty wife. I used to sit at my casement window, half embroidering, half dreaming, and long for Professor Right."

"I suppose," she said, "that you are better off than you would have been.  Not married at all or anything."

"I was a penniless governess in a big house," I said.  "I was ready to take anything that moved...."

"And he's lucky too, of course.  So many men who marry young silly women find themselves always going to parties and things for their wives' sake.  An older woman--"

"He was only a boy," I said.  "How well I remember his eager, youthful charm; 'Lad," I used to say, fondly touching his wonton curls, 'lad, youth calls to youth, and what you need--"

""He's still terribly boyish, don't you think?"

And so on.  There's a lot going on there, and it all cracks me up.

But the reason I am bringing Ms. Jackson up at all is that at one point in the book her oldest child, a boy of perhaps twelve, starts speaking in slang, and gets fined by his father for doing so.  Here are examples of the slang:

Crazy mixed up daddy

Dig her

Dig me

Real cool

Real gone

Tipped (meaning crazy)

Later in the book the father has to fine himself for using the word "cool."  Slang does slip in, doesn't it?   Although the term never appears in the book I would call those examples of beatnik slang.


This is of particular interest to me because of something I'm working on.  Back in 2012 I won the Black Orchid Novella Award for "The Red Envelope," which was set in 1958 and starred a beat poet named Delgardo.  Alfred Hitchcock Mystery Magazine recently purchased the sequel, "Please Pass The Loot."  I am presently editing the third in the series.

Now, Delgardo is definitely beat.  Don't call him a beatnik.  But the language overlaps.  I have found a fascinating glossary of beatnik slang from the time period, some of it so bizarre that I imagine that either the informant or the compiler was pulling our legs.  Here are some definitions that are "wild" and others that are just "graveyard."

Bread: Money

Far out: Weird, exciting

Gooney Roost: Library

Handcuffs: Parents

Mickey Mouse: Watch

Shades: Sunglasses

Squatchel: Lovemaking

Whistleburg: Corner where many girls pass by

You get the idea.  The question for me is: How much slang can I put in Delgardo's mouth to make him sound authentic without making him sound like an idiot?  Because as our own John Floyd noted: "An overdose of dialect can kill your story deader than Billy Bob Shakespeare."

Mostly I have settled for letting Delgardo end sentences with "man," and the occasional "cool" or "groovy."

Unfortunately, Shirley Jackson is not around to help me.


02 July 2014

Use your words! Or don't...


by Robert Lopresti 


"But I’ve gotta use words when I talk to you."  -T.S. Eliot.

I've been jotting down words and phrases in my notebook lately, mostly uses that are new to me.  I asked a few people for language that has been bumping in their ears, and added them to my list.  Tell me what you think.

It's a thing.  One day I asked my wife "When did thing become a thing?"  Oddly enough she knew exactly what I meant.  The phrase comes up most often as "Is that a thing?" And it has two meanings: Does that exist? and Has that become popular/a trend?  Ben Yagoda was able to find it used on TV in 2001 in an episode of That Seventies Show (not meaning that It dates back to the seventies, of course).  And naturally there is a website that allows you to pontificate on whether something is a thing or not.

Because grammar.  I had a hell of a time finding an article about this, largely because I didn't know what to look for.  Or should I say "Because ignorance?"  The proper term is apparently "propositional because," and it means a blog-friendly language abbreviation, the word "because" followed by a word or short phrase.  It happens because Internet.  And because attention span. 

What I couldn't find is a discussion of the way I see the expression used most often, which is as a snarky dismissal of the arguments of someone you disagree with. 

Of course, some people insist that gay marriage must be forbidden, because religion.

Our opponents feel they must violate our constitutional rights to own guns, because Columbine.


I mentioned this to my son-in-law recently and he told me it was an example of a snowclone.  So...

What the hell is a snowclone?  Glad you asked.  It is a neologism created by Glen Whitman when  Geoffrey Pullam  asked for a term for "a multi-use, customizable, instantly recognizable, time-worn, quoted or misquoted phrase or sentence that can be used in an entirely open array of different jokey variants by lazy journalists and writers."

Let me see if I can make that clearer.  You take a phrase in common usage (especially one that has some pop culture cachet to it) and you substitute a word or two to create a new phrase.  I actually wrote about one here.   Remember Gil Scott-Heron's great song "The Revolution WIll Not Be Televised?"  Well, a quick look at the Internet informed me that:
The revolution will not be blogged
The revolution will not be webcast
The revolution will not be digitized
The revolution will not be effectively distributed
The revolution will not be sexualized
The revolution will not be plagiarized
The revolution will not be satirized
The revolution will not be copyrighted

Many more but you get the idea. 

Curated.  I'm pretty neutral on the ones above, but this one bugs me.  I keep running into stores whose merchandise is "curated."  It has become to furnishings what "artisanal" is to bread.

Whataboutery.  This one, on the other hand, I love.  I saw it once and immediately looked it up on the web.  Apparently it comes from Britain.  The Wiktionary gives it two related  meanings:

  1. Protesting at hypocrisy; responding to criticism by accusing one's opponent of similar or worse faults.
  2. Protesting at inconsistency; refusing to act in one instance unless similar action is taken in other similar instances.
I'll offer a third slight variation:
      3. Protesting self-centeredness; refusing to take a complaint seriously because someone somewhere has it worse.  ("There are children starving in China...")

What follows are a list of things people have been doing to ideas lately. Most of them were reported by my friend and fellow librarian, Marian Alexander.

  • Interrogating
  • Privileging 
  • Unpicking
  • Parsing
  • Honoring

Please tell me what you think of these terms, and the other ones that bug or amuse you.  As for me, I'm done.  Because bed.