‘Are you leaving your curlers in, Dot, till it starts?’ Eithne Duggan asked her friend.
‘Oh def.,’ Doris O’Beirne said. She wore an assortment of curlers — white pipe-cleaners, metal clips, and pink, plastic rollers. Eithne had just taken hers out and her hair, dyed blonde, stood out, all frizzed and alarming. She reminded Mary of a moulting hen about to attempt flight.
This passage appears in Edna O’Brien’s Irish Revel, from her short story collection The Love Object (1968). I like her list of curlers and the unsparing description of Eithne’s hair, but I’m quoting it here because it contains a curious abbreviation — def. for definitely — that I don’t remember seeing in written dialogue before.
Nowadays, definitely is often abbreviated as defo by teens and 20-/30-somethings. My younger sister has introduced me to several novel clippings she and her peers use, and which are an ongoing source of familial amusement and interest. Some of what follows I owe to her; others I came across elsewhere. Some are old, some new.
Besides defo there is hilar (hilarious), wev(s) (whatever), obvs and obvo (obviously), morto (mortifying), fabbo (fabulous), abso (absolutely), natch (naturally), /kaʒ/ (casual), dodge (dodgy), and tradge (tragic) — which through semantic inflation can be used to refer to pretty much anything mildly regrettable. The exaggeration is often deliberate, and lends the utterance an ironic or tongue-in-cheek quality.
A ledge (legend) is someone worthy of praise or appreciation. Legend has become flattened much as awesome and epic have, by repeated association with people and things and events that are not, in the traditional sense, legendary, awesome or epic. This is totes (also tots: totally) natural.
Ledge sometimes takes the -bag suffix — or perhaps it’s what Arnold Zwicky calls a libfix — to become ledgebag, a popular Irish English slang term that means the same as legend. Indeed, with coinages such as ridebag and hoebag following the pejorative dirtbag, scumbag, slimebag and douchebag, -bag might be worth a post of its own.
(Twitter’s a good place to search for words like this and see how they’re being used.)
The recurring -s and -o endings are common in slang and nicknames, acting as markers of informality. Others I heard or saw recently include awks (awkward), rubbs (rubbish), blates (blatantly), and adorbs (adorable). My brother said he saw tots unbo on Facebook, meaning totally unbelievable.
Some of you may be nodding your heads in sombre agreement.
I imagine the particular form these words take reflects the influence of instant and text messaging and other forms of electronic discourse that motivate speed and concision. They’re not the kind of words you’d use in a formal job application, but they are fast and efficient, and language loves a shortcut.
They also identify their users as members of a tribe, serving as implicit signals that one is a student, a young person (or young at heart), or someone who doesn’t take themself too seriously.
Young people get a lot of flak for their language. To older generations and traditionalists it can seem lazy, vulgar, or degraded; they may be disturbed and alienated by it. But youth is a time for rebellion from, and reinvention of, the world being inherited, and this is as true of linguistic expression as it is of any other behavioural domain.
Slang, as Eric Partridge wrote, is the quintessence of colloquial speech, “determined by convenience and fancy”. It lets people experiment with language at their ease and pleasure, playing with it as they would play with paint or putty, sharing new shapes as though it were Lego. You don’t have to be a creative writer to be creative with language.
What do you think: are these clippings tradge, cutesy, faddish and ridic, totes adorbs, or obvo delish and amaze? (Yes: amaze is being used as an adjective now; don’t get me started on amazeballs.) Do you use any of them? Where have you heard or seen them, and which ones have I missed?
I’ve been reminded of a few on Twitter, such as cajj /kaʒ/ (casual), ridic (ridiculous) and delish (delicious), and have edited them into the post. More may follow. A particularly inventive one comes from Sue Walder, whose daughter has turned CBA (= “can’t be arsed”) into ceebs. Sue says it’s catching on in her house.
A few more: @SamHawkins mentions jel for jealous; Andrew Innes reports awes for awesome; and an unnamed party says she saw ROFLSHVUAKOMAIL (Rolling On Floor Laughing So Hard Voldemort Uses Avada Kedavra On Me And I Live), which isn’t like the others, but (a) the comments touch on ROFL and co., and (b) it amused/scared me.
Lane Greene at Johnson follows up with “Slang: The abbrevs are my plezh“. He adds a few more to the collection and addresses something I’ve wondered about before: that some of these words cluster around certain sounds, such as the dʒ (“dzh”) in ledge, dodge, and tradge. Be sure to read his post to find out what he makes of it all.
Nancy Friedman, via email, reminds me about ridonk: a shortening of ridonkulous, from ridiculous; while Kevin Sullivan offers gorge for gorgeous, though unlike me he finds it “[h]ard to get past negative connotations of the word ‘to gorge'”.
Andrew Sullivan joins in the discussion at his Daily Beast blog The Dish, quoting Lane Greene and me on these “totes cray-cray abbrevs” and then sharing readers’ comments, including one that mentions claymaish for claymation, quoted in the TV show Parks and Recreation.
Coudal Partners have also picked up on this: Abrevs are like totes adorbs.
Lane Greene muses further on the phonetic aspects of these slang abbreviations, proposing that young people have “noticed that letters like ‘t’ and ‘s’ undergo weird sound changes when followed by certain sounds”, and that “[c]utting those words off at those mutated sounds is fun.”
I love this one. Nancy Friedman, in a post at Fritinancy on the word uppertendom, reports that “‘sucesh’ was a popular abbreviation for ‘secessionist’ before the [US] Civil War”. Apparently, sesesh and secesh were also used. Nancy has also written about Nutrish, a brand of dog food that’s “right in step with the vogue for truncations”.
The Dogmic blog adds a few more, from the writer’s brother: mensh for mention, exclo for exclamation mark, susplain (“not even an abbreviation of explain, just a bastardization”), and several Chicago street names.
Lauren Beukes’s cyberpunk novel Moxyland has arb for arbitrary: “You’d be amazed at what compelling viewing even the most arb of daily interactions can make…”
I’ve been seeing unforch used as an abbreviation for unfortunately. You can search Twitter for examples.
On Twitter, Carol Braun says her students in NYC “had a fad for saying ‘hundo’, short for ‘hundred’ and used to express some kind of approval”; while Rollo Romig has brought to my attention this exchange in The Lost Weekend (1945):
“Don’t be ridic.”
“Gloria, please, why imperil our friendship with these loathsome abbreviations?”