Here is a short passage from Stuart Chase’s excellent 1938 book The Tyranny of Words, a layman’s introduction to semantics:
William of Occam (1300 A.D.) challenged the “absolutes” of the medieval philosophers. In a tactful way he razzed¹ the Schoolmen, holding that “absolutes” and “universals” were mental conveniences, and that God could not be proved by words. . . .
¹ A good example of a slang word created to fill a linguistic void.
Razz (v) is slang for heckle, tease, deride, criticise. It derives from razzberry, itself an informal variant of raspberry (the kind you blow, not eat). I have never used razz in this sense, and I have rarely if ever heard it spoken. So when I read Chase’s book, the word was immediately conspicuous, and not just because it directed my gaze to a footnote. In a pre-WWII book about the meanings of words, the self-conscious use of a (mostly North American?) slang word was bound to stand out. This is especially so since the use of that word remains quite limited, at least from this amateur linguist’s position at the elbow of Europe some decades later.
Chase’s decision to include it made me wonder about (though not doubt) the linguistic void razz was purported to fill. Voltaire’s description of the superfluous as “a very necessary thing” seems apt to slang; Chase’s razzed could be replaced with ribbed or ragged without losing substantial sense, but each term delivers unique nuances and subtleties. Needle and badger inhabit similar semantic spaces, but they are less colloquial and seem to connote a harshness missing from razz’s playful heckling.
No doubt Chase chose the term carefully, but its relative obscurity shows a shortcoming of putting slang to work beyond its natural terrain: readers (or listeners) may have to pause to parse the phrase or even delve into a dictionary.
The title of this blog post, by the way, is a play on this phrase.