How slang catches on, survives, and fades:
The schwa is never stressed? Ridiculous, says Geoff Lindsey:
In a recent conversation, I heard the word awkness in reference to a socially awkward situation. I hadn’t heard it before, but its meaning was obvious in context. After all, its cousin awks ‘awkward’ has been around a while; I’ve even used it myself.
When I looked into awkness, I had a surprise. It sounds, as I said on Twitter, like a millennial coinage – and it is, more or less. But not originally: the OED dates awkness to the late 16th century, defining it thesaurusily as ‘wrongness, irrationality, perversity, untowardness, awkwardness, ineptitude’.
The first citation is from a 1587 religious book by Philippe de Mornay (tr. Philip Sidney & Arthur Golding): ‘The skilfull can work much upon little, and by his cunning ouercome the awknesse of his stuffe.’ The citations continue till 1674, with the word also spelled awknesse, awknes, and aukness.
And then: obsolescence.
Well, not exactly.
Culchie is a word used in Irish English to mean someone from the Irish countryside (or a small town or village), especially from the point of view of a Dubliner. Though originally pejorative, culchie has been partly reclaimed and is now often used neutrally, warmly, or as a tribal badge by those who live or come from beyond the Pale (i.e., Dublin and its urban environs).
While the word’s meaning is clear enough, its origin is uncertain and much speculated upon, as we’ll see. First, I’ll look at its use in Irish culture and literature. Its phonetic similarity to culture, incidentally, informed the aptly named (and now defunct) pop culture website Culch.ie, where I used to write about cult films – the URL trades nicely on Ireland’s internet top-level domain .ie.
The equivalent of a culchie elsewhere might be a bumpkin, a peasant, or a yokel. In Ireland the synonyms are likewise derogatory: bogger (bogman, bogwoman), mucker, the gloriously suggestive muck savage. So too is the antonym jackeen, referring to a certain type of Dubliner.
Brewer’s Dictionary of Irish Phrase and Fable notes that while culchie was initially an insult indicating rusticity, it now tends to be used in jest or affection, a change owing to Ireland’s modernisation, specifically ‘the rise in the standard of living and in educational standards in Ireland from the 1960s onwards’.
Slang, the language of the streets, the tavern, the underground, the counterculture, the gutter, has traditionally been seen as a male preserve. Women feature in it, of course – but chiefly, unflatteringly, as objects. Slang, as Jonathon Green writes in Language!, is ‘a gendered vocabulary that while it does not exclude woman, is keen to keep them in their place: the nagging wife, the sexy ingénue, the whore, the hag’.
So what of women not as objects in slang but as its creators and users? Far less has been written on this front. ‘Women’s use of slang is drastically under-reported,’ writes Green in his new book, Sounds & Furies: The Love–Hate Relationship between Women and Slang. As the world’s foremost slang lexicographer, he would know, and he has scoured the available records to describe the extent and nature of that relationship.
Those records go back centuries and surge in the digital era. Sounds & Furies is a rich social history told through a lexicological lens, from Chaucer to Mumsnet via Flappers and Valley Girls. There are ample, lengthy quotations and edifying commentary. The former can be grim on occasion and not for sensitive readers: slang’s treatment of social minorities, Green observes, is ‘depressingly conservative’; of women in particular it is ‘viciously misogynistic’.
The book’s focus, happily, is on women and slang, not in slang. Its sources are diverse: novels, newspapers, poems, plays, songs, ballads, court reports, vaudeville, memoirs, biographies, detective stories – crime being one of slang’s most fertile arenas – and of course the internet. In each case the slang is identified, contextualized, and analyzed. These often boisterous excerpts will delight fans of ‘low’ varieties of English.
Sometimes the universe hints strongly at what I should write about. Recently I read two books in close succession that featured the same curious slang word, used in different ways and worth a quick study. For one thing, it’s not just a word but a number: 86.
First there was Merritt Tierce’s fierce first novel Love Me Back. Its narrator, who works in a restaurant, says:
Later that day I am in the wine cellar updating the eighty-sixed list when the Bishop’s handler comes by.
Then I read Alison Bechdel’s brilliant comic memoir Fun Home, which shows another usage of 86 and a speculative origin story – but is it true? (Click images to embiggen.)
Like has undergone radical developments in modern English. It can function as a hedge (‘I’ll be there in like an hour’), a discourse particle (‘This like serves a pragmatic function’), and a sentence adverb (‘It’s common in Ireland, like’). These and other non-standard usages are frequently criticised, but they’re probably older than critics think.
More recent is the so-called quotative like (‘I’m like, Whoa!’), also often disparaged. This became widely established impressively fast and is leading to some remarkable usages in younger generations: children saying things like ‘What’s Ernie like?’ to mean ‘What’s Ernie saying?’
So some uses of like are emerging right now, spreading through younger speech communities. In episode 278 of Australia’s Talk the Talk podcast, guest Alexandra D’Arcy – a linguistics professor who literally wrote the book on like – says that while she might say ‘at like the same time’, her son can say ‘at the like same time’, which is not in her grammar at all. It’s a subtle but striking difference.
It gets better. The latest novel use to which like is being put is as an infix. Infixes are a pretty small set in English, so a new one is a genuine surprise, linguistically. In some ways it is unlikeprecedented.
On a recent mini-binge of James M. Cain novels, I finished a 5-in-1 set from Picador: two I’d read years ago – The Postman Always Rings Twice, Double Indemnity – and three others I soon raced through: Serenade, Mildred Pierce, and The Butterfly.
Cain, in a preface to The Butterfly, reacts to some criticisms of his work, such as that he took his style from Hammett (‘I have read less than twenty pages of Mr Dashiell Hammett in my whole life’).* A blurb from the NYRB hints at his formidable legacy: ‘It is no accident that movies based on three of them helped to define the genre known as film noir: or that Camus used Postman as his model for L’Étranger.’
But the purpose of this post is to examine the vivid verb used, and mentioned, in the title. About midway through The Butterfly, a character’s unexpected appearance prompts the following exchange: