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.
Antonia White’s coming-of-age novel Frost in May, published in 1933, became Virago Press’s first Modern Classic in 1978, which is the edition I recently read. It tells the story of Fernanda (‘Nanda’) as she progresses through the Convent of the Five Wounds, coming to terms with its norms and her evolving relationship with religion.
Frost in May is apparently based on White’s own experiences in Catholic boarding school. Tessa Hadley describes it in the Guardian as ‘exquisitely poised between a condemnation of the school and a love letter to it’. The convent applies a severe form of discipline, which now and then encompasses language use:
Nanda dropped her lily with awe. It stood, she knew, for some mysterious possession . . . her Purity. What Purity was she was still uncertain, being too shy to ask, but she realised it was something very important. St. Aloysius Gonzaga had fainted when he heard an impure word. What could the word have been? Perhaps it was “___,” a word so dreadful that she only whispered it in her very worst, most defiant moments. She blushed and passionately begged Our Lady’s pardon for even having thought of such a word in her presence.
In the book, the unspeakable word appears within the quotation marks. I’ve removed it to see if you can guess what it is. The answer appears further down. I’ll give you a clue: it begins with ‘b’, and it’s not a slur or swear word.
Brian Moore, last seen on this blog Irishly having tea, uses a couple of interesting dialect words in his 1958 novel The Feast of Lupercal. One of them, codding, is in my idiolect in various forms, including codology; the other, stravaging, I’ve seldom seen and had to look up.
An old sexton, dusting the church in the evening, is obliged to let in two people preparing for a play:
… some people had no consideration, stopping a man in the middle of his work. Every afternoon for the past week they had come stravaging up for their rehearsals, the pair of them. Once, they even came back at night.
Brooding on the interruption, the sexton is annoyed that the church hall is regularly opened for plays, lectures, card games, and ‘all kinds of codology’. Later he wonders, ‘Are they codding me, or what?’ Then two other characters have this exchange:
‘So help me God it was the first time I ever tried.’
‘That’s the best yet. Who do you think you’re codding, Devine?’
‘I’m not codding!’
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.)