Dr. Goodword’s Language Blog

Archive for the 'Slang' Category

Silly Words in English

Friday, November 19th, 2010

This is just a note to alert blog readers that over the week of November 13-18 I will be featuring silly English words, most of which were just too silly to be included in The 100 Funniest Words in English. The five I chose are:

Let us know on the contact page at if I missed your favorite. If we like it, too, we’ll see if we can see if it has a good story and run it in the series.

Scrooch Down and Scooch Over

Monday, August 31st, 2009

I expected the feedback on the distinction I recently made between scrooch and scooch to be rougher than it actually was. The most interesting comment came from Lenn Zonder and runs thus:

“I don’t remember ever hearing the word scrooch, and I am now sixty-nine years old. And maybe it is also important to point out I was a newspaper reporter most of my life, talking to and interviewing a great many people, many of them first or second generation immigrants, who spoke slang and colloquialism, and never the King’s English.”

“However, I do recall hearing and using the word scootch many times as a schoolboy. Apparently, without knowing or realizing it, we used scootch to mean both, “scootch over,” or to “scootch down,” as to hide. But the use of the word, at least in the greater New Haven, CT area, seems to have died out. I cannot recall hearing the word or phrase in the past 30-40 years. Maybe it’s an effect of living in a community of learned, Ivy League scholars.”

Well, scooch and scrooch are words  slangy enough that learned scholars would tend to eschew them, certainly not master with any sense of pride. The reason I ran them as Good Words is that they are fading in many dialects and are frequently confused in others. As connoisseurs and scholars of American slang (click here for evidence), I wanted to make sure that when our readers are slinging slang the slang they sling is true.

Both scrooch and scooch have been around for hundreds of years and I’m sure every generation confuses, conflates, or mispronounces them given nothing more than that tiny curl of the tongue (R) that separates them. They are separate words, though, with separate origins and distinct meanings.

I wouldn’t be surprised if they shortly meld together but down South, where I come from, I heard them both fifty years ago and still retain a pretty good sense of the distinction. Southern dialects are much more conservative in terms of developing and changing. Moreover, I still hear scooch emerge from the lips of very well-educated people here in Pennsylvania from time to time.

Whitehouse Slang

Friday, March 20th, 2009

No my Australian friends, this note is not about slang in the Australian outback. It is about some of the slang words introduced to and promoted by the US media by the Bush administration, slang which we still hear and probably will continue hearing for a few more years.

I’m not talking about the Bushisms like, “Families is where our nation finds hope, where wings take dream.” I’m talking about what, with remarkable clarity, falls under the rubric of “slang”. Why do I think so?

WhitehouseAccording to my essay, “What is Slang,” “Slang is a code in which one vaguely related or unrelated word or phrase is substituted for a more common one.” It is a set of words that identifies the speaker with a particular social or occupational group, especially a group of youths, but members of a puerile administration fit the pattern just as well.

I suspect whoever dreamed up these terms thought that they were clever marketing terms that would becloud if not completely hide their real meanings. But they really don’t work as long-term additions to the English vocabulary.

The most persistent one as of today is rendition, a slang term for the outsourcing of torture. Of course, the US has never done this before Vice President Cheney decided it the proper course to take. But it is a cover word, as much a euphemism as slang.

Rendition, of course, is the playing of a musical piece in a specific style. It is a noun based on render, though it is seldom as ever used this way. You can render aid, render fat (which may have happened in our off-shore torture chambers), render an opinion, but I’m don’t recall seeing rendition used in any of these senses. Certainly, it doesn’t mean “outsource torture”.

So, rendition, which I only figured out last week it is so opaque, joins the misuse of surge for “reinforcements” and embed for “exclude all but friendly news reporters” in the attempts at slang of the past administration. As I have mentioned before, the most remarkable aspect of this bizarre linguistic episode of the past eight years is the US networks willing complicity in promoting this misuse of English.


La-di-da: Putting on the Dog

Monday, September 3rd, 2007

Hanne Quillevere, a Good Word subscriber living in Canada, was reminded by today’s Good Word, la-di-da,of a funny phrase now slipping out use. She wrote:

“If you are up to dealing with a phrase, rather than a single word, how would you trace the meaning of the phrase, “putting on the dog”? I have now looked through four reference works on idioms, slang and quotations, and while “dog” appears many times, “putting on the dog” does not. I have always thought it meant something along the lines of today’s la-di-da.”

The Oxford English Dictionary reports the phrase “put on dog”, e.g. in A. Gilbert’s No Dust in Attic (1962) xiv. 190: “Matron put on a lot of dog about the hospital’s responsibility”. Here the phrase uses “dog” as a mass (uncountable) noun. The phrase generally means “to splurge, to make a flashy display” or, as one of the OED citations puts it: “cut the swell”. I have always heard it as “putting on THE dog”, too, but I heard it only when living in the South.

This phrase means to do something up in a showy fashion, a synonym of that lovely British phrase, “(dress up like) the dog’s dinner”. (These phrases must have arisen during a stretch when all British dogs were show dogs.) It isn’t the same as “la-di-da” but both these phrases refer to situations that might well elicit a “la-di-da” or two.

More Phish Phat on the Phire

Friday, November 17th, 2006

Cody Brimhal takes exception to my aspersive attitude toward phish and my comment that they are lacking in use or creativity. Cody argues: “The spelling changes in question apply to words with meanings distinct from (albeit derivative of) their common English counterparts. Insofar as they serve to create–rather than confuse–distinctions in meaning, how is this bad?”

The reason that these words stand out is that they violate the rules of English spelling and I am strong advocate of following the rules. I spent the majority of my life searching for those rules and writing them up when I discovered new ones. The rule in English is that F means [f] and we find PH standing for that sound only in words we borrow from Latin and Greek.

I’m not even a prescriptivist who thinks that grammatical rules are hard and fast. I love language change—etymology is based on the conclusion that historical language change is also rule-driven. I think we owe it to each other to be consistent in our creative use of language, so that we don’t lose each other in our conversations. The English spelling system is the worst of the Western European languages (click here if you don’t believe it), misspelling fat and fish makes it even worse.

I love slang. I spent half this year starting my own slang dictionary that allows you to trace slang historically, not to mention my Slang Generation Test that gives you a good idea of where your slang comes from. However, when we encode words in slang (swell, far-out, flaky, awesome) the rule seems to be: don’t mess with the spelling unless you’re making up a new word: dweeb, geezer, hissy, kooky. Just check our daily Good Word to see how much I love writing about these words.

I shudder to think that I may have Bonnie Prince Charles on my side in my effort to keep English honest. He was recently quoted as saying that Americans “. . . invent all sorts of new nouns and verbs and make words that shouldn’t be . . . . We must act now to ensure that English, and that to my way of thinking means British English, maintains its position as the world language.”

Well, to my mind it has nothing to do with right and wrong or the position of English in the world. My issue with these words is their inconsistency and distance by which they miss wittiness.

Major New alphaDictionary Feature Coming Up

Wednesday, August 9th, 2006

From flappers to rappersWe are beta-testing a major new feature of the alphaDictionary website which you might enjoy helping with. We have now developed a test (we are tentatively calling it a “Checkup”) for the generation which your speech—specifically your slang—identifies you with. In other words, you tell our magic machine which slang terms you used in high school or college, and it will tell you when you attended those schools. (Don’t laugh; at my age things like that slip your mind fairly easily.)

Like our Rebel-Yankee Test, our aim is to acquaint our visitors with a fascinating element of language, this time, slang. We start with a short exegesis on the nature of slang, then procede to our usual 20 questions. This time, though, the questions are about the slang expression used in your high school and college years. When this information is gathered, our “Generational Slang Engine” will pin-point (where “pin” refers to a rolling pin) the decade of your high school-college years.

I personally think that once we get sufficient feedback, we will be able to do more than pinpoint the decade. I think we can eventually make a pretty good stab at the age of the person undergoing the checkup. However, for the time being, our goals are modest.

If you think you might be interested in serving as a guinea pig in this endeavor, click here to go to the check up page. Remember, at present this is a top secret project, so keep it to yourself except for your feedback here. Just feed me your response as comments to this page. That way no one will know but the three (my estimate of how many read this blog) of us.