Episode 348: December 20, 2012
by David Skinner
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Ever have the feeling that words should come with warning labels? In most dictionaries, they do. In the fifth edition of the American Heritage Dictionary, published in 2011, tummy is labeled “informal” and described as baby talk. It is hard to imagine a native speaker not knowing this already, but there it is, the information you need to avoid telling your boss that you are staying home because you have a boo-boo in your tummy-wummy.
What Is Slang?
Another term dictionaries use to mark off jokey or troublemaking words is “slang.” Merriam-Webster Online says that words labeled slang “are especially appropriate in contexts of extreme informality [and] . . . are composed typically of shortened or altered forms or extravagant or facetious figures of speech.” Merriam-Webster gives the example of barb, the slang abbreviation of barbiturate, but then says that slang can sometimes be very hard to identify.
According to these dictionary-makers, “there is no satisfactory objective test for slang, especially with reference to a word out of context. No word, in fact, is invariably slang, and many standard words can be given slang applications.”
So . . . sometimes slang words are not slang? And sometimes standard words are? Yes, according to Merriam-Webster.
But if you think of slang as a way of describing language that is inappropriate to generally humorless verbal interactions (say an office conversation about the contents of a budget report), it makes sense. Slang, in other words, is NSFW, “not safe for work.”
Take radical, which when it means awesome or excellent (sometimes followed by dude) is labeled slang in Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate dictionary. But radical may also be used “extravagantly” in a context like semiconductor technology to describe a development that is exciting but not quite earth-shattering. Would that be slang or standard? And what about radical in politics, where it is sometimes considered a smear word? Its meaning there is perfectly standard, but is it slang or inappropriate or offensive when used in phrases such as radical right and radical Islam?
The common failing of usage labels is that they tend to be too categorical. The latest edition of the American Heritage Dictionary says high tech is informal, and it’s certainly less formal than high technology, but high tech is so common it would not seem out of place in a White House address. Usage labels have also been sometimes used to mark off words that dictionary editors don’t personally like.
Radical happened to be a word that Philip Gove didn’t like. Gove was the editor of Webster’s Third Unabridged, the so-called permissive dictionary which was published in 1961. He was often accused of being radical, not least because he had adopted a new system of usage labels.
Less “Slang,” More “Nonstandard”
He was of the nonjudgmental school. He minimized the slang label and adopted such clinical terms as substandard and nonstandard to describe what older dictionaries had called vulgar, erroneous, jocular, facetious, incorrect, and so on. All such editorializing Gove thought to be unscholarly and prejudicial. And the last thing he wanted Webster’s Third to be was a record of his personal prejudices. But those older heavyhanded labels could also be quite helpful for suggesting varying levels of acceptability and appropriateness. The older labels expressed judgments that were becoming harder to make as the language became less formal.
The End of “Colloquial”
Gove also reacted to the new informality by dropping the colloquial label, which had long been used in dictionaries to describe language that is more appropriate in speech than in writing. The colloquialism pow, used to imitate the sound of a punch but rarely used in writing (unless you’re writing a comic book), went entirely unlabeled in Webster’s Third. This turn against colloquial, combined with the dictionary’s general refusal to offer firm opinions, upset many people. You might say it drove them nuts, yet another highly informal word that bore no label such as colloquial or informal in Webster’s Third.
Webster’s Third can sometimes be a very helpful dictionary, especially if you’re looking for examples of a given word in action. Crazy, which is cross-referenced under nuts, contains several quotations from such excellent sources as National Geographic and the novelist Shelby Foote, and a load of verbal illustrations to capture numerous senses including “wildly enthusiastic” in “crazy about new cars” and “intensely so” in “crazy mean neighbors.” The latter usage was labeled slang—it was not safe for work, except in jocular sidebar, which still seems about right.
One Bad Press Release
Webster’s Third tended to sound like a scientist on many issues where dictionary users were hoping to find a tough uncle. Its bad reputation was born after a press release announced that the new dictionary said ain’t was “used orally in most parts of the U.S. by cultivated speakers.” The press release left out that the dictionary had also said ain’t was “disapproved by many and more common in less educated speech.” But we can also see here how a label saying colloquial or informal would have come in handy. Ain’t was well-established as a folksy, uncultivated usage, even when used by cultivated people pretending for a moment to be country bumpkins. That Webster’s Third didn’t have a way of saying so clearly was a mark against Gove, who had personally written the definition and usage note.
Usage labels should be taken with a grain of salt. They range from silly and obvious to thoughtful and helpful. Just as important, their absence is never a license to use any word carelessly. Many situations, especially professional ones, call for caution and moderation in our choice of words, though occasionally you may want to let some air in the room with a brief injection of casual speech. Ain’t that so?
This podcast was written by David Skinner, the author of The Story of Ain’t: America, Its Language, and the Most Controversial Dictionary Ever Published, which I bet would make a great last-minute gift for word lovers. (Amazon, Barnes & Noble, IndieBound)