Jewish World Review May 3, 2002 /21 Iyar, 5762

Richard Lederer

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Slang as it is slung | Slang is hot and slang is cool. Slang is nifty and slang is wicked. Slang is the bee's knees, the cat's whiskers and the cat's pajamas. Slang is far out, groovy, and even outta sight. Slang is fresh, fly, and phat. Slang is bodacious, ducky, and fantabulous. Slang is ace, awesome, bad, sweet, smooth, copacetic, the most, the max, and totally tubular.

Those are 25 ways of saying that if variety is the spice of life, slang is the spice of language.

In "Flappers 2 Rappers: American Youth Slang" (Merriam-Webster) master storyteller and slangmeister Tom Dalzell offers an engaging overview of the slang used by teens from the 1890s to the 1990s. Dalzell's joy ride through our American slanguage covers every flip, hip, hop, jive snip of spectacular vernacular ever dropped by hipsters, tipsters, finger-poppin' daddies and guys and dolls — the extraordinary vocabulary of way bad dudes and uptown, downtown, all around the town, showcasing groovers.

Wordaholics everywhere now have a rich new brew to slake their unremitting thirst for language fun. Paul Dickson, author of several shelves of books on all matters linguistic, has teamed with Merriam-Webster. Dickson, author of such popular language titles as "The Dickson Baseball Dictionary," "Slang!" and "What's In a Name?," has become the consulting editor for a new line of Merriam-Webster books that celebrate the whimsical side of language.

You wouldn't think that a bunch of dictionary-making academics would start a series exploring the lighter side of language, but the Merriam-Webster folks in Springfield, Mass., are authentic logolepts and verbivores who love the play of words just as much as the rest of us.

The first fruits of the relationship between Dickson and Merriam-Webster are Dickson's "What's In a Name?" and Tom Dalzell's "Flappers 2 Rappers." Dalzell admits to being a middle-aged, white-bread guy who grew up in the lap of luxury. After graduating from a posh private school on Philadelphia's Main Line and receiving a bachelor's degree from the University of Pennsylvania, he headed west and worked 8 years for Cesar Chavez and the United Farm Workers' movement. He became a hunter-gatherer of slang while researching period slang for a novel he was writing. He put the novel aside as the language research piqued his interest. Ten years later, his slang library of more than 1,000 books and 2,000 articles and his e-mail address, which begins with the name slangman, speak volumes about the degree of his obsession.

The clearest sense of the energy powering "Flappers 2 Rappers" streams from Tom Dalzell's own words at the end of his introduction: "Pick up on this riff you sharp cats and kitties. Heed these syllables you ditty boppers. Drape yourself in shape 'cause here's a hot flash of ecstatic static, ... some real gone jive guaranteed to sharpen your game! Let me lay it on you! Let these words wake you! I mean it and how — Boot it, shoot it hang with this slang and reep these righteous words. Don't vegetate, percolate! Here it be!!!!! Let it roll, let it all roll!!!!!"

Although it is tempting to think that the language spoken by today's teens is a members-only secret tongue, consider that the current faves fly, homey, icy and jell date back at least to the days when FDR lived in the White House. In an e-interview, Dalzall observed, "Despite the sense that slang is inventive and constantly replenished, to a startling degree there is not much new. Slang is governed by the law of natural selection: only the strong survive. At any given moment, there are many slang words and expressions in play, most of which won't be heard in a few months. When a good word or expression gets tired, it is discarded but somehow not forgotten. By a puzzling process, slang gets recycled. After sitting out a generation or more, words come back, sometimes bigger than ever":

  • "boss" was used by students at Cornell in 1877, long before the teen magazines of the 1960s'

  • Frank Norris employed "far out" in 1899, long before the hippies of the 1960s;

  • championed by Tommy Dorsey, "groovy" was a more pervasive word in the 1940s than it was in the 1960s;

  • Stephen Crane used "outta sight" in 1895, long before enthusiastic hippies in the 1960s;

  • Lord Byron and Ben Franklin employed "mellow" more than two centuries before Donovan and "Mellow Yellow";

  • "solid" was used in the 1940s, long before Link on "Mod Squad" helped make it a big word of the 1960s;

  • and as unreal as it seems, "unreal" was used by the Flappers of the 1920s, long before the 1960s;

The same can be said for many of the most popular hip-hop words:

  • "fly" seems so modern, but we can find the word in Charles Dickens' Bleak House in 1855 and Cab Calloway in the 1940s singing, "Are you fly? Are you fly?";

  • "homie" is such a quintessential rap word, but there it was in the 1940s;

  • "dead presidents" was used in the 1940s for money;

  • Connie Eble has been tracking slang at the University of North Carolina since 1972. The single most-reported word that she has found is "sweet" (meaning "very good"), which was a big praise word of the 1930s.

Dalzell believes that slang is a key to the soul of people — that through slang we can hear America singing. "Each generation of young people since the Flapper has invented itself, shocking its parents with its defiance of convention with the clothing they wear, music they listen to, and slang they use. While slang may not be as original as its speakers believe, it is nonetheless a vibrant manifestation of youthful creativity."

JWR contributor Richard Lederer is a language maven. More than a million of his books, which have been Book-of-the-Month Club and Literary Guild alternate selections, are in print. He is the host of "A Way With Words," on KPBS, San Diego Public Radio, and a regular guest on weekend "All Things Considered." He was awarded the Golden Gavel for 2002 by Toastmasters International. Comment by clicking here.


04/25/02: Abstemious words
04/19/02: This Riddle Isn't Letter-Perfect

© 2002, Richard Lederer