The Daily

Posts Tagged ‘slang’

Practice Safe Selfies, and Other News

July 9, 2015 | by


John William Waterhouse, Echo and Narcissus, 1903.

  • Admire the tenacity of lit mags yet question their utility? The poet Stephen Burt argues that a new journal simply needs a raison d’être: it should seek to fill a “gap that earlier journals failed to fill, a new form of pleasure, a new kind of writing, an alliance with a new or under-chronicled social movement, a constellation of authors for whom the future demand for work exceeds present supply, a program that will actually change some small part of some literary readers’ tastes.”
  • What can the Greek tragedies tell us about the current Mediterranean refugee crises? Aeschylus’s 470 B.C. play, The Suppliants, concerns the fifty daughters of the Egyptian king Danaus, who flee Africa and seek asylum in Greece. Fitting then that a new production of the play is being reimagined in modern-day Sicily, where “African refugees beg at traffic lights,” and is being staged in the ancient Greek theater of Syracuse, in Sicily.
  • What can the inmates at a Missouri prison tell us about the evolution of language? In compiling a lexicon of facility-specific slang, they found that a viking is a “prisoner with poor hygiene,” a kite is “an informal message sent by a prisoner,” and a pumpkin is, you guessed it, “a term used for new arrivals” (but not for the reason you might expect). After all, “a dictionary is not a book of rules but a description of language as it is used in real life at a particular moment in time,” says English professor Paul Lynch, who volunteers at the prison.
  • Jerry Seinfeld thinks that political correctness is killing comedy; he doesn’t perform at college campuses because “they’re so PC.” it wasn’t always that way: American college humor is historically steeped in offensiveness. Take National Lampoon, an offshoot of the The Harvard Lampoon and precursor to Saturday Night Live, for example, where “getting a rise out of people was precisely the goal, and the magazine was steadfast in its dedication to what it saw as a decidedly non-partisan approach to humor.” 
  • This week in the perils of the modern age: the Russian government released a public-awareness campaign highlighting the dangers of taking a selfie. With a little help from Google Translate, we learn that “when a person is trying to take a picture of himself—he scattered attention, he lost his balance, he does not look around and did not feel in danger.” Have fun this summer. Practice safe selfies.


She Taught the Boys Anatomy

May 27, 2015 | by

college widow

From the poster for The College Widow, 1927.

In her essay “Yellowstone Park,” collected in Memories of a Catholic Girlhood, Mary McCarthy describes a friend:

In school she had the name of being fast, which was based partly on her clothes and partly on the direct stare of her reddish-brown eyes, very wide open and rounded by the thick lenses of her glasses so that the whites had the look of boiled eggs. She made me think of a college widow.

Now, there’s a term you don’t hear anymore! The “college widow”! Once a byword for a predatory vamp, the college widow is an extinct American species. Read More »

Most Novelists Are Bitter Failures, and Other News

April 8, 2015 | by


George Gissing, ca. 1890s.

  • When Richard Dawkins conceived of memes, he imagined them as units of culture, transmitted like viruses to contribute to our social evolution. But Internet memes have distorted the meaning of the term, arguably to uselessness. “Trawling the Internet, I found a strange paradox: While memes were everywhere, serious meme theory was almost nowhere. Richard Dawkins … seemed bent on disowning the Internet variety, calling it a ‘hijacking’ of the original term.”
  • George Gissing’s New Grub Street (1891) is good for a whole host of reasons, but it’s “a particularly potent corrective to the current cottage industry centering on ‘the writing life’—in which literary production is seen as glamorous, in which photos of writers’ desks appear on Pinterest and readers obsess over the perfect pen with which to write their buried masterpiece. The lesson of Gissing is that most novelists are bitter failures—always were, and always will be.”
  • Curmudgeonly grandparents around the world would have you believe that textspeak is a travesty, a crime against language. But it has, in so many ways, expanded and streamlined our methods of communicating: our tonal varietyyyyy, our semiotics (!!!), our ability to corretc (*correct) ourselves …
  • The postal service’s new Maya Angelou stamp contains many perfectly nice words—“A bird doesn’t sing because it has an answer, it sings because it has a song”—but they weren’t written by Maya Angelou. “A Postal Service spokesman told the newspaper that the line, which has been widely attributed to Angelou by people including President Obama, was approved for use on the stamp by Angelou’s family.”
  • The insidious logic of the trailer has made its way from movies to music and books—now there are trailers for college courses, too. “A branding tactic once reserved for the marketplace has entered the marketplace of ideas.”

Angry Birds

December 2, 2014 | by


From The Proceedings of the Zoological Society of London, 1893.

Here’s a scene from Barbara Pym’s 1952 novel Excellent Women, in which the protagonist, Mildred Lathbury, meets Everard Bone’s eccentric mother.

I thought I had better revive the conversation which had lapsed, so I commented on the animals’ heads in the hall, saying what fine specimens they were.

“My husband shot them in India and Africa,” said Mrs. Bone, “but however many you shoot there still seem to be more.”

“Oh, yes, it would be a terrible thing if they became extinct,” I said. “I suppose they keep the rarer animals in game reserves now.”

“It’s not the animals so much as the birds,” said Mrs. Bone fiercely. “You will hardly believe this, but I was sitting in the window this afternoon and as it was a fine day I had it open at the bottom, when I felt something drop into my lap. And do you know what it was?” She turned and peered at me intently.

I said that I had no idea.

“Unpleasantness,” she said, almost triumphantly. Then lowering her voice she explained, “From a bird, you see. It had done something when I was actually sitting in my own drawing room.”

“How annoying,” I said, feeling mesmerized and unable even to laugh. 

I draw this to your attention because unpleasantness is a term that is sadly underused. I think of it often, usually in the context of that disgusting, grinning coil-of-feces emoji. (I will not dignify it by using its infantile moniker, as I was discouraged from babyish scatological terminology at an early age and cannot break the habit.) I mean, I don’t sit around being furious, or think about it at unrelated times, but people text with that thing all the time. Indeed, in a recent feature in a fashion magazine, I saw no fewer than two celebrities list this as their favorite, and most frequently used, emoji. (Even I will grudgingly concede that it is versatile, in its inscrutable, repulsive way.) 

To me, this is the unpleasantness emoji. This also applies to its animated iteration, which features circling flies. I know its history is an interesting window into tech development (read about it here, if you don’t find the juxtaposition with oral too off-putting) and I’m sure there are far more damning indications of the coarsening fiber of modern society. But it is a small, bad thing. And if I’m being completely honest, I’ve never really understood what it means.

A Parish for Slang Bedouins, and Other News

November 4, 2014 | by

John Frederick Lewis, A Bedouin, ca. 1841.

  • Edgar Allan Poe filed for bankruptcy in 1842. Here’s a long list of his debts, with creditors listed in Philadelphia, Richmond, and New York, and orderly columns of numbers that grow large enough to give you a sympathetic panic attack.
  • “If ambitious writers work at the boundaries of the written language (as they should), then they ought do it from a path of mastery, not ignorance; broken rules carry no power if writers and readers don’t notice the transgressions. Proper usage shows us where the earth is, so that, when the time comes, we know what it means to fly.”
  • Not unrelatedly: “Dickens published an essay on slang, probably by George Augustus Sala. The 1853 article expressed the view that either slang should be ‘banished, prohibited’ or that there should be a New Dictionary that would ‘give a local habitation and a name to all the little by-blows of language skulking and rambling about our speech, like the ragged little Bedouins about our shameless streets, and give them a settlement and a parish.’ ”
  • In which Ann Patchett reminds readers of the New York Times that she’s not married to her dog.
  • “I found it odd that there had never been a scientist as a Man Booker judge. There have been many non-literary types amongst the judges: a former spy, a former dancer, a Downton Abbey actor—but science, apparently, was a step too far. Until this year, when I joined the judging panel.”


The Unknown Ajax

June 5, 2014 | by


Georgette Heyer

Like most families, mine makes frequent use of shorthand. In the case of me and my mother, much of the talk derives from the work of Georgette Heyer, the prolific author who created the genre of Regency Romance in the first half of the twentieth century. As my mother had, I read all of the books in my early teens, and even today, our exchanges are liberally peppered with the idiosyncratic language of Heyer’s novels—or, as she might put it, “Regency cant.”

Something popular is “all the crack.” Exaggeration becomes “doing it much too brown.” A young relative fresh from the sticks “needs a little town bronze.” A snob is “high in the instep.” And our favorite, of course, is “impervious to the most brutal snubs,” a phrase which one finds applicable with dismaying frequency.

Heyer was a famously scrupulous researcher with a vast archive of materials and detailed notes on all aspects of the eras she portrayed. (In addition to the Regency, Heyer set books in the Georgian and Medieval periods; she also wrote modern mysteries.) Her files contained subject headings like “Beauty, Colours, Dress, Hats, Household, Prices, and Shops.”

While devotees will argue passionately for their favorite Heyers (mine, not that you asked, are Cotillion, Devil’s Cub, and, of course, The Grand Sophy—I don’t like the May-December jaded-rakes ones) it can’t be denied that there are certain recurring tropes in her work. One biographer defined these as the “saturnine male lead, the marriage in danger, the extravagant wife, and the group of idle, entertaining young men.” To this I would add a mad chase at the book’s end, which oftentimes brings together disparate characters at a remote and random inn. But all are characterized by their real wit, fully realized characters, and utterly satisfying conclusions. (Okay, A Civil Contract, not so much.) Read More »