There are few things sadder — or more amusing — than old slang. I've been dining out on one favorite example for years.
It was during a cocktail reception I was throwing as the then-resident CBS correspondent in Moscow in the mid '80s. Yevgheni (not his real name) was an official in the old Soviet Foreign Ministry and had arrived to help welcome a visiting American corporate executive. He was very proud of his English and after suitable small talk in the reception line he spied the bar across the room, rubbed his hands together and said, "So, shall ve vet our vistles?"
Yevgheni had clearly learned his English from old Westerns and his use of antiquated cowboy idiom stopped just short of "howdy pardner." As this encounter was taking place during the period of Gorbachevian Perestroika and the coincidental warming of US-Soviet relations, we all gave Yevgheni the benefit of the doubt and "mozied" on over to the drinks.
I was reminded of that exchange this week when a book the size of a cement block thumped onto my desk. It was the new "Cassell's Dictionary of Slang," which bills itself as the definitive dictionary "spanning English slang from the 18th century to contemporary US urban black and covering the English-speaking world from London to the Bronx and from Australia to South Africa."
It seems like a reach, but the point is the slang from all these places is getting more and more similar. It's linguistic globalization. "In the '60s slang took 30 years to cross the Atlantic," the author, Jonathan Green, says. "Now, with the Internet, it's 30 minutes." It may be 30 seconds.
I have no idea how long it took for "Blinglish" to cross the ocean, but when it comes to describing flash jewellery on London's public housing estates, that's what's spoken.
Similarly in British pubs, you can now use a trans-Atlantic variation on Cockney rhyming slang to place your order. "Two pints of Britney, please." (Britney Spears — beers.) And if your friend is American, one of those pints can be for the "septic" (septic tank — yank).
By far the most fertile growing fields of current slang are the inner-cities of America and Afro-Caribbean communities in the U.K. Whether it's from the Web or through rap and hip-hop, I'm continually baffled by expressions my teen age son and his white, middle class, west London, school friends use. They inevitably find their origins in black English on one side of the pond or other.
A lot of people at the party were "lean" he will say, referring not to their weight but to how "stoned" (an unforgivably unfashionable word I'd use) they were. Of course, now that I know about "lean" (never mind what goes on at those parties) they won't use it any more.
Slang, for all its geographic universality, is exclusive code. The idea is to exclude parents, teachers and police. (Didn't that used to work the other way around where parents would speak Italian, German, Yiddish, whatever so the kids wouldn't understand?) As soon as we tune in, they change it.
Try this on your spouse/partner sometime: "Don't go bitchcakes! Chillax, yatty. I'm sittin' on chrome. Let's go have a Britney." (There it is again). "Wix!" (Desist from your aggressive behaviour. Relax, beloved girl/boy friend. I've got an impressive car with nice alloy wheels. We could go mad and get a beer.)
Sadly a good half of the entries in the book are expressions we would once have called dirty, referring to sexual acts or organs. You'll have to go to another Web site for that.
This high-minded analysis is about how the world's vernacular is becoming more similar. All those cute little trans-Atlantic linguistic divisions aren't what they used to be. Elevator/lift, sidewalk/pavement, trunk/boot, truck/lorry — they're not quite interchangeable, but we pretty much know what everybody is saying these days.
And to the kids, all the former distinctions are "grep" (unpleasant). They'd rather go to a "brap" (really good club) where everything is "bare live" (really cool).
By Richard Roth