We all go through life growing with experiences and working to become the responsible adult we pictured ourselves becoming. On the outside I appear to be a normal, standard issue 56 year old woman. However, all of those who really know me can assure you that I have a 12 year old boy that shares my body and who surfaces uncomfortably often.
I find that for me it’s sometimes difficult to take the high road and look at life through the black and white lenses of adulthood. There are certain innocent words in the English language that tend to make me snicker no matter what context they’re being used in. Balls, nuts, screw and gay are a few that come to mind. When did the meanings of all these words change to make grown adults giggle?
*Slang is a way of using descriptive or figurative language. It sometimes is irreverent and humorous. Slang expressions describe activities or objects. There is a high number of slang terms associated with the activity or object if it is prevalent.
Despite my statements above about being a 12 year old boy, I still found it slightly embarrassing to look up those words in Webster’s Dictionary to see if both the traditional and modern meanings of those words were included. All of the words above had both the traditional definition and what the dictionary referred to as the “vulgar” definition. If they are in the dictionary, then does it become acceptable to use the vulgar definition?
One day a few years ago, I was riding my bike by a creek and saw a short-legged furry mammal on the edge of the water. I took a moment to try to figure out what it was and then came up with the first animal that came to mind. I told myself it may have been a beaver. According to the Webster’s Dictionary the primary definition of beaver is:
beaver – either of two large semiaquatic herbivorous rodents comprising a family (Castoridae including Castor canadensis of North America and C. fiber of Eurasia), having webbed hind feet and a broad flat scaly tail, and constructing dams and partially submerged lodges
Webster also gives the “vulgar” definition, but it is wa-a-ay down at the bottom of the page and is sterilized almost beyond recognition. If the definition of beaver is so sterile, why did I laugh and giggle non-stop for the next few miles of the ride?
*Slang can appear as a brand new word, a new meaning for an existing word, an abbreviation for a word, or a word that becomes more generalized than its former, narrow meaning.
I have at least two friends who detest the word “moist” due to the double entendre’ they connect to it. Upon learning of their distaste, the 12 year old boy in me finds it an instant challenge to “innocently” use the word as frequently as possible just to see their reaction: Isn’t that cake moist? Did you see how moist the sidewalk was this morning? All innocent sentences that makes my “moist sensitive” friends cringe in horror.
My grandfather’s name was Richard, and growing up we called him Grandpa Dick. You would never hear anyone using that name for a beloved grandparent in today’s world. I grew up singing “Don we now our gay apparel” every December when we sang the Christmas carol “Deck The Halls.” That phrase now causes giggles and snickers. I’m not sure when these words transformed from innocent to “vulgar” but I can assure you the transformation has occurred and the newer meanings dominate the original meaning almost every time they are used in our current American language.
*Slang refers to words or phrases that begin to be used in a widespread way. This way, our language renews itself and changes with the times. Slang words show the attitudes of the group or sub-culture that uses them.
Once a woman at the gym told me that I wasn’t old, I was “spank.” I had never heard the word used that way and was fascinated by that particular word being changed to an adjective. When I looked up spank in Merriam Webster, there was no definition that matched that particular usage, but there were comments at the bottom of the page that referred to the word beginning to blossom into that meaning. It is a wonderful, sometimes confusing fact, that people will adapt words to have a whole new, more colorful meaning.
In 1901, G. K. Chesterton wrote “All slang is metaphor, and all metaphor is poetry,” in Defence of Slang. I think that “poetry” is a beautiful way of describing the colorful shifts and changes that occur in our language.
*Slang is a way of using descriptive or figurative language. It sometimes is irreverent and humorous. Slang expressions describe activities or objects.
I could probably write thousands of words just giving examples of words with double-meanings, but what do the “experts” say about the shifting of language? In searching the internet, I found I’m not alone. The Columbia University in New York City hosted a talk by John McWhorter titled “EVOLUTION, DEVOLUTION AND REVOLUTION IN 21ST CENTURY AMERICAN ENGLISH” in September of 2013. I’m not sure if they discussed any of the words I’ve listed here, but what a great evening that would’ve been if they did.
I have always loved that language is a living, breathing entity that evolves as society changes. Slang and different cultures influence how we use words and what they mean. How stuffy the world would be if the words we use never shifted, changed or grew.
In researching this article, I recruited my friends (and some random strangers) to forward me words that they used that had double meanings. Without a single exception, their eyes lit up and they would start to shoot words at me that made them, and me, giggle like slightly naughty pre-teens. I have one friend who now leaves messages a couple of times a week listing words that she finds funny. I love that this quest brings so much laughter into people’s lives. If you would like, I would love for you to leave a comment telling me words that make you laugh. Be reasonable, keep it clean(ish) but let’s all get in touch with our inner twelve year old boy and see if we can’t bring some smiles into the world today.
*All quotes are from: History of American Slang Words. It gives a great, but short, history of slang in America. http://grammar.yourdictionary.com/slang/history-of-american-slang-words.html I highly recommend that anyone who is interested in the history of slang check out this site.
**photo courtesy of Chris Reis