Tuesday, June 24, 2008

But seriously, which one is the philtrum?

I have a love/hate relationship with slang. I mean, obviously I trend towards love – this blog is named after an outmoded slang style, and I myself tend to unintentionally spew out my own brand of gibberish by recklessly portmanteauing, verbifying nouns and nounifying verbs, and performing other untold cruelties upon the English language, much to the abject horror of my hyperliterate friends. But at least most of what I say seems to make sense to the people around me. In fact, I am called to mat more often for the 100% bona fide, OED-vetted – but obscure and pretentious – words that I use than any of the times I have ever used “snarkpop” in a sentence. In fact, the one time I whiningly asked a friend to stop hectoring me as we were preparing to cross Broadway, she doubled over laughing so hard she almost got run over by an oncoming taxi and refused to believe that was an actual word until she got home and looked it up herself. Somewhere in that preamble is clear cut proof that the use of slanguage over legit pretentious words is 98% less likely to lead to automobile fatalities.

That said, I sometimes wonder if blogs aren’t changing the English language in ways slightly less fun.

For one thing, it’s too easy for new words to be invented and disseminated. But before one can catch a toehold, some other blog or media outlet has coined another hilarious word that becomes the hot new thing, and suddenly, everyone’s forgotten all about twatwaffle. It’s been three years since we’ve had a new “truthiness” hit.

And then there’s Variety. Most media slang can be easily decoded through context clues. If, say, I told you that the recent EW article made Mike Meyers sound like quite a twatwaffle, I’d like to think you’d discern the general meaning without thinking too hard about what part of Mike Meyers resembles a waffle or, well, you know. But Variety has, for over a hundred years now, intentionally cultivated an esoteric writing style meant to shut out all but the klatch of industry insiders at which the mag is aimed. Which would be just dandy if industry insiders actually used half these words. No, in fact, most are Variety-specific. And some seem to be holdovers from the roaring twenties. Though, credit where credit is due, the more recent issues I’ve skimmed have cut back on the V-speak a skosh – maybe a concession to the fact that print mags are in enough trouble without further alienating potential readers?

Worst of all, won’t someone think of the poor lexicographers? Somewhere out there right this second, some poor schmuck is embroiled in an impassioned debate with his fellow lexicographers over whether or not the slang meaning of taint should be included in the next edition of Merriam-Webster. And for the record, my vote is yes. Who the hell can remember a word like perineum? Linguistically, I can never remember which is the perineum and which is the philtrum. No worries - biologically, I can tell the difference between the two, despite a beloved but gruff professor once insinuating otherwise.

But maybe I’m Chicken Littling over nothing. After all, writers have long shaped our language. Lewis Carroll gave us “chortle”, another portmanteau. And on Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Joss Whedon regularly twisted common English into something new but recognizable. I’m just hoping that the next word Gawker champions sounds less like a menu item from the IHOP adjacent to the Bunny Ranch.

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