The Ecphorizer

Slang and Euphemism
John Cumming

Issue #44 (April 1985)



This lexicon, compiled by Richard A. Spears, has considerable "flip strength" and will afford the leering browser many hours of amusement. In a lengthy introduction, the author explains that this work "is a comprehensive resource for persons working with verbal taboo and verbal avoidance in the areas of anthropology, communication studies, comparative literature, drug abuse, [quoteright'/>English, folklore, history, law, linguistics, medicine, psychology, sexual harassment, and sociology." The author further explains that he has tried to reach beyond the boundaries of similar works by including English words from all major English-speaking regions across nine centuries of use (and abuse).

The bibliography is impressive. All manner of sources have been plundered to fill the pages of this work, from Capt. Grose's Vulgar Tongue and Wentworth and Flexner's Dictionary of American Slang to Norman E. Eliason's Tarheel Talk and Charles C. Adams's Boontling, An American Lingo. Even if the author had simply published his introduction (wherein he offers a discussion of slang, euphemism, social taboos, etc.) and the concluding bibliography, it would have been a book worth having.

It is the author's contention that the enormous quantity of sexual terms found in the slang vocabulary arises not from the pressure of social taboos but from the "teasing nature of sexual word play" (such as "canyon yodeling" for cunnilingus, for example). The true taboo subjects, the author contends, are hardly ever represented by slang. These true social taboos in our society are associated with incest and cannibalism. Perhaps the author was himself affected by these taboos, since "long pig" is not in this text (but then, this edition is only an abridgment). The author further theorizes that the exaggerated emphasis on the use of "correct" language and behavior that arose in the 19th century was due to the rapid rise of a new middle class bred by the Industrial Revolution and a felt need on the part of these arrivistes to separate themselves from their lower-class roots.

A discussion that is concerned largely with the lexicological process follows these sociological observations. The author makes clear that "standard English" has been built up by centuries of effort by scholars using a slow procedure of pursuing consensus on matters of usage. Slang, however, depends on wit (an "amen snorter" is a preacher and "forget-me-not" is VD, for example) and innovation, and is thus deliberately irregular.

By pursuing the ephemeral and bizarre, a dictionary of slang turns the normal process of lexicography on its head. The author feels that in so doing, the slang dictionary can provide a valuable resource for explaining the profound psychological implications of "fear, guilt, and sexuality."

Those of us whose time is not normally taken up with scholarly pursuits might find little use for such a work were it not for the need to settle occasional controversies concerning the meaning and origins of words we encounter in our daily rounds. There is, for example, a chain of fairly well-dressed Mexican-style restaurants in the middle of the country (I have visited the ones in St. Louis and Chicago) named "Chi Chi's." I have been assured by several (very amused) people with knowledge of Mexican Spanish that in that country the expression "chichi" is a slang expression for female breasts. Whereas the Random House Unabridged simply tells us that "chichi" is a French expression meaning pretentious elegance (or that "chi" or "chis" is the 22nd letter of the Greek alphabet), this slang dictionary affirms that my Hispanic friends are right, though the word is given as U.S. slang. Is someone putting the gringos on? (Wentworth and Flexner go further and assert that this word has a Japanese root. Oddly, I have yet to see any reference to an Hispanic connection during my inquiries into this buxom subject.)

Due to the extremely vulgar and picturesque nature of the bulk of the entries, casual browsing through the pages of this dictionary is like exploring a terminal moraine of bestiality. A few fascinating entries do stand out, however, such as the four densely packed columns of synonyms for the word "oaf." An oaf was once "the child of an elf." Now oaf is equated with addlepate, arseworm, ignatz, klotz, geek, redneck, zerk, slubberdegullion, etc., etc. Some are puzzling, like "ridgerunner" for a Caucasian, or quaint, such as "goober-grabber" for a pea picker (or a lascivious woman).

In the 13th century a rascal, or knave, was known as a harlot (from the OED). A far vaster weight of synonyms is now associated with this word in the sense of a prostitute: academician, bit of meat, fen, ginch, overnight-bag, public ledger, rabbit pie, scolopendria, wapping-mort, wop, etc. The last, used in the U.S. as a derogatory term for an Italian, is an Australian term (now, there would be an interesting word to use while promoting an "Aussie holiday").

The words are not organized by period or country of use, but in the usual alphabetic way. Some cross-association is possible through the occasional long list of synonyms, but prying out the interesting Australian or Boontling terms would be impractical. For this one must consult the works cited in the bibliography.

During the Vietnam War the local papers often carried the photos of local soldiers who were stationed in Vietnam. The Norwalk Hour (Norwalk, Conn.) used to list Marines under the bold title "JARHEADS." This was a popular term for Marines circa WW II. Unfortunately, the slang dictionary also reveals that "Jarhead" has other meanings, such as "a fool or an oaf," or a mule. Doubtless some well-meaning "old soldier" among the newspaper staff had overextended his command of the vulgar tongue. A true journalist would have known. 

Contributor Profile

John Cumming

john served as a medic in the Vietnam War then returned to Silicon Valley where he has worked as a tchnical writer and programmer at a number of Valley firms. In the 70s - 90s, John held many appointed and elected positions in local and national Mensa - notably as editor of the SFRM newletter Intelligencer and Local Secretary of SFRM, as well as serving as Regional Vice Chair for a number of years. John enjoys a good game of chess and likes nothing better than to curl up and read ancient or niche dictionaries, many of which are reviewed in these pages.




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