August 20, 2015 by libroshombre
“Poetry is a deal of joy and pain and wonder, with a dash of the dictionary,” according to Khalil Gibran. There’s plenty of pain and wonder in dictionaries, too. Look at the “Prison Dictionary” created by inmates of the Bonne Terre, Missouri prison. A Saint Louis University professor inspired several prisoners there to use the Oxford English Dictionary as a model for compiling a dictionary of English words that have different meanings in jail. Like the OED editors, the prisoners gathered terms, defined them, then winnowed out “words that, when exposed, would be dangerous for prisoners and the project.”
“Jail,” for instance, “is a verb; it’s something you can do well.” Stuart Grebing, one of the authors, said “The term ‘jail’ came around not as what you’re housed in, but that you’re able to carry on a mutual respect with the individual you are forced to live in this small cubicle with.” For example, “He jails good.” Prisoners with poor personal hygiene are “Vikings,” and a “Cadillac” is “coffee prepared with a full range of condiments.”
When it comes to impacting the English language, convicts can’t compete with young girls. A QZ.com article by Gretchen McCullough titled “Move Over Shakespeare, Teen Girls Are the Real Language Disrupters,” cites a University of Helsinki study that “combed through 6,000 personal letters written between 1417 and 1681.” They studied 14 languages changes such as “the eradication of ‘ye,’ the switch from ‘mine eyes’ to ‘my eyes,’ and the change from “hath,’ ‘doth,’ “maketh,’ to ‘has,’ ‘does,’‘makes.’” The linguists found that 11 of the 14 changes were led by women writers before men, concluding that “(t)he role that young women play as language disrupters is so well-established at this point it’s practically boring to sociolinguists.”
Another emerging disruptor. “I feel like,” is increasingly propagated by today’s young women, according to Rich Smith’s article in TheStranger.com. Former college professor Smith hates the wishy-washy nature of saying “I feel like” before making a statement. “(S)uddenly it’s my job to establish the exact nature of your commitment to your own opinion … For the sake of efficiency and honesty, shouldn’t we just plainly state our criticisms and desires?” Then a young student explained to him that with “I feel that” up front, “if I’m wrong then I’m right because I said I could be wrong, but if I’m right then I seem humbly right and don’t come off as a snob.”
Teen boys can disrupt language as well, as underscored recently when some college friends visited Alaska. Expressions like, “groovy,” “psychedelic,” and “gnarly” were bandied, but a nostalgic high point came with watching the “Teenage Awards Music International,” or T.A.M.I., just one of 25,743 DVD documentaries, feature films, and television shows owned by your public library.
T.A.M.I. was filmed in October 1964, when promoters gave away thousands of free tickets to Santa Monica schoolgirls who thronged to a theater to see live performances by current rock stars, including the Beach Boys, the Supremes, Smokey Robinson, Leslie Gore, Marvin Gaye, the Rolling Stones, and James Brown. Brown, peeved that the promoters scheduled the Stones to appear last instead of him, showed them all by giving one of his greatest performances. It’s so good I bought my own copy, and the Library of Congress selected T.A.M.I. for preservation in the National Film Registry.
The T.AM.I. musicians were in their teens and 20s, and watching them evoked a simpler, more hopeful time. The Beach Boys music still speaks to many boys of the mid-60s who now find themselves in their mid-60s. Unsurprisingly, in singing along mondegreens emerged, defined by the American Heritage Dictionary as “a series of words that result from mishearing or misinterpretation of a statement or song lyric.” In “Barbara Ann,” for instance, “Went to the dance looking for romance” was recalled by some as “Went to the dance, looking for his pants.”
And for fifty years I’ve included the line, “I dig a French bikini on a wild albatross by upholstery in the sand,” when musically reciting “California Girls.” I still prefer my version, for, paraphrasing Max Beerbohm, “I need no dictionary of quotations to remind me that the ears are the windows of the soul.”