[lg policy] That's So Mysto What makes slang stick?

Harold Schiffman hfsclpp at GMAIL.COM
Tue Sep 13 13:51:34 UTC 2011

That's So Mysto What makes slang stick?

By Juliet LapidosPosted Thursday, Aug. 18, 2011, at 7:37 AM ET

Illustration by Robert Neubecker. Click image to expand. Feeling
nostalgic for a journalistic era I never experienced, I recently read
Tom Wolfe's 1968 The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test. I'd been warned that
the New Journalists slathered their prose with slang, so I wasn't
shocked to find nonstandard English on nearly every line: dig, trippy,
groovy, grok, heads, hip, mysto and, of course, cool. This psychedelic
time capsule led me to wonder about the relative stickiness of all
these words—the omnipresence of cool versus the datedness of groovy
and the dweeb cachet of grok, a Robert Heinlein coinage from Stranger
in a Strange Land literally signifying to drink but implying profound
understanding. Mysto, an abbreviation for mystical, seems to have
fallen into disuse. It doesn't even have an Urban Dictionary entry.

There's no grand unified theory for why some slang terms live and
others die. In fact, it's even worse than that: The very definition of
slang is tenuous and clunky. Writing for the journal American Speech,
Bethany Dumas and Jonathan Lighter argued in 1978 that slang must meet
at least two of the following criteria: It lowers "the dignity of
formal or serious speech or writing," it implies that the user is
savvy (he knows what the word means, and knows people who know what it
means), it sounds taboo in ordinary discourse (as in with adults or
your superiors), and it replaces a conventional synonym. This
characterization seems to open the door to words that most would not
recognize as slang, including like in the quotative sense: "I was like
… and he was like." It replaces a conventional synonym (said), and
certainly lowers seriousness, but is probably better categorized as a

At least it's widely agreed that young people, seeking to make a mark,
are especially prone to generating such dignity-reducing terms. (The
editor of The New Partridge Dictionary of Slang and Unconventional
English, Tom Dalzell, told me that "every generation comes up with a
new word for a marijuana cigarette.") Oppressed people, criminals, and
sports fans make significant contributions, too. There's also a
consensus that most slang, like mysto, is ephemeral. Connie Eble, a
linguist at the University of North Carolina, has been collecting
slang from her students since the early 1970s. (She asks them to write
down terms heard around campus.) In 1996, when she reviewed all the
submissions she'd received, she found that more than half were only
turned in once. While many words made it from one year to the next,
only a tiny minority lasted a decade.

When asked for an example of an expression that fizzled out quickly,
Eble cited "a dangling modifier," meaning a single earring. (As in,
"you know that dude with the skateboard, the one with the dangling
modifier?") Eble guesses that "dangling modifier" didn't survive
because it was too clever. She also recalled that, in the 1970s and
1980s, she encountered a slew of drunkenness-related phrases that were
similarly too complex, such as a pair of terms for vomiting into a
toilet, "drive the porcelain bus" and "talk to Ralph on the big white
phone." (I've heard that last one, actually, but from a friend who's
fond of sounding odd.)

In that same 1996 review, Eble found that the 40 most frequently
submitted slang words could often be classified as judgments of
acceptance or rejection. There were several synonyms for excellent,
including sweet, killer, bad, cool, and awesome. Conversely, she noted
a few expressions meaning a "socially inept person:" dweeb, geek,
turkey. Another positive indicator is brevity. Eble said short words
fare well (cool, bad, sweet, geek), and that oohs and other
back-of-the-mouth noises tend to crop up (cool, tool, groove, booze).

For a slang term to really succeed, it also helps to have influential
proponents. Michael Adams, the editor of American Speech, reminded me
of a recurring joke in Mean Girls: Gretchen wants to introduce fetch
as slang (to mean, pretty much, awesome), but clique leader Regina
won't have it. "Stop trying to make 'fetch' happen," she says, "It's
not going to happen."

And it doesn't happen, because Gretchen's not the kind of girl who
inspires imitation. If, however, someone with real social pull starts
using a word, or if it's thrown around approvingly in a film, it's
given a boost: Clueless helped disseminate whatever.

Even if it has a famous supporter, though, a slang word's long-term
survival is more the exception than the rule. Mysto, for one, died out
swiftly despite being a short, easily understood word that was
evidently tossed around by the Merry Pranksters before getting
recorded by Tom Wolfe.

Tom Wolfe. Click image to expand.Tom Wolfe, author of The Electric
Kool-Aid Acid TestOnce a word gets to the level of general
understanding, it's still subject to caprice. Groovy, which dates back
to the 1930s, became fashionable in the 1940s, then unfashionable,
then fashionable again in the 1960s. Now everyone knows what it means,
but if you use it you either have long, gray hair and wear tie-dye or
you're mocking the sort of people who have long, gray hair and wear
tie-dye. Groovy got stuck, and though it's possible that it'll make a
comeback, for now it feels coupled to a particular time. Yet cool in
the excellent sense—popularized by jazz musicians in the 1940s—isn't
tainted in this way. No one says cool with the expectation that
Charlie Parker will come to mind.

Perhaps cool has been more durable than groovy because it's an
ordinary word in addition to a slang word. It's unobtrusive, which
Adams also mentioned as a positive indicator of slang tenacity. Maybe
the gr and vee sounds in groovy, which are rather harsh, are what keep
it from seeming natural, and association-less, in conversation.

The only way to test that these theories are more than post-facto
justifications is to apply them to newish slang words. Scrolling
through newly added Urban Dictionary entries, I came across: La Slosha
("A woman whose awesomeness and attractiveness is only surpassed by
her ability to consume copious quantities of vodka coke," added Aug,
8); Txtnesia ("When you forget what you texted someone last," added
July 31); and Boones ("One or more hipsters that are idiotic and talk
in hipster slang," added Aug, 2). It seems to me that Boones has the
best chance to survive: It's short, contains an ooh, expresses a
social judgment, and isn't too complicated. It also strikes me as
rather useful. Let's see what happens.


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