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Word Nerds



Published December 13, 2006 at 5:00 p.m.

Have you ever known a guy who shotgunned so hard trying to get shredded that he developed bitch tits? How many cups of coffee did the lot lizard's john get with the help of blue steel? When a griefer frags your avatar at the spawn point, do you spam him with taunts? Did you leave a sitzmark on crud after the gaper blocked your way?

These quasi-English sentences may be Greek to you. But each makes sense to the members of a certain subculture: bodybuilders, prostitutes, online gamers and skiers, respectively, in the examples above. These and many more come from a handy lexicon called Talk the Talk: The Slang of 65 American Subcultures, published in September, by Burlington resident Luc Reid. If you've ever wanted to hang out with beekeepers, spelunkers, ex-cons, drug pushers or cat fanciers and feel like one of the gang, it's a good start.

Reid, 37, is primarily a science-fiction writer; he's published stories and collaborated on a middle-grade fantasy-adventure series, which he hopes to see in print soon. In the meantime, his agent talked to an editor at Writer's Digest Books who was looking for "weird reference books." Reid, a long-time fan of specialized groups, says, "She immediately thought of me."

Reid, who spent a year researching the project - mostly on the Internet - notes that each term has been verified by at least two sources from the subculture in question. Online access made it a lot easier to investigate, for example, the world of furries. (For those who haven't seen the infamous "CSI" episode, these are people who share "an enthusiasm for . . . anthropomorphic animal characters," though Reid's book clarifies that by no means all of them engage in "yiff," or furry sex. Those who do are sometimes called "furverts.")

Reid says the subcultures he had the most trouble getting access to "were ones that dealt with anything illegal. I did not try to track any current con artists down" - though he did use some former grifters as sources. "I was nervous about researching the 'prostitutes' section," he adds. "The way to do it would have been to go to a large city's red-light district. But I take care of a 10-year-old. Even if you have a babysitter, you don't want to have to say, 'I'm off to the whorehouse now; be back soon!'"

Reid did find a few people who were willing to talk about practicing the oldest profession, such as Norma Jean Almodovar of C.O.Y.O.T.E., or "Call Off Your Old Tired Ethics," an organization that works toward legalizing prostitution. From her, he learned that "trick" and "john" are often seen as pejorative terms, while "whore" is a word sex workers seek to reclaim "because it originated as an endearment." (In the book, derogatory terms are marked with exclamation points. Who knew you were insulting a puppeteer by calling him a "dummy wagger," or that to a goth girl "doom cookie" is a dis?)

Reid has found himself incorporating some subculture terms into his everyday speech. "The ones I really like are the ones that kind of give me a different perspective on things," he says. "There's a great term that bikers use: yard shark" - for a dog who darts from backyards to attack them. The same group refers to cars as "cages, which says a lot," he notes. He also likes "nerd gate," a cavers' term for a natural barrier that keeps out casual explorers, and "sucker effect," a magicians' term for a trick that momentarily deceives spectators into thinking they know how it's done.

One natural audience for the book is writers who want to provide convincing dialogue for subculture characters - say, con artists or carnival barkers - without having to do major legwork. But Reid thinks the study of subculture slang is enlightening for anyone. "The real advantage of getting to know about a group of people who are foreign to your experience is that you get to see things in a new light," he says. "Just in terms of exploration, it's like visiting Argentina or Taiwan, in that the things you find there that mean the most to you after your trip are things you wouldn't have imagined people had a different perspective on."

Can subculture slang go mainstream? The example of hip-hop, which Reid includes in an appendix, speaks for itself: Who under 60 doesn't know what "bling bling" or "off the hook" means? "As a subculture gets a lot of attention, its language starts to seep into the general mentality," Reid says. He thinks the next type of slang to conquer pop culture might be that of online gamers, which is also used in popular virtual online worlds like Second Life. In 10 years, will we all be talking about "avatars" and "bots"?

"It's really neat," Reid says, "because we have these flowerings of new perspectives, and then as the larger culture shifts, some of these become prominent and they kind of pollinate the larger culture with their ideas."


It's one thing for subculture terms to be in common use. It's another for them to have the imprimatur of a respected guide to standard English - say, the American Heritage Dictionary. A glance at the dictionary's plentiful "usage notes" makes it clear that some trendy, ubiquitous terms - such as "to impact on," which probably migrated from the business world - still haven't gained the gatekeepers' full approval.

But who are these gatekeepers, anyway? In the case of the American Heritage, it's the usage panel, "a group of more than 200 distinguished writers, scholars and scientists" who are polled on their English usage preferences, according to the publisher's website. Members of the board range from prominent right-wing intellectuals such as Antonin Scalia and William F. Buckley Jr., to more liberal folks like David Sedaris and columnist Molly Ivins. This year, Vermont's own Alison Bechdel, author of the comic strip Dykes to Watch Out For and the critically acclaimed graphic memoir Fun Home, is joining the fray.

Politically, Bechdel is a long way from Buckley, but her usage preferences are another story. In a recent entry on her blog, Dykestowatch outfor.com, she wrote, "But I must confess - although I'm a social liberal, lexicographically I'm a hard- line conservative. I will defend the proper pronunciation and spelling of 'chaise longue' to the death."

By email, Bechdel elaborates on the "ballot" she recently returned to the dictionary editors, in which she judged a series of questionable sentences and variant pronunciations to be either "acceptable" or "unacceptable." She also offers her gut responses to some examples of common usage problems. "Impact" as a verb? "NO!" "To dialogue"? "Over my dead body." The gender-neutral singular "they," as in "Someone has lost their umbrella"? "Love it." "Alright" instead of "all right"? "Noway."

Referring to her blog post, Bechdel says, "Perhaps I exaggerated my conservative status a bit. I understand that language is constantly evolving, and I have no desire to stop that evolution. But I do care deeply about accuracy and specificity. Language is already a problematic enterprise - it's a pale, flickering shadow of the realities we're trying to describe to one another. So we need to do everything we can to make sure we're all on the same page. Or at least in the same dictionary."


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