Wednesday, January 16, 2019

Wednesday's Random Slang-o-rama: Take a powder (AND News Flash!)


~~ NEWS FLASH!
This just in: A DYING NOTE is nominated for a "Lefty Award" in the Best Historical Mystery category (along with piles of other wonderful books). Winners will be announced at the Left Coast Crime mystery convention, in Vancouver, BC, late March. Click here for all Lefty nominations in all the categories.  END NEWS FLASH! ~~


 Now that the winter holidays are pretty much over, quite a few folks I know have decided to take a powder to warm spots south (Hawaii, Mexico!), icy/snowy climates north (Canada, Colorado, New York!) or other geographical vacation spots, all in the name of R&R. I can't say I blame them. In fact, I wish I could do the same.

However, since I am here and you are here (virtually speaking), let's take a closer look at take a powder. How did this phrase come to mean charging off at top speed?
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The American Heritage Dictionary of Idioms by Christine Ammer suggests the following etymology:
This slangy idiom may be derived from the British dialect sense of powder as "a sudden hurry," a usage dating from about 1600. It may also allude to the explosive quality of gunpowder.

I'll admit that my first thought was that maybe it had to do with gunpowder, so I was please to see this pop up here. However, not so fast (so to speak!) because the Online Entymology Dictionary has this to say:
The phrase take a powder "scram, vanish," is from 1920; it was a common phrase as a doctor's instruction, so perhaps from the notion of taking a laxative medicine or a sleeping powder, with the result that one has to leave in a hurry (or, on another guess, from a magician's magical powder, which made things disappear).
 Whoa! I never thought of the laxative angle. Checking American Slang, 2nd Edition, by Robert L. Chapman/Barbara Ann Kipfer also mentions the magical powder connection, noting that this use of take a powder had appeared by 1688 (which pre-dates 1920 by quite a bit!).

So, whether you decide to take a powder or stay put, here's hoping the first month of the new year gives you some time for your own version of R&R, along with the inevitable return to  routine. 
"I think a quick trip to Hawaii might be nice right about now, don't you?
[Flucht eleganter Reiter vor dem Kampfgeschehen by Alexander von Bensa, Public domain]


Wednesday, January 9, 2019

Wednesday's Random Slang-o-rama: Flabbergasted


A new year, a new Wednesday, a new bit of slang for your enjoyment.

Are you flabbergasted? Well, since Slang-o-rama posts every Wednesday, you shouldn't be. ;-)

 This week, let's take a closer look at flabbergasted. Sounds like what what happens to the physical body when too much chocolate is consumed over the holidays, right? However, just to be clear, here is the definition from Dictionary.com:
flabbergast (verb) — to overcome with surprise and bewilderment; astound. 
Where did such a strange word come from? I have no idea. Do you?

Time for research!
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The Dictionary.com entry has this to say about the origin: 
1765–75; variant of flabagast (perhaps flabb(y) + aghast)
Hmmmm. I'll bet we can find a bit more about this odd bit of slang. Sure enough, the Online Etymology Dictionary says:
flabbergast (v) —1772, flabbergasted, mentioned (with bored) in a magazine article that year as a new vogue word, of uncertain origin. Perhaps from some dialect (in 1823 flabbergast was noted as a Sussex word), perhaps ultimately an arbitrary formation alluding to flabby or flapper and aghast. "Like many other popular words expressing intensity of action, ... not separable into definite elements or traceable to a definite origin" [Century Dictionary]. Related: Flabbergasted; flabbergasting; flabbergastation.
World Wide Words adds a little more (and has a nice write-up about the word in general), which notes that the first part of the word might be linked to flabby, "suggesting that somebody is so astonished that they shake like a jelly."

StackExchange also has a discussion of the word's etymology, including the following:
Here’s the OED’s etymological note (lightly edited): First mentioned in 1772 as a new piece of fashionable slang; possibly of dialectal origin; Moor 1823 records it as a Suffolk word, and Jamieson, Supplement 1825, has flabrigast, 'to gasconade' [to boast extravagantly], flabrigastit 'worn out with exertion', as used in Perthshire. The formation is unknown; it is plausibly conjectured that the word is an arbitrary invention suggested by flabby adj. or flap n. and aghast adj.
With that, I welcome you to 2019! Let us pray for a minimum of gasconade in the coming year, so we don't suffer from an overdose of flabbergastation.

I am already flabbergasted. Less gasconade, please.
Clio, by Pierre Mignard [Public domain]


Wednesday, December 26, 2018

NEWS FLASHes! and Wednesday's (Not So) Random Slang-o-rama: Knock me over with a feather


NOTE: I'm letting this post stand for two weeks, straddling the end/beginning of the year. New slang-o-rama appearing January 9. Wishing everyone a good start to 2019!)
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Well, this has been quite the month! When I heard that True West Magazine in their "Best of the West 2019" listed my sixth Silver Rush historical mystery, A Dying Note, as Best Mystery in the Best Fiction category, well, you could've knocked me over with a feather! And then, when I learned that A Dying Note is also long-listed for the Martin Cruz Smith Award in Suspense/Mystery by the NICBA (Northern California Independent Booksellers Association), you could've knocked me over again!... But that wasn't all. The latest "knock 'em over" news is that my publisher, Poisoned Pen Press, has been acquired (? correct verb ?) by SourceBooks. Poisoned Pen Press will now be an imprint of this much larger indie publisher.

Through my jubilation, gratitude, and surprise, the thought came sneaking: How long has the idiom knocked over with a feather been around? When was it first used?

It didn't take me long to find out...
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The American Heritage Dictionary of Idioms by Christine Ammer includes this phrase under the idiom knock for a loop, as follows:
knock for a loop. Also, throw for a loop; knock down or over with a feather; knock sideways—Overcome with surprise or astonishment... The first two of these hyperbolic colloquial usages, dating from the first half of the 1900s, allude to the comic-strip image of a person pushed hard enough to roll over in the shape of a loop. The third hyperbolic term, often put as You could have knocked me down with a feather, intimating that something so light as a feather could knock one down, dates from the early 1800s; the fourth was first recorded in 1925.
I guess my 1880s characters can be knocked down (or over) with a feather, but not knocked sideways or in a loop!
 
There's also a fascinating discussion of this very term in this StackExchange exchange. One of the responders found that the idiom dates back to 1796 (squeaking in as an 18th century expression) in William Cobbett's Porcupine's works


Fascinating, eh?

Wednesday, December 19, 2018

Slang, American Style by Guest Author Michael A. Black

Please welcome guest author Michael A. Black. Michael is the award winning author of 31 books, the majority of which are in the mystery and thriller genres, although he has written in sci-fi, western, horror, and sports genres as well. A retired police officer, he has done everything from patrol to investigating homicides to conducting numerous SWAT operations. Black was awarded the Cook County Medal of Merit in 2010. He is also the author of over 100 short stories and articles, and has written two novels with television star, Richard Belzer (Law & Order SVU). Black is currently writing the Executioner series under the name Don Pendleton. His Executioner novel, Fatal Prescription, won the Best Original Novel Scribe Award given by the International Association of Media Tie-In Writers in 2018. His latest novels are Blood Trails, under his own name, and Dying Art, under the name Don Pendleton. Both are available on Amazon.com.
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 I’ve always been fascinated by language and all of its nuances. While I studiously learned the rules of grammar in school and studied English in college, I soon came to realize that language changes and evolves over time, like a living thing. Having to learn Middle English while studying Chaucer as an undergrad, I marveled at how different things sounded back in the 1380s when Geoffrey was penning The Canterbury Tales. Take a look at the Prologue:
WHAN that Aprille with his shoures soote
The droghte of Marche hath perced to the roote,
And bathed every veyne in swich licour,
Of which vertu engendred is the flour;
Which translates in Modern English as:
WHEN APRIL with his showers sweet with fruit
The drought of March has pierced unto the root
And bathed each vein with liquor that has power
To generate therein and sire the flower;
Yeah, things have changed quite a bit over the years. In fact, by the time Shakespeare started penning his plays about 200 years after Chaucer, the English language had morphed into something closer to what we speak today. Note the difference:
“The fool doth think he is wise, but the wise man knows himself to be a fool.”
Except for the “doth” part I might have come up with that one myself.

As I said, language is always changing and one of the most noticeable changes is often reflected by slang. Slang expressions, or idioms, are present in every spoken language. The words take on new meanings, which are influenced by a variety of sources. It’s important that a writer keep tabs on these changes in language, especially if he’s writing historical fiction.

Now let me break in here to point out a bit of change that has occurred to our language in the past several years. Take a look at the last sentence of the previous paragraph, more specifically, if he’s writing historical fiction. Back in the day, when I was in school, the masculine pronoun was considered the automatic default when speaking in generalities. Thus, the sentence, Everybody should keep his affairs in order would be correct. Social changes now dictate that it should be Everybody should keep his or her affairs in order, or the grammatically incorrect, their affairs. Everybody is in fact singular, so the usage of a plural pronoun in this instance should be totally wrong, yet as our society continues to change, such usage becomes more widespread and accepted.

Well, I’ll leave that one for the grammarians to fight out, but it’s wise to remember that people don’t always speak in grammatically correct sentences.

So if you’re writing a period piece set in the 1800s, and you want it to sound appropriate to the period, you wouldn’t have one character ask the other, “Can you dig it?”

“Dig what?” the other guy might ask.

The overuse of slang can be offsetting, as well. Back when I was a cop I had to learn to communicate with a lot of different people. Slang terms used by the people I had to deal with on the street sometime was like going back to study Chaucer.

“I was just standing there rappin’ when the m/f stole on me.”
 Translation: He was talking when someone punched him.

“He was looking to score some tac.”
Translation: He was attempting to buy some PCP.

“That one was off the chain.”
Translation: It was very good.

She’s hot. Translates to she’s very pretty.

He’s jonesing for her. Translates to he desires her.

I should mention that cops have their own forms of slang, too. These terms often vary from region to region, and a little research as to what type of vernacular is used where, can be helpful in your writing.

The term “perp” might be common in New York, but nobody in Chicago or LA is going to refer to a suspect that way. And while police in the Chicago would use the phrase, “Ten-four” as an acknowledgment, an officer in LA would say, “Roger that.”

A lot of these misconceptions stem from the movies and TV. Do your research to avoid sounding out of place.

I would be remiss if I didn’t add my own personal lament on what I deem the deterioration of language in the twenty-first century. Since the advent of texting, a whole new set of slang terms has emerged from millennials, and my opinion, it’s to the detriment of language. LOL, FYI, BBF, #METOO, GOAT, etc. have all taken the place of using actual words to say what you want to say. I consider this LL—lazy language. The same can be said about the tendency to combine numbers and words: Boys2Men, 4you, and the like.

This personal bias on my part can be traced back long ago to my high school days. One guy, whom I particularly didn’t like, signed my yearbook with the inscription, 2good 2be 4gotten. I thought he was an idiot then, and nothing has occurred in the intervening decades to alter my opinion. But with 20/20 hindsight, I now think that perhaps I was wrong. Considering some of the newest forms of millennial slang, perhaps he was more prescient than I thought.

But how much slang is enough, and how much is too much? Since the basic purpose of writing, whether it’s fiction or nonfiction, is to convey a message, the important thing is to make sure the message is not too esoteric. Writing something in slang may result in that message not being transmitted properly. Keep in mind that it’s far more effective to sprinkle a bit of slang here and there in your work, to give it the flavor of the speech you’re trying to emulate. It’s like sprinkling a bit of salt in the kettle of soup. Too little and it has no taste; too much and it tastes briny.

Wednesday, December 12, 2018

Wednesday's Random Slang-o-rama: Hoodlum


I suspect you probably have heard the term "hoodlum" before. However, were you aware that hoodlums originally hailed from San Francisco?

It's true!

You can read about it in the SFGate article 'Hoodlums' a distinctive San Francisco product' of the 1870s by Gary Kamia right here.

For more historical edification, there is this definition from Americanisms, Old and New (and so on and so forth) by John Stephen Farmer:


Hoodlum.—A young rough. The term originated in San Francisco, but is now general throughout the Union.

For an historical perspective on hoodlums and hoodlumism, check out Lights and Shades in San Francisco by Benjamin E. Lloyd, published 1876, which has an entire chapter on the subject (and yes, you can view and download the book with the link I've provided).

A couple of passages caught my interest. The first talks about "corner groceries," which are not at all what I thought they were (i.e., local stores to buy canned goods, milk, cheese, what-have-you):
Of evenings, these corner grocery bar-rooms are largely patronized as "loafing-places," by the mechanics, laborers and idlers, whose homes are in the neighborhood. A simple lunch is set out here, and also a card table is provided. Here young men and middle-aged men, boys and grey beards congregate at night, to talk vulgar slang, play cards for "the drinks," and smoke and chew—to go home at a late hour with heavy heads and light purses. It is at these places that the youthful San Franciscan Hoodlums are developed.

The second excerpt is the opening of the chapter on hoodlums:
THE Hoodlum had his origin in San Francisco. He is the offspring of San Francisco society. What particular phase in social life possesses the necessary fertility to produce such fruit is not obvious. It is certain, however, that the seed has been sown in productive soil, for the harvest is abundant.
The hoodlum has been called ''a ruffian in embryo." It would be a better definition to call him simply a ruffian. He has all the essential qualities of the villain. He is acquainted with crime in all its forms. The records of vice are his textbooks. He is a free-born American in its widest sense...

If these passages pique your interest, I encourage you to wander on over and read the rest in Lights and Shades, which provides a wonderful window into the world of 1870s-1880s San Francisco (and proved a very useful reference to me for A Dying Note).
"Quad's odds"; (1875) (14755206426)
Beware the hoodlums! (The title of this illustration is, believe it or not, "The Future Presidents." I shall refrain from political comment, difficult though it is...)
I just have to add a coda to this post... The illustration above is from a book titled Quad's Odds by M. Quad (pub date 1875). Here is the text that accompanies the picture:
It requires nerve and courage to be a hoodlum. The boy has got to have the heart of a man, the courage of a lion, and the constitution of an Arab. Only one in a hundred gives him credit for half his worth. No one cares whether he grows fat or starves; whether Fortune lifts him up or casts him down; whether night finds him quarters in a box or a comfortable bed. He's a hoodlum, and hoodlums are generally supposed capable of getting along somehow, the same as a horse turned out to graze. Not one boy in ten can be a hoodlum. Nature never overstocks the market. If left an orphan the average boy dies, or has relatives to care for him, or falls in the way of a philanthropist and comes up a straight-haired young man with a sanctimonious look. The true hoodlum is born to the business. He swallows marbles and thimbles as soon as he can creep, begins to fall down stairs when a year old, and is found in the alley as soon as he can walk.

Wednesday, December 5, 2018

Wednesday's Random Slang-o-rama: Killing the canary


Killing the canary sounds like what would happen if one were to bring a small bird into a poorly ventilated mine. However, Passing English of the Victorian Era, a Dictionary of Heterodox English, Slang and Phrase by J. Redding Ware has an entirely different take on the phrase. In fact, I'm guessing that the closer we get to the holidays, the more you'll find folks engaged in the 19th-century definition of this bird-murdering activity.

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Here is the definition:
Killing the canary—Shirking work.
Intrigued, I decided to delve deeper to see if I could figure out how on earth killing a small yellow bird could possibly be equated with lollygagging on the job. I may have found the connection in the same reference work (keep in mind that the slang herein is mostly from the British Isles, with a smattering from U.S. and Australia), in this definition of canary bird:

Canary bird—A sovereign. Canary, as something charming, is often associated with pleasant things that are yellow. 'Yes, it's a canary bird, but it will soon fly away to my landlord. He gets them all!'

Soooo maybe when one kills the canary, one is shirking work and killing the chance of making a gold coin or two (i.e., a sovereign).

What do you think?

Hey, birds... stop slacking and get to work!
See page for author [CC BY 4.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/4.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

Wednesday, November 28, 2018

Wednesday's Random Slang-o-rama: Buzz


Buzz is another one of those simple slang words that has morphed in meaning over time, in some surprising directions. For instance...

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The following definition from The Rogue's Lexicon—which includes a wonderful example full of other bits of roguish slang—initially caught my eye:
Buzzing—Searching for. "I was in a push and had to buzz about half a glass before I touched a flat's thimble and slang. I fenced the swag for half a century"
What. The. Heck. Does. All. THAT mean?? Luckily for me (and perhaps for you, too), the Lexicon provides a translation immediately following this example:
"I was in a crowd and searched for half an hour before I succeeded in stealing a man's watch and chain, which I sold for fifty dollars."
American Slang: 2nd Edition edited by Robert L. Chapman, has quite a long entry on buzz, with several definitions that are new to me. Here are a few—some familiar, some "new":
  1. Subject of talk; gossip; rumor (by 1605)
  2. To pilfer; rob (by 1812)
  3. To talk; converse (by 1832)
  4. To flatter; court (about 1900)
  5. To call someone on the telephone (about 1910)
  6. A pleasant sense of intoxication (about 1935)
Clearly, buzzing is not limited to the actions of bees...

What's the buzz?
[By Charles Thomas Bingham - "Plate III" in (1897) Hymenoptera, v. I, London: Taylor and Francis, p. fig. 13., Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=61678774]