The Language Quarterly
Language and linguistics for the layperson since 1974
Slayer Slang (Part 1) - The marvellous slang uses and inventions of the popular TV show Buffy the Vampire Slayer. by Michael AdamsIdentity and Language in the SM Scene - The importance of language in forming identity, and some misunderstandings that can arise. . . by M.A. Buchanan
I May Already Be A Wiener - One man's struggle with his name. by Gary Wiener
Obiter Dicta: A Bestiary of Adjectives - Our curious habit of describing human attributes in animal language-anthropomorism in reverse. by Susan Elkins
It's All Double Janglish to Me! - The puzzling world of Japanese advertising "English." What on earth could it mean? Or does it matter? by Martin Nuttall
Widows, Orphans, and ?--Semantic Holes - What we don't have words for, and what that means about us. by Sol Saporta
Words for Their Own Sake - Words as words: which are your favorites? by John Konrad Kern
Bats as Symbols - In China, bats are symbols of good omen. Could the word for "bat" be the reason? by Frank Holan
Epistolae - We get letters.
SIC! SIC! SIC! - Errors from all over.
Versibus - A Backhanded Pardon by Henry George Fischer.
Ex Cathedra - Words from your editor.
Classical Blather - Juney 'Toons by Nick Humez
Bibliographia Signs in Contemporary Culture: An Introduction to Semiotics
Bibliographia Letter Writing Made Easy! Featuring Sample Letters for Hundreds of Common Occasions (vols. 1 and 2)
Bibliographia A Bawdy Language: How a Second-Rate Language Slept Its Way to the Top
Puzzles Anglo-American Crossword No. 81
Puzzles Verbal Analogies, by Dr. P.A. Pomfrit
Buffy the Vampire Slayer (BTVS), a recent teen television hit, coins slang terms and phrases in nearly every episode, many of them formed in the usual ways, some of them at the crest of new formative tendencies, and some of them interesting, not only lexically, but morphosyntactically. The show incorporates familiar slang, too; the familiar and newly coined "slayer slang" together compose a particularly vivid snapshot of current American teen slang. Examina-tion of mainstream and cult magazines, fan books, and websites, however, suggests that slayer slang, far from being ephemeral vocabulary, steadily intrudes on everyday speech and may be here to stay.
Joss Whedon, a versatile screenwriter whose credits include Alien: Resurrection, Toy Story, and Speed, introduced Buffy the Vampire Slayer in the eponymous feature film (1992). He subsequently adapted the story for the small screen. The series premiered on March 10, 1997 and this year completed its third season. Its fairly large following, the largest of any show on the U.S. WB (Warner Brothers) network, consists of teens and twenty-somethings who share a taste for Anne Rice novels and cinema on the cusp of the fantastic. Fans of the show have proved extraordinarily dedicated to it: they support a Buffy industry that already produces the obligatory t-shirts, posters, trading cards, jewelry, and shot glasses and has generated a dozen novelizations, a quarterly magazine, five or so books about the show, and dozens of articles in dozens of magazines. In December 1998 there were 1,816 websites worldwide devoted to Buffy, most of them located in the United States, but including sites in Canada, Australia, Great Britain, Germany, France, and Singapore. "BTVS: Slayer Central," a site chosen at random, registered over 25,000 hits in 1998, and no wonder: that site has received the Buffy Index Award, the Graveyard Award, BTVS Lands Award, the Nosferatu Award, and the Buffy Award for Outstanding Sites, among others. Homage for Buffy is more frequent, more sincere, and more competitive than most of us can imagine easily.
The series opens with a formulaic introduction to vampire slayers, of which Buffy is only the most recent: "As long as there have been demons, there has been the Slayer. One girl in all the world, a Chosen One, born with the strength and skill to hunt vampires and other deadly creatures . . . to stop the spread of their evil. When one Slayer dies, the next is called and trained by the Watcher." Buffy is a reluctant slayer: vampires interfere with her cheerleading career and her social life. After burning her Los Angeles high school to the ground during a prom in order to kill the vampires who attempted to turn the event into a blood-fest, Buffy Summers moved to Sunnydale, California. Unable to escape her destiny as the Slayer, however, she encounters her new Watcher, Rupert Giles, who poses as Sunnydale High Schools librarian. Sunnydale, we discover in the first episode, is located on a Hellmouth, and vampires roam the streets freely, bent on nothing less than the destruction of this world. Though her identity should be secret, a few friends know Buffy as the Slayer and assist her: Willow Rosenberg, her best friend, is a brilliant computer nerd who once loved her childhood friend, Xander Harris; Xander is clever enough, too, though an underachiever, has a crush on Buffy, but has always loved Willow; Cordelia Chase is rich, popular, acid-tongued, and unaccountably in love with her boyfriend, Xander; Oz, incidentally a werewolf, is usually just Willows boyfriend and plays guitar in a band; and Buffy falls in love with Angel, a reformed vampire who turns bad again, and whom Buffy is forced to kill at the end of the second season. By twists of plot too convoluted to rehearse here, a rival slayer named Faith appears in the third season, a high school drop-out, horny, leathered, and tattooed. They are all average kids, in average relationships, battling the forces of adolescent evil, personified, in a sense, by vampires, demons, and monsters; they are also particularly adept speakers of American English, especially of slang.
Of course, the show employs plenty of familiar slang, some recorded in dictionaries and some not. The oldest item, five-by-five, Faith may have gleaned from the Random House Historical Dictionary of American Slang, where it appears, in the sense Faith employs, in a single quotation from 1983: "How are you?" Buffy asks Faith, to which she responds, "Five-by-five." "Ill interpret that as good," glosses Buffy in turn, and very near the dictionarys perfect, fine. If Faiths Goth-chick slang veers towards the obscure, other characters favor the teen mainstream: "Dont worry, I can deal," Buffy assures her companions; "So, youre not down with Angel," she acknowledges of Spike, Angels rival among Sunnydale vampires; "Thats the sound she makes when shes speechless with geeker joy," Xander explains of Willow; "Dont forget, youre supposed to be a girly girl, like the rest of us," Willow reminds Buffy. "Great," says Willow, "Ill give Xander a call. Whats his number? Oh, yeah, 1-800-Im dating a skanky ho"; "You just went O.J. on your girlfriend," Buffy remarks to one unfortunate; "My egg went postal on me," she explains after a monster hatches from it. Buffy, just like any real American teen, develops crushes on hotties, but if the love is unrequited, the situation is, like, totally heinous. Buffy, far from abject, chills. Maybe shell stay at home on Saturday and veg rather than indulge the boys unromantic riff. If the hottie in question asks her out again, she might see an upside and be good to go, or she might ask herself, "Whats up with that?" refuse him sarcastically with archaic, and therefore insincere, slang, like "Wow, youre a dish," and then bail. Whatever, you get the idea.
But the show does more than merely capture current teen slang; rather, it is endlessly, if unevenly, inventive. Thus Buffy, only tentatively supporting the romance budding between Xander and Cordelia, assures them, "Im glad that you guys are getting along, almost really." Vampires, apparently cast into fashion Limbo on the day they become undead, are often marked by their unstylish wardrobes. "Look at his jacket," says Buffy of one them. "Its dated?" asks Giles, to which Buffy responds, "Its carbon-dated." When Cordelia dumps him, Xander asks a young, not awfully proficient witch to cast a love spell on Cordelia; when it backfires and affects everyone BUT Cordelia, he muses to Giles, "Every woman in Sunnydale wants to make me her cuddle-monkey."
Most of us are lucky if were carefree, but the Slayer thinks in grander terms: "I dont have a destiny," she retorts, when reminded of her cosmic role, "Im destiny-free." When bitten by his infant nephew, Oz is shocked to learn that he belongs to a family of werewolves: "Its not every day you find out youre a werewolf," he explains, "Thats fairly freaksome." In spite of the lunar cycle, Ozs popularity, his social position, is intact, but not everyone in high school is so lucky, as Cordelia, ever alert on such matters, points out: "Doesnt Owen realize hes hitting a major backspace by hanging out with that loser?" Teens map their own linguistic territory, as opposed to their parents, with slang, and sometimes "improve" earlier slang to stake their own generations claim. Cordelia complains to a petulant Buffy, "Whatever is causing the Joan Collins tude, deal with it. Embrace the pain, spank your inner moppet, whatever, but get over it." Cordelias coinage puts her divorced parents pop-psychological jargon in its place.
With vampire slaying and other important teen responsibilities imminent, Buffy and her cohort are forced "to do round robin" which, as Willow glosses, is "where everybody calls everybody elses mom and tells them theyre staying at everybodys house." Slang for Sunnydale teens, as for teens worldwide, serves as a transgressive code. Fun abounds for average teenagers, who round robin to party in the Sunnydale graveyard, but, as the Slayer who inevitably saves them from rising vampires ruminates, "Its all mootville for me." Instead, shes forced to play miniature golf with her mothers boyfriend; when she cheats and the boyfriend, actually a robot who makes people like him by lacing baked goods with pleasant sedatives, overreacts, she admits, "Yeah, I kicked my ball in, put me in jail, but he totally wigged." Man or robot, the prospect of a boyfriend for mom unsettles her: "You know how dispiriting it is for me to even contemplate you grownups having smoochies," a sentiment echoed in the hearts and minds, at least, of teen viewers everywhere.
Lest the show seem "cleaner" than other adolescent TV, sex comes up frequently, especially regarding Buffys relationship with Angel. Angel, though a vampire, had regained his soul, but when he and Buffy have sexual relations, her first, he finally experiences true happiness,
the trigger that fires his soul back to Hell. Given the plot on its own terms, and the way in which the story metaphorically represents one take on adolescent sexual experiment (whatever boys say before sex, theyre monsters afterwards, sex kills, etc.), the shows references to sex are, for the most part, predictably innocent. Unlike the other characters, however, Faith is sexually active, her sexual language potent and notably absent from the dictionary record: "Bet you and Scott have been up here kicking the gear stick," she remarks to Buffy as they hunt vampires on Lovers Lane; unable to leave the subject alone, she asks, "Do you ever catch kids doing the diddy out here?" Faiths sexual references arent always euphemistic and lighthearted, however. At her earthiest, she grunts: "I mean, Im sorry, its just, all this sweating nightly, side-by-side action, and you never put in for a little after-hours unh?" Sometimes she is even racier, but careful of the FCC: "Tell me that if you dont get in a good slaying, after a while, you just start itching for some vamp to show up so you can give him a good unh."
It is difficult to imagine the value of such terms to the show, embedded as they are in a rich and dynamic context, context that resists excerption. Meaning, then, is sometimes difficult to isolate, but not the sociolinguistic importance of slayer slang: every major character in the show coins or derives terms to reflect subtly his or her social and psychological experience. The result is clever, precise, and expressive, as the language of adults, slang or other, naturally cannot be. Neither Buffy nor any of her associates is, as Oz denominates a particularly dim bulb, "a master of the single entendre," and the shows continual use of slang, not to mention its running commentary on the English language, successfully dignifies teen language and the range of teen experience for which it speaks.
Evidence already quoted proves that the English language often occupies the writers minds, and thus it often occupies the characters minds, as well. Buffy the Vampire Slayer is an especially language-conscious television show. The characters are backhanded definers ("Man, thats like, I dont know, thats moxie, or something."); bemused grammarians (in one episode, Willow struggles to determine whether one should say "slayed" or "slew"), amateur etymologists (""The whole nine yards"what does it mean? This is going to bother me all day."); or self-conscious stylists ("Again, so many words. Couldnt we just say, "We be in trouble? . . . Gone." Notice the economy of phrasing: "Gone." Simple, direct."), whatever the situation demands. "Apparently Buffy has decided that whats wrong with the English language is all those pesky words," Xander remarks in one episode. But the problem may not be the absolute number of words so much as the plethora of inadequately expressive ones. As the show continually demonstrates, teens dissatisfied with the language they inherit can invent a language in which the words are, not pesky, but relevant.
While much of the shows slang reproduces the current teen lexicon (good fortune for slang lexicographers, who comb the media for words generally spoken, and then only recently), Buffy the Vampire Slayer not only invents slang, but intends to do so. As Sarah Michelle Gellar, the actress who plays Buffy, explained to the Rolling Stone (April 2, 1998), "Let me tell you how un-Buffy I am . . . For the first episode, I come in and yell, "Whats the sitch?" I did not know what "sitch" meant. I still have to ask Joss [Whedon], "What does this mean?" because I dont speak the lingo. I think he makes it up half the time. "The slang? I make it all up," says Whedon cheerfully, though Gellars estimate is more accurate. Once Americas busiest teen, Gellar nonetheless surely knows plenty of slang, and her ignorance of Whedons lingo is one indication of its novelty. Viewers recognize and appreciate the shows characteristic innovation: while playing the Buffy the Vampire Slayer Drinking Game (for which the official shot glasses come in handy), viewers are invited to drink whenever "Buffy utters a Buffy-ism, though we are told that this category "Does not include CBSs (Cute Buffy Sayings) like: Goodbye stakes, hello flying fatalities." According to the rules, CBSs deserve two sips, where Buffy-isms warrant only one, but the game neatly distinguishes the shows linguistics from its poetics. Naturally, the former interests us primarily, and the sequel to this first of a two-part article will consider the semantics and morphology of slayer slang in some detail.
[The second part to come in the next issue. Ed.]
M. A. Buchanan
New York, New York
For the past seven years, I have been studying the process of identity formation among SM/radical-sex practitioners living in and around New York City, in preparation for my doctoral thesis in cultural anthropology. Among the first things that I noticed when I started doing my research was the importance of language in the definition of what people in my subject group did, how they thought about it, and how they saw themselves in relation both to other differently pleasured people (swingers, clothing fetishists) and the "normal" world. I also found that problems arose between practitioners and non-practitioners at the intersections of language: that because the SM world has co-opted so many ordinary words and phrases, these became almost unintelligible to outsiders.
I have two favorite examples of this. The first involved an informant of mine who was asked to give a speech on SM to an organization of "vanilla" (non-kinky) men. My informant was Chinese-American (Ill call him John) and one of the leaders of a very prominent SM organization here in New York. The group had been trying to promote itself as being open to people of color, so when John was asked to give a talk to a local group of Asian and Pacific Rim gay men, he jumped at the chance. John went to the meeting in his finest leathers and wore the colors of his organization.1
After doing the usual SM 101 lecture and emphasizing that he was considered a leader in his community,2 he opened the floor to questions. There were none. He was rather disappointed: He could tell that his audience was being more polite to this strange guest than anything else. Finally when the meeting was over, a Chinese-American couple approached him. They said that they had enjoyed his talk, and were surprised that leathermen were inclusive.3 They had always thought that SM was something that only weird white men did.4 Still, they said, they didnt think that they could ever try kinky sex. They preferred their own quiet sex life the way it was. Out of curiosity at this complacent couple, John asked them what they enjoyed the most about their sex lives. "Well, what we really like is choking each other. None of that wild stuff for us."5
The second story is about a womens SM organization that was looking to increase its numbers. The group knew that there were many women in the city who were doing SM in private. Some of these women even turned up in the local sex clubs, but they never came to any of the events of the womens groups. Finally the membership committee decided to make up a flyer that could be used as an ad in the local gay paper and distributed at clubs. Unfortunately they kept having problems with the wording. If they said "masters and slaves welcome," there were women of color who wouldnt attend meetings because the terms were considered offensive. If they said "dominants and submissives welcome," the switches6 and undecided might not come, because theyd feel excluded. If they said "butches and femmes welcome," straight women and androgynous lesbians might not come, because the terms implied a particular lesbian-oriented dichotomy. Finally the committee decided to put "all women welcome" on the flyer, which led to the crisis about the transgender male-to-female who wanted to join (but thats another article).
In both stories the essential problem was the real or anticipated misunderstanding of SM language. Language acts as the markers for the parameters of thought. What may and may not be contemplated by members of a society is encoded in the language used by its members.7 When the language of one group collides with or is appropriated by another, something gets lost in the translation that at least one group doesnt see as necessary.
SM practitioners often see themselves as crossing an invisible boundary into a parallel universe, SM-Land. They refer to the time "outside of the Scene" as "real life," as though what they do inside the scene is less real or more ephemeral and shadowy than the grind of going to the supermarket. Yet the ideal for many people is to become "hardcore," "lifestyle," or "24/7" to live, eat, and drink SM all the time, or at least to incorporate it into their daily lives. Doing so, however, requires a heightened ability to translate ones secret language to the world outside, so that vanilla neighbors, co-workers (if any), and strangers will tolerate ones presence even if they find ones living choices unacceptable. If one cannot or will not go completely hardcore, than one has at least to mask oneself with the aura of plausible deniability, even to the point of denying ones proclivities to oneself.
The terms D/S and B&D are perfect examples. D/S stands for dominance and submission, which sounds a tad less scary than SM. The term was popularized and probably invented by heterosexuals in SM chatrooms, where the majority of visitors are nice, middle-class people with houses in the suburbs. The term is consciously used as a way of distancing practitioners from the implications and stigma of SM, even though the terms are exact synonyms for each other. B&D, or bondage and discipline, is said by practitioners to be a milder version of SM, less violent than that nasty stuff, although somehow the "nasty stuff" never quite gets defined. Perhaps its because, again, B&D and SM are actually one and the same, with B&D having slightly more emphasis on roleplay. The desire to mask ones participation in ones own personal theatre of cruelty seems to be almost as strong as a desire to create one in the first place.
But the desire to mask oneself does not merely arise from shame over ones own behavior. As I said before, one has the neighbors to think about. And the police: A local organization had a talk a few years ago on the subject "daddies and their little girls." The meeting was attended by a variety of people, including two of the most obviously on-duty undercover cops the world has ever seen. They were probably the only ones in the room who were horrified to see three women in their thirties and forties talking about the joys of dressing in bobby socks and going to the park with their older lovers. The terminology of "ageplay" had apparently not found its way to the captain of the local vice squad, who would have done well to buy a copy of Sensuous Magic, by Pat Califia, and saved himself and his officers the trouble of a tedious (to them) meeting.
In a few cases, SM organizations have actually had sit-downs with the police to explain what all the mysterious terms on their flyers and in their books mean, and they have been successful in removing the constabularys unwarranted fears of illegal behaviors. They have even written glossaries of both well-recognized and little-used terms for newcomers, so that their world might be a bit more comprehensible. I leave you with a few terms and their translations:
Body Modificationaltering the surface of the body, whether temporarily or permanently. In other words, tattooing, branding, scarification, permanent piercing, corsetry. Earrings and a bustier would be considered body modification.
Collarlit., a length of chain, leather, or other adornment placed around the neck to indicate that a person is in service to another. This may be worn for the evening or for a longer period.
Forced crossdressingwhat its called when a man brings a bag full of womens clothing that hes bought for himself to a dominatrix and pretends that he doesnt want to wear them.
Flaggingindicating ones preference as a top or a bottom and what type of activities one likes by wearing keys, jewelry, or bandannas on one side of your body or the other. Left means top or dominant; right means bottom or submissive.
Houseboya bottom whose duties include cleaning, waiting on guests, answering the door, laundry, cooking, and any other household duties the top may assign. The bottom may or may not live with the top, and this may or not be a sexual relationship. Although I have heard rumors that there are female house servants, I have never run across one. For some reason, only men seem to like doing chores as a sexual outlet.
Negotiationthe exchange of information on SM preferences and limits, and the decision of whether or not to play between two or more prospective partners. The SM equivalent of dating.
Propertya bottom, who by the nature of the relationship is owned or controlled, either partially or completely by the dominant. Often there is a written contract that spells out the terms of the relationship.
Role-reversalwhat some practitioners call it when a man gives up sexual and other types of control to his (always) female dominant. Naturally, role-reversal is only a temporary state of things.
Wrappingthe accidental delivery of a whipstroke that causes the tips to land on the side of the body as opposed to the front or the back. Wrapping is considered to be bad because it can leave marks and be quite painful.
1 Leathers is the generic term for SM related clothing, in this case a leather shirt, vest, and black denim jeans. Leathers can also indicate a chain harness, a jockstrap, and a smile, or any other combination that you can think of. Colors is the term used for the backpatch worn on a leather vest. It denotes ones organizational affiliation. Colors can also consist of club pins or a club t-shirt.
2 SM 101 is the term used when giving the "were safe, sane, and consensual, and we live right next door" talk to vanilla people. These talks always emphasize how safe, cuddly, and friendly SM people and practices are and usually involve much flourishing of suede whips and pieces of fur as examples of the kinds of equipment used. While these talks are always technically true, they always seem to leave out the fact that the chief fun in doing SM is in being naughty. As a friend of mine once said after going to a talk on lesbian history, "From the way they talk, youd believe it was nothing more than a political movement and didnt involve sex at all."
3 Leatherman is a term denoting gay and bisexual men who like wearing leather for sexual pleasure and/or doing SM. There are leathermen who only wear rubber but enjoy spankings, and there are leathermen who like to dress up and are horrified if someone wants to tie them up. Leatherfolk and leatherpeople tend to refer to SM people in general. Straight people usually say that they are "into the Scene," which sounds much more circumspect.
4 For the edification of European-Americans reading this article, I am now going to reveal a painful truth. Most of the people of color who are my informants have told me that when they were growing up they were told by friends and relatives that white people were all "try-sexuals," i.e., they would try anything in bed. In other words, they were seen as the sole source and receptacle of sexual perversion in the universe. I myself have actually heard black people claim that black homosexuality is caused by white men seducing black men. Fortunately, most of my POC informants no longer believe this nonsense, but in many cases this canard has made coming out as gay, into leather, or both, impossible.
5 Although the physiological effects can be excruciating arousingsee, e.g., the veiled reference to orgasm in Melvilles Billy Buddchoking, also known as breath control, is considered by most of the SM community to be so dangerous and far out that they rank it in a special category: edgeplay. Edgeplay includes any activity that could lead to physical or emotional trauma, or even death. Most practitioners will not even discuss edgeplay in front of novices or tourists (newcomers or curiosity-seekers) for fear of someone getting hurt or getting some very strange ideas about regular practice and safety protocols. Some practitioners even believe that edgeplay shouldnt be discussed or practiced at all.
6 A switch is a person who, depending on the situation, may be willing to play as either a dominant or a submissive in an SM scenario.
7 A perfect example of this exists in Spanish. The standard Spanish words novio and novialiterally translate as "future spouse" or "affianced one." There is no word for "boyfriend" or "girlfriend" in the American English sense. This is because, as a Spanish-speaking friend told me, love relationships between young persons of the opposite sex were expected to lead, until recently, straight to marriage. Card stores in East Harlem have boyfriend and girlfriend cards in the English-language section, but the novio/novia cards tend to be more serious in tone than their English near-equivalents.
[M. A. Buchanan, MA, is a doctoral candidate in anthropology at New School University in New York City.]All contents © VERBATIM: The Language Quarterly. No reproduction without permission.