We are told that the average household’s electricity usage goes up 100 per cent during the summer holidays, the result not of air-conditioning but of an almost total aversion among today’s nippers to the bee-loud glade, in fact to the great outdoors in general, which appears to be a place rather badly equipped to compete with video games called things like ‘Wasp Attack IV’. Such games may be hard on the fusebox, but pale children everywhere love them, spending hours out of the sun in the clammy domain of the upstairs boxroom, where each child can become commander-in-chief of a private army of killer insects, which they happily send out in waves to destroy people like their parents.
All this may sound like instant bad news, but you can get your own back with a copy of Slayer Slang: A ‘Buffy the Vampire Slayer’ Lexicon, compiled by ‘noted linguist’ Michael Adams and published by – keep your hair on – Oxford University Press (£12.99). For the fast asleep among you: Buffy is not a video game, but an American TV show (not that there’s much difference) whose producers had the good sense, seven years ago, to wonder what would happen if you got a bunch of high-school kids wearing tons of lip-gloss to go about hunting down vampires and getting off with one another. The show is more addictive than crack cocaine, and one of its chief virtues, indeed, is that the characters, despite being winningly fresh and generally well turned out, talk to each other as if every drug in the universe was presently doing the conga through their bloodstreams.
In the Buffyverse folks speak funny, and people who think the show’s main effect is to make teenage boys pass out with sexual longing should stop scanning the lip-gloss and start listening to the words. The main result of the show, Adams writes, ‘has been a strikingly resonant lexicon that reflects both the power of youth culture and television in the evolution of American slang’. Go Michael! Or, as Buffy might say: that’s kick, Mikey, that’s seriously unbad.
Buffy people have it by heart, a way of speaking that seems designed to make people over the age of 25 feel as if they were born in the age of the diplodocus, but the lexicon is super-thievy, stealing references from literature and pop culture as if – duh! – that was what culture existed for. Among my favourites making an appearance in Slayer Slang are ‘Jimmy Hoffa, v.: to disappear’, as in: ‘And the vampires who hit on Xander and me have Jimmy Hoffa’d.’ I also like ‘Christian-Baleage, n.: lust for Christian Bale’, the actor, which is quite similar to ‘Ewanage, n.’ denoting the love of Ewan McGregor (‘We’re never around when the other needs major Ewanage’). When the Buffsters are feeling non-specific, they might speak of the existence of the ‘cuddle-monkey, n.: male-lover’, as in: ‘Every woman in Sunnydale wants to make me her cuddle-monkey.’
As the eagle-eyed will already have noticed, much of the language in Buffy adheres to the notion that the only real subject of conversation in life is copping off. Sparkage, for instance, describes the levels of romantic possibility. You will also get to know about the delights of the ‘dump-o-gram, n.: statement that a romantic relationship is over’. These girls and boys like to exercise their prerogative to be choosy, so if you stick around you’ll hear about the ‘Slut-o-rama, n.: a girl or woman who looks as though she is both morally loose and from the 1970s’.
Good God. Anything but that. But where an obsession with the world as seen from the point of view of someone born in 1981 might be forgivable in the case of the Buffy lexicon, one has a harder job extending immediate sympathy to the cred-hungry efforts of The Chambers Dictionary (£30) and the Oxford Dictionary of English (£35), both published in new editions this month and flying at each other with wooden stakes to see who will rule supreme in the battle of the neologisms. That is now the established way for great dictionaries to get publicity for their new editions: to show how the lexicographer’s art is not at all about settled dust but about bling bling.
Bling bling. A noun, says the new Chambers: ‘Jewellery, esp. of a large and conspicuous style; conspicuous wealth’. Meanwhile, the new Oxford shows an interest in bling-bling which is, well, rather more bling: ‘n. Expensive, ostentatious clothing and jewellery, or the wearing of them. Origin 1990s: perhaps imitative of light reflecting off jewellery, or of jewellery clashing together’. After some serious rocking and rolling over at the Oxford offices, the editors have made the decision that bling-bling needs a hyphen, a decision that might leave the Chambers wallflowers wondering if they’re really as down with P. Diddy as they might be. In general, though, the Oxford hepcats detect a turning away from the hyphen: ‘Has the Hyphen had it?’ their publicity notes say. ‘Apostrophes are moving and shaking and the hyphen may well have had its day!’ E-mails are now emails, co-operate is now cooperate, on-line is now online, and body-slam (‘a move in which the opponent’s body is lifted and then thrown hard on to the floor’) can only surely now pass the test as body slam.
Chambers eventually makes moves to get jiggy with it, but it prefers at this stage to keep its hyphens on. It accepts disco biscuit (‘a tablet of the drug ecstasy’), mullet (‘a haircut that is short at the front, long at the back, and ridiculous all round’), and agrees with Oxford that the word muppet (‘a foolish or stupid person’) now has the lexical chops to gain entry.
On the strength of all this, naturally, I’m giving in to the interesting prospect of the library being overtaken by the boxroom. And what’s that sound of buzzing behind me?
Send Letters To:
London Review of Books,
28 Little Russell Street
London, WC1A 2HN
Please include name, address, and a telephone number.