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American Speech 75.4 (2000) 382-384

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Widening the Lens of Observation

Ephemeral Language

Michael Adams, Albright College


I grew up in a family ruled by an English professor who expected us to speak and write with impeccable grammar and elevated vocabulary. Our models were the literature that I went on to study in graduate school and that I teach today; if we had any questions, we could turn to a dozen dictionaries, including the Oxford English Dictionary. Whenever we lapsed, we were reminded that standard English comprised more words than we were likely to use and that recourse to low language betrayed an unbecoming emptiness of mind. Experience and study, though, have taught me not only to accept but to admire ephemeral and other supposedly low forms of English.

I do not mean to depreciate the language of Chaucer and DuBois, of Shakespeare and Wheatley; I spend most of my time thinking about it, and I am not above mouthing a medieval roundelay as I drive to work. But whatever one thinks of learned language, of its aesthetic gloss or Latinate precision, one must admit that most people speak most of the time, and in most venues, language unapproved by teachers and books, and one must admit, too, that they have done so throughout history. The language used [End Page 382] among family and friends has represented a sort of freedom to serf and slave, has allowed millennia of adolescents to rebel against constituted authority, and has enabled one lover to groom another with terms of endearment.

More people use a nonstandard construction like Jealous much? adopted from the television show Buffy the Vampire Slayer, than have ever used some terms one finds in dictionaries (concatenate, neonate, ululate). More enjoy Ned Flanders's verbal antics on The Simpsons (okelly dokelly, absotively posilutely) than appreciate the time-honored majesty of multifarious. Ephemeral English is the living language, whether or not scholars and teachers approve, the language in which folks construct their everyday lives, the language of emotion, of work and play. By contrast, much of the standard vocabulary, rather than living, merely survives.

To prefer whimsy over majesty is a personal and legitimate choice. Speakers of American English make choices that reflect their language preferences every day. They have a right to such choices. They better grasp what they intend to say and the audience to whom they will say it than any language maven or reference book. Standard American English, a sort of lingua franca, has its uses, and those who hope to achieve certain social and economic ends must use it well; but they need not use it on all or even most occasions. Living American English, with its ephemeral vocabulary and populist grammar, is more democratic, in terms of both access and effects, than most American institutions, though some who champion Standard American English are uncomfortable with that fact.

Most American culture is wonderfully superfluous, and the language that expresses our experience of it is often wildly creative and relatively short-lived. In the past few years I have studied restaurant jargon (e.g., blender tender 'server who makes frozen drinks with a blender' and in the weeds 'swamped with work'); terms introduced by Buffy the Vampire Slayer or associated with it (e.g., Buffyatric 'an older fan of the show', diddy 'sex', 007 'debonair, in a stereotypically British manner', wiggins 'episode of fear, overexcitement, anxiety'); and infixing, or the practice of inserting an affix into a word, as opposed to prefixing or suffixing (e.g., absoschmuckinglutely, US-fucking-A Today). I am continually amazed, entertained, and edified by what I discover in what, for many but not for all, are peripheral regions of American vocabulary.

Some words introduced in these categories of the American experience may last for centuries, though we cannot predict which ones; others last only as long as the cultural phenomena that generate them. But they are all colorful, inventive responses to those phenomena, no less important because they are the linguistic products of living in a particular place, at a [End Page 383] particular time, doing particular things, the...


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pp. 382-384
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Archived 2005
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