Idiom Savant

Laura Miller reviews 'Idiom Savant' by Jerry Dunn and 'America in So Many Words by David K. Barnhart and Allan A. Metcalf

By Laura Miller

Published December 3, 1997 8:00PM (EST)

Sometimes, especially when you're a writer yourself, books are just too much -- all those important titles you'll never get to, some you've never even heard of because who has time to read reviews, anyway? There are days when focusing on a narrative as elementary as a fairy tale feels like a Herculean task. But individual words will never let you down or stress you out. At times of maximum literary saturation, they can even have a therapeutic effect, which is why frazzled writers sometimes find that the only tolerable part of a bookstore is the reference section.

These two new additions to that soothing precinct offer snapshots of language at its most plastic. David Barnhart and Allan Metcalf have combed source works and select one "new" word to characterize signal years in American history for their book, "America in So Many Words." For 1555 it's "canoe;" for 1588 it's "skunk," words that name palpable and natural objects in the New World. In the 1700s, social concepts like "squatter" (1790) and "logrolling" (1792) move in. The 1800s bring inventions like the graham cracker (1882) and the credit card (1888). Some words -- "backpack" (1914) and "groovy" (1937) -- have surprisingly venerable pedigrees, while some apparent basics, such as "bathtub" (1870), turn out to be relative neologisms. The authors' chirpy patriotism lite may annoy the kind of reader who hates USA Today, but taken in small doses, it's an acceptable price to pay for learning that "OK" ("America's most successful linguistic export") was invented by a Boston newspaper in 1839.

Less scholarly, but more fun, is Jerry Dunn's "Idiom Savant," a collection of slang terms from various American subcultures, gathered largely with the help of Internet newsgroups. Predictably, the comprehensiveness of each section varies according to how forthcoming Dunn's sources were in each group. The section for "computer users" can't hold a candle to that all-time slang classic, "The Hacker's Dictionary," but the black humor in the lingo glossary for hospital workers alone is worth the price of admission. They call the medical history of a hypochondriac an "organ recital" and describe a shooting victim as suffering from "lead poisoning." A "pop drop" is when "a family parks their elderly, incapacitated father at the hospital so they can have a vacation," and you really don't want to know what "bobbing for apples" means.

Along with jazz musicians, surfers have proven one of the most fertile sources of slang words for decades, and it's fascinating to see how certain terms -- like calling a pretty woman a "betty" and a klutzy novice a "barney" -- thread through various recreational subcultures and professions whose members are mostly young men. Mountain climbers, for example, call advance information about a particular climb a "beta," which probably derives from the software programmers' term for a test version of a new product. For the most part, however, browsers will find that the charm of "Idiom Savant" lies in its glimpses of tart, behind-the-scenes cynicism. It's cheering somehow to know that TV crews call the unrehearsed banter on local news shows "drooling" and that a dimwitted anchor is referred to as "meat with eyes." Fashion folk identify a badly dressed retail customer as "butt soup," and top-notch air-traffic controlling is dubbed "swinging tin." Audiophiles discuss the "WAF," or "Wife Acceptance Factor," of the large items of stereo equipment they prize and poker players have nicknamed a pair of queens "Siegfried and Roy."

Slang dictionaries exhilarate because they fly in the face of strict usage purists and other officious types -- the pinch-lipped correctors of the world. Slang proves that language comes alive when regular people treat it like the vast, evolving, mutually created organism that it is. Discovering a deftly turned slang phrase is like witnessing a surfer punch through to the pope's living room; it's killer.

Laura Miller

Laura Miller is the author of "The Magician's Book: A Skeptic's Adventures in Narnia."

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