slang : the people's poetry (michael adams) love

slang : the people's poetry (michael adams)

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  • The best parts of this intermittently fascinating book by Michael Adams are those where he gives free rein to his enthusiasm for the recondite details of slang for a hugely diverse array of "language communities". The specific slang terms that he includes, from sources such as

    * inhabitants of the Buffieverse (Professor Adams is an acknowledged expert on Slayer slang)

    * restaurant jargon

    * stamp-collecting

    * snowboarding

    * soccer moms

    * raver culture

    * "hip" and "raunch" cultures

    * different online social networks

    are hugely entertaining and are by far the best part of this book.

    For those who just get a kick out of language, but who have neither a background in linguistics nor any professional involvement, the main attraction of this book will probably lie in these concrete examples (and the author's obvious delight in presenting them). Professor Adams does have his academic career to consider, so the book also contains a certain amount of - how to put this delicately - less accessible prose (you know, the kind of headache-inducing bumf that members of the academy seem to feel obliged to cobble together to confuse/intimidate/bore their colleagues and rivals into submission). I've never really been clear about why academic prose is so uniformly impenetrable. Since I am disposed to like Professor Adams, who establishes himself as a genial guide with a good sense of humor in the first two chapters, I will spare everyone the cheap shot of picking out a particularly bad sentence to mock as part of this review. Professor Adams has mercifully confined most of the worst academic jargon to the final chapter (roughly the last 40 pages out of 200), and for all I know, if you are steeped in Chomsky's linguistic theories and have a particular interest in cognitive linguistics (heck, if you even know what that is), it might be smooth sailing for you. But it's a safe bet that most people will have tuned out well before they reach that final tormented (and more or less incomprehensible) "slang as linguistic spandrel" metaphor.

    In a way, I felt kind of sorry for Professor Adams, that he felt the need to get all theoretical on us towards the end. At the outset, he appears to set himself a baffling, and completely unnecessary challenge, namely to come up with a definition of "slang". Not too surprisingly, he fails to do this in any convincing way, but I think perhaps he was just using the definition challenge as a device around which to structure his thoughts about slang. Other than the Chomsky-fest in the final chapter, the author's general remarks about slang (it represents a deliberate break with established conventions, often with the intent of defining a particular 'in'-group; commonly serves as a vehicle for people to show off their linguistic prowess/indulge their pleasure in language games) don't go beyond anything you hadn't already figured out for yourself.

    There were two specific points where I just couldn't share the author's enthusiasm (which just seemed endearingly goofy, but weird).

    Homeric infixing (the reference is to the Simpsons, not the Odyssey), exemplified by "edumacation", "saxamaphone", or the hideous Flanders variation where the infix is 'diddly', is neither as clever or as fascinating as Professor Adams appears to think. The amount of space devoted to this single linguistic tic was vast, baffling, and lethally boring.

    The phrase "how's it going, protozoan?" might have seemed clever, once, when some member of the author's family coined it at the breakfast table. It is not a phrase that deserves to appear in print more than once. That it appears repeatedly throughout the book, often in conjunction with even more regrettable phrases, such as "Please don't pout, my sauerkraut" and "Don't rock the boat, you billy goat!" is unfortunate, to say the least. It was as if Teddy Ruxpin had suddenly joined the debate.

    I was perfectly happy to excuse these lapses, given that the author provided several more entries to add to my list of euphemisms for the specific activity variously known as:

    bash the bishop, grip the gorilla, paddle the pickle, punish the pope, rub your radish, wave your wand, jerk the gherkin, tickle the pickle, yank the plank, jerk your jewels, gallop the antelope, etc etc etc...

    Other pleasures included the hundred or more slang terms for ecstasy included in the first chapter, the primer on dating and sex terms used by young soccer moms ('perma-laid', 'flirt buddies', 'coin-slot shot', 'spliff'), slayer slang, and snowboarding jargon. Not to mention learning such necessary urban survival terms as 'bagpiping', 'maple bar', 'lobbin' and 'cherryoke'. That last one is what you lose at your first karaoke performance - the others you'll have to research for yourself.

    Read this book for the fun examples and Michael Adams's infectious enthusiasm for language. The final 40 pages should be attempted only if you are feeling particularly masochistic.

    January 18, 2010