Calgary Herald, Jan 5, 2014
One otherwise pleasant afternoon when my kids were young teenagers, they collapsed in fits of giggles when I asked what “mad props” meant. They were laughing so hard they couldn’t sputter out an answer even if they wanted to.
When they wiped the tears from their eyes long enough to see that I was getting more than a little exasperated with the mocking, they laughed even harder. It was only when I threatened to ground them that the little brats managed to spit out that “mad props” means “huge congratulations.”
Really. Was that so difficult?
Who knows whether the term, which may have derived from “proper respect” will have the same staying power as “dude,” which may have originated with the 16th century “dudde” for men’s clothing. I didn’t know that back in high school when one other pleasant afternoon, my mom said “dude.” My eyes almost rolled out of my head as I informed her: “No one says dude anymore.” She hung up on me. Like so many other things, it turns out she was right and I was wrong.
Or does anyone use that cloying quasi-apology anymore? When my sister, a high school teacher, first heard her students throw it around, she thought they were saying “my bod.” A forgivable mistake given the phrase may have come from a mishearing of “my bag,” a jailhouse term used when you messed up playing cards.
The evolution of language is an endless telephone game. It’s hard to keep up. “Sick” (as in good) has become “ill” (as in good). Depending the source, the term started with South London’ dubstep crowd in the 1990s or skateboarders in the 1980s. Then again, it can also be traced all the way back to the 1920s when jazz fans would say “bad” when they meant “very, very good.”
Those hep cats were a prolific bunch in the slang department. But the absolute bee’s knees for coming up with new lingo was Shakespeare.
Someone counted and apparently Shakespeare created about 2,000 words. He was no slouch at inventing expressions either. Bill Bryson lists a few in his wonderful book, The Mother Tongue: English and How it Got That Way. You can thank Shakespeare for one fell swoop, in my mind’s eye, cold comfort, salad days, cruel to be kind and many, many more. “As a phrasemaker, there has never been anyone to match him,” says Bryson. “No one in any tongue has ever made greater play of his language.”
But over at UrbanDictionary.com, they’re giving the Bard a run for his money (origin, horse racing). If you want to spare yourself the humiliation of asking a kid, check the site to decipher what the punks are talking about. Or what Beyonce is singing about.
Be warned, it’s not for the faint of heart or those who those think surfboarding is only an ocean sport. It’s also a bedroom sport. (Thanks Beyoncé). Of course, sexual innuendo in our expressions is nothing new. For Shakespeare (and cheeseballs) “action” means sexual activity. “Account” is code for lady parts. (For the rest of the alphabet, see Shakespeare’s Sexual Language, A Glossary, by Gordon Williams). More recently, there’s “in like Flynn” which comes from the 1940s ladies’ man, Errol Flynn, a fact that may be lost on many who use the term in pleasant company.
Other expressions are a little safer around Grandma. My mom used to say something would “hurt like ol’ Billy-O.” She’s not around to ask why. But Google is. The expression may refer to Joseph Billio, a 17th century Puritan preacher known for his hellfire zeal, a 19th century steam engine called the “Puffing Billy” or an Italian soldier who would charge into battle encouraging his men to follow and “fight like Biglio.”
Other Billies are less cryptic. I recently heard an 80-ish woman describe a fireplace renovation gone wrong by saying: “It was smoking like Billy!” Her sister nodded in complete understanding while those of us a generation younger just looked at each other, blinking. “Smoking like Billy?” we asked. “Well sure,” she said, looking straight at her sister: “Don’t you remember how much Billy smoked?
People these days are likely to smoke electronic cigarettes. So much so that the Oxford Dictionary’s 2014 word of the year is “vape,” to describe the inhaling of vapour from e-cigarettes. 2013’s word was selfie. 2012 was GIF. Who knows what 2015 may bring.
Which leads nicely to the part where I was going to say best wishes for the year ahead. But I’ve just learned “best wishes” can mean giving money to a prostitute to secure future services or a sarcastic way of saying “I hope you die tonight for what you’ve done.”
So in that case, I’ll stick with Happy New Year.