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American Slang Is 'Strat'

Novel Taps Rich Vein of Original Slang

When you talk about a schmaltzy movie, voodoo economics, or moving something a skosh, are you thinking about Yiddish, Japanese or West African languages? Probably not, but you just used words from these three widely disparate linguistic traditions.

What’s the connection? America, of course, and its long history of incorporating expressions from an astonishingly varied mix of heritages into a uniquely homegrown version of English.

While some cultures get into a kerfuffle (Gaelic origin) about which bon mots (French) should be accepted into official usage, U.S. slang is often invented out of whole cloth (“heebie-jeebies” was coined by Barney Google comic strip artist Billy De Beck in 1923, who also minted “horsefeathers” and "hotsy-totsy") or derived from foreign sources. “Skosh,” for instance, is an Americanized version of the Japanese word sukoshi.

Berkeley author Charles Smith has long had a fascination with the polyglot Pidgin English of Hawaii, where he spent his youth. Unsurprisingly, Pidgin inspires much of the slang his smart-alec Hispanic-Anglo protagonist Daz employs in Smith’s debut novel, I-State Lines.

“While malahinis (newcomers) are thrilled to learn a few Hawaiian words such as mauka (mountain) and makai (sea), locals continue to invent Pidgin expressions that draw upon all the languages which immigrants have brought to Hawaii,” Smith says. Instead of saying you have to visit the restroom, for example, one Pidgin alternative is “I gotta 5-4-4.” In Japanese, 5-4-4 is pronounced “go shi-shi.” Since shi-shi means to relieve oneself, the expression combines Japanese and English in a unique numeric code inexplicable to either Japanese or English speakers.

Where did L.A.-born Daz learn Hawaiian Pidgin? From his best buddy, of course, Hawaii transplant Alex. But in true American fashion, Daz isn’t content to learn Hawaiian Pidgin; he must make it his own. Thus, “loco-moco,” which in Hawaii is a quick meal of fried egg, hamburger patty, rice and gravy, is transformed in Daz’s lexicon into “frenzied anger.”

The root of Daz’s interpretation, Smith explains, is clearly the Spanish word “loco.” But other phrases in Daz’s lexicon of slang have less obvious roots. Mambo, for instance, is drawn from Swahili, while gatta-gatta is a Japanese expression meaning bumpy or rough. Riffing off the Japanese propensity for double word phrases leads Daz to phrases such as “mango-mango” and “humba-humba.”

“Gita,” a Sanskrit word which literally means song, is transformed by Daz into a term for money. “It’s Daz’s ironic way of saying that money has taken on a quasi-spiritual meaning in our culture,” Smith explains. “Regardless of their professed religious beliefs, Daz observes that most people seem to worship money above all else.”

Though Smith says that he minted all of Daz’s slang in the early to mid-90s when he first drafted the novel, he has since found that some of his invented words are, alas, not unique. “Humba-humba,” Daz’s expression for an appeal for divine intervention, shows up in web searches as a collection of German drinking songs. “Jank,” Daz’s made-up word for anything inauthentic, is a German surname which was appropriated a few years ago by urban teenagers to mean everything from “junk” to “brutality;” the website lists over 40 meanings for the word.

Much of Daz’s vocabulary comes not from made-up words but from existing words to which he assigns new meanings, based on their associations or sounds. Thus the words “fricative,” hoboken,” and “katakana” acquire new definitions in Daz’s lexicon. Katakana, for example, is the Japanese script reserved for words of foreign origin; Daz adapts the word into an adjective meaning foreign or strange. Frappe, a French word meaning either strike or chill, becomes “frapped,” an expression of being disjointed or out of sorts.

Smith sees Daz’s dozens of newly minted phrases as a uniquely American process writ small. “The American people are constantly integrating new words from the many languages immigrants bring with them to the U.S., and in that sense Daz is simply a hyper-American character, assimilating and adapting words in a uniquely American way.”

For his character Daz, Smith explains, developing a private language is also a way of carving out a world separate from the media-dominated universe inhabited by most young people. “Daz is very much a rebel against groupthink,” Smith says, “from his rejection of a media-soaked existence to the homogenization of slang. Like all youth, he wants a lexicon which is opaque to adults. But unlike most youth, he isn’t interested in the latest slang unless it’s his own.”

Smith says he is unconcerned by the likelihood that Daz’s slang will never enter common usage. “I happen to think Daz’s word for ‘great,’ strat, is pretty good,” he says, “but the point of Daz’s lexicon isn’t to invent new slang. It’s to encourage young people to stand apart from fads and groupthink, especially that of their peers.”

(796 words)

I-State Lines publication date: April 2006


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All content and coding copyright © 2006 by Charles Hugh Smith, all rights reserved. The right to reprint or adapt this feature story is expressly granted to professional journalists working in any media or language.


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