or, stuff that I dragged out of my head

Location: Moncton, New Brunswick, Canada

Tuesday, January 03, 2012


A few days ago — that's me, always ahead of the curve — there was a Gawker article called These Words Are Now Banned From The English Language. If only! Some of them I don't mind so much: "amazing" held the number-one spot, and I can see how it might get kind of old, but I think it still has some life in it. Most of the others, though, I would love to see forcibly hauled off to an island and dumped into a volcano: "baby bump" is just disgusting (and although it didn't make the list, the British-journalist "yummy mummy" is even more revolting), "ginormous" is all used up, and "man-cave" is stupid and insulting.

But of course most of them are going to disappear in short order anyway, volcano or no. That's the way with slang: young people make up hundreds of new terms, most of which deservedly die as they age (the terms, not the people), and new words and usages rise up to take their place.

Last night for something to do I watched the Marilyn Monroe vehicle "How To Marry A Millionaire" on Netflix. (I'd never seen it and figured I might as well.) It was pretty bad, but it did contain a sterling example of slang that was so baffling, I couldn't tell if it was actually a term people used at the time or if the writer was trying to deliberately insert it into the popular culture*.

The first usage is perfectly normal:

"The [car] they sent for me had gold trim. Smooth, huh?"

Ordinary everyday agreement-by-elaboration, like responding to "Isn't he the best?" with "The very bestest". But then a little while later, when someone is describing an upcoming get-together:

"Sounds creamy to me."

What? That's really jarring, if not actually kind of creepy, because it sounds as if "dreamy" was intended instead. And then it gets worse:

"I saw a picture in Harper's Bazaar of a mountain shack. It was creamy."

(That isn't even the same character, so it's not as if one person is just using the term in an idiosyncratic manner: everybody who uses it and hears it acts as if it's entirely normal.)

And finally, in reaction to one character's upcoming wedding:

"Congratulations! We read about it on the plane. Just creamy!"

I just can't convince myself that people actually said this in the fifties.

And there's more. Look at this:

That's a Google ngram for the word "creamy" in published books from the beginning of time (okay, 1500) to the present day. Look closely at 1950: the word "creamy" begins a rapid plummet in usage. This tells us nothing about spoken English, of course, but it does clearly show that the usage of the word fell precipitously in the early 1950s and didn't recover until the present day.

There is only one possible explanation. "How To Marry A Millionaire" was released in 1953. The moviegoing public — and that would be a lot of people, because it was the fifth most popular movie of the year — were so horrified by the attempt at enforced slang that they made a pact never to speak or write the word again, and not until that generation had passed the baton to the next could the word be used in polite society.

*This rarely works, even in fiction. In the movie "Mean Girls", one member of a clique is trying to coin the slang word "fetch", as in "fetching": after a number of attempts, the queen bee snaps, "Stop trying to make 'fetch' happen! It's not going to happen!" Beth in the TV series "Newsradio" is slightly more successful: after she invents and employs the hilarious "bitchcakes" just to see if it would catch on (it's an adjective meaning "psycho", as in "She went totally bitchcakes"), her boss uses it just as if it had been in the lexicon for years.


Blogger Pinellas Thrifter said...

Lately I've been reading a lot of Agatha Christie, and a while back I also read Alan Bradley's "The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie". Those books remain the ONLY place where I have ever seen schemozzle in print. Thanks to your Google-fu, I was able to see that it seemed to be popular post-WWI, with various peaks from 30s to 70s, before dying back down to a whimper in the 1990s. Those wacky Brits and their Yiddish!

Tuesday, January 24, 2012 8:44:00 AM  

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