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Official Dictionary of Unofficial English-Grant-Barrett-0071458042

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of e-mail messages arrive in my inbox daily, each of them containing at least one potentially citable lexical item. Google News also permits searches in foreign languages, so unique phrases in French, English, and other languages likely to lend or borrow from English can be searched for, too—phrases such as “jargon anglais” or “espanglish.”

Although I have collected thousands of citations in this way since 2004, this method is far from perfect. For one thing, there are plenty of journalists who are culturally left behind, the kind of folks who are just now commenting on the novelty of “bling bling” even though it’s a word that has spread far since B.G. and the Cash Money Millionaires made it a household word in 1999. It’s so common, in fact, that it’s also now appearing in overseas Spanish as “blin blin.” These are the same journalists for whom the word “blog” is a novelty. Coined in 1999, I still regularly come across opinion pieces commenting on this newfangled “blog” thingy. Some journalists are on the cutting edge; some are still struggling to get out of the silverware drawer. This means that more than a few of the search results will be dead ends.

That’s not a criticism of the journalism profession so much as it’s an ordinary truth about all language speakers. Most words are new to most people most of the time. But most “newish” words that float about in the zeitgeist for any reasonable length of time will eventually come up using these collocation searches—even if it is five years later. Whenever they are encountered, whether they are brand-new or old hat, the most important thing is to get them on the record so they can begin the substantiation process.

In this way words that seem perfectly ordinary—like huck ‘to make a short toss’ or heartsink ‘dismay or disappointment’—can come to light. These terms were undocumented, as of this writing, in any of the hundreds of dictionaries, major and minor, that I now own or have access to.

It’s not just newspapers that can be searched this way. Online services such as Feedster, Technorati, Daypop, and PubSub also permit automated searching of material produced by nonjournalists who write on everyday subjects in Web logs, journals, and other personal sites. While blogs return far fewer good hits for each thousand search results than do newspapers—mainly because nonjournalist writers tend to be less formulaic than journalists and use



less-common collocations or no collocations at all, but also because the education and age range skews much lower for run-of-the-mill personal web sites—blogs have the advantage of returning far more slang and nonstandard language. In English alone there are more blogs, covering more topics, from more places, written by more people, than there are newspapers published in the entire world in any language. This means the possibilities for new lexical items bubbling to the surface are immense.

A bonus of word-hunting by looking for journalistic flags is immediacy. Not only can new or newly popular terms be identified by lexicographers very soon after they bubble to the surface, but they can be captured before periodicals archive their online content in fee-based archives. Automated alerts mean getting while the getting is good. It’s a financial and logistical nightmare to imagine even a large dictionary-making operation paying per article every time an editor wants to investigate a lexical item. Many of the larger periodicals do archive their content in Lexis Nexis or Factiva, where, although there are fees, at least the content is available. In an embarrassing number of cases, online stories are removed from periodicals’ web sites after a week or month and aren’t digitally archived anywhere that is easily accessible, for free or for fee. As far as the word-hunter is concerned, any unrecorded lexical items that could have been identified in those pages have vanished.

Personal web sites are also ephemeral. They are not only being created at a phenomenal rate, they are also going offline at a phenomenal rate, often with the entirety of their text disappearing forever. Sites like the Internet Archive (archive.org) have experimented with full-text searches of historical Internet archives, but there are logistical and legal complications with this, and even at their best, none of these Internet archive services can archive but a tiny fraction of the available content on the Internet. Again, instant alerts checked daily mean that any new word that is pointed out by a writer is more likely to be caught before the source disappears.

This method of word-hunting is by no means extraordinary. It’s simply a matter-of-fact use of the tools available so that one word-hunter can have a far better chance of recording interesting words as they zip by. Many tens of thousands—millions? possibly!— still go unrecorded, but I’ve captured a few of them here in this book.


About This Dictionar y

Criteria for Inclusion

A lexical item is first considered for inclusion in this book because it is interesting or new to me. Next, I check established works to see, first, if the item is there; second, if it is there, how it is defined; and third, if it is there, whether there is good reason to include it here, such as if the citation demonstrates a previously unrecorded sense, adds significantly to the history or understanding of the item, or clarifies a point previously in dispute. Most often consulted are the Oxford English Dictionary (OED) (online), WordNet, the New Oxford American Dictionary, Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary (11th ed.), the Dictionary of American Regional English, the Historical Dictionary of American Slang, and Cassell’s Dictionary of Slang. (See the Bibliography for more consulted works.)

After that, lexical items continue to be considered if they can be shown to exist in word-based media over a nontrivial period. “Nontrivial” is variable, depending upon the lexical item, the niche in which it was found, and the types of sources it is found in.


With a few exceptions, definitions are given only for those senses, including everyday and slang meanings, that are not well-covered by other dictionaries. Whip, for example, includes only the definition of “an automobile” and not definitions related to long cords used for beating, creating foam out of liquids, or a political figure in a deliberating body who persuades party members not to stray.

In a number of cases (such as with squick, huck, and hot box), more than one definition or part of speech is given together in a single entry. This usually indicates that the definitions or parts of speech are related and can be supported by the same batch of citations, although on occasion homonyms that have separate meanings for the same part of speech, as in the case of merk, are given together in a single entry.

Homonyms that have unrelated meanings for different parts of speech, such as the verb gank ‘to rob, rip off, or con (someone)’ and the noun gank ‘fake illegal drugs sold as real,’ are given in separate entries.


About This Dictionary

Parentheses are used in definitions to indicate a variable meaning. For example, at bed head, the definition is “a hairstyle in (intentional) disarray.” This means that sometimes bed head is disarray that is accidental and sometimes it means disarray by design.

Words that are cross-references to other entries in this dictionary are in small caps.

Each entry is marked with labels. These come in four types: references to place, such as Iraq or United States; references to language, such as Spanish or Japanese; references to subject, such as Crime & Prisons or Business; and references to register—the type of language in which the word tends to appear—such as Slang, Jargon, or Derogatory.


For this book, I’ve chosen a historical dictionary model, like that used by the Oxford English Dictionary, the Dictionary of American Regional English, and the Historical Dictionary of American Slang. In a historical dictionary (yes, I am American, and I believe a historical to be good American English; my aitch is very solidly pronounced), an entry is supported by citations of the headword in context over time, which can add nuance to the meaning, show the changing senses of the word, and give clues to the environments and situations in which it appears or has appeared.

Citation Coverage

It should not be assumed that a gap in citations represents a gap in usage, but that the lexical item was continuously used from at least as early as the first citation, through at least as late as the last one. However, it is not uncommon for a word to remain little-used for years or decades and then to spring to the fore. Chad, from the American presidential election of 2000, is a good example of this.

It also should not be assumed that the first cite is the first use ever of a lexical item. That kind of conclusive and certain statement can be made about very few words; at least, such statements about absolute firsts are not often made by reputable lexicographers. A work of this limited scope contributes to the understanding of the modern English lexicon, but it cannot presume to comprehensively and decisively determine the etymology or origin of all its headwords. Therefore, I have not made a life’s work out of finding the


About This Dictionary

absolute first citation for every entry. However, many entries include speculation as to origin or history, with many hedges and caveats, and, in nearly all cases, the existing digital resources mentioned earlier have been checked in as thorough a fashion as possible. I have also made a consistent effort with citations to cover a broad range of usages, spellings, nuances, and sources.

In rare cases, a definition or sense is given that is not fully supported by the citations shown. This could be because I used resources that cannot be quoted due to ownership or copyright restrictions. It also could be because I have found but not entered other citations that were difficult to document properly because they lacked important identifying information such as date or author.

Sometimes I included citations that are not exactly appropriate for the word as I have defined it. In these cases, the entire cite is contained within brackets [ ]. Such citations are included either because I know they are related to the definition given, though the citation insufficiently shows this (usually because it is a variation or another part of speech for the same concept), or because my lexicographical instincts suggest the citation and the headword are related. In the latter case, it is important to include such evidence so that the dictionary reader is aware that it exists and can judge it accordingly.

Citations are pulled from a variety of word-based media: periodicals, news wires, blogs, academic papers and journals, online bulletin boards, Usenet, my personal e-mail, books, television, movies, the wide-open Internet, radio and chat transcripts, and anything else I find. In the hunt for word histories, I have relied heavily on periodical databases and have cited periodicals more often than any other media. It should not be assumed that newspapers or other periodicals are the primary means by which new words are spread, just that they are where lexical items are the easiest to find.

Except for citations pulled from transcriptions of oral speech, there are no oral cites here. Such collection methods are beyond the scope of a book of this small size and given the free-form and freeflowing nature of much that is written on Internet discussion forums, the gap between oral language and the written record is not as large as it once was. In addition, requiring that a lexical item


About This Dictionary

appear in print ensures at least some minimal level of widespread acceptance, which is useful for eliminating fly-by-night words and terms of passing fancy more likely to crop up in records of oral speech.

Bibliographic Information Included in Citations

As is the case with other historical dictionaries, sufficient information is included in the citations so that the scholar can re-find the original source, if desired. This means that titles are sometimes abbreviated in what I hope is a logical fashion.

In some cases, particularly on the Internet, bibliographic information is not available when citable text is found. I have done my best to determine this information, but in some cases it has proven impossible for sites of relatively high value. Therefore, authors of which I am not certain are included in brackets. Dates about which I am uncertain are marked with an asterisk. If anything else about a citation is questionable, a citation simply has not been used to support an entry.

Where author names are bracketed, it is often the case that it is known to be a pseudonym, especially in Internet citations. Online monikers or handles are common and in some cases, especially for prolific or well-known users, they are just as good at identifying a person as a real name. Mark Twain is a good historical example of this; Mimi Smartypants is a good Internet-era example.

The @ symbol is used in two ways in citations. First, when followed by a place, it indicates the dateline or place where the story was reported from. In the case of Web logs, this may mean that a soldier serving in Iraq has a dateline of Baghdad, although his web site is hosted in Santa Cruz, California. Second, when the work being cited was found within another work, such as a short story appearing in an anthology or a newspaper quoting from a novel, the @ symbol connects the two citations.

In cases where two dates are given for a citation—one at the head of the citation and another near the end, a citation has been pulled from a work that has been published more than once. The newest date is given to indicate the date of the edition we are citing from (and whose pagination we are using), while the oldest date is given to indicate the year the work was first published.


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Digital Citations

All citations pulled from resources found on the Internet are marked with Int. Citations from print publications that republish their content on the Internet are treated stylistically as if they were print publications (meaning, for example, that the publication title is italicized), but they will include Int. in place of page numbers. A few publications do indicate in their online versions of articles on what page in the print edition they appeared. These page numbers are recorded with the citations when available.

I am necessarily required to trust that the information provided by digital databases is correct. This is often fine, as the actual page images can be viewed and the information verified there, but in the case of archives such as Factiva and Lexis Nexis, the bibliographic information is not always exact. However, given that access to both of those archiving services is widespread and that citations recorded in this book include strings of word-for-word text, the modern scholar will have little difficulty in searching for those citations on either database and thus turning up the original source with ease. I am assured by my fellow modern word-hunters that fulltext searches are by far the preferred method for finding a specific, known quotation, much less going to microfilm or hard copy when a digital version is available.

In other cases, especially in the case of NewspaperArchive (newspaperarchive.com), while full page images are provided, they often do not include page numbers, especially in older periodicals, and the page numbers assigned by NewspaperArchive bear no real relation to the original pagination. I have done my best to correct for this, but there are bound to be citations for which my efforts have failed. However, as the quotation and everything else about the citation is correct, the citation has lost little of its value in supporting an entry.

Editing Citations

Punctuation is usually Americanized, but spelling is not. Double hyphens are converted to em-dashes. Spaces around em-dashes are removed. For readability, ellipses, em-dashes, quotes, and apostrophes are converted to the proper form: ellipses of more or less than three periods are made three, hyphens used where em-dashes are expected are turned into em-dashes, straight quotes are made


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curved. For space and appearance reasons, e-mail- or Usenet-style quoting of previous messages is usually silently removed and converted to standard double-curved quotes, as it would appear in a dialogue, leaving the words themselves intact. Multiple spaces after punctuation are made single. Line and paragraph breaks are not retained. Text is often elided or redacted in order to properly document a word without a lot of verbiage, and such cut text is replaced with an ellipsis. Headlines that appear in all capital letters are converted to initial caps; words in all caps that appear in quotes are made lowercase or initial capped, as necessary.

Obvious typographical or spelling errors are corrected when found in the bibliographic information of professional texts, but usually not if found in the quote itself, not when part of an eyedialect or other form of intentional misspelling, not in a casual or personal communication (such as a blog entry, letter, or e-mail message), and not when there is uncertainty about what the correct text should be. Errors that are due to bad optical character recognition or other transcription methods are corrected in bibliographic information, but not in quotes. Some spelling errors in quotes are corrected with bracketed text in a small number of cases, as in the 1880 cite for bull tailing. These corrections contribute to a better overall readability, while not diminishing the ability to refind the original cite source, if it is so desired.


Changing English

Language change is consistent: soldiers—and any group of likeminded young men and women—have always developed a shorthand that both makes their tasks easier to do and establishes camaraderie. In the time it took to compile a dictionary of this small size, thousands of new words have been coined and used. Some start on their way to word-lives of fame and fortune. Others die horrible deaths in places like the LiveJournals of young goth girls or the cheap column inches of a trend-watcher’s marketing e-mail. Millions of second-language English speakers will mix their mother tongue with their adopted one. A sportscaster will invent a witty new use for an old word he half-remembers from psychology. Three children in Ohio will call the new kid a new obscenity based upon a part of the body.

The following essays do a bit of digging and noodling on the subject of language change, covering such things as melanges of English and different appellations for the white man and Westerner around the world. They are dedicated to Arturo Alfandari of Belgium, who invented the rather nice, but mostly forgotten, little language of Neo. He demonstrated quite well that it doesn’t matter how good a language invention is: it doesn’t count unless people use it.

Words of the Latest War

One of the most productive areas of new American language has always been the military. This is partly due to the need for shortcuts for long ideas, and partly due to the natural jargon that arises from any group of persons with a common purpose, as well as the need to de-jargonize: they make acronyms out of phrases and nouns and verbs out of acronyms. Still other terms come from the dark humor, youthful rambunctiousness, and gung-ho spirit soldiers tend to have.

The 2003 American invasion of Iraq, still ongoing as of this writing, has been no less productive linguistically. It’s too early to say with certainty whether any of these words will have staying power, but as long as such words continue to fill a need, they will continue to be used.


Changing English

Motivated soldiers learn the local languages in order to foster more genial relations and demonstrate a willingness to understand the natives, but like dinky-dau “crazy,” brought back from the Vietnam War, most foreign words are unlikely to survive except as historical footnotes. Refer to the dictionary for the citations of the words used in this article.

ali baba n. thief. After the government of Saddam Hussein was toppled, uncontrolled looting ravaged the country—anything of value, and many things that weren’t, were stolen or destroyed. Looters, and, generally, any thieves, are called ali baba, by Iraqis, after the tale of “Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves,” told by Scheherazade in the stories known in the West as Thousand and One Nights. American soldiers who have served in Iraq say they tend not to use the term as a noun, but as a verb meaning “to steal”: “We’re gonna ali baba some scrap metal from their junkyard.”

angel n. among American military medical personnel in Iraq, a soldier killed in combat. It is probably a coincidence that Jose Angel Garibay was one of the first coalition soldiers, if not the first, killed in Iraq after the American invasion.

Eye-wreck n. a jocular name for Iraq; a cynical reflection on some observers’ opinions of the state of the war.

fobbit n. a soldier or other person stationed at a secure forward operating base; (hence) someone who seeks the security and comfort of a well-protected military base. From forward operating base + hobbit. A variation is FOB monkey. A more common synonym is rearechelon motherfucker, or REMF, which dates back to at least as early as the Vietnam War. Others synonyms are pogue, from the World War II or earlier, and the more recent base camp commando.

goat grab n. at gatherings or celebrations in the Middle East, a communal self-served meal of meat and vegetables eaten with the hands. This term is used informally by Anglophones not native to the culture. Such meals are usually convivial, and in the case of the current war in Iraq, they are seen by the coalition forces as an opportunity for improving community relations. The food eaten in a goat grab is often a form of mansef, which includes rice with almonds and pine nuts, shrak (a thin, round wheat bread), goat (sometimes