Every collection is different. Some are good remedies for insomnia, while others are interesting and have some really blog worthy items hidden within the folders. My current processing project is the Dr. Stewart Kingsbury papers (MSS-329). Kingsbury was an English professor at Northern Michigan University (NMU), 1969-1991. One of his interests was in dialects of English. In the late 1960s, Kingsbury became active in a computerized dialect survey of Upper Michigan English.
The ‘gem’ I unearthed is a paper, entitled Campus Slang; A Survey, written by L. K. Wirtanen of the class of 1973 for EN404: The English Language, taught by Dr. Zacharias Thundy in 1972 (course description: “(t)he background of both the grammar of present-day English and the historical development of the language. The definition of and status of language; the sounds, inflections, and syntax of modern English; the historical development of grammatical signals; usage; dialect geography; and the position of English among world languages”). Wirtanen first provides some background to the topic and then asserts that the “off-hand jargon of virtually any standard garden-variety college student might well be incomprehensible to a Gulliver’s traveler from the outer world.” Wirtanen goes on to detail the methodology behind the survey, composed of 75 questions pertaining to “grades, student-teacher relationships, sex, drugs, social relationships and extra-curricular activities.” Each question lists a number of responses, along with a space for ‘other’ responses. Each student also included demographic information; gender, birthdate and place, and college status.
Twenty five students filled out the survey, sixteen females and nine males. Most were from Michigan, but there was one graduate student, a male, from Dieberg, Germany.
I was particularly interested in the paper, because I attended and graduated from NMU in the late 1970’s, so I wondered if I could recognize the slang terms identified in the report.
Wirtanen includes a glossary/dictionary of certain slang words, gathered from the responses to the questionnaire. Some are probably still in use today, such as blast – defined as a noun meaning an enjoyable time or as a verb meaning to give vent to anger. Book it – a verb meaning to study diligently and usually the night preceding an important exam was not at all familiar, while another term with the same meaning cram is still probably used today.
Brown-up – a verb meaning to play up or flatter a teacher was unfamiliar, but we have all heard its synonym, brown nose. Cut out, a verb meaning to leave a place, person or situation was also unfamiliar. Wirtanen did leave an editorial comment that this term was used less frequently.
Creep, which Wirtanen defined as a noun, was a derogatory term for a bothersome male and is still in use today, as is gross – an adjective meaning crude, crass or vulgar. Grubs a noun meaning old, near to rags, but extremely comfortable clothes; may have fallen out of favor, but everyone still has their ”grubbies” and we’ve all had our share of ”Mickey Mouse” classes.
Burned out is a mainstream term these days as is one of the definitions of bear – meaning an angered or hostile person. In determining its contemporary status, I used an online dictionary.
I remember far out being used, while rap has changed from meaning ‘to talk, converse, usually about some deep subject’ to a form of music.
In the paper, Wirtanen also includes the survey, the response rate for some of the choices in the survey and lastly, additional slang responses recorded on the survey. To be included in the alternate slang responses, a term had to be used at least four times. Some of those responses are interesting, who has ever heard of the phrase turn ralph, meaning make a right turn or zanked to mean drunk?
I’m sure that if I were to administer the survey to my college age colleagues, some of their responses would be totally different from the ones in this paper. I confess to still using some of these terms, especially ‘boogie’ (to leave or go), much to the dismay and eye rolling of my children.
This collection is still being processed, but once it is on the shelves anyone can come in and look at the slang paper for themselves.
This post was written by Karen Kasper.