Schwa! Popular slang dictionary marks 20th anniversary at UCLA
Crafted by linguistic students, it's been providing 'eargasms' since 1989
By Meg Sullivan July 29, 2009 Category: Arts & Humanities
Sister from another mister. Off the heezie. Recessionista. Bromance.
When you hear undergraduates utter these and other bewildering words and phrases, are you suddenly overcome with FOMO?
Now, I don't want to get all up in your biznatch — that is, to meddle in your business. But if the answer to the question is "full-on," you might want to check out the latest edition of "U.C.L.A. Slang."
Produced every four years in conjunction with an undergraduate linguistics course, the dictionary has become an institution at UCLA, where the slim volume with a yellow cover has been providing "eargasms" since 1989.
With more than 1,000 entries, "U.C.L.A. Slang 6" aims to serve as the latest word on slang used on the Westwood campus that — if students are correct — is "Under Construction Like Always."
In addition to being used on campus, successful submissions had to be unlikely to appear in a conventional dictionary. If the words and phrases also had the potential to puzzle parents, so much the better.
"I tell my students, 20 years from now, you're still going to be using this slang," said Pamela Munro, the dictionary's founding editor and a UCLA professor of linguistics. "You're going to learn some new words but you're still going to be using these words and phrases, and people are going to think it dates you, because it will."
Munro added, "People in general are very creative and come up with lots of wonderful new words that may or may not catch on, and our goal is to capture the vivid, colloquial words and phrases associated with a specific subculture — UCLA students."
But thanks to the role that the entertainment industry plays in introducing and spreading slang, the dictionary may actually capture more.
"Slang seems to originate on the West Coast and move east because of Hollywood and the recording industry," said Munro, a noted authority on dictionary creation. "So 'U.C.L.A. Slang' tends to be a harbinger of slang that already is — or soon will be — spoken across the country."
For something so irreverent and lighthearted, "U.C.L.A Slang" is the product of a surprisingly regimented process. With each version, student contributors start from scratch, collecting potential entries from casual conversations with friends and fellow students, Munro said. The whole class discusses submissions entry by entry, working out a consistent way of analyzing the words and presenting entries, refining definitions and indicating usage, and clarifying examples, spelling and pronunciation.
"Students learn a lot about grammar, language and linguistics," said Munro, whose credits include dictionaries in Zapotec, Chickasaw and Wolof. "You can study anything you want about ordinary language through the medium of slang."
The 160-page volume, complete with terms, definitions, parts of speech, sample sentences, usage notes and the etymology of words and phrases, provides a glimpse into how language in general and slang in particular form and evolve.
"Schwa" — a synonym for "wow" — exemplifies the rarest approach to slang creation: pulling new words out of thin air, Munro said.
"Most slang employs language already in use in the mainstream," she said. "A subgroup merely assigns a new meaning to an existing word or phrase."
"Destroy," for instance, means the opposite of what you would think: to do well on something like a test, according to "Slang 6." And the phrase "dropping the kids off at school" has a scatalogical rather than an educational meaning.
Nouns mysteriously become verbs, as in "napster," now slang for the verb "to interrupt," and verbs morph into nouns, as in "epic fail," now slang for "what a mistake!" Nouns also become adjectives, with "Obama" now used as slang for "cool or rad," as in: You just aced that exam — you are so Obama!
Borrowing words from other languages is also an option. "Mija," which is Spanish for "my daughter" and slang for female friend, and "papi chulo," Spanish slang for male friend, made the grade for the first time in "Slang 6."
The lingo of texting provided such visual entries as "QQ," an emoticon similar to a smiley face that, in this instance, stands for the verb "to cry."
Rhyming helps phrases like "sisters from another mister" and "brothers from another mother" — slang for friends so close they seem like siblings — catch on and spread, Munro explains.
When only a new word will do, blending — that is, adding the beginning of one word to the end of another word — is a common approach, Munro said. For example, "bromance" (brother + romance) is slang for an extremely close platonic friendship. Other blended confections from "Slang 6" include the noun "recessionista," a penny-pinching turn on "fashionista" (slang for "fashion maven" in flusher times), and "eargasm," which blends "ear" and "orgasm" to describe the sensation of hearing a beautiful sound.
Abbreviation is another gold mine, Munro said. Clipping — cutting a syllable or two from a commonly accepted word — produces words like the verb "presh," short for precious, and the adjective "bellig," which rhymes with fridge and is short for belligerent and drunk. Taking the first initials of a common phrase can result in a catchy initialism such as I.D.K., which is slang for "I don't know." Once those initials start being pronounced as a full blown word, they've evolved into an acronym like FOMO, which rhymes with "majordomo" and stands for "fear of missing out."
What Munro calls "reverse alphabetism," meanwhile, repurposes initials to provide a new, amusingly apt definition for widely accepted initialisms such as "Under Construction Like Always" for UCLA or "University of Spoiled Children" for USC, UCLA's cross-town rival. Neither is new, but both are still in use, thus their place in "Slang 6."
In fact many of the dictionary entries will feel familiar and comfortable. Mom and Dad need feel no pressure to forego "cool" for "off the hezzie," "off the hook" or any other new fangled expression for youthful enthusiasm that debut in "U.C.L.A. Slang 6."
"'Cool' is still in there," Munro said. "Cool is one of those words where everybody knows the word, but still thinks it's slang."
The public may order copies by visiting www.linguistics.ucla.edu/faciliti/opl.htm, calling 310-825-0634 or contacting the UCLA Department of Linguistics at 3125 Campbell Hall, Box 951543, Los Angeles, Calif. 90095-1543.
For more news, visit the UCLA Newsroom.