Works up to a pointy

Slayer Slang
February 27, 2004

Reading English at Albright College in Reading, where Michael Adams chairs the department, must present a challenge to the students.

"Whuppage" (the word for work in slayer slang) involves watching reruns of Buffy The Vampire Slayer . No doubt slayer classes are wimp-free, but super vamps are a muchly constant threat. In the run-up to exams, "wiggins" (episodes of fear or overexcitement) are common, and commencement is something of a "suck fest" (an orgy of murders by vampires).

To go back to English, it is fair to point out that Adams is a lexicographer of some distinction. He edits the journal of the Dictionary Society of North America, and his introductory essays here present a powerful case for taking seriously the changing usage of word forms in contemporary popular culture. This argument is well made by Adams, though not as persuasively as by Walt Whitman, who observed that "slang is the fermentation or eructation of those processes eternally active in language, by which froth and specks are thrown up, mostly to pass away, though occasionally to settle permanently and crystallise". Methinks that Adams doth protest too much, and the Aunt Sally he sets up - he abhors those who believe "that the only good words are old words" - is not a plausible or persuasive relative.

I have no doubt that we should pay attention to new linguistic life forms, whether they emerge in Ted Hughes' poetry, Australian bars or Buffy. But having paid attention, what do we find? Will any froth and specks of Buffyspeak crystallise, or are they mere ephemera that will vanish when Sarah Michelle Gellar has grown up? Adams tries to persuade us that Buffy is not just another series about life in a Californian high school built above a hellmouth. The scriptwriters, he thinks, are self-consciously trying to expand the linguistic envelope: one of them, herself a linguist, provides an introduction to this lexicon, which suggests that that is indeed their intention. But are they successful?

Up to a point. Adams cites a few witty and imaginative new usages. I enjoyed "pointy": "Punishing yourself like this is pointless," says Giles the Watcher. No, says Buffy, "it's entirely pointy". "Cuddle-monkey" (male lover) has a naive charm, as does "carbon dated" for out of fashion. And one or two of the contemporary political references are witty and muscular.

I enjoyed in particular: "Don't invade her personal space or she'll go all, like, special forces on you."

But simply adding "y" or "age" to a word does not a new language make.

"Geometry is of the greatest suckage alive" should not have escaped from the fourth-form toilet. "Untopicyness", the "condition of being off the subject", is neither neat nor amusing and "angsty" and "depressedy" seem unlikely to trouble the compilers of the next edition of the Oxford English Dictionary .

In fact, the scriptwriters' talents have been focused on creating a lexicon of neologisms that reinforce and expand the image of the programme. So Buffydom and the Buffyverse bred Buffyspeak, in which Buffyholics chat Buffyly ("in Buffy's quippy manner") to each other. They dread the end of the series, when we shall all be sadly Buffyless.

Buffyatric (elderly) fans may think this is all too much of a good thing.

If so, they would surely be right. Adams' lexicon is, as Buffy would say in one of her more reflective moods, an egregious example of "ubermarketing".

Buffy should give him a five-by-five researchy contract, to spare the Albright students any further outbreaks of wiggins.

Howard Davies is director, LondonSchool of Economics and Political Science.

Slayer Slang: A Buffy the Vampire Slayer Lexicon

Author - Michael Adams
Publisher - University Press
Pages - 308
Price - £12.99
ISBN - 0 19 516033 9

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