Love - like a grammatical shift - can make you do the wacky

July 18, 2003

Karen Gold talks to the English professor whose first flingage with Buffy the Vampire Slayer turned into a passiony five-year lexical affair.

Angst over grammar much? Michael Adams, Buffy über-nerd and chair of the English department at Albright College in Reading, Pennsylvania, has a new book called Slayer Slang that will get language purists all rampagey.

The story starts on a quiet evening in 1998, with Adams, 41, idly channel-hopping over a TV dinner in his apartment. "I heard the sentence 'Love makes you do the wacky'," he recalls. "Like any good linguist, I immediately thought, 'That's an interesting functional shift from adjective to noun.'"

The show he alighted on was Buffy the Vampire Slayer: an American high-school drama set in the fictional California town of Sunnydale, which happens to be populated by vampires and situated on a Hellmouth. To an adolescent audience, it's a not unrealistic recreation of their emotional battleage. To Adams, contributing author to the Middle English Dictionary and American Heritage Dictionary, and editor of the journal of the Dictionary Society of North America, it was an instant wordfest: "I started taking quotations from it that first night. I brought examples to class. I worked on it a bit every day for a year and then realised that I had accumulated a considerable amount of material - and that there were patterns in that material, and in the relationship between words used in the show and outside."

Bookwormy? Not entirely. He transcribed videos, read Buffy novels and comic strips, and lurked virtually among contributors to the two main Buffy posting boards, Bronze and Beta. With the annual American Dialect Society conference looming, he resolved that the lexical world should be Buffy -less no longer. It was time for a paper.

Adams' argument, extended in the book, is that the series creates a perfect case study for the way new words and forms succeed or fail to enter spoken and written language. Buffy 's original author, Joss Whedon, subsequently emulated by teams of scriptwriters, had a taste for recycling California slang, inventing vampire jargon, piling on prefixes and suffixes and, above all, booting ordinary words into new circumstances by changing their grammatical status.

So Buffy the show contains completely new words (riddichio), new compounds (rumble-free), abbreviated words and phrases (I'll bail [out]; my mist(ake)), blends (vampnap), and cultural references (Mr I-Loved- The-English-Patient ). But its most easily identifiable linguistic tic is the appearance of a familiar word in a new identity. Such grooviness would give any lexicographer a happy.

And in anticipation, they turned up in droves for Adams' paper: "We held the meeting with the Linguistic Society of America, and the room was packed with fans of the show." They included an editor for Oxford University Press; its Old Ones were persuaded with little difficulty that Slayer Slang deserved a place on their list. " Buffy is very culturally savvy in its use of language," says Nicholas Shearing, senior assistant editor of the Oxford English Dictionary, which already contains an entry for Buffy -style adverbial "much". "The book is a good way of showing that language is interesting at all levels, that everyday people are using language in interesting ways."

In fact, OUP and Adams hope that everyday people, particularly older teens who are both fans of the show and English students, will read it. " Slayer Slang seems to me a wonderful opportunity for just folks to think about language seriously without sacrificing any fun," Adams says.

Reactions to its four chapters and 150-page glossary (half the original submission) have mostly been positive: "I have colleagues who think it is a waste of time but are too polite to say so," Adams says. "I hope in the long run, people will be persuaded that this is a useful thing to do."

We need to understand the journey of our language, he argues. In 15 years, a generation of cheerleaders christened Buffy will enter high school.

Buffyisms are already entering teen magazines and mainstream print: "Bush should be less invady" was one US headline last year. A defence think-tank is seriously promoting an analysis of "National Security and the Buffy Paradigm".

Judgy traditionalists, faced with this linguistic hellsville, argue that such neologisms will soon die out, and the sooner the better. They fail to grasp the tumultuous nature of language, Adams argues. They also imply that the few million people who will use a word such as neologism over 100 years are more linguistically influential than the millions whose language flowers and dies with the television network seasons.

Adams put aside a historical account of Middle English lexicography - "a real rollercoaster of a read" - to finish the Buffy book. Though he wouldn't express it like this himself (an ultra-grammatical childhood inhibits him from using slayer slang), he presses the relationship between them: "We know a lot less about Middle English than we pretend we do. We have textbooks and a historical dictionary, and yet I don't think we know what villagers were saying to one another over their ale. That's lost, and we are never going to recover it.

"Part of the impetus for writing Slayer Slang was that once I had got hold of it, I didn't want to lose it again. How do we draw a map of a language historically? We do the best we can, but we can always do better. There's no doubt that working on this did finally convince me that what is ephemeral isn't necessarily something to overlook.

"We can't know our own culture without knowing its slang. If our language is an artefact, an aspect of human behaviour and the product of human impulse, then dismissing ephemeral American English means devaluing the artefact, our behaviour, our impulses. The ephemeral, we need reminding, isn't merely something we observe, but where we live." Muchly.

Slayer Slang: A Buffy the Vampire Slayer Lexicon was published by OUP last Friday (£12.99)

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