Megan Garber, Adrienne LaFrance, and Ian Bogost have a delightful post at Citylab on how the Gray Lady has dealt over the years with the jargon of the young and/or underclass, presumptively unintelligible to its well-bred readership. They open with a quote from a recent article about a $25 penalty for pot possession in Washington, D.C.:
“A ticket when you just have a jay or something?” said Clifford Gray, a lifelong District of Columbia resident who is in his 20s, using a slang term for a marijuana cigarette. “I’m good with that.”
And they continue thus:
This—”a slang term for a marijuana cigarette”—was so delightfully, perfectly Timesian. Not a joint, mind you, but a marijuana cigarette! (In related Times-speak, a whip isn’t just a car but an automobile.)
And it made us wonder: What other terms had the paper of record decided to wordsplain in this way? What else, in the Times‘s more than 150-year history, had writers and editors decided to clarify as “a slang term for X”?
We decided to find out. We searched the paper’s archives—a corpus of news articles from 1851 to the present—for any and all instances of “a slang term for,” “slang for,” and “a slang word for.” We LOLed at the results. (“LOL” is a slang term for “laugh out loud.”)
Below, our random generator of 73 pieces of Times-defined slang, many of them long forgotten, many of them deserving of resurrection, and all of them revealing about the place and time that gave rise to them.
We marveled at the way these expressions—the ones we understood, anyway—captured the spirit of the era in which they were defined. It makes sense, for instance, that the Times defined acid (“a slang term for the drug LSD”) in 1970, grunt (“a slang word for an infantryman”) during the Vietnam War, diss (“a slang term for a perceived act of disrespect”) in 1994, and macking (“a slang term for making out”) in 1999.
One particularly memorable example is how the Times unpacked “punk” in 1977: “Slanguist Eric Partridge speculates that punk is hobo lingo to describe very stale bread, perhaps from the French pain. Punk, applied to a person, began as a slang term for a catamite, or boy kept by a pederast, and later extended to cover young hoodlums.”
You don’t have to click their link to know that the last quote is from William Safire; the first word gives it away. Needless to say, the first sentence is utter balderdash (to use a word Bill would have enjoyed), and you should never take Eric Partridge’s word for anything. Anyway, enjoy the random generator; Yoram, who sent me the link, also sent the full list (thanks, Yoram!), and for your delectation, here is the earliest citation:
1855. “I have found by [associating] of late with [criminals] and other low people, that Marianne is argot for guillotine, just as wipe is slang for handkerchief.”
(I have added the words in brackets from the original article, which is a very enjoyable read in its own right.) As Yoram says, it’s a pity they didn’t search for “argot” as well.