A Wall Street Journal piece by Vauhini Vara features slang expert Tom Dalzell, who “is now in the process of updating the New Partridge Dictionary of Slang and Unconventional English.” Embarrassingly, it opens with the fact that he just discovered the verb “rickroll” last month—come on, Tom, I’ve known about rickrolling since 2008, and I’m not even a slang expert! But the general point about its being hard to keep up with slang is a good one. It is, of course, nothing new; in fact, it’s a major plot point in the delightful 1941 comedy Ball of Fire, in which Gary Cooper, as Professor Bertram Potts, is studying modern American slang, and upon discovering his knowledge is out of date, goes to a nightclub to do research, where he meets gun moll-cum-chanteuse “Sugarpuss” O’Shea (Barbara Stanwyck). Hijinks ensue.


  1. dearieme says

    I’ve never met anyone called “Sugarpuss” (he said, wistfully).

  2. Alas, you’re not a character in a 1940s movie or pulp novel.

  3. This reminded me that “puss” is a slang term for face. The MW dictionary gives as origin “Irish pus mouth, circa 1890″. I wonder if “suparpuss” for a woman caught on partly because of the sound-resemblance between “puss” and “pussy” ? But that’s probably bootless speculation.
    There is a slightly corny German expression Zuckerpüppchen [sugardoll]. Puppe is from Lat. pupa (puppa) [girl, mask]. The last developmental stage of a larva [mask] is the Puppenstadium, bringing us back to “face”. I see that free-association can be taken too far.

  4. Years ago I was, er, acquainted with a woman whose Citizens’ Band radio handle was Magnolia Thunderpussy.
    Dutch poesje refers to the same anatomical region as English pussy.

  5. To be fair to Tom, the article closes with the revelation that he had indeed encountered _rickroll_ in 2008, but forgot about it because he didn’t think it would have legs. So, in fact, the point isn’t that the purported slang expert is out of the loop because he just heard the word last month–rather it’s that there’s so much stuff out there and it’s so hard to tell what will catch on that even someone whose job is to track it can’t always get it right.

  6. Fairness makes for a boring blog! But yes, Jesse is right, he did in fact encounter the word back in its heyday.

  7. @Stu: don’t forget the pupil of the eye, or the student for that matter, which are derived from the diminutive of pupa/pupus.
    There’s a famous “emendation” in Longinus On the Sublime where an incomprehensible text (“more chaste than the girls in their rooms”), quoted as an example of a frigid conceit, suddenly became clear when it was realized that the Greek word for girl used in the text also meant pupil of the eye, and the word for room also means the space occupied by the eyeball. I got this from a book by Robert Renahan.

  8. the pupil of the eye, or the student for that matter, which are derived from the diminutive of pupa/pupus.
    Arabic has two words for pupil of the eye: bubu, which sure looks like it was borrowed from Latin, and insan-al-ayin “little man in the eye.” Hebrew uses ishon “little man.”

  9. “Little man in the eye” – as if whoever made up that description was not aware that he was seeing his own reflection in the pupil. It’s hard to credit such gullibility, but Narcissus was no better. Most people are not aware that he did not know that what he was in love with was his own reflection.
    To equate “narcissism” with self-love is to turn the story on its head. Its real moral is that you should stay away from deep pools if you can’t tell your ass from a hole in the ground.

  10. Charles Perry says

    Re Magnolia Thunderpussy: This may be the same Ms. Thunderpussy who ran a San Francisco bakery on Haight Street during the Seventies. Her specialty was cakes with X-rated shapes. I seem to remember The Man cracking down on her, presumably for obscenity, though people who saw the condition of her kitchen speculated that another kind of dirtiness may have been the reason.

  11. Charles Perry says

    Actually, insan al-‘ain means “the person of the eye” and the sense may be that the pupil is the part of the eyeball that represents the person.

  12. mollymooly says

    I would have thought the iris has more personality than the pupil.

  13. The Chinese philosopher Mencius also thought that the pupil of the eye revealed the soul, or something like that.

  14. Iris and narcissus. What does the plant iris have to do with either rainbows or eyeballs? Bulbous eyeballs? Were there irises (irides?) growing on the banks of the pool, staring at the confused youth? The etymology of onion seems interesting.

  15. The metaphor in plain English is apple of my/the eye, now rarely used for the pupil of the eye, or even the pupil of the teacher, but rather for something else appealing to both eye and mind.

  16. While in Welsh both metaphorical (apple) and anatomical (pupil) sense is “cannwyll y llygad” (candle of the eye) but “afal llygad” (apple of the eye) also exists.

  17. Chordate: Apparently the Iridae are so named because the 260 species collectively are every color of the rainbow, rather than because any one species shows a rainbow pattern.

  18. The metaphor in plain English is apple of my/the eye, now rarely used for the pupil of the eye, or even the pupil of the teacher
    I would be surprised if apple of the eye ever meant “the pupil of the eye”. Surely it referred to the eyeball, just like the German Augapfel. Both words have the same literal and metaphorical senses.

  19. Trond Engen says

    In Norwegian øyensten “eye stone” is poetic/metaphorical while øyeeple “eye apple” is purely anatomical. I think the same goes for Danish.

  20. Grumbly: Prepare to be surprised, then, while inspecting the sixth sense of apple in the OED3:
    6. More fully apple of the eye.
    a. The pupil of the eye, originally thought to be a solid, spherical body. Occas. also: the iris and pupil, or the whole eyeball. Now hist.
    eOE King Ælfred tr. Gregory Pastoral Care (Hatton) xi. 69 On ðæs siwenigean eagum beoð ða æpplas hale [L. pupilla oculi], ac ða bræwas greatigað,‥oððæt sio scearpnes bið gewird ðæs æpples.
    eOE King Ælfred tr. Gregory Pastoral Care (Hatton) xi. 69 Ðurh ðone æpl ðæs eagan mon mæg geseon.
    a1300 W. de Biblesworth in Wright Voc. 145 La prunele, the appel of the eye.
    ?c1475 Catholicon Anglicum (BL Add. 15562) f. 4, The Appyll of ye ee [1483 Monson Appylle of ee], pupilla.
    1586 T. Bowes tr. P. de la Primaudaye French Acad. I. 153 We see our owne eies shine within the apples of our neighbours eies.
    1600 G. Chapman tr. Homer Iliad xiv. 409 The dart did undergore His eye-lid, by his eye’s dear roots, & out the apple fell.
    1601 P. Holland tr. Pliny Hist. World II. xi. 337 None have their eyes all of one color, for the bal or apple in the midst is ordinarily of another color than the white about.
    1705 Philos. Trans. 1704–05 (Royal Soc.) 24 1728 Having carefully observ’d the Eyes of several Fishes‥I found that the‥Pupil or Apple of the Eye, was very flat, like those in Human Creatures.
    1753 E. Chambers Cycl. Suppl. (at cited word), He cut asunder the Apple of the eye in several animals.
    1827 Blackwood’s Edinb. Mag. 22 374/1 Dull people turn up‥the apples of their eyes on beholding Prose by a Poet.
    1870 Anthropol. Rev. 8 16 Large dark blue sparkling eye‥with much white, of a bluish shade, visible under the apple.
    1912 Lancet 12 Oct. 1043/1 The eye was also considered so as to elucidate the origin and application of such terms as bulb, apple, iris, pupil, cataract.
    1957 H. Williamson Golden Virgin ii. xviii. 238 Just you take a look at Jimmy [sc. a pigeon] here’s eye‥two circles there be, one for range and t’other for intelligence, and locked up in the apple, sir.
    2004 People (Nexis) 25 Jan. 8 At this time [sc. the ninth cent.] the pupil of the eye was thought to be a solid object and was known as the apple because it was spherical.

  21. Prepare to be surprised, then
    Ok, I’m surprised – after announcing that I would be surprised. So no surprise there.

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