Wednesday, June 20, 2018


(First appeared in  Lexpert Magazine) 
                                            What the Dickens? Slang in Great Literature?
                                                             Howard Richler

In 1807, Thomas Bowdler published The Family Shakespeare stating in his preface that “nothing is added to the original text, but those words and expressions are omitted which cannot with propriety be read in a Family.” Within thirty years he had been eponymized and verbified in one swell swoop and the OED defines bowdlerize as “to expurgate (a book or writing), by omitting or modifying words or passages considered indelicate or offensive.”
Actually, the lexicographic recording of slang is a relatively recent phenomenon. The first dictionaries only dealt with “difficult words” that were relatively new to the lexicon and only centuries later did they become more comprehensive in nature. There is the story, perhaps apocryphal, that after Samuel Johnson wrote A Dictionary of the English Language in ­­1755, two elderly sisters congratulated the lexicographer for not including “ghastly” words in his tome. To which, Dr Johnson reputedly replied, “What ! My dears! Then you have been looking for them?” 
But returning to Shakespeare, Jonathon Green in The Stories of Slang reports that Shakespeare employed over 500 slang terms in his works with 277 of them representing the first recorded usage of the word. Green mentions that comedian Lenny Bruce noted that everybody yearns for what “should be” but what should be doesn’t exist, there is only what “is” and in describing the human condition, Shakespeare described the many unsavoury aspects of our characters and he often used slang terms effectively in his portrayal of people.
For example, in All’s Well That Ends Well, the term kickie-wickie is used to mean wife; pickers and stealers in Hamlet refers to hands; asshead in Twelfth Night to a dolt, and small beer in Othello replaces trifles. Perhaps intuiting that another great British writer would emerge centuries later, he created the expression what the dickens in Merry Wives of Windsor. (Dickens is a euphemism for Devil). Shakespeare created slang terms as required. So in Henry IV Part 2 he invented the word fustilarian to refer to a smelly old woman by adding the suffix -larian to fusty. In All’s Well That Ends Well, he created the word facinerious to represent evil adapting the Latin facinor, “bad deed.” And to the chagrin of the likes of the Bowdlers of the world, Shakespeare used many slang terms in his countless double entendres. For example, in an early scene in Hamlet that begins with the Prince saying to Ophelia, “Lady, shall I lie in your lap?”, the term “lap,” is a double entendre for the lady’s pudendum. Also, Hamlet’s  reference to his mother in the line “Frailty, thy name on woman” takes on a different hue once we realize that  “frail” or “frail sister” was a euphemism for prostitute.
Many common words have distinct naughty meaning in Shakespeare’s plays. In The Stories of Slang, Green reveals that a nunnery isn’t remotely religious (even if populated by nuns): we are in the world of brothels..; nor are the low countries..even remotely Dutch but  what modernity coyly terms ‘down there.’ ”
Interestingly, the first OED citation of the word slang is only in 1756 in William Toldervy’s The History of Two Orphans, so what disreputable language was Shakespeare using seeing that he died 140 years before the term slang was ever used? The first dictionary that included what we would call slang terms was titled A New Dictionary of the Terms Ancient and Modern of the Canting Crew was compiled in 1698 London and we only know the author by the initials B.E.  So while Shakespeare has been dubbed the“immortal Bard,” even he could not access a tome written over 80 years after his demise. One of Shakespeare’s major source of disreputable words seems to derive from his contemporary John Florio’s 598 Italian-English dictionary The Worlde of Words. For example, in it, Florio translated fottere as to jape, to sard, to swive, to occupy and the unmentionable f-word.  Other slang terms he used had been in the English language since at least the time of Chaucer in the 14th century.
Shakespeare is hardly the only English language literary great to successfully employ slang. Dickens describes many of his characters slangily, and particularly in Oliver Twist. The Artful Dodger is dubbed a “downy cove,” which Green’s Dictionary of Slang defines as “a knowledgeable, artful, aware,  ‘fly’ person.” Uber-pickpocketer Bill Sykes is called a “swell mobsman” and Fagin is   a “fence,” a receiver of stolen goods and Sykes says to him in one passage “What are you up to? “ill-treating the boys… you insatiable old fence.” Lady of the street Nancy is called a tuppenny uprighter due to the oft horizontal nature of her profession. Also, in The Stories of Slang, Green relates that Ulysses by James Joyce, considered by some as the greatest novel ever composed, contains almost 1000 slang terms.
Stating categorically, however, whether a specific term qualifies as slang is often a fool’s errand. In The State of the Language Phillip Howard states that “one man’s slang is another man’s colloquialism is another man’s vernacular is another man’s everyday speech.”
That being said, slang is a monument to language’s ability to evolve by slicing through its oft pretentious and euphemistic nature.
Richler’s latest book is Wordplay: Arranged and Deranged Wit

Saturday, June 16, 2018


(Originally appeared i  the June Senior Times)
      Help the Word Nerd define himself
                                Howard Richler

As I turn 70 in November, I’ve started to reflect on who I am. Fifteen years ago I agonized on what to call the woman I lived with to whom I wasn’t married. I thought partner sounded right but twice when I referred to my partner in conversation, I was informed that this term had been expropriated by the gay community. My latest word obsession is to create a term to describe folks like myself and many of you who are over 65 but uncomfortable with the terms “senior” or “elderly.” “Elderly” connotes someone with physical disabilities; the former suggests a retired person who is less active than they were in their youth.
While these terms may have been apt for our grandparents, as Bob Dylan said a long time ago “the times they are a-changin’.” After all, our increased life expectancy is staggering, and it has been calculated that by 2030 life expectancy will exceed 85. Research shows that reaching 65 for most people doesn’t mark a decline in performance. Also, statistics show that people over 65 contribute approximately 20% of consumer spending and within two decades this amount is expected to increase to 25%. Whereas in 2000 only 12.8% of people over 65 were in the workforce, by 2016 this figure had climbed to 18.8% We all know that youth associate aging with decline and don’t comprehend that many older people feel and act much like their younger selves. A recent study conducted by AARP (American Association of Retired Persons) asked a group of millennials to reveal the age they considered to be old. This averaged out to be 59. Then they introduced the same group to some people 60+. A video shows how the millennials changed their perception after interacting with vibrant older persons and in the process relinquished their beliefs that aging involves decline.
 Given that those in their 60s are far more active in many ways than previous generations, let’s find a more dynamic term for us. Here are some candidates: boomers, geriactives, the wise, nightcappers, silvers, sunsetters, honoured elders, yold (portmanteau of young/old). This last term, unfortunately, in Yiddish, refers to a fool.  Another alternative is to create an acronym: • nyppies (not yet past it) • owls (older, working less) or older, wiser, learning • hopskis (healthy old people spending kids’ inheritance. • indy (I’m not dead yet). What we call an age group might seem trivial but often the words used to classify a segment of society affects people’s attitudes toward the group. Examples are flight attendant instead of stewardess, personal assistant rather than secretary, and extermination engineer instead of pest controller. Given our rising importance and the lack of an accepted modern term to describe our stage of life, if you have a preferred word from the list above or a different suggestion, I look forward to receiving your ideas on how to solve my current word dilemma.    Richler’s latest book is Wordplay: Arranged and Deranged Wit
Editors Note: As a person who fits your definition or lack of it, I have had to come to terms (excuse the pun) with my age and designation. Further I’ve had to battle the connotation of the word “senior” in my 31 years as a publisher of this newspaper. The front page headline of our first issue was “Power of the Elderly.” Nowadays that would be considered an oxymoron. Just to stir up the pot, back in the 80s, Sid Stevens had a word for seniors: “Experienced Canadians.” Where does that leave the rest of us? Let’s continue the debate with readers and friends alike but whatever we decide, I refuse to change the name of The Senior Times and give in to those who refuse to read us because they say they are not seniors. They don’t know what they’re missing and they are self-agists. I think I just made up a new term. From the above options I prefer “hopskis” because it best defines me. However I shall not change the name of this newspaper to The Hopskis Times. Or maybe I will. That’s what you call “Power of the Hopskis!” — Barbara Moser, Publisher of The Senior Times

Wednesday, June 13, 2018

Sexual Harassment

                                                        Deconstructing Sexual Harassment
                                                                   Howard Richler

(This article appeared in the June 2018 edition of Arts & Opinion under the title Sexual harassment,  a semantic perspective: Does language obscure or is it a cure?

Alas, the year 2017 was marked by words that denote the ill-treatment of women by men. Following the revelations of the behaviour of Harvey Weinstein and his predatory ilk, the adjective “inappropriate” saw a large spike in usage. People soon realized that this word, often applied to the misbehaviour of a child wasn’t quite suitable to describe the level of misdeeds. Before long stronger terms such as “abuse” and “harassment” became the most common used descriptions. And if one considers it as a word, the hashtag #MeToo became a rallying cry from many women to describe their own similar experiences of sexual harassment. Underscoring this lexical recognition of the plight of women, Merriam-Webster named the word “feminism” as its word of the year for 2017 and stated that it was the most searched-for-word in its online dictionary showing a 70% increase from 2016. Also, the word “persisterhood,” defined as women who join forces to persist against sexism and gender bias, was nominated as one of the “words of the year” of 2017 by the American Dialect Society. (The winner was “fake news.”)
Writing in 1991, Rosalie Maggio in the Dictionary of Bias-Free Usage remarked that “sexual harassment was not a term anyone used 20 years ago; today we have laws against it.” Actually, it was exactly twenty years earlier that we find the first citation of “sexual harassment” in the OED,  and it comes from the Yale Daily News of April 19, 1971: “ We insist…that sexual harassment is an integral component of discrimination. Men perceive women in sexual categories and not in professional categories.”  The OED defines the term as “harassment (typically of a woman by a man) in a work place or other professional or social situations involving the making of unwanted sexual advances obscene remarks, etc.”  Maggio’s point was that while sexual harassment obviously occurred prior to 1971, its lexical recognition gave it greater force to be countered by laws or social norms. Before long sexual harassment was recognized as a phenomenon in the legal arena. In 1986, the Supreme Court of the United States ruled that employers could not permit an employee to create a hostile work environment for someone else or base advancement on a quid pro quo for sex. In 1989, the Supreme Court in Canada ordained that sexual harassment represented sexual discrimination and thus could not be tolerated.
Most academic institutions have definitions of sexual harassment and invariably they contain hard to define adjectives such as “unwanted,” “unwelcome” “vexatious” and “obscene.” Adjectives by definition are descriptive and depend largely on a consensus of a shared reality which unfortunately does not exist in analysing sexual harassment. For what is deemed unwanted or unwelcome by one person may be wanted or welcome to another.   Also, what qualifies as an obscene comment or joke can be highly subjective. One definition of sexual harassment includes the phrase “verbal or physical conduct of a sexual nature that tends to create a hostile or offensive work environment.”  Again, we’re dealing with thorny adjectives such as “hostile” and “offensive.”  Almost everyone, male or female, accepts that sexual favours can’t be a condition for a job or promotion. Large majorities consider “unwelcome” touching as improper but often women and men disagree on what constitutes sexual harassment, such as what counts as sexualized remarks or what qualifies “ogling.”  And although younger men’s attitudes approximate those of women to a much larger extent than older males, the gap in the positions of the sexes endures.
It is also important to register that there is a hierarchy of offenses related to the term sexual harassment.  Last December, actor Matt Damon in an interview with Peter Travers of ABC Television, stated “there’s a difference between patting someone on the butt and rape or child molestation, right?  Both of those behaviors need to be confronted and eradicated without question, but they shouldn’t be conflated, right?” Those comments were met with anger and frustration online, where many women, including the actress Alyssa Milano, rejected attempts to categorize various forms of sexual misconduct. After Damon’s interview, Milano wrote on Twitter: “They are all connected to a patriarchy intertwined with normalized, accepted — even welcomed — misogyny.” Last December in a panel discussion of seven feminists in the New York Times on sexual harassment, broadcast journalist Soledad O’Brien came down squarely on Damon’s side in this dispute referencing the various meanings of the term: “ I think we conflate the many different definitions of sexual harassment — the legal definition, someone’s personal interpretation. Some things are legally a crime. Other actions would clearly violate a company’s standards, inappropriate language, physically grabbing a woman, pressuring an underling for sex. They are all bad and should be stopped, but I think they deserve different levels of punishment.”
Interestingly, on some university campuses the term “affirmative consent” has gained currency It postulates that at every stage of a relationship that a verbal agreement but as Daphne Merkin points out in a Jan 5, 2018 article in the New York Times, “asking for oral consent before proceeding with a sexual advance seems both innately clumsy and retrograde.”  And so the debate on what constitutes sexual harassment and how to combat it rages on.

Richler’s latest book is Wordplay: Arranged  and Deranged Wit.