The Evolution of Slang

For a century and a half, The New York Times has been earnestly—and hilariously—defining topical terms. 
ChameleonsEye/Shutterstock/Robinson Meyer

The New York Times recently published an article about the implementation of a $25 penalty for pot possession in Washington, D.C. The article quoted residents of the District sharing their thoughts on the new regulation. One of them was Clifford Gray:

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.”

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. 

Wordsplaining...

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's 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."

Another is this rather involved etymological examination of "weenie" from 1988: "College students know the noun in another sense, a slang term for 'grind,' 'wonk' or 'throat' (from cutthroat), meaning 'serious student' or 'obnoxious premed.' This meaning now predominates; in 1929, The Baltimore Sun explained that 'Girls are described as weenies, janes, dames and broads.' By the 1960's, American Speech reported that the word had lost its sexist connotation and had become mixed in with the names of small animals to describe socially unacceptable persons: 'toad, squirrel and shrimp all serve for the zoologically unsound but all-inclusive weenie.'"

Presented by

Megan Garber is a staff writer at The Atlantic.

Adrienne LaFrance is a senior associate editor at The Atlantic, where she oversees the Technology Channel. Previously she worked as an investigative reporter for Honolulu Civil Beat, Nieman Journalism Lab, and WBUR. More

Her writing has appeared in The New York Times, The Washington Post, Gawker, The Awl, and several other publications.

Ian Bogost is a writer, game designer, and contributing editor at The Atlantic. He is the Ivan Allen College Distinguished Chair in media studies and a professor of interactive computing at the Georgia Institute of Technology.

Join the Discussion

After you comment, click Post. If you’re not already logged in you will be asked to log in or register with Disqus.

Please note that The Atlantic's account system is separate from our commenting system. To log in or register with The Atlantic, use the Sign In button at the top of every page.

blog comments powered by Disqus

Video

A Stop-Motion Tour of New York City

A filmmaker animated hundreds of still photographs to create this Big Apple flip book

Video

The Absurd Psychology of Restaurant Menus

Would people eat healthier if celery was called "cool celery?"

Video

This Japanese Inn Has Been Open For 1,300 Years

It's one of the oldest family businesses in the world.

Video

What Happens Inside a Dying Mind?

Science cannot fully explain near-death experiences.

More in Technology

Just In