Word Improvisation

Investigations of slang by the editor of the Random House Dictionary of American Slang.

Random House Dictionary of American Slang


DESPITE a wan performance in Meet Joe Black -- a movie so long and tedious that it prompted a Hollywood observer to call Kenneth Starr's congressional appearance "the Meet Joe Black of testimony" -- the actor Brad Pitt was recently decreed by the Cable News Network to be "Hollywood's It Man." Surely very few CNN viewers resonated fully with the reference, but no doubt many savored the expression's campy, retro flavor and most intuited the gist. Back in the early sixties nobody on the high school dating scene required an explanation of the usually self-congratulatory (and grammatically peculiar) idiom "Some guys got it -- and some guys ain't." The ineffable it was understood to be the magnetism and je ne sais quoi necessary to attract girls. But whence, in a larger sense, came this thing called it? And how, one might ask, does it differ from that thing called oomph?

occupies a semantic space bordering both charisma and pizzazz. Like these, it has long been a unisex term. As far back as 1904, Rudyard Kipling had a character say, "'Tisn't beauty. . . . nor good talk necessarily. It's just It. Some women'll stay in a man's memory if they once walk down a street." The English novelist Elinor Glyn helped to broadcast the concept, first in a 1926 serialized story called "It" published by Cosmopolitan in its pre-Cosmo girl existence, and then by means of an introductory cameo in the vaguely related 1927 film of the same name. It led straight to It Girl, the publicity tag that conferred a modicum of immortality on the eponymous film's star, the twenty-one-year-old Clara Bow. The actress was not exactly a newcomer -- she had appeared in nearly three dozen films in the previous five years. But this particular perfxormance memorably defined one kind of Jazz Age female -- an irreverent nice-girl participant in a naughty new world of hot jazz, speakeasies, and happy-go-lucky romance. A slightly skeptical New York Times reviewer judged Bow's character, Betty Lou, to be absolutely "top-heavy with It." Clara Bow's irrepressibly adventurous alter ego (and some real-life scandals involving Bow) gave added dimension to the cartoonist John Held Jr.'s ubiquitous caricatures of the Roaring Twenties flapper.


Fast-forward to the 1930s and a new Hollywood take on sex appeal (what was called S.A. and what Ultra Brite toothpaste later claimed it could give your smile). On March 16, 1939, America learned of the bestowal upon the husky-voiced Ann Sheridan, by a squad of Warner Bros. publicists, the startling title Oomph Girl of America. (The names of other contenders, if there were any, are lost to history.) Oomph was already current in a minor way; in comic writing it was the sound of air being knocked out of someone, and thus came to indicate the force of the blow as well. As for translation: publicity stills of Sheridan, even dressed modestly, worked well at what scholars call the "prelinguistic level."

like pow!, is an onomatopoeic rendering. Connoisseurs of onomatopoeia also cherish va-va-va-voom, the very sound of sex appeal, reminiscent, perhaps, of a race car taking off at Indy -- or the rhythm of a musical flourish at a strip club. There's also boinnng!, the schwinnng!of Wayne's World, and, for the marginally more articulate, hubba-hubba! (which initially had the sense "Look alive!" and was heard mainly in sports).

A glamourpuss who exhibits too much S.A. and too little in the way of character or brains may attract the disparaging label bimbo. That term is now applied mainly to women -- as in the famous bimbo eruptions for which an aide to Bill Clinton was ever on the watch back in 1992 -- but it originated in the Italian bimbo, meaning a baby. Bimbo wound up being applied to young women of the Prohibition era by way of the grammatically ungendered English baby in constructions like jazz-baby -- a hot mama, in other words. After years of relative dormancy, bimbo bounced back in the early 1980s. The eighties also saw the birth of bimbette (a younger or lesser bimbo). Himbo, the nineties term for a male bimbo, is approximately as clever as the replacement of history with herstory. It has demonstrated enough pizzazz for at least short-term viability. Some words got it -- and some words ain't.

Illustrations by Trisha Krauss

The Atlantic Monthly; February 1999; Oomph and Others; Volume 283, No. 2; page 108.