The other day, over brunch with friends, one very accomplished lawyer in the group mentioned that his boss had corrected his pronunciation of “succinct.” My friend had been saying “suss-sinked” and his boss had insisted on “suck-sinked”. My friend recalled that he immediately changed the way he said it.
As a descriptivist and a “suss” person myself, I was shocked to hear about his prescriptive, “suck” boss. And even more shocked that my intelligent, sensitive, and perceptive friend didn’t call his boss out for being such a rigid “suck” person.
I told the story to my 19-year-old son and, free and ironic thinker that he is, he said that, no doubt, my friend’s boss what just “messing with him.” My son, the ironic thinker, is also not a lawyer—so he may have over-estimated the subtlety of humor that goes on in law offices. Then again, I’m not a lawyer either, so the jury is out on that one!
I next turned to social media to get a feel for the pulse on this word. What are Citizen Sociolinguists saying about it? First, I checked with my twitter feed. A quick poll (suck- or suss-?) revealed that everyone who cared enough to respond was a “suck” person. Really?
I was disappointed by this firmly “suck”-sided video, but happy to see that many comments on this and other similar tutorials contested this rigid prescription. And one even commented that he loved the dislikes (though, admittedly, his “love” seems tinged with irony):
Some suggested the absurdity of worrying about this:
Another comment zeroed in more specifically on the “suck” problem:
This is a sublime demonstration of the pronunciation of “PronunciationManual”. Sadly, however, this pronunciation manual has no entry for “succinct.” So, to conclude succinctly, I have an appeal: Could someone, or perhaps even the creators of The Pronunciation Manual, PLEASE make a guide for pronouncing “succinct.” This is one silly entry the world needs ASAP.
If you are still reading, please comment below! Are you a “SUCK” person or a “SUSS” person? How do you feel about “SUSS” when you hear it? Would you be willing to volunteer to make an entry for The Pronunciation Manual? Do you know any other word conundrums that need to be recorded there?
No community is truly “monolingual”—even when they think they are!
Recently, language professionals have named a community’s illusion of language purity “perceived monolingualism” (Thank you @MCP718, mariacioe-pena.com, for this useful phrase!). Initially, this concept made me nervous about the role of citizen sociolinguistics. The concept of “perceived monolingualism” raises the specter of a dark kind of citizen sociolinguist–one who propagates misunderstanding, eliminates language variety, and possibly worse. Perhaps naïvely, I usually like to think of citizen sociolinguists as people happily championing the creative capacity of multilingualism and language variety, busily spreading the word about how it works. Once we recognize a type of citizen sociolinguist willfully lacking in awareness of the multilingualism all around, who can we call on to set them straight?
Other citizen sociolinguists, of course! In at least some cases, citizen sociolinguists are the best candidates to point out this misperception of monolingualism—and the most likely to make any impact.
A single example comes to mind that illustrates both an act of one citizen sociolinguist’s “perceived monolingualism” and the role other citizen sociolinguists have played in introducing an alternative perspective.
Since 2006, this sign on Geno’s, a cheesesteak restaurant and tourist destination in South Philadelphia, has become infamous:
This is a good (if distasteful) example of “perceived monolingualism” –the perception that Geno’s patrons speak only English and that once the non-English-speaking clientele leaves, there will be a monolingual environment at his cheesesteak emporium.
However, for over a decade, widely-circulating news stories (by citizen sociolinguistically inclined bloggers and journalists) have pointed out that the Geno’s sign, “This is America: When ordering ‘Speak English’”, falsely presumes that we speak just one type of English in “America,” and that everyone going to Geno’s knows what is meant by the word “English.” In other words—they were pointing out “perceived monolingualism”.
One author, for example, was quick to note the irony that even Geno’s English-speaking clientele didn’t exactly speak “The King’s English”:
“Of course, it’s not as if native Philadelphians speak the King’s English either. A Philadelphian might order a cheesesteak by saying something like, “Yo, gimme a cheesesteak wit, will youse?” (“Wit,” or “with,” means with fried onions.) To which the counterman might reply: “Youse want fries widdat?”
On top of the “native Philadelphian” accent required, the specialized terminology for ordering cheesesteaks might even be heard as a “foreign language” by English-speakers not from Philadelphia. Several websites offer guides to help outsiders through the stressful process of ordering cheesesteaks here. These guides suggest that another language (Cheesesteakese?), with its own specialized vocabulary, pronunciation and grammar, is required at Geno’s. Typical tips include advice like this:
The author of the above guide to ordering cheesesteaks also describes her own version of multilingualism, as she attempts a modified (yet successful!) version of Cheesesteakese:
“I stepped forward, spoke up, and ordered an “American. Without.” I couldn’t quite bring myself to go for the full “d.” Successfully ordered, I took my cheesesteak…”
In these examples, citizen sociolinguists have precisely pointed out the language needed in the Geno’s world. “Order in English,” the sign commands, but which English? A huge variety of Englishes are on display in service encounters there.
Reporters have also pointed out how Geno’s competitors have assessed the multilingualism in play at cheesesteak counters. A manager at Tony Luke’s, responded to the “Order in English” sign with an allusion to Cheesesteakese, saying all customers are welcome at his place…
“…whether or not they speak a `wit’ of English.””
Another competitor, Kathy Smith, manager of Pat’s, spoke in favor of multilingualism, but brought up a different type of language she would rather not hear at her counter. Speaking of the Geno’s sign, she said,
“That’s the most ridiculous thing I’ve ever heard in my life. I’d rather listen to the Spanish than the foul language of the college students.”
As the controversy simmered on, it became clear that purity of English was not the real issue behind the Geno’s sign. Instead, Joey Vento (original owner of Geno’s) seemed to use the “perceived monolingualism” of the “Order in English” sign as a shield against anyone who seemed different from him. Monolingual language demands were a proxy for his own xenophobia. The anti-immigrant sentiment behind the sign became explicit when he posted another sign above it:
A movement began to remove the signs (now plural).
Eventually, this controversy, which took place largely via the popular press (and, through citizen sociolinguistic argumentation), had a tangible impact. In 2011, Joey Vento died (of natural causes) and in 2016, prior to the Democratic National Convention in Philadelphia, the signs quietly came down. Joey Vento’s son and current owner of Geno’s (named “Geno” after the restaurant) asserted his opinion in a press release on the sign-removal: “It’s about what you do and what your mark in life is, and [I want] to change that mark in life.”
And, finally, shortly after the signs came down, a Philly.com reporter, Helen Ubiñas, ventured over to Geno’s and conducted her own citizen sociolinguistic experiment—ordering her cheesesteak in a gorgeously creative multilingual combination of Spanish and Cheesesteakese.
As she recalls, “in my best Nuyorican Spanglish, I let it rip:
“Dos, con Whiz, por favor.”
She posted the results on Twitter, concluding with, “Gracias Geno’s!”:
So, even in the face of perceived monolingualism propagated by a citizen sociolinguist like Joey Vento, other citizen sociolinguists may be the best situated to illuminate the presence of multilingualism. In the case of Geno’s, citizens pointed out the multiple varieties of English in existence at Geno’s all along–wid or widdout the sign–and they eventually introduced more obvious multilingualism (“Dos con Whiz, por favor!”). No community is truly monolingual—and it seems when a citizen sociolinguist claims it is, they may have ulterior motives. Fortunately, other citizen sociolinguists are out there describing this dynamic, bringing multilingualism to light, and explaining it to others.
Please comment below! Are you aware of multilingualism around you? Or “perceived monolingualism”? What form does that multilingualism (or perceived monolingualism) take? How do you respond?
Let’s be honest: Most hearing people could not be bothered with sign language.
As kids, we may have thought about how amazing it would be to know it: Maybe wehappened on the card with the alphabet and learned how to spell our name, or to sign a few top secret words to friends. But after a first enthusiastic burst, the card gets lost, the signing seems like too much effort.
Speaking for my own childhood self, it’s hard to stay motivated when you and all your friends are not deaf. Learning all the letters, then spelling every word out gets to seem incredibly laborious.
Even if one musters will to know more sign language, typing in “How to use sign language” on google doesn’t help much. The tutorials that pop up generally feature a very silent video with minimal effects. Like this one:
But even this no-nonsense video has over two million views. The comments underneath give some sense of what motivates people to come to this site, and it is not to learn a secret language. Most comments mention encounters with deaf people—real or fictional—and the desire to make a visible effort to communicate like them: They have fallen in love with a deaf person, or they have a regular customer who is deaf. They’ve tried a little sign, and witnessed how gratifying it is to connect through this medium.
And others say that Switched at Birth, a TV show about twins, one of whom is deaf, brought them to this instructional site.
And here arrives our Citizen Sociolinguist star: Nyle DiMarco, who plays the deaf heart-throb “Garrett” on that show.
Poking around on the web more, Nyle DiMarco emerges as a gorgeous, young, creative, confident, brilliant, and deaf man. He also appeared on America’s Next Top Model—and won. He competed in Dancing with the Stars—and won.
He’s obviously an extraordinarily gifted human. But what makes him a Citizen Sociolinguist? In addition to modeling, dancing, and acting, he is continuously explaining, largely through YouTube videos, Twitter, and other social media, how sign language works for him and why. He shows the world the role signing plays in his life—the same way other Citizen Sociolinguists I’ve discussed in this blog site talk about and act out the everyday role of Singlish, Konglish, Emoji, or other language varieties
Nyle talks about and shows us explicitly how signing works for him—with his family, with his friends, while flirting, at the movies.
He embodies what communication can look like in the hands of a socially gifted, smart and confident young man. Who, oh yeah, is also deaf.
One of his YouTube videos posts answers to questions people have asked him through Twitter, and his response to one question in particular, “Were you ever bullied?” caught my attention. He replies, “No. Maybe I was made fun of, but I never listened. Because I have always loved being deaf.” He importantly points out that being deaf has never been an issue for him—his entire family was deaf, he says, and “they knew what to do.”
Educators often talk a lot about how damaging a “deficit perspective” can be for learners. In the case of deafness and signing, if you consider it a deficit, you may never focus on a deaf individual’s strengths. Nyle DiMarco embodies the opposite perspective—as he describes himself, he has never seen his deafness as a deficit. He LOVES being deaf. And, in the best way, he loves being HIM. He exudes self-respect—and respect for others.
In this way, Nyle DiMarco’s Citizen Sociolinguistics is illuminating not only for the Deaf Community, but for all of us—because he is talking about communication and modeling what it looks like in ordinary situations.
Nyle’s experiences surrounding the movie Black Panther illustrate this attitude in action. When he went to the movie theater, full of excited anticipation for the show, the captioning machine the theater provided for him was a disaster, running behind the dialogue and awkwardly blocking sub-titles for the fictional Wakandan language spoken by characters in the movie. He tweeted about his experience, vividly illustrating his position:
And he wrote about his experience in Teen Vogue, describing in candid detail how awful his trip to the movie theater was (he left after ten minutes). He also made a larger point about the importance of sub-titling movies, and the biased views against it:
“I’ve heard the standard counterargument. Onscreen captions degrade the viewing experience. They’re annoying and distracting. I call BS. People don’t mind subtitles when they don’t understand the language being spoken.”
Nyle goes on to point out that many popular mainstream shows (Narcos on Netflix, for example) include subtitles for those viewers who don’t know languages other than English. And, even Black Panther included sub-titles in English for Wakandan. His clarity and his humble description of his own viewing experiences on Twitter rallied thousands of Twitter followers in support of his point: Subtitles of all types often improve the movie experience for everyone—why exclude those that are for deaf people?
But if you look up “Nyle DiMarco’s Black Panther Controversy” on line, you will probably find another Citizen Sociolinguistic controversy—this one with Nyle on the receiving end of the criticism. Nyle attracted ire from members of the black/deaf community when he posted a video announcing the new American Sign Language (ASL) sign for “Black Panther”.
He was criticized for, as a white celebrity, overstepping his role as a spokesman for the deaf community, and soon other signs were proposed for “Black Panther”:
The Moth News story excerpted above, for example, elicited this comment praising the slamming of Nyle (and two thumbs up):
How did Nyle respond? This seems like an important test of not only Deaf communication, but communication in general. According to a sign language interpreter friend of mine: “Nyle did apologize, saying he did not mean to take over and use his fame to overstep boundaries, and I don’t think this tainted his overall reception in any way.”
I looked around on line a bit then and found that, not only did he apologize, he also fully embraced alternatives. Immediately after his Twitter post, a black deaf man posted a different version of an ASL Black Panther sign. Nyle responded with “Thanks @jaceyhill” and unmitigated enthusiasm:
The Twitter feed continued to take up @jaceyhill’s SUPERHEROIC version of the sign. While a few haters remained, most responses piled on to say thank you to Nyle for his contributions, and, even, as this post illustrates, to promote greater unity:
So, I don’t see “sign language” as just a potential secret code any more—thanks, in part, to my new favorite Citizen Sociolinguist, Nyle DiMarco. Every day, he puts his voice out there, talks about being deaf, about using sign and other modalities (like subtitles), and respecting whatever comes back. His points about his own communication are not meant to stand as immutable truths, but to begin a dialogue about communication and human dignity. Along the way, more citizen sociolinguists—like @jaceyhill, above, who coined the ASL Black Panther sign that stuck—join in to contribute the expertise that can only come from their unique perspective.
Over the last few years, since I’ve been writing about Citizen Sociolinguistics, several people have conflated it with a field called “Folk Linguistics.” Now it is time to disambiguate those two. Citizen Sociolinguistics is *very different* from Folk Linguistics. Here is how:
First, review: What is Citizen Sociolinguistics?
Citizen Sociolinguistics is the work people do to make sense of everyday communication and share their sense-making with others. Like any people inquiring into their world, Citizen Sociolinguists have certain research questions, methods for investigating those questions, an accumulation of findings, and typical ways of disseminating those findings.
What questions do Citizen Sociolinguists ask?
Citizen Sociolinguists’ questions are constantly changing. One day, an important question to a particular citizen sociolinguist might be, “What is Natty Light and who drinks it?” Another day, or to someone else, an important question may be, “What is a fake news and who uses that expression? What would it mean if I used it?”
How do Citizen Sociolinguists investigate those questions?
Citizen Sociolinguists use just about any means available to explore (and expound on) language and communication:
Instagram/Facebook/Snapchat/and other micro-blogging and social media
Urban Dictionary entries and examples
Asking questions about language on-line and in real life
Blogging and Responding to Blogs
Comments/Likes/Dislikes on any of these and on any Comments/Likes/Dislikes and so on recursively…
Often Citizen Sociolinguistic work involves using Social Media and the Internet, which means that Citizen Sociolinguists’ questions and findings constantly and speedily renew, change, and snowball with accumulated features of social context.
What are Citizen Sociolinguistic “findings”?
Like Citizen Sociolinguistic questions, Citizen Sociolinguistic findings are ephemeral. Yet, in a given fleeting moment, the answers are highly relevant to a specific someone at a specific point in time. Inevitably, answers involve more than language: Component parts of a “Natty Light” definition, for example, might include hints of the race/class/gender/age of people who drink it, a history of various infamous encounters with Natty Light, the typical situation that includes Natty Light (e.g., frat house/college/TV/sports). These distinctions my be the subject of extended on-line dialogue, or blogs like “11 things you didn’t know about Natty Light”. Similar distinctions would emerge for a phrase like “fake news,” because Citizen Sociolinguistic meaning does not inhere in the words themselves, but in the experience of using that expression.
How are Citizen Sociolinguistic findings disseminated?
Generally, any findings or performances by Citizen Sociolinguists are spread by other Citizen Sociolinguists in real life or via social media in a recursive and never-ending process.
HOWEVER, citizen sociolinguistic findings may also be coöpted for other interests.
For example, advertisers often try to use knowledge from Citizen Sociolinguists to promote their products (see “natt-a-pult” ad).
What makes Citizen Sociolinguistics different from Folk Linguistics?
Folk Linguistics differs from Citizen Sociolinguistics in its research questions, methods for investigating those questions, in its findings, and in ways of disseminating those findings.
While Citizen Sociolinguistic questions are constantly changing and different for everyone, Folk Linguistics asks questions that serve the interests of professional sociolinguists and dialectologists, and perhaps by extension, applied linguists working with teachers or language policy makers. Most generally, Folk Linguists ask, “What are the the subconscious cultural models with which folk (defined as all non-linguists) are operating?”
Folk Linguistics has a range of methods for getting at these subconscious models: Comparing folk-drawn dialect maps with those produced by linguists; “matched guise” experiments in which people are asked to listen to ways of speaking (without seeing the speaker) and attribute a range of personality traits to the speaker; and even discourse analysis, in which the linguist identifies tacit folk assumptions as they emerge in interviews or conversation. For example, if a folk person says, “I don’t have a dialect. I happen not to be from the South,” the Folk Linguist notes this person’s “folk” cultural model for “dialect”–namely, that a “dialect” is something that only people in the South have (Preston, 2011).
Findings from Folk Linguistics illuminate assumptions “folk” have about language that may or may not match with professional linguistic findings. These “folk” understandings about language may be disseminated to professional communities involved in teaching language or policy and planning. If, for example, Folk Linguistic studies reveal contradictory local impressions about certain dialect features, policy makers may need to know this before designing any specific curricula or rules about how those features should be discussed, mandated, or taught.
Ultimately, Folk Linguistics has its own (subconscious?) cultural model, not shared by Citizen Sociolinguistics. That model presupposes that Professional Linguists alone can identify the cultural models of the “folk” and that these cultural models may, in the hands of linguists, serve the needs of other linguistics-related professional fields. Citizen Sociolinguists, in contrast, are in the business of sharing their own cultural models around language and communication–models that are ephemeral, constantly changing, often controversial, and always swathed in (entertaining) situation-specific social cues.
Folk Linguists are primarily Linguists. Citizen Sociolinguists are Citizens of the world–and often highly insightful, funny, and outrageous. This blog is about sharing findings from the inquiry work they do!
A couple weeks ago, I saw the item “gabagool” on the menu of a local Philly restaurant. Having lived in Philadelphia for a while, I had the vague feeling this was just an ironic nod to the way people here pronounce the delicious, ham-like meat, “Capicola.” But, since it was printed out on a real, official menu of a nice center city restaurant, I thought I might be mistaken. Maybe “gabagool” was just one more variation on Italian meats and cheeses that I didn’t know.
So, in Citizen Sociolinguist form, I turned to (Gaba)Google. What did I learn?
As I suspected, Gabagool is “just” another way of saying “Capicola.” The top definition on Urban Dictionary (the first google hit), also supplies a couple useful analogs in the “Napolitan” dialect: Manigot (for Manicotti )and Rigot (Ricotta).
One Urban Dictionary author also knew a little linguisticky detail about voiced and unvoiced consonants, and came up with a pattern for these special words.
In addition to Urban Dictionary entries, (gaba)google brought up quite a few videos associated with “Gabagool”– Citizen Sociolinguists have a special knack for recognizing and displaying all the non-linguistic elements of a scene. These non-linguistic aspects of context provide crucial meaning to unique ways of speaking. “Gabagool” is not simply a “Napolitan”, voiced-consonant way of saying capicola. It is something you say in a certain special context while looking a certain way.
By consulting the citizen sociolinguists posting on Youtube, we begin to see all the other features of a scene that go into using the word “gabagool.” The most popular video example, by far, is this clip from the Sopranos, in which Silvio Dante, outrageously played by Stephen van Zandt, demands, “Gabagool! Over here!”
Everything in this scene that surrounds Silvio Dante’s “gabagool” illustrates the context of New Jersey Italian American family. And, as Meadow Soprano (Jamie-Lynn Sigler) illustrates in her iconic line, “Don’t eat gabagool, Grandma, it’s nothing but fat and nitrates,” even speakers of the word gabagool who don’t know much Italian (or feel any reverence for the cuisine) can fluently speak this variation. According to Atlas Obscura, you will not even hear “gabagool” (or proshoot or manigot for that matter) if you go to Southern Italy, their ostensible original homeland.
Gabagool, instead, serves as an emblem for identity—say “Gabagool, ovah here!” and you are not simply demanding some capicola, you are being a specific type of Italian American, probably born-and-raised in the tri-state area. Even the comments from the Sopranos’ YouTube clip (and another compilation of all the gabagool scenes in the series) zero in on love for just this word:
Of course, it is possible to seriously misuse the word “Gabagool.” In another popular video that came to the top in my google search, Michael, from the show The Office, tries to use a Sopranos style “gabagool” in a standard business lunch restaurant and makes no sense at all.
Michael is trying to impress their Italian American client at lunch, but instead shows a (typical-for-his-character) dramatic misreading of context, using “Gabagool” in a setting that is far more like Applebees than a gathering in the Sopranos’ living room. The waitress has no idea what he is talking about, (and who knows what the Italian American client thinks!).
Let’s bring this all together then—the (gaba) good, the bad, and the ugly: Gabagool epitomizes something wonderful about learning language: You only need know a few words to join in and start speaking. However, to use those words effectively, you also need to know much more about who uses them, in what settings, and how. In the case of capicola, you must saaaaavor the gabagool—despite the fat and nitrates. The tenuous connection of gabagool to Italy also illustrates that words aren’t locked into being part of “A Language.” Inevitably, communities of speakers develop their own uniquely local communicative flair. However, that local flair requires not simply knowledge of a word, or its voiced consonants, but a sense of context. As Michael-from-The-Office illustrates, if you don’t understand when, where, and how to use one of these emblematic words, you might be better off just not using it.
Do you have certain emblematic words you say, that mark you as part of an inside group? What are they? In what settings do you say them? What effects do they have? Have you ever made an error or faux pas when attempting to speak an emblematic word like gabagool? Please share your stories and comment below!
Did you LEARN how to speak English or ACQUIRE that ability? What about Spanish? Or Arabic? This is a distinction that many in the language teaching world like to think about.
Some tend to think that first languages (“mother tongues”) are acquired through participation in family and society, while additional languages require explicit instruction, and are thus learned. Nobody taught us how to conjugate verbs as we acquired our first language—but this seems to be a big focus of learning additional languages in high school.
But even granting that you acquired a lot as a baby, don’t you consciously continue to learn a lot about your own “mother tongue” as you get older? Consider all the subtle forms of language we continue to learn/acquire long after we seem to have mastered at least one “mother tongue.” Some of that later-in-life language we acquire without much thought, but other language, we probably spend some conscious effort learning.
Take, for example, ordering a hoagie (sandwich) at Wawa. If you are not from greater Philadelphia, you may not even know what I’m talking about. For many, this type of language knowledge has been acquired through such subtle cumulative processes of socialization that people don’t know how to articulate it. And, it may feel awkward to ask someone directly how to order a hoagie at Wawa. So, it seems better to just muddle along in the hopes that finally you’ll get it (acquire it).
But sometimes we just don’t have the time, the connections, or the guts to acquire certain types of language knowledge through incremental interactional trial-and-error.
That’s where Citizen Sociolinguists come in.
This act of articulating subtle, socioculturally acquired knowledge—so that outsiders can learn it— is PRECISELY what Citizen Sociolinguists do. You want to know how to order a sandwich at Wawa? Citizen Sociolinguists have produced You Tube videos on it:
Not even sure what “Wawa” means? You don’t have to wait through years of socialization to acquire that knowledge, you can simply google it. If you look on Urban Dictionary, you can get a relatively straight definition:
And, if you browse through other definitions, you will also get a taste for the ironic reverence many Philadelphian’s feel for the convenience store:
You can also browse a bit and find some good stories of people who did not follow protocol at Wawa, like this Twitter post featuring a gaffe by Sean Hannity (woe is he):
Citizen Sociolinguists then, are the language teachers you always wish you had—the ones who teach you what is NOT in the book, but what is crucial to learn to get along. The ones who answer the questions you were afraid to ask—because it seems like you are supposed to already “just know.”
This explicit learning provides a good starting point—by directing language learners (all of us) what to look for. Once I get some explicit instruction on, say, “how to order a sandwich at Wawa” or, for that matter, “how to greet someone on the street in Philadelphia,” I don’t need to follow those explicit steps, but I may begin to notice how true-to-life this depiction is—or how people vary from it—and how my own individual variation may fit in.
Citizen Sociolinguists provide us the secrets all good teachers do—combatting a fear of total ignorance that might otherwise paralyze a learner—so that we can forge ahead on our own learning path.
By the way, many contemporary applied linguists and language teachers avoid both the terms “learning” and “acquisition” in favor of “language development”—a combination of these processes. This also seems to apply to the type of growth that happens when we engage with Citizen Sociolinguists.
How have you used the Internet and the knowledge of Citizen Sociolinguists to learn a new language, or to learn new aspects of a language you’ve been struggling to understand? Has this explicit training opened new forms of participation for you? Please leave your comments below!
I don’t often mention theLondon Review of Books in this BLOG. In fact, I never have. I’ve never found much of a direct connection between anything I’ve read there and Citizen Sociolinguistics. Until now!
Today I read a letter to the editor in the LRB (27 July) that took issue with some language in an article in a previous issue (LRB, 29 June). Not uncommon in the LRB. But then (not common at all!), to back up his point, the writer, Will Bowers, cited Urban Dictionary.
Mr. Bowers specifically took issue with the term used for nitrous oxide (which you may know from the good old days of dentistry as “happy gas”). It seems this substance is now used “by young people today.” Mr. Bowers seems fine with that, but expressed concern that Will Self, the author of the essay in question, referred to the substance as “nozz” rather than “nos.”
You may be wondering: How was Mr. Bowers, of Merton College, Oxford, so familiar with nitrous oxide and its various monikers? He clarifies: “…the popularity of the drug among teenagers at the turn of the century coincided with the release of The Fast and the Furious, a terrible film in which cars were customized to go faster with the addition of NOS (Nitrous Oxide Systems).”
How does Mr.Bowers then make the case for this term (NOS), from a “terrible film,” over Mr. Self’s choice (nozz)?
Mr. Bowers hedges a bit before drawing on Urban Dictionary, referring to it as “the not altogether reliable urbandictionary.com”. However, his findings from that potentially unreliable source clinch his argument. As he writes,
“urbandictionary.com agrees, placing the slang for the drug as the fifth term in its entry for ‘nos’, while the entry for ‘nozz’ has only one definition: ‘A swag person that excels in social activities’.”
How did Urban Dictionary become a useful source here? Is it simply a matter of convenience? Or might it be the very best source in this case? When the knowledge of bona fide nos users is in question, UD seems to be the right choice.
Dear readers, have you ever cited UD as a source? What were the conditions? Did it serve you well? And how did you tailor your argument to your audience? Did you need to hedge or apologize for your UD use? Please comment below!