Lexicon Valley
A Blog About Language

Feb. 27 2015 10:00 AM

The Totally Adorable History of Cute

There are times when describing something as cute just isn’t. For example, when appraising a seminar classmate’s argument with the adjective, as a friend once did—especially when you are a man and she is a woman. My well-intentioned pal had meant cute as a compliment; he says he found his colleague’s take neat and pleasing. But he knew the second he said it that he’d screwed up. Even before his co-students excoriated him for sexism and condescension, he knew. But he maintains that his word choice, at least by his meaning, was appropriate. Did he deserve the public drumming?

Cute’s history argues for leniency. When the word first appeared in English in 1731, it was a shortened form of acute, the adjective meaning “shrewd,” “keen,” or “clever.” It even had its own opening apostrophe—‘cute—to let you know it had been clipped. (Whether all abbreviations are somewhat cute, as in “heartwarmingly diminutive,” is a question for minds cuter, as in “more cunning,” than mine.) A “cute remark” back in Victorian England was a quick-witted one. So was the “cute man” in Dickens’ 1841 book Barnaby Rudge. And so was a cute girl. In 1882, the Manchester Evening Mail ran a piece defending the typical American young woman as being just “as cute as the masculine Yankee,” by which it meant she was equally sharp and spirited.   

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You can thank American school kids for the more familiar “attractive,” “pretty,” or “charming” evolution of the term. This confusion of physical and mental appreciation—from the shapeliness or comeliness of a line of thinking to the elegant cut on a garment—misled my friend, who wanted to praise an argument on its brainy merits, into dinging it as trivial and superficial. Once cute’s slang meaning caught on in the mid 1830s, it was used to describe, among other things, small socks, a nice, orderly study room, the narrow and beautiful vasculature of old city streets, and “a French accent … reminiscent of the naughty-naughty twitterings of a Parisian miss on the English musical comedy stage.” Maybe that same bus that shuttles the modifier “smart” between ideas and outfits helped cute migrate from an intellectual value system to an aesthetic one.

But in those early examples—the socks, the alleys, the young Parisian—yet another transformation is taking place. The smartness or “just-so”-ness of cute is also manifesting in the size of the noun being modified. In 1941, for instance, Aldous Huxley wrote of a “tiny boy … looking almost indecently cute in his claret-coloured doublet and starched ruff.”* I’m reminded of how Marianne Moore’s poetic ideal—“neatness of finish”—was  occasionally misread as a sign of the smallness, the modesty, of her ambitions. Something about being neat and appropriate apparently translates into being tiny: There’s a sense of containment and easy comprehension. By the time Boyz II Men were singing about their “cutie pie” and websites devoted to “cute little kittens” were springing up, cute had become a receptacle for all these related ideas: aesthetic charm, minuteness, childhood, femininity—with a lingering hint of wiliness thrown in for good measure.

So is it possible to praise a respected colleague’s work as “cute” today without minimizing it? The seminar argument in question was apparently neat and fun, which also means it didn’t seem messy, risky, or grandiose—it pleased my friend. Maybe there is something self-flattering about describing a comment in terms of its positive or negative effects on you. (And isn’t that one more funny thing about cute? It is almost less a quality you can assign to someone than a way of getting at how you feel in that person’s presence: warm and enamored and safe.) I think what I would have reacted badly to in that seminar is the way cute focuses on the unthreatening nature of the remark, stripping the student’s words—however charismatic, unexpected, or self-contained—of any power. Marrying the first definition of cute (ingenious) to the second (limited) results in a term for arguments that might surprise and delight you, but won’t change your mind.

Which was essentially how my friend felt. So I guess his use of cute was both apt and untactful, fitting and ugly. Cute, in other words, and very much not.

Correction, Feb. 27, 2015: This post originally cited Huxley's 1941 quote to 1841. 

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Feb. 23 2015 8:15 AM

Smeg: The Most Disgusting Word You’ve Never Heard Of

This post originally appeared on Strong Language, a sweary blog about swearing.

Smegma.

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“Ewww”?

I hope so. Smegma isn’t a very common word, perhaps partly because so many of us are circumcised. But what it names (a cheeselike secretion that accumulates under the foreskin and around the clitoris—it’s also called dick cheese) is disgusting and prurient.

The disgust is something that gets worn off with repeated use, however; words lose their vividness as they become fixed idioms. Here, compare these two:

Fuck your mother.
Lick your mother’s pussy lips.

Strictly speaking, the second one shouldn’t be any more offensive than the first. But it’s not a cliché form, so it’s much more vivid. A person might wave off the first one, but might redo your dentition after the second.

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Ironically, smegma comes from the Greek word for soap.

Photo by Scott Olson/Getty Images

Smegma likewise maintains its vividness by being infrequently used. I’m sure it also helps that it has some phonaesthetics on its side. The sm onset may make you think of smear (which, by the way, it’s related to way back in Proto-Indo-European) or smell or smelt, or perhaps of Captain Hook’s sidekick Smee or Tolkien’s Smeagol (Gollum’s real name) and Smaug (the dragon), and maybe less of something smooth or lip-smacking like s’mores. It’s hard to say what effect may come from the sound of magma or fainter hints of muggy, gummy, amalgam, and dogma. But it’s hard not to speculate whether the tactility of the lips coming together twice with the /m/ sounds might have some proprioceptive hint of those skin folds in the genital areas where smegma accumulates.

Is smegma a vulgarity? A profanity? A dirty word? I just looked in the indexes of five books on vulgarity and taboo language, and it wasn’t in any of them. Dictionaries don’t flag it as offensive or taboo. It comes from Greek (for “soap”) via Latin, after all! Our Latinate vocabulary is clinical! Vagina, penis, feces? Big deal. But when you’re faced with something that we really just do not talk about, it still has some effect.

Here, try swapping smegma for shit in common expressions.

Get this shit off my lawn!
Get this smegma off my lawn!
Well, that’s just bullshit.
Well, that’s just bull smegma.
You’re a real piece of shit, you know that?
You’re a real piece of smegma, you know that?

It may be less officially vulgar, but ewww.

But it can lose its effect fairly quickly too. The truncated form of smegmasmeg (no relation to Smalterie Metallurgiche Emiliane Guastalia)—was used in the comedy sci-fi series Red Dwarf as a handy televisable expletive. Some industrious soul collected every single utterance of smeg on the show in one video. Watch it, and tell me whether it hasn’t had its edges worn off by the end:

And so it is. Marx said that all great world-historic facts and personages appear twice, first as tragedy, then as farce. In language, all metaphors show up first as vivid images, and then as hackneyed references that bring no image to mind anymore. With vulgar imagery, let us call it the smeg effect: All disgusting images appear first as smegma, then later as smeg, smeg, smeg, smeg.

Thanks to Nancy Friedman and Stan Carey for useful information, without which this article would have been a mere smear of smegma.

Feb. 20 2015 12:58 PM

How Does a Celebrity Become a “Spirit Animal”?

I’m starting to suspect that the engine of the Internet runs not on outrage or FOMO but animal souls. Twitter and Tumblr in particular swarm with spirit animals, the disembodied essences once associated with shamanism and Native Americans, now linked to youngish people who want to manage their images ever more precisely. The new breed of spirit animal is an identity marker, a person or thing with which someone wishes to claim kinship. It can be a peanut butter sandwich. Or a farting hart. During a random midmorning hour this week, the following celebrities were claimed on Twitter as spirit animals: Taylor Swift, Johnny Weir, Dolly Parton, Kerry Washington, Laverne Cox, Sad Drake, and Dwight Schrute. Before them, Seth Cohen provided ghostly guidance to a generation of sensitive Jewish men. Mayor Bill de Blasio did it for PETA. Spirit animals have even leapt offline (like spirit ticks!): Women at Cosmo’s “Fun Fearless Life” conference were asked to write their celebrity Patronus shapes on their nametags. (Joanna Coles told fans hers was Tilda Swinton, but in fact, she confessed to reporter Noreen Malone, it’s actually John Oliver.)

Feb. 18 2015 1:14 PM

How OK Became Our One True Universal Colloquialism 

Excerpted from Alphabetical: How Every Letter Tells a Story, by Michael Rosen, out now from Counterpoint.

Is it OK to write OK, Ok, Okay, and ok? And should people who say, “Okily-dokily” be given a custodial sentence?

When zoologists looked at the duck-billed platypus, they had problems. They had their way of classifying animals, but this beast didn’t fit. What’s more, it looked like a hoax. The duck-billed platypus was fine—it’s still fine; it just goes on being a duck-billed platypus. It doesn’t wonder what kind of animal it is.

OK is a duck-billed platypus.

Feb. 16 2015 9:30 AM

The Winding Circumlocutions of Schitt’s Creek Reviews

This post originally appeared on Strong Language, a sweary blog about swearing.

Schitt's Creek. There. I said it. Which is more than David Bianculli, TV critic for NPR’s Fresh Air, was able to do on Tuesday in his review of this new sitcom. It’s a show about a rich family, the Roses, that loses everything except the deed to a town purchased decades earlier as a joke. Here’s Bianculli twisting himself into Federal Communications Commission–approved knots:

The name of the town also is the name of this TV series, and there’s a reason the deed to the town was bought as a joke. It’s a joke I can’t say on the radio, but the second word is creek. The first is spelled S-C-H-I-T-T-apostrophe-S and rhymes with spits. From now on, I’ll just call it Creek.

Schitt’s Creek had its debut last month in Canada, on the CBC, and made its U.S. debut Wednesday on the cable channel Pop, which is what the TV Guide Network has renamed itself. The famously taboo-averse New York Times took a bold stance and printed the title of the series in its (lukewarm) review. But on the primly and grimly patrolled airwaves no one can hear that expletive-sparing C.

Feb. 13 2015 8:28 PM

KATCHOW! How to Write Sounds in Comics

If a tree falls in the forest in a comic book, but no one is around to write <krrrASH>, does it make a sound?

Comics are a visual medium, but sound is an essential element of the "imaginary space" its creators are building, at least according to Lee Marrs, author of the Pudge, Girl Blimp series and a "founding mommy" of Wimmen’s Comix. A comic with the sound effects removed might be a significantly different reading experience, almost as though a central character had been excised.

Marrs notes that representations of sound in comics are emblematic of the art form, and over time, a canon of onomatopoeia has developed. As with any transcription, these spellings are constrained by a language’s sounds and its writing system(s), so onomatopoeic words for the same sound, a barking dog or creaking floorboard, often differ from language to language. When comics are translated, the sound effects are usually converted as well.

Feb. 13 2015 9:00 AM

What I Learned About Language When I Titled My Novel The Book of Negroes

The title of my novel, The Book of Negroes, has undergone a series of changes since HarperCollins Canada published it eight years ago. The original name resurrects a long-forgotten British naval ledger used to document the exodus of 3,000 African Americans from Manhattan. These African Americans—their stories also form the subject of my novel—became known as the Black Loyalists because they served the British in Manhattan on the losing side of the American Revolutionary War. The Tories had enticed slaves to throw off their shackles and fight, promising freedom to any man or woman who would take refuge behind British military lines. But the British lost the war, so they rewarded the 3,000 Black Loyalists with free passage by ship from Manhattan to Nova Scotia (on the Atlantic coast of Canada) in 1783.

In 2007, shortly before the first printing of the novel in the United States, my American publisher (W.W. Norton & Co.) changed the title to Someone Knows My Name. I was told that American bookstores were reluctant to order a book with the word Negroes on the cover. In the Netherlands, meanwhile, where the Canadian title was translated quite literally to Het Negerboek, a small group of protesters of Dutch Surinamese descent was so outraged that they burned copies of the book cover in an Amsterdam park. When, back in the States, BET bought a six-part miniseries adaptation of the story (the first episode airs Monday), the network opted to use my original title, which persuaded Norton to re-release the book as The Book of Negroes. This back-and-forth made me wonder: What is it with the word Negroes? How has it come to be so incendiary?

Feb. 12 2015 3:26 PM

How Do You Spell the Abbreviation of Casual?

Here at Lexicon Valley we like to describe rather than prescribe, ruminate rather than ordain or decree. We are the contemplative cows chewing over the cud of language use, not the woodpeckers hammering our preferences home. And yet. Every now and then a linguistic puzzle presents itself that cries out for a definite solution. The abbreviation of the word casual is one such puzzle. How do you spell … that word?

We’re after answers, but we’re still a democracy, so we are going to tackle this pressing problem via roundtable discussion, after which you guys will tell us in the comments what you think. I’ll start. Because I’m right. The correct way to spell the shortening of casual is …

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Caj

First, the abbreviation of a word should not be longer or more complex than the word itself. Second, it should embody something of the spirit of the word. Caj is simple, direct, and brief—Dress code: caj—but it also lends itself to languorous lengthening: The date was cajjjjjjjjjj. Thorny consonantal clusters (like in caszh and cajzh) don’t conjure the requisite frictionlessness and ease, whereas the J makes phonetic sense, has a storybook charm, and is distinctive. To be casual is to obey the rules when it suits you. To keep it loose, a little wild. That J—a little something different that nevertheless avoids fussy four-car pileups of letters—delights the eye without requiring you to dig around in alternate alphabets. (Also, fasten on a second J and the word evokes, logically, the rhyming hajj.)

—Katy Waldman, words correspondent

Cajzh

We native English speakers are a parochial lot. Many eschew learning foreign languages altogether, and our newspapers and websites rarely display characters from foreign alphabets. That’s why my ideal representation of the abbreviated version of casualcaж, using the eighth letter of the Russian alphabet—is a nonstarter, even though the sound ж signifies, the zh-ish s that appears in the middle of the word casual, is just right. As a second-place substitute I favor cajzh. The middle J might seem excessive, but it’s necessary. Without it, cazh is too soft and sibilant. It’s ironic that we can only form the easy-breezy version of an already casual word by creating such a clogged-up concentration of consonants that we have to clench our teeth to pronounce it.

—June Thomas, culture critic and Outward editor

Cas’

Good abbreviations, needless to say, leave no room for alternatives. Natch. Poss. Totes. These are all perfectly intuitive word crops, straightforward shortcuts with clear meanings. But lopping off the second syllable of casual just doesn’t work in print. So if we insist on doing it, the only route is the practical one. No desperate clustering of letters to create an inexpressible sound. No invoking a non-English character to help out where our own language fails. No weird solitary J's. The best choice is to write the syllable itself, plus an apostrophe to stand in for the missing letters: the ugly but functional cas’

—Laura Bennett, senior editor

Caʒ

The problem with how to spell the commonly used abbreviation of casual is that there’s no letter, or letter combination, in English that perfectly represents the lovely sound in the middle of casual—the satisfying thick buzz, the aural smear, not a typical Z but a Z that’s been smoking pot all afternoon. It’s not zh, or jzh, or any of the other suggestions my misguided colleagues have made here. Smushing a bunch of letters together in hopes of evoking a simple phonetic sound is hopeless. Luckily, the international phonetic alphabet offers us the answer, and the Internet offers us the way to find it.

The sound is called the voiced palato-alveolar sibilant, and the way to spell the abbreviation of casual you say all the time is caʒ. Look how pretty that is! The letter, called an ezh, looks like the offspring of a Z and a G, which is just perfect. The next time you’re looking to type this word, just Google “ezh,” copy-paste, and you’re on your way. You may also shorten the usual to the uʒ, or “Kyrie Irving has excellent court vision” to “whoa his court viʒ.” Do not, however, shorten menopausal to menopauʒ; this is incorrect.

Dan Kois, culture editor

Caszh

The obvious correct spelling for the single-syllable shortened form of casual so often used in informal speech is caszh. We need the S to hearken back to the spelling of the word we’re trying to abbreviate. (Caj, by contrast, might look like an abbreviation of cajun or cajole to the uninitiated.) However, cas alone looks like it sounds like caz or cass, so we also need the additional zh, which is already widely understood to represent the voiced palato-alveolar sibilant. Caszh is efficient, containing just enough letters to get the job done, without requiring any special characters. And there’s something appropriately pleasant about that cluster of consonants at the end, which seems to imply that you can draw out the zh sound as long as you like when you speak the word aloud.

—Laura Anderson, associate editor

Cascjzh

This is America, where we go big and act haphazardly. We ignore problems, or we win by throwing everything we have at them, including consonants. My friends, spelling the shortened casual is an American problem. Maybe cascjzh looks foreign to you. Maybe as usual we’ve failed in our quest for perfection. But I will be damned if we roll over and grasp at a spelling as plainly wrong as cas like some idle Frenchman. I will be damned if we borrow a letter from another language like some leading-from-behind wimp.

Achieving the opposite of our wars' objectives is the American way; when we aim to correctly shorten casual, we can only hope to lengthen it. To win honorably, when we abbreviate casual, we need a surge—we must pile consonant upon consonant until we approximate the right sound. We will not go quietly into the night; we will not vanish without a fight. We're going to spell on. Because Americans are not casual. We spell with excess, or we do not spell at all. We are cascjzh.

—Seth Maxon, home page editor

Feb. 11 2015 2:35 PM

When Did Books Get Page Numbers—and Are They Even Useful Anymore?

Open any Western book, and one of the first right-hand pages will contain the title and author, along with the name of the publisher and maybe place and year of publication.

It didn’t use to be that way.

Feb. 4 2015 2:46 PM

Why We Shouldn’t Reclaim Slut

Since the Riot Grrrl feminist punk rock movement of the early 1990s, when Kathleen Hanna of the band Bikini Kill wrote SLUT on her stomach in lipstick, feminists have attempted to wrest control of the label “slut.” Instead of being shamed for our sexuality, the thinking has been, let’s take ownership of this label and subvert its meanings. It’s a brave, saucy move with doses of irony and humor mixed in, and one that’s been gestating for a while. Years before the SlutWalk movement erupted in 2011 and sought to rehabilitate the term, I had amassed a closet full of slut T-shirts given to me by campus groups after my lectures on slut-bashing. But I’ve never worn them. Simply put, most people aren’t in on the joke, which creates more issues than it solves.

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