Watch your mouth

Evolution of Wash. U. slang

| Scene Special Features Editor

W.I.L.D. The Castle. BD. Floorgies. Every year, a vat of insider terms are poured over freshmen, who scramble just to make sense of all the Danforths. It’s only mildly surprising that the Orientation Web site has a page dedicated exclusively to Washington University lingo.

Yes, college is about the classes, the parties and the activities thousands of late teens undertake together, but it is also about the language used to refer to these joint experiences. Pay enough attention, and slang will surprise you. A thick paste of words that keeps students together, slang is always present and always evolving.

The origin of lingo

With dictionaries on slang available as early as the 1700s, it’s safe to say that its study and definition has interested linguists for some time. It has also confused them, and much more so in this day and age, when new methods of communication open up the possibilities of media far beyond normal throat sounds.

But most experts agree that slang—be it of the LOL variety, or the good old mouth-to-mouth—has to do with words that bring a group of people together while setting others apart. Professor Luisette Behmer currently teaches a class called “American Idioms and Slang” in the University College, which is meant for international students wishing to better understand the nuances of the English language.

As Behmer explained, “When slang is used by a specific group, it’s more personal; sometimes it’s humorous. It sets people apart from other people on campus, from the people that are visiting, so that the there’s an instant connection when you use slang.”

Slang is also, stated the instructor, very short-lived. College slang, even more so. According to a recent article in The New York Times, there are 2,500 ways to say “drunk.” Most likely each has been uttered by a college student in their lifetime.

Hear it happening

Urban Dictionary proudly features “floorcest,” “Orgo,” “ArtSci” and other vocabulary gems that describe Wash. U. life. They’re the fruits of the cohabitation which are so romantically explored in movies and CW shows, and of the classes many students have to trod through more realistically on campuses across the country.

Words like these seem intuitive enough, but some of them suggest just how slang can alter interpretations of specific social acts that in other contexts would be outrageous. As senior Micah Herstand put it, “When you have terms for things like ‘sexile,’ I think, people are more accepting. It makes people think: ‘Well, it just exists,’ rather than be indignant about it.”

It’s locale that usually brings out the flavors of specific colleges’ slang, fairly innocuous in the Wash. U. context. The buildings that were once labeled J, K and L on the campus map retained their alphabet monikers even after being dubbed Dauten, Rutledge and Shanedling.

Musicality also came up as important to the use and persistence of slang, which would explain why HIGE and WGE have taken on the verbal forms that they have. It also would explain why the consensus over the Danforth University Center’s name leans toward the animalistic homophone ‘duc,’ as opposed to the more formal D-U-C. A natural selection of sorts, in which the easiest word to pronounce survives.

“I think people tend to want to make things as short as possible,” Herstand said. “Otherwise I don’t think it would catch.”

Finally, while some thought little of what words are used to describe the Wash. U. Bubble, sophomore Caleb Bess did extract some fun from the general shortening of house names and common spaces.

“I like slang because it pokes fun at these buildings people have paid millions of dollars for,” Bess said.

The verdict?

The point of slang is consensus, but there’s also an aim toward freshness and novelty. Often, there is space to reconsider old words and invent new ones. The enigmatic clock propped on a green pole that serves as a meeting place for students is still called the Clocktower, though the terms Clock-stick or, more recently, Lolliclock, have been used for that same location.

And, of course, the question of the day is which of the many versions of the South 40 House will win out for generations to come?

According to the split opinions of those interviewed in this article, the colorful, bohemian house is still up for linguistic grabs. New Wohl, SoFoHo or SoFo? There might still be unexplored options out there. Epcot, perhaps?