Let's Reminisce: Slang-whanging at its best
By Jerry Lincecum
Aug 29, 2017
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Anyone who grew up in the country, as I did, is likely to remember some colloquial expressions that were often used in everyday conversation despite their being what English teachers call “slang.”  What kept these “non-standard” terms in use was the fact that they were usually made up of colorful, exaggerated metaphors or words and phrases that had taken on fresh meanings.  After all, our language is at its best when it can express the feelings and ideas of people with precision and freshness.  On the other hand, it distresses me to see politicans invoke the phrase “colorful language” as a euphemism for their use of profanity and obscenity.


Take the gambling expression “above board,” for example.  It comes from the practice of an honest card player who shuffles the deck in full view, on the table, as opposed to the crook who “stacks the deck” in order to cheat and assure he wins.  The term “stacked deck” has come to be applied to any situation that has a preordained outcome, such as the election in a “gerrymandered” district.


The latter term, incidentally, was born in 1812, when Massachusetts Governor Gerry signed a bill that redistricted the state to benefit his party. When drawn on the map, one of the contorted districts in the Boston area was said to resemble the shape of a salamander.  So a new word was created by combining the name of the governor with the latter part of the creature’s name: “Gerry-mander.”


My own given name was similarly used to create another slang term: “jerrybuilt,” referring to makeshift or shoddy workmanship.  Discovering this term and its meaning came as a shock to me when, as a child, I saw a cartoon in the Saturday Evening Post that showed two men standing in front of a large billboard advertisement that read “Buy a Jerry-Built Home!”  The older of the two men was saying to the younger, “Jerry, my boy, there’s something I need to tell you.”  The word started out as a nautical term, “jury-rigged,” referring to a makeshift or temporary repair (as in the French phrase “de jour,” for the day).


One word that has figured in numerous slang expressions is “something.”  It can denote anything surprising or interesting by itself (“That is really something!”) or be used in a variety of combinations (“He has something up his sleeve” or “She has something on the ball”).


“Out” has proved to be even more prolific.  As an adjective it means “unfashionable or unacceptable,” while “outfox” is a verb meaning “to outwit.”  But that is just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to combinations, such as “out front,” “out in left field,” “out of it,” “out of line,” “out of one’s head,” “out of pocket,” “out of shape,” “out of sight,” “out of sync,” “out of the woods,” and “out of this world.”  Don’t forget “on the outs,” “outtake” and “outside chance.”


“Soup” has a number of applications not relating to food, including “soupy,” “soup up,” and “in the soup.”  One of my favorite categories of slang is pairs of rhyming words like “shrewd dude,” pooper scooper” and “lovey dovey.”


In its earliest uses, the word “slang” referred to the vocabulary of "low or disreputable" people. However, by the early nineteenth century, it was moving up in the world, and nowadays a speaker's selection of slang words or phrases may convey prestige.  The current occupant of the White House certainly feels no compunction about using slang in his tweets: Remember “Crazy Joe Scarborough and dumb as a rock Mika are not bad people.”


Jerry Lincecum is a retired Austin College professor who now teaches older adults to write their autobiographies and family histories.  Email him at