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“Add it up, it all spells ‘duh’”: the language of Buffy, the Vampire Slayer

Someone called James Marsters turns fifty this week. If you’ve never heard of him, that’s not surprising. Outside the fandom of TV shows like Buffy the Vampire Slayer he is, in his own words, ‘just another actor’. But if you’re one of the fans, then the idea that Spike is turning fifty might be giving you the maxi-wig.

Getting totally wigged

There are certain words and phrases that a Buffy fan recognizes instantly. There is, to begin with, the professional jargon of Slayerdom. It is the duty and occupation of the Slayer, or Chosen One, to slay, by staking, vampires. The Slayer is trained and assisted in this task by her Watcher, under the aegis of the Watcher’s Council. At times, it may be necessary for her to broaden the scope of her responsibilities and, in addition to dusting vamps, destroy other varieties of Big Bad, such as demons, killer robots, killer robot demons, cheerleaders, etc.

Beyond the purely slay-related, Buffy and her Scooby Gang, like any social group, have their own in-words. The Scoobies’ preferred terms for freak out and the creeps are wig and wiggins; they might argue, for example, that Buffy’s mother totally wigs about her slayage. While they have exceptional coping skills, it’s rare for them to deal with anything; instead – laconically, pithily, punchily – they deal. Slayer Faith has a (frequently sarcastic) signature phrase for fine, good, cool, five-by-five, while all the Scoobies are strongly associated with much. According to the Oxford English Dictionary, in fact, it was Buffy, both the film and the TV series, that popularized the use of much with a ‘preceding adjective, infinitive verb, or noun phrase, forming an elliptical comment or question’. (Geek out, much?)

Adjectivage and nouniness

What ‘much’ shows us is that the language of Buffy is not just about special words, but also about special usage.

For instance, there’s nothing remarkable about the suffixes -age, -ness, and -y in English. But combine them with unexpected words, or in unexpected forms, and they assume a recognizable Buffyness: a boy in love with Buffy’s friend Willow dreams of Willow kissage; notoriously brooding vampire Angel is described as large and glowery; and there’s a beautifully Buffy bit of word play in Buffy’s suspicious question when she’s suddenly told to work a double shift, ‘Why the double-shiftiness?’

Shifting parts of speech is another distinctively Buffy approach to usage. Adjectives casually become nouns when someone asks, ‘What’s with the grim?’, or tells Buffy to stop with the crazy. Buffy is particularly partial to shifting pop cultural proper nouns to verbs and adjectives. She can’t believe, for example, that her Watcher, of all people, tries to Scully her with a sceptical mundane explanation for a supernatural problem, and she describes a dimensional disturbance as making time go all David Lynch.

Compound Girls

Compounds such as Net Girl (Willow, who’s good at hacking and research) and Wiccan Girl (also Willow, after she begins studying magic) are the buttery bread of Buffy coinages. An accurate but self-evident observation turns a slayer into Perception Girl. Faith is never Low-Profile Girl, but to make matters worse Willow insists, when it looks like Faith might be involved with Buffy’s boyfriend, that: ‘Faith would totally do that. Faith was built to do that. She’s the Do-That Girl.’ Buffy’s hurt feelings when the Scoobies fail to see that a robot imitation of her isn’t real are aggravated by the fact that the Buffybot acts just like a clingy girlfriendbot that the Gang have already encountered.

Many compounds do more than just identify or describe; they play with morphology and semantics. About to say ‘But’, Buffy’s Watcher has but-face. A bitter Buffy says to Angel, ‘I don’t trust you. You’re a vampire. Oh, I’m sorry. Was that an offensive term? Should I say ‘undead-American’?’ (Perhaps; certainly Angel makes it clear that he prefers not to be called Deadboy.) Wiccan Girl is frustrated by a college witch group that turns out to be nothing but a bunch of wannablessedbes, and some of her magic lends itself spectacularly well to the word-gaminess of compound morphology. In frustration, she says, ‘Damn love spell. I’ve tried every anti-love-spell spell I can find’, but is told: ‘Even if you found the right one, guy would probably just do an anti-anti-love-spell-spell spell.’

Intimations of, like, immortality or something

But what really creates a sense of Buffyness, a Buffylike presence, a certainty of Buffdom, is not the compound coinages and the special words and usages themselves; it’s the contexts in which they’re used. If Buffy the Vampire Slayer can be said to have Romeo and Julietted late-nineties TV, it’s because Buffy, like Shakespeare’s seminal teen angst spectagedy, doesn’t see why what is trivial, simple, adolescent, comic, and genre-based cannot illuminate and interrogate what is important, sophisticated, universal, tragic, or literary.

The show approaches its language in the same disjunctive register it uses for its content. You can see this when Buffy asks, ‘Could you contemplate getting over yourself for a second?’ Or when, speaking of a demon with no mouth, Willow says, ‘I don’t like this whole no-mouth thing. It’s disquieting.’ These kinds of combinations of teenage slang and higher-order, lower-frequency, more adult vocabulary are, I think, definitive of Buffyspeak.

So is the highly literate word play around ‘disquieting’. Willow’s disquiet is understandable, but a no-mouth thing must surely be as quieting as it is disquieting – an idea hinted at in the prefix ‘dis-’, which in one sense (‘negation’) undoes Willow’s quiet, but at the same time in another (‘intensification’) intensifies the demon’s quietness.

Overanalyse, much? Probably. Is a no-mouth demon thing inconsequential? Yes, of course. Is it, with the language surrounding it, nevertheless raising fundamental questions about the assumptions by which we make sense of our world? Well, kind of.

I do realise that I’m totally going schoolmarm here, but I do also think the disquieting no-mouth thing calls into question the idea that ‘quiet’ and ‘unquiet’ are mutually exclusive just because they’re opposites. I think that, insignificant as these two words might be, they’re suggestive of a somewhat disquieting larger problem with how we often think: in mutually exclusive opposites, or binary (much like killer robots).

And I think that Buffy – with its giddy language games and its cultivated diction, as much as its lightweight adolescent backdrop and its steady exploration of what it means to be ethical, to be human, to find meaning in being – perhaps calls into question the idea that slight and substantial, ephemera and art, language and content are mutually exclusive just because we tend to treat them as binary opposites. As Buffy says, “Add it up, it all spells ‘duh’.”

Right. I’m just going to sit quietly for a while now and contemplate getting over myself.