Grungespeak: the greatest language hoax of the 1990s
In honor of April Fools’ Day, we take a look back at one of the great language hoaxes of the past several decades.
Back in 1992, ‘grunge’ was the next big thing in American culture. Nirvana’s 1991 album Nevermind had hit the #1 spot on the Billboard 200 chart, fashion designer Marc Jacobs had just debuted his infamous ‘grunge collection’, and MTV was providing ‘grunge’ a conduit into the home of every American teenager. Given all that was happening, it completely made sense for the New York Times to run a style and fashion piece on the culture that was sweeping the nation.
Looking back, the hoax that kick-started the phenomenon of ‘grungespeak’ began simply enough: a New York Times reporter asking a receptionist at Sub Pop Records – the record label that produced Nirvana’s 1989 album Bleach, among other seminal ’90s alt-rock albums – about the lexicon of grunge and getting, well, a less than honest answer. Feeling frustrated by all the media attention, the receptionist – Megan Jasper, who is now a vice president at Sub Pop – provided the reporter ‘grunge translations’ for words offered up by the reporter.
Years later, Jasper reminisced, ‘I wrote down a bunch of words that rhymed and mixed them up to come up with the answers but then I got bored and just started making up things that my friends and I used to say as jokes.’
Much to Jasper’s surprise, a few days after the interview, her nonsense slang appeared accompanying on the front page of the New York Times Style section, contextualized as the lexicon of grunge culture. The words were:
- wack slacks: Old ripped jeans
- fuzz: Heavy wool sweaters
- plats: Platform shoes
- kickers: Heavy boots
- swingin’ on the flippity flop: Hanging out
- bound-and-hagged: Staying home on Friday or Saturday night
- score: Great
- harsh realm: Bummer
- cob nobbler: Loser
- dish: Desirable guy
- bloated, big bag of blotation: Drunk
- lamestain: Uncool person
- tom-tom club: Uncool outsiders
- rock on: A happy goodbye
Some of those words seem passable as slang – score stands out as plausible, and dish and bloated have been used in similar ways historically. However, most of the words still sound as ridiculous today as they must have sounded to Megan Jasper when she invented them. Several of them are outright fakes, including tom-tom club (Tom Tom Club is an American new wave band) and swingin’ on the flippity flop (which is just plain silly). Other terms just seem too strange or clever to be genuine slang, such as harsh realm and bound-and-hagged.
However, despite the obvious unlikeliness of these terms, several journalists and critics at the time, including Thomas Frank – who actually revealed the hoax in a column in The Baffler – predicted that the terms would actually gain some currency thanks to the widespread attention that they were receiving.
So are any of the words still with us today?
According to the Oxford English Corpus, several of the terms are still around – but most of the examples to be found are actually just references to the hoax itself. UrbanDictionary.com, which can occasionally offer some insight into new slang, has entries for most of the above list of terms. However, that evidence should be taken with a grain of salt, given that a single user seems to have submitted most of the terms, all of them without reference to their roots in ‘grungespeak’. Hoping to bring new life to the hoax, perhaps?
The terms, it seems, never really caught on. Instead, they continue to exist not as current slang but as fascinating tokens of the ’90s. What this means is that while it’s not difficult to locate the errant reference to ‘wack slacks’ on Facebook, it will more likely be in the context of a ’90s-themed party than in the copy of a fashion retailer’s page.
But as all lexicographers are well aware, words are notoriously difficult to coin. The most famous cinematic example in recent memory is ‘fetch’ in the 2004 film Mean Girls. One character, Gretchen, makes consistent use of the word as an adjective to mean something like ‘trendy’ or ‘fashionable’, although Regina – the ‘queen bee’ of the clique – chides her, ‘Gretchen, stop trying to make fetch happen!’ So as much as some corners of the Internet would like to see cob nobbler happen, it will likely not amount to much more than a fun piece of trivia in language history.