Awesomesauce! The rise of informal written language
In 1785, Francis Grose published the first edition of The Classical Dictionary of the Vulgar Tongue. Relying on his own library of unusual books, his experience in the army, and decades of field work, Grose assembled some 9,000 words and definitions that Samuel Johnson had not thought fit to include in his own dictionary published thirty years prior. This was the language of sailors and soldiers, taverns and brothels, the imprisoned and the poor – ranging from the unprintably vulgar (‘Duck-F-ck-r’) to the delightfully clever (‘A gamester who does not immediately pay his losings is said to vowel the winner, by repeating the vowels I.O.U.’). It is a charming testament to how wide-ranging and inventive English has always been, especially the sort spoken between people who are working or fraternizing together.
The often striking difference between spoken and written English is something that can be a source of frustration or confusion for a lexicographer trying to keep track of how the language is growing and changing. You can have every reason to think that a word was used in a specific way at a certain time or in a certain place, but the written evidence just doesn’t bear you out. This is especially true, for instance, when you’re trying to find early evidence for vulgar slang. You can bet your ass that Americans had been using the phrase bet your ass for the better part of the twentieth century, but the oldest example on Google Books is only from 1971. There are certain words that people say all the time, but rarely, if ever, write down.
But, increasingly, the reverse is true as well. That is, as written electronic communication becomes more and more the default way that we express ourselves, we as lexicographers are defining more and more things that we actually have never heard anyone say before, things that are even, in a certain way, unspeakable.
This is obviously true with regard to the infinite set of initialisms and abbreviations that fall into and out of fashion online. FWIW would be awkward and tedious to say out loud, but it’s much faster to type than the phrase ‘for what it’s worth’. But beyond this, there is a whole register of informal communication available to the world of tweeters, emailers, and commenters that, I’d argue, doesn’t really exist in spoken English today, words and phrases that not only arose without being said but which lose something essential about what they are when people try to use them out loud.
The key factor in informal written communication is the fact that printed words are intrinsically more neutral, blanker than their spoken counterparts. Spoken language invariably seems to tell us more than writing does – a speaker’s gender, age, nationality, and mood all feel readily apparent when we hear their voice (even if they very often aren’t!). Thus, the essential task of informal written speech is to compensate for this deficit, to encode and amplify this information in what we’re saying.
Awesomesauce is a clear example of this. Despite coming into vogue as a hyperbolic interjection exchanged between young people only thirty-some-odd years ago, awesome is now a fairly general term of affirmation, used across many different contexts by many different people of all ages. We know there is a difference between the way that a ten-year-old says the word while he’s unwrapping Christmas presents and the way a supermarket cashier does when you tell her you’ll be paying by check. But neither of these vocalizations is really present when you get an email from a colleague that reads in its entirety, awesome. At times, such a message may end up being more mysterious than no response at all. The need to restore to this word something of its original verve and enthusiasm thereby produces the decidedly hyperbolic awesomesauce.
In fact, if there is one consistency in the relatively short lifespan of informal written communication it is its endless need to cultivate ever greater energy and emotion. The emotive connotations we attach to written words seem to wear out much faster than the connotations we deploy in spoken conversation. Hence the tendency to variations on a theme. Although it’s been in use by young people since the sixties, the epithet douchebag really only entered the average American’s general knowledge in the last ten or fifteen years. But already the word has lost enough of its bite that even more intense forms like douchenozzle and douche canoe have entered our lexicon. And that’s just the tip of the iceberg. A cursory search of one of our corpora reveals nontrivial evidence for douchebro, douchebeard, doucheface, douchelord, douchefest, and even douchetastic.
Now, there is no reason why one couldn’t say the word doucheface out loud, but, I’d venture to speculate, many of us would end up feeling awkward, if not idiotic, for doing so in a way that we wouldn’t necessarily if we were complaining to a friend by instant message. There is something unnecessarily excessive about such a word that isn’t really needed when we call someone a douchebag out loud, at least until douchebag starts to sound as harmless and tired as an even older word like jerk.
By contrast, there is a way in which forms of humor have arisen in online written communication that completely evaporate when you try to reproduce them out loud. Anyone who has had to tolerate someone else trying to “speak” lolcat or who won’t stop saying ermahgerd is intimately familiar with this experience. Even outside the realm of memes though, it’s a near certainty that a thread of ingenious puns about a television show would be absolutely insufferable to hear people exchange with each other in a subway car. It’s almost as if something about the muffled neutrality of written communication paradoxically enables us to explore more extreme registers of informal speech (good ones and bad ones) in a way that was never really possible before the twenty-first century.