A totally tubular guide to the language of Stranger Things
Pack up your Cabbage Patch Kids and power down your NES consoles, fans of the eighties! It’s time to take a break from vegging out and do a deep dive into the language of everyone’s favorite 1980s-set kid-centric TV sci-fi drama, the Netflix original series Stranger Things. (If you have a different favorite 1980s-set kid-centric TV sci-fi drama, I’m going to be impressed with your commitment to the genre.) And beware: spoilers abound!
My assumption that Demogorgon was the invention of Dungeons and Dragons masterminds Gary Gygax and Dave Arneson turned out to be totally bogus. The word dates back as early as the fourth century in Latin, where it was a ‘scribal error…for demiurgon, accusative of demiurgos’. Presumably the early modern translators to English recognized what a righteous term their predecessors had coined, because they kept the typo.
Centuries before Gygax and Arneson set pen to paper, the term Demogorgon referred to ‘a powerful and terrible god or demon’ or anyone who was like that god or demon ‘in having absolute power and supremacy’. The Oxford English Dictionary cites sources ranging from Spenser, Milton and Shelley to the official Dungeons and Dragons magazine in 1988 – so the Stranger Things kids are in excellent company when they name the monster from the Upside-Down after the creature from their battered D&D manual.
Like I’m so sure you need to hear more about the Upside Down, the mysterious, snowy land that has everyone in Hawkins wigging out. Just as the Upside Down in Stranger Things is shrouded in mystery, the origins of the phrase itself are as fuzzy as the audio of your old transistor radio (in those dark days before you got your first Walkman).
OED, ˌupside ˈdown, adv., n., and adj.
Radical, right? We’ll be sending some brand new Swatches as a thank-you to the linguistic powers that be for massaging the phrase up so down (or up to down? Maybe Will, the closest thing we have to an expert on The Upside Down, can tell us which it is!) into a version of the phrase that we can all understand.
Don’t have a cow about this mistake, but mouth-breather is an anachronism for this 1983- and 1984-set show. Mike teaches Eleven the insult in series one, and she uses it a couple of times thereafter – only for people who really deserve it.
Mouth-breather began its life as a non-insulting medical term and stayed that way for upwards of seventy years, until the youth of America appropriated it for use as a generic insult. But the first documented case of its use was in 1985, two full years after the first series of Stranger Things is set. Granting that oral vernacular progresses more quickly than print culture catches on – the first instance cited by the OED is in Maclean’s, hardly the vanguard of modern slang – we still call shenanigans.
Valley slang hits Stranger Things in series two with the arrival of Max Mayfield, a California girl with a skateboard and wicked fast reflexes – as evidenced by her total domination of the video game boards at the boys’ favorite hangout, the Palace Arcade. Tubular, used to describe something as awesome as the perfect wave for surfing, was popularized by Frank Zappa’s satiric 1982 song ‘Valley Girl’ and, of course, by the world’s most fearsome fighting team, those heroes on a half-shell, the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles.
Officially, this means tadpole, but Dustin’s not wrong that his lil demon D’Artagnan looks extremely tadpoleish. Unfortunately, Dart almost immediately transforms into something altogether more sinister: a Demodog. As Dustin says: ‘Demogorgon. Dogs. Demodogs. It’s like a compound. It’s like a play on words.’
Point of interest: pollywog was also nautical slang for a sailor crossing the equator for the first time. Not a bad word for the first hell-critter to cross over from the Upside-Down into the regular world, even if he does eat Dustin’s cat and probably more than his fair share of Three Musketeers bars.
Eleven gets a makeover in series two, slicking back her curls and adding smudgy eyeliner to her look. Eleven’s sister Kali and her team of outlaws were grody to the max, but they’re not wrong that Eleven’s new look is totally bitchin’. The adjective originated in the US, probably because (no disrespect to my fellow countrymen) of the stunning poverty of our stable of swear words. Bitchin’ as a compliment dates all the way back to 1957, but it took a few more decades before it really caught on.
Well, that’s it! You’ll never look at the language of Stranger Things the same way again, so you can all get back to watching the ‘Karma Chameleon’ video on MTV or saving up to take your girl to Sixteen Candles for the third time. And don’t worry too much about anachronisms. By the time the third series comes out, the kids will all be living in 1985, the kids’ warring campaign posters will have reached a resolution, and Mike and Eleven will have the OED’s sanction to say mouth-breather as much as they want.