Weekly Word Watch: wasteman, womp womp, and werpt
This week’s Word Watch is brought to you by the letter W, as in Washington and the White House – but also wordplay, World English, and some of our favourite language writers across the web.
Global politics warrants some global slang.
Donald Trump is visiting the UK next week, and not everyone is happy about it. Magid Magid, the young British-Somali Lord Mayor of Sheffield, took to Trump’s beloved medium, Twitter, to ban the president from his South Yorkshire city.
I Magid Magid, Lord Mayor & first citizen of this city hereby declare that not only is Donald J Trump (@realDonaldTrump) a WASTEMAN, but he is also henceforth banned from the great city of Sheffield!
I further declare July 13th to be Mexico Solidarity Day! 🇲🇽 pic.twitter.com/qYehdHYDEt
— 🚀MΛG!D (@MagicMagid) July 4, 2018
In his colourful tweet, Magid also ‘hereby declared’ that the US president is a wasteman, sporting the same message on his T-shirt.
No, Magid wasn’t saying Trump was a mine worker responsible for ensuring the proper ventilation of disused shafts in coal mines, a 19th-century sense of wasteman. He’s using a UK urban slang term meaning ‘fool’ or ’loser’, i.e., someone who does nothing with, or wastes, their life. Green’s Dictionary of Slang finds evidence for the term at least by a 2006 entry on Urban Dictionary.
Tony Thorne, a slang consultant at King’s College London, has observed that new youth language in the UK is very multicultural, especially inflected with Caribbean varieties of English. Indeed, we can find waste in another slang term popularized in Jamaican communities of Toronto: waste yute. Similar to wasteman in its sense of ‘worthless person’, waste yute features yute, from the Jamaican Creole pronunciation of youth, or ‘young person’.
It’s not every day onomatopoeia makes headlines – let alone twice in nearly as many weeks.
Late last month, at the height of the Trump administration’s family separation crisis, a former Democratic adviser mentioned reports of a 10-year-old girl with Down Syndrome taken from her mother at the US-Mexico border on TV. Former Trump campaign manager Corey Lewandowski responded to the disturbing report with womp womp.
Then, earlier this month, at a rally in Alabama protesting the family separations, a counter-demonstrator was arrested after brandishing a handgun and crowing womp womp at the crowd.
Womp womp is issued to belittle someone’s concerns or setbacks. As author Ben Yagoda explained in The Chronicle of Higher Education, womp womp ‘originated in a series of descending notes, characteristically played by a muted trombone, to indicate that something sad has happened in some sort of entertainment’, a convention claimed to go back to vaudeville but associated upon with latter-19th-century US cartoons and gameshows.
The sound effect, Yagoda goes on, was popularized by the dour ‘Debbie Downer’ skit on the comedy show Saturday Night Live in 2004. As womp womp, it earned full onomatopoeic rendering for a ‘lighthearted phrase indicating loss’ no later than 2006, when it made it to Urban Dictionary.
Thanks to its original associations, womp womp is sometimes referred to as sad trombones. Some language professionals, though, word-playfully took issue with the sonic accuracy of womp womp:
— Stan Carey (@StanCarey) July 3, 2018
After a week of rulings from the US Supreme Court favouring conservative causes, liberals were further dismayed when Justice Anthony Kennedy, a key swing-vote on protections for abortion rights and gay marriage, announced his retirement from the bench. But not Donald Trump, Jr., who attempted some slang, lit, to cheer the news.
OMG! Just when you thought this week couldn’t get more lit… I give you Anthony Kennedy’s retirement from #SCOTUS
— Donald Trump Jr. (@DonaldJTrumpJr) June 27, 2018
Musician and comedian Don Will didn’t miss a beat to comment on the US president’s son’s jarring use of lit, meaning ‘intensely good or exciting’ and popularized by hip-hop culture.
the word lit was pronounced dead at 1:23 PM on June 27, 2018. the black community would simply like privacy during this time of mourning. https://t.co/U3SYS3XbCe
— Donwill (@donwill) June 27, 2018
On Last Week Tonight earlier this week, comedian John Oliver also picked up on how the mainstream adoption of slang, effectively, saps the out-group energies that make slang what it is. Reacting to Trump Jr.’s tweet, Oliver launched into a send-up of slang appropriation. He’s worth quoting at length:
I’m afraid I’m going to have to disagree with Mister Junior on this, because I don’t think this is ‘lit’ at all. I mean, it’s obvs crayAF, no one is denying that, fam, but I would argue that this week’s news was neither lit nor on fleek nor was it three fire emojis… Now, granted, I’m still a little shook jsyk, but I personally believe Kennedy’s retirement is super werpt. And I’m happy to announce that in saying that, all of the slang words I just used are now officially dead forever- and that includes ‘werpt,’ a term that doesn’t even exist for which I preemptively ruined just in case.
The winner, here, is werpt, a nonsense word implied to mean ‘mental’ or ‘messed up’. All jesting aside, Last Week Tonight’s werpt actually has a good ear for the sound of contemporary slang. Language writer and researcher Ben Zimmer praised it as ‘the perfect bit of fake millennial slang’, hearing in it echoes of words like twerk, werk, derp, and turnt. Among more established words, werpt also rings of ripped, warped, and even wept.
Oliver’s fans ran with werpt. Some found it to be an apt description for the times.
#werpt is the only way to describe things that makes sense anymore.
— Natalie Budge (@natbudge) July 2, 2018
Others put it to use in new contexts.
A somewhat #werpt week ahead what with a holiday smack in the middle.
— Sean Oates (@seanoates) July 2, 2018
Lexicographer Jane Solomon, however, saw in werpt the opportunity to educate us that it is use, ultimately, that enters a word into dictionaries. A word is a word even when we claim otherwise.
So @iamjohnoliver insists that ‘werpt’ is not a real word, but if Oliver fans start using it to mock men in their 40s for trying to sound hip with the youngs, then maybe we’ll see it in a dictionary one day. https://t.co/WUXuTyZnwE
— Jane Solomon (@janesolomon) July 2, 2018