Book Review: Susie Dent’s Larpers and Shroomers

This is the time of year for lists of words (and other things) of the year and assorted retrospectives on the past twelve months. In this vein, Oxford University Press and author Susie Dent have come out with the second annual version of their “report” on the state of the English language, Larpers and Shroomers: The Language Report.

I place the scare quotes around the word “report” because the book is not a formal study of the language and how it fared in the past year. Rather it is a collection of short essays and observations about the language, particularly about slang coinages and usage, at the end of 2004. Dent draws upon the archives of the Oxford English Dictionaries vast collection of citations to produce a collection of current British slang terms. (While there are some Americanisms to be found, the book has a distinctly British bent.) And while the book is the report of 2004, it does not strictly limit itself to this past year. Dent wisely interprets her topic to be the language as currently used in 2004, not just words and phrases that were coined in that year or relate to events of the year. So her coverage of slang includes words of the past few years.

Dent starts out with a list of slang terms of the moment. These include the title term LARPer (one who engages in live-action role playing, in other words dressing up as characters and playing fantasy scenes), as well as chugger (charity mugger, one who stops passers-by to collect money for charity), phishing (operating a fraudulent website to collect credit card information), and Googlewhacking (a game where one enters a two-word phrase into the Google search engine in hopes of getting a single hit).

The next essay is even more interesting; a comparison of words coined in 1904 with those coined one hundred years later. From a century ago, we have the words lollapalooza (something that is excellent), teletype, and Randlord (the manager or owner of a South African gold mine). The 2004 words include spim (spam sent via instant messaging), hiving (basing one’s entire existence in one’s home, similar to the earlier cocooning, but including work and contacts with the outside world via the internet), and alcolock (a device that tests a driver’s breath for alcohol before starting the engine). Dent’s point with the two lists is that words can provide a snapshot of society, the things that people consider important at given time, the state of technology.

The next few chapters are on various sources of neologisms. Dent treats us to neologisms from the worlds of business (vice investing: to invest in producers of tobacco, alcohol, and arms), politics (Hispandering: appealing to the Hispanic vote), cuisine (body sushi: eating sushi off the body of a naked woman), fashion (eye jewels: jewelry that is implanted under the cornea), sports (doosra: cricket term for an illegal type of bowl), high tech (poddie: an iPod user); and street slang (shroomer: a user of hallucinogenic mushrooms).

Larpers and Shroomers also contains several chapters on trends in grammar, punctuation, and pronunciation. Dent details the flap in the US over the inclusion of the sentence “Toni Morrison’s genius enables her...” on the SAT test. This rather silly episode of hypercorrection occurred in 2003 (presumably to late to make it into last year’s book) when a high school teacher objected to the sentence because “her” could not take an antecedent in the possessive case. The teacher was wrong, but succeeded in getting the question removed from the test. She also discusses the (inexplicable in my opinion) popularity of Lynne Truss’s Eats, Shoots & Leaves and the rise of Estuary English pronunciation.

These are followed by an excellent chapter on terms and trends in various forms of English spoken around the world. Dent gives use India (yatra: from the Sanskrit for pilgrimage, now used to describe a politician’s campaign journeys), Singapore (commuter: light rail transport), Australia (barbecue stopper: an issue of great importance), South Africa (lekgotla: Sesotho for council, a strategy planning meeting), and East Africa (matatu: a minibus used as a taxi, from Swahili).

Dent also includes chapters on the changing taboos of profanity and the uses of euphemism, as well as some chapters making general observations about the processes of language change.

The book finishes with a bang. In what is perhaps the best chapter in the book, Dent gives a list of words that were coined in the last hundred years, one word a year for each year since 1904. Many are obvious, for example 1916 gave us U-boat and 1917 tailspin; 1972 gave us Watergate. But some are surprising in how early or late they appear. Some of the more surprising ones:
1904:  hip (meaning smart or stylish)
1911:  gene
1921:  pop (as in pop song)
1929:  sex (as a noun for the act of sexual intercourse)
1931:  Mickey Mouse (as an adjective meaning worthless or silly)
1938:  cheeseburger
1944:  DNA
1947:  Wonderbra
1953:  hippy
1963:  peacenik
1979:  karaoke
1982:  hip-hop
1994:  Botox
2004:  chav (British slang for a delinquent or member of the underclass)

(The inclusion of this last term confused some journalists who, reading a review of the book, took it to mean that this was the Oxford English Dictionary’s “word of the year.” The OED does not declare a word of the year.)

While you probably won’t find any fundamental insights into the nature of language or truths about the English language, Larpers and Shroomers is a fun read and you will doubtlessly encounter words and facts of which you were unaware. The chapters are short enough to make excellent commute reading.

Hardcover; 165 pages; Oxford University Press; December 2004; $16.95

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