Slang In Buffy The Vampire Slayer (Part II)
(This is part two of a two-part article. The first installment appeared in last month’s issue.)
Last month, we took a look at Buffy, The Vampire Slayer (BtVS), a popular US television series that uses slang, both real and created, to set the mood and establish the characters. The show follows the exploits of Buffy Summers, the one girl in all the world endowed with the preternatural powers needed to slay vampires and fight the demonic forces of evil. Aided by her friends Willow and Xander, as well as by her “Watcher” Giles, she works to rid the world of evil, starting with her hometown of Sunnydale, California.
In the first part of the article we examined how BtVS used actual slang terms and phrases to good effect. This month, we will look at how the writers use a few derivational rules and patterns to create a wide variety of unique slang terms. We will also examine the speech patterns of a few of the characters to see how the writers and actors use language to establish and shape the characters.
The bulk of slang usage in BtVS, dubbed Slayerspeak by fans, consists of nonce derivations and particular repeated patterns of speech and word formation. These patterns are few in number, but the writers use them to generate a cornucopia of unique slang terms.
BtVS is replete with nonce names and references to people and characters. While these usages are seldom repeated, they are formed using a few reusable patterns. One of these patterns is to use an adjective or descriptive noun followed by -man, -lady, -boy, -guy, -girl, etc. Thus we have sissy-man, praying mantis lady, larva boy, dead boy, research boy, exchange-o boy (referring to a foreign exchange student), stalker boy, fun talking guy, mystery guy, corporate computer suit guy, supportive boyfriend guy, didn’t go to college guy, pushing-away girl, percepto girl, soliloquy girl, knowledge girl, and destructo-girl among others.
Similarly, nonce names are also formed using mister, miss, and Ms. followed by a descriptor. Hence we have Miss Motormouth, Miss Trailer Trash, Mr. Excitement, Mr. Mutant, Ms. Invisible, Miss Well-Proportioned, and the lengthy Mister ‘I’m the lead singer I’m so great I don’t even have to show up for a date or even call’ among others.
The writers use a limited number of derivational affixes to form a large number of nonce terms.
Perhaps the most common suffix is -y, used to convert nouns into adjectives. A serious student is bookwormy, vampires are vampiry, and Buffy’s one-time date Owen is not just a boy, he’s Oweny. Buffy complains that the cream rinse she just bought is neither creamy nor rinsey and for a scourge of the demon world she has not been that scourgy lately. Her friend Xander opines that a breakfast bar he just ate tastes cardboardy. Someone who betrays is backstabby. Monsters stalking one in the dark are lurky and those that are intent on destroying the world are apocalypsy. And if they do it on Halloween, they’re Halloweeny.
Similar, but used less frequently, is the suffix -ly. For this one we only get dogly, denoting an unattractive boy and its antonym boyfriendly. A college fraternity is fratly.
Something with a particular quality is described as -like. A domineering mother is described as Nazi-like, boys are guy-like, and the prom queen is Evita-like.
On the other hand, something without a particular quality is described as -less. Buffy complains that her slaying duties make it difficult to meet boys and hence she is a dateless monster. Dinner eaten out of a plastic bag is plateless, and a summer vacation in Tuscany is beachless in comparison to one in Maui.
The suffix -able is used to turn verbs into nonce adjectives. We have doable meaning possible, unmeshable referring to things that don’t combine, lunchable describing a sexy male, and skippable denoting something unpleasant. The suffix -worthy is also used on occasion to serve the same purpose. We find both cringeworthy, meaning scary, and yawnworthy, meaning boring.
The suffix -age is used to convert verbs into nonce nouns. Hence we have slayage meaning death, missage referring to the absence of a boyfriend, and breakage of hearts. When a boy and a girl like one another there is sparkage.
Similarly, the suffix -oid is combined with a noun to create a descriptive term for a person. A corporate drone is a zomboid. A disreputable character is a sleazoid. And a slave to fashion is a trendoid.
The characters use various geographical suffixes to describe abstract states. A relationship enters dateville when romance and flowers are involved. High school career day for the Slayer is in mootville because she already has a calling. Someone currently in neurotic city needs a visit to therapyland, and someone who is nervous and irritable needs to go to decaf-land.
Other qualities are described as factors. Hence we have coolness factor, ick factor, and creep factor.
Mode is another noun used as the basis for repeated compounds. When Buffy wants to go on a date and doesn’t want her slaying duties to interfere she is in see-no-evil mode. A person worried and pacing back and forth is in pace mode. And when the gang wants to discover what type of demon they are facing they go into research mode.
The patterns of nonce formulation are not restricted to individual words and terms. The characters in BtVS also form phrases out of set patterns. One of the more common of these is [adjective]-much? A clipped form of Are you ____ much? that is used as an insult. Buffy’s schoolmate, who doesn’t know Buffy is the Slayer, overhears Buffy discussing corpses and responds with Morbid much? Buffy herself asks a friend if they are Pathetic much? And Xander, rather unsympathetically, asks a troubled friend Having issues much?
Pop Culture References
In the first half of this article, we discussed who pop music is given short shrift by the writers, but other aspects of popular culture are not. The dialect used in BtVS is that it is studded with pop culture references. The characters use pop culture icons to describe and compare and to form new words and phrases.
Movies get their share of referring phrases and terms. One who has been taken on a wild goose chase has been Keyser Soze’d, a reference to the movie The Usual Suspects. Willow’s boyfriend is in a band called Dingoes Ate My Baby, after a line from A Cry in the Dark starring Meryl Streep. Buffy designates two cowboy vampires as Butch and Sundance (and their “real” names are Lyle and Tector Gorch, after characters in Peckinpah’s The Wild Bunch). And Buffy dubs a submissive housewife as Stepford. Xander refers to a vampire who picks up an unsuspecting Willow in a bar as Mr. Goodbar. When another Slayer wants to charge into a nest of vampires, Buffy calls her John Wayne. A group of marauding vampires is out in Magnum Force. School cafeteria vegetables are Soylent Green and a pack of teenagers bent on destruction are winged monkeys. Xander refers to Sunnydale as Monster Island, home of Godzilla, Mothra, Rodan, and their ilk. And criticism is a little Gene and Roger, a reference to movie critics Siskel and Ebert.
Likewise, television is not immune. To act the role of a skeptic is to Scully, after the X-Files character. Buffy declares that monsters pretty much just want to kill, crush, destroy, a reference to destructive androids from the TV series Lost In Space. When Giles remains calm in the face of impending apocalypse, Xander calls him Locutus of the Borg, a Star Trek: The Next Generation reference; and when a new watcher, younger but still tweed-clad and English, arrives to take Giles’s place, Buffy calls him Giles: The Next Generation. A smart person is referred to as Mr. Wizard, a teen-aged witch is a Sabrina, and Buffy calls another Slayer Pink Ranger, a reference to the Mighty Morphin Power Rangers.
Comic books get their share of hits. A call from Giles is a Bat Signal. Also from the world of superheroes, an alternate reality is Bizarro world, a Superman reference, and a football player is referred to as the Hulk. Xander also intones this looks like a job for Buffy, echoing the Superman catch phrase. And a sixth sense is spider-sense after Spiderman.
A summary is referred to as the Cliffnotes version. To dress in cheap and unfashionable clothing is to see the softer side of Sears after an advertising slogan. A boy who tries to kill his girlfriend is going O.J. An unobservant boyfriend Helen Keller. A cosmetics salesman, a male, is called Mary Kay. An abusive mother is referred to as Mommie Dearest, a reference to the Joan Crawford biography. Telling someone to calm down can be done with the command Ridilin, and a poor excuse is a twinkie defense.
Use of catch phrases from American pop culture is also prevalent. Buffy describes a failure as a swing and a miss, a reference to baseball commentary. She compliments Xander by saying she will accept no substitutes, an advertising cliché. An uncertain choice is phrased as what’s behind door number three, recalling Monty Hall and the game show Let’s Make A Deal. And when someone answers one of Buffy’s questions incorrectly, she responds with, “sorry! That’s incorrect but you do get this lovely watch and a year’s supply of Turtle Wax...” Also from game shows, when Xander wants to be clued in, he refers to himself as those in our studio audience. Willow uses inquiring minds want to know, an advertising slogan for the tabloid National Enquirer for the same purpose. Football gets a few hits. Mistakes are pointed out with the phrase flag on that play. Buffy says she would like to turn over her slaying duties to another and say, “I’m going to Disneyland.” Finally, when she wants to point out what should be obvious to the casual observer, Buffy intones this just in...
One catch phrase comes in for repeated use. It’s from the children’s television program Mr. Roger’s Neighborhood. In that show, Mr. Rogers would invite the viewing children to sound out difficult words with the phrase Can you say...? In BtVS, the phrase is used to emphasize a specific point. Hence we have can you say stuck in the ‘80s? used to describe a vampire in outdated clothes. Also used are can you say, over-reaction?, can you say, sucking chest wound?, and can you say...get a life!?
Character Speech Patterns
Most of the major characters on BtVS have distinctive styles of speech (accents, use of specific words and catchphrases, etc.) that set them apart from the others. Several of them don’t have a distinguishable accent, which is to be expected as Southern California does not have a unique accent. But most have their own catchphrases and distinctive patterns of speech.
Buffy, the show’s protagonist, is a Los Angeles native, having just moved to Sunnydale at age 16 at the start of the series. Sarah Michelle Gellar, a New York City native, plays her. Despite her New York roots, Gellar has no discernable regional accent. She is a veteran actor since early childhood and her accent is the generic American one that predominates in Southern California and in American film and television.
Although she is the star, there are few distinctive usages that mark her speech. She is fond of totally, using way as an intensifier (as in way cool), and so as a generic noun. She also frequently uses deal as a noun (What is her deal?), non- as a negation, and thing as a generic noun. None of these are unique to her, but she uses them a bit more often than the other characters.
Willow Rosenberg & Xander Harris
Willow and Xander are Buffy’s best friends. Willow is a shy, bookish, computer nerd, who under Buffy’s influence emerges from her shell to not only become one of the group’s leaders, but she also dabbles in magic and becomes a rather powerful witch in later seasons. Alyson Hannigan, who has lived in Los Angeles since childhood, plays Willow.
Again, the generic American accent characterizes Willow, but she does have several distinctive usages. She is fond of the exclamation Aha! And she has a tendency to use infantile terms. To Willow someone who is tired and upset is cranky and something comforting is a blanky (from security blanket). She also has a tendency to speak in sentence fragments. She is fond of the formulation [adj.] now to indicate her mood, as in bored now or shutting up now.
Xander, which is short for Alexander, is the show’s everyman. He has no special powers or unique abilities. Xander is played by Nicholas Brendon, a Los Angeles native. Xander has no distinctive usages, although he is just about the only character to use the interjection Man! Which he does quite often.
Giles (he goes by his last name) is Buffy’s “watcher,” a member of a powerful and shadowy organization that trains and prepares the successive Slayers and assists her in fighting evil. By day, he is the local high school librarian. Oxford-educated and seemingly a mild-mannered, tweed-clad scholar, Giles has a darker past. As a young man he rebelled against his watcher destiny, dropping out of Oxford to pursue a life of crime and black magic. Known as “Ripper” to his old friends he was capable of great violence and cruelty. The “Ripper” days came to an end when Giles accidentally killed one of his friends. Guiltily, he returned to school and accepted his destiny as a watcher.
Linguistically, Giles is the perhaps most complex character. He is played by veteran English actor Anthony Stewart Head. Head primarily uses the standard Received Pronunciation for Giles, but occasionally when the old Ripper personality emerges, Head uses his native South London, working-class accent.
Of course, Giles gives the writers opportunity to introduce Briticisms into the mix. Giles’s insults include bloody, pillock, bugger off, and Berk. He uses hello as an exclamation. He also makes cultural references that would be unknown to most Americans, referring to Bovril and Weetabix for example. Occasionally he attempts to identify with his teenage charges by using, or more accurately misusing, their slang. Phrases like I’m down with it just don’t roll trippingly off Giles’s tongue.
Cordelia is Buffy’s high school rival. Cheerleader, prom queen, she is everything that Buffy wanted to be before she become the Slayer. Cordelia doesn’t like Buffy or the other Scoobies much and doesn’t hang with them—except during the period when she was slumming and dating Xander. She is played by Charisma Carpenter, a Las Vegas native, which means she shares the same regional accent with Southern Californians.
Cordelia, along with Buffy, is the most likely to lapse into Valley Girl speak. She is fond of saying As if! She shares totally, to deal, and so with Buffy. To Cordy, dating a college guy is so huge! Her favorite exclamation is Hello!, which is also used to a lesser extent by Buffy. In one episode, Cordelia thinks that one of Willow’s spells has gone awry and turned Xander into something ishy, an out-of-region (it’s from Wisconsin/Minnesota) word for disgusting. That is a linguistic oddity, but since Southern California is the melting pot of American dialect, it is not a totally unreasonable thing for her to say.
Angel is vampire, but a vampire with a soul who no longer feeds on humans. He was Buffy’s primary love interest in the first few seasons (before being spun off into his own show, taking Cordelia with him). Angel is some 240 years old, originally from Galway, Ireland. He is played by Buffalo, New York-native David Boreanaz.
Giving linguistic credibility to this character would be a daunting task and the writers and Boreanaz wisely don’t even attempt it. He speaks with a generic American accent. Unlike the other characters, Angel usually avoids slang locutions, although he is occasionally caught saying common slang phrases like hang out and show (appear). Evidently Angel has lost his Irish accent after 100 years in America, which is just as well since when Boreanaz attempts one in several flashback scenes of Angel’s early years he is very unconvincing.
Spike, a.k.a. William The Bloody, is another vampire, but an evil one. He is younger than Angel, only some 120 years old. Spike is English, although he is played by American James Marsters. Unlike Boreanaz, however, Marsters delivers a rather effective English, working class accent. He slips occasionally and the fact that he is a Yank can be recognized by English viewers or by those with a trained ear, but overall his feigned accent is effective and convincing.
His character also gives the writers opportunity to introduce Briticisms that Giles would never utter (except as Ripper), such as shag, poof, gob, sod off, mate, cuppa, telly, chuff-all, bugger all, what all, fancy (verb, to like), nick (to steal), go (noun, an attempt), bint, arse, wanker, bugger, ponce, that sounds proper, and I don’t feature it (I don’t like it). His favorite term of endearment is pet.
Faith is another Slayer. The character is from Boston, Massachusetts, as is the actor who plays her, Eliza Dushku. She’s not a major character, only appearing in one season and part of another, but she is an example of how the writers use the actor’s native accent to good effect. The broad New England A is apparent in her speech as is the dropping of Rs (her dingy hotel room isn’t Spartan, it’s Spahtan). And she uses terms like wicked that mark her as a Bostonian. Dushku’s accent is natural and not overdone. It is not a heavy one and may not be immediately apparent to the casual viewer, but if one listens for it, it is obviously there.
Faith’s signature phrase has nothing to do with Boston, however. When she’s good, she’s five by five. How this bit of radio jargon got into her speech patterns is never explained, nor is the meaning and more than once the other characters muse over what it might mean. Other slang sayings unique to Faith include the use of girlfriend as a term of address, usually to Buffy.
Kendra is yet another Slayer, but unlike Faith, one that fails to deliver the linguistic goods. The character is from the West Indies, but she is played by American Bianca Lawson. Lawson’s accent is so obviously false that she would make Miss Cleo cringe. This despite the producers investing in a dialogue coach who tried to train her in the local dialect of a specific Jamaican village. Marti Noxon, the co-executive producer, comments that Kendra’s accent is “indecipherable...I could never tell you where she was from,” and further notes that during filming the writers kept asking, “Where are you from? What is this?”
BtVS is linguistically limited in one crucial respect, the lack of ethnic characters (other than English). None of the major characters are people of color, and surprisingly for a show set in Southern California, none are Latino. There are, however, some African-American secondary characters, the most significant of whom is Mr. Trick, played by K. Todd Freeman.
Trick is a vampire. He’s witty, urbane, a sharp dresser, and he speech patterns are distinctly African-American. Trick even notes the lack of fellow African-Americans in Sunnydale: “admittedly, not a haven for the brothers—strictly the caucasian persuasion in the Dale—but you gotta stand up and salute their death rate.”
He uses the verb to be to indicate habitual or continual action, as in they always got to be swordfighting. And he use African-American slang terms like rep (reputation) and chump.
Linguistic Significance of BtVS
In the great scheme of things, BtVS is not a linguistic watershed. But it is an excellent example of what creative writers can do with an ear for slang and a small bag of derivational tricks. Joss Whedon and company have created a distinct style of American English for their show. The language helps set the mood and adds depth to the characters. Whedon and BtVS are not the first to do this, nor will they be the last. But they have done it quite well.
Copyright 1997-2017, by David Wilton