Thursday, May 31, 2012

Want to learn American slang?

The Wall Street Journal ran a great article on learning American slang in yesterday's newspaper. You can read it online here.

The article interviewed American idioms and slang expert, Amy Gillett, author of the Speak English Like an American series. Here is Amy's full list of the trickiest slang for non-native speakers to learn and her commentary on what makes this slang tricky? Have tricky slang of your own to suggest? Post it as a comment!

The top five most dangerous/hard-to-use/confusing slang words for English language learners:

What’s up? / Whassup? / Sup? – When this gets stripped down to its shortest form (‘Sup?) it can be hard to understand. It’s also hard for non-native speakers to know how to answer.  They need to learn the acceptable replies (not much, nothing much) instead of replying “fine,” “good,” or “okay.”
Shut up! – this term can be tricky to use and to understand because it’s meaning depends on intonation. If you say it as a standard command without a smile, it is clearly rude. If you say it with a smile and rising intonation, it could mean “I don’t believe you” or “Really? Tell me more.”  Or if you stress the “shut” and stretch it out, it could mean, “No way!” or “That’s hard to believe!”  Confusing? You betcha!

hook up  – this term can mean anything from making out to having sex. Non-native speakers are always heartened to learn that native speakers don’t really know what it means either.  Non-native speakers need to be careful not to include it in any kind of romantic overture. Invitations to native speakers along the lines of “Hey, Ashley, want to hook up?” are to be avoided.

the “f” word – this word is tempting for many non-native speakers to sprinkle into their sentences for emphasis, just like many native speakers do. But non-native speakers sometimes overuse it out of enthusiasm or use the wrong article in front of it, as in: “What a f____!” instead of “What the f____!” Non-native speakers are also more likely to put it in writing, not fully appreciating its shock value.

lego – this term, popular on college campuses, is confusing for non-native speakers hearing it for the first time. No, we’re not talking about plastic interlocking toys. It’s slang for “let’s go” and was popularized by rappers.

Wednesday, May 9, 2012

The Favorite "Hot" American Word

I just found out about an organization called the "American Dialect Society" that selects an English Word of the Year
every year. According to its website: "The words or phrases do not have to be brand new, but they have to be newly prominent or notable in the past year." Those selecting the word of the year include linguists, grammarians, professors, writers and editors.

The most recent Word of the Year (WOTY) is "Occupy." According to Ben Zimmer, chair of the New Words Committee of the American Dialect Society, “It’s a very old word, but over the course of just a few months it took on another life and moved in new and unexpected directions, thanks to a national and global movement.” Yes, that would be the Occupy Wall Street movement, which went from occupying Wall Street to occupying cities and town around the entire USA and onto the rest of the world. In this case, the fourth definition of occupy given by is the most fitting: to take possession and control of (a place), as by military invasion. Maybe with the Occupy movement, this meaning of the word will move up a notch or two!

Lots of other great words were under consideration for the Word of the Year. Here are three of my favorites (and I encourage you to try these out):

1) humblebrag - expression of false humility, often by celebrities on Twitter (Note: "Humble" means when somebody is modest and "brag" is when you say great things about yourself -- put them together and you have false modesty). Here's a great humblebrag example I found on "I can't believe I sounded like such a idiot on TV last night"

2) FOMO - acronym for “Fear of Missing Out,” - as in, you might miss out on a great party if you decide to skip it. A very nice expression for the mobile phone age because it's short and easy to type and expresses just that feeling you have sometimes when you don't really feel like doing something, but you worry that you will miss something good if you don't do it.

3) artisan, artisanal - term used to describe gourmet food and other products. The folks at American Dialect Society call it a "faux-fancy" term, which I like. It's the kind of adjective you can stick in front of a loaf of bread at a Farmer's Market and then double the price. Or try it out in front of "pizza" as Domino's Pizza is doing for their new fancy "Artisan Pizza" which sells at a premium to its standard pizza. I have also run into "artisanal cheese" recently. It was really expensive, apparently because somebody lovingly made it by hand, in small batches. I think I saw small specks of mold on it too, but maybe that was supposed to add to its charm and "artisanal" quality!

"Occupy" was the Word of the Year in 2011. Of course, there is going to be another WOTY in 2012. We can only guess now at what English word or expression might rise to the top of the pile and occupy next year's place of honor!