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Jabari Asim

The Mad World of Words

By Jabari Asim
Monday, January 10, 2005; 11:25 AM

WASHINGTON -- "Astorperious," one of my favorite words, isn't likely to be found in many dictionaries.

I looked for it in vain in the Oxford American Desk Dictionary and Thesaurus, the Merriam-Webster Dictionary, the American Heritage Dictionary (fourth edition), Webster's American Family Dictionary, and Random House Webster's College Dictionary. I even checked Richard A. Spears' excellent "Slang and Euphemism" to no avail.

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I didn't really expect to find it. Truth is, I've never heard it pronounced in actual conversation. Astorperious, meaning haughty or having ambitions that exceed one's abilities, shows up from time to time in the writings of Zora Neale Hurston. I first encountered it in her 1942 short story, "Story in Harlem Slang," which consists mostly of a boastful exchange between two financially challenged street hustlers.

"You over-sports your hand your ownself," one says to the other. "Too blamed astorperious."

Hurston, one of the first great American anthropologists, was fascinated by language and took careful note of the unique and colorful expressions she found during her travels through the nation's black communities. Many modern-day scholars share Hurston's obsession. Some of their investigations are shared by Robert MacNeil and William Cran in their new book, "Do You Speak American?"

The authors set out to determine what American English is today and found that there is no single correct answer. The language is constantly changing and takes the form of various regional and cultural dialects that constantly borrow from and influence each other. "Bling bling," now a ubiquitous phrase, provides a fitting example of such linguistic cross-fertilization. Coined in the late '90s by the rap group Cash Money Millionaires to describe a flamboyant, jewelry-intensive lifestyle, it is used these days to depict everything from high-tech gadgets ("geek bling") to athletic brilliance ("Tailback Reggie Bush is pure bling-bling").

I've always been intrigued by the ways in which slang takes on different meanings when spoken by different groups of Americans. For example, Texas author Kinky Friedman -- quoted in "Do You Speak American?" -- defines "all swole up" as pompous or irritated. I have friends who use the phrase to joyously describe a beautiful woman of bounteous proportions. They use "thick" for the same purpose, which in some idioms means simple-minded, a considerably less flattering description.

The flexibility of its slang may be one of the reasons why the English that Americans speak is becoming a dominant lingo worldwide. MacNeil and Cran quote "The Oxford Guide to World English," which soberly notes that "American English has a global role at the start of the 21st century comparable to that of British English at the start of the 20th -- but on a larger scale than any previous language or variety of a language in recorded history." This is a revolting development to both U.S. defenders of "proper" English and self-appointed standard-bearers in merry olde England.

The latter group includes Prince Charles, who urged his countrymen to "act now, to ensure that English -- and that to my way of thinking means (BEG ITAL)English(END ITAL) English -- maintains its position as the world language." He attacked the American tendency to "invent all sorts of new nouns and verbs" and create "words that shouldn't be." In other words, Americans are too blamed astorperious.

Those who lament the Americanization of English have been quick to blame such favorite targets as Internet correspondence and the "sheer ignorance of underprivileged minorities," to borrow John Simon's memorable phrase. But citizens of the world could be taking their cues from members of our leadership class, who rarely hesitate to bend the language to suit their will.

There was Bill Clinton, who eloquently inquired about the various meanings of "is." And there's our current president, whose stumblings through the labyrinth of language have inspired a multivolume collection called "Bushisms." George W. Bush's struggles bring to mind H.L. Mencken's putdown of Thorsten Veblen. The economist and social critic "gets himself enmeshed in his gnarled sentences like a bull trapped by barbed wire," wrote Mencken. "He heaves, he leaps, he writhes; at times he seems to be at the point of yelling for the police."

Bush's nominee for attorney general, Alberto Gonzales, shares his boss' relaxed regard for clarity. Last week he expressed little awareness of what "quaint" and "obsolete" mean despite the presence of both words in a notorious Justice Department memo about the Geneva Conventions. That kind of obfuscating is in step with an administration that has long known, as James Baldwin once noted, that "the root function of language is to control the universe by describing it."


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