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Savage, sloshed, and other slangy talk

There’s a lot of slang out there for things that are “good:” wicked, sick, even the word bad.

During one of her classes, University of Michigan English Professor Anne Curzan heard a new one (at least, for her): savage.

“So savage now means ‘good?’” asks Michigan Radio’s Rina Miller.

“Slang likes to turn things on its head,” says Curzan, “and make words that mean bad things, mean good things.”

Maybe that’s why we love to come up with slang words for the act of getting drunk.

There are many, many slang words for drunk: sloshed, wasted, trashed, just to name a few.

When Curzan asked her students if they knew the word lit for drunk (as in, “that person has had four whisky sours and is pretty well lit”), they looked at her like she was a Martian.  This piqued Curzan’s curiosity.

“I went and looked in the Oxford English Dictionary,” says Curzan. “It’s actually been a slangy word for drunk for much of the 2oth century, but apparently not so much right now.”

Curzan found that lit is not the only drunk-slang that hasn’t found its way into common parlance.

“In 1737, Ben Franklin published in the Pennsylvania Gazette 200 words for drunk,” says Curzan. “And there’s some we’d expect, and there are some that are surprising.”

For Franklin, the phrase “he has loaded his cart” could refer to someone loading the eponymous cart, or it could mean that someone has lingered a little too long at a happy hour.

But perhaps the most dangerous-sounding of Franklin’s slang: “he has swallowed a tavern token.” 

Anne Curzan is the Geneva Smitherman Collegiate Professor of English and an Arthur F. Thurnau Professor at the University of Michigan. She also holds faculty appointments in the Department of Linguistics and the School of Education.
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