We like to think there's something poetic and beautiful about the English language, as it was slowly pieced together over the centuries by Shakespeare, Chaucer, Wordsworth and James Joyce.
Look closer, however, and you'll see that English is actually just a mishmash of grunts and shrieks assembled haphazardly from the crude dialects of hobos, gypsies and rapists. For example:
"I better tip that waitress so I don't feel bad about that thing with the vomit."
"I better tip this man so that he doesn't start wearing my face as a warning to others."
From the start, to tip meant to give somebody money, but four hundred years ago the money was given for a slightly different reason. It was part of the thieves' cant, a language used by the criminal underworld in Britain. You've probably used some of their secret code words today. The verb to "tout," which now means "praise something highly" started out meaning "to keep lookout and warn everybody if you saw the one time coming." They even gave us the idea to use "kid" to mean to joke with somebody (to them, it was treating somebody like a child).
"My buddy 'touted' the cops to me when he saw 'em coming. I was 'kidding' you as a distraction. I'm 'seriously' stealing your car."
The 1737 Thieving Slang Dictionary lists "tip" with the example sentence "tip your Lour or I'll mill ye," which means something along the lines of "Give me your money, or I'll kill you with this woolly-mammoth tusk" (OK, we're not sure what weapons they used). The word eventually acquired the meaning to give a gratuity, apparently after someone had the most terrifying waiter in the history of the service industry.
There's a reason waiters keep one hand hidden when handing you the check.
What we're trying to say is, 200 years from now, educated people will be using gangster rap slang in everyday conversation, and they will have absolutely no clue where it came from.
"My dearest ho, I believe my bling has slipped out of my pants. How pimp of me."
"I figure you're a punk because of your anti-establishment hairstyle and piercings."
"I figure you're a punk because I saw what White Power Mike did to you behind cell-block 5."
Punk's long history starts back in the 1600s, when it meant "female prostitute." In Measure for Measure, one of Shakespeare's less open-minded characters proclaims that "marrying a punk" is worse than being tortured and killed. By the turn of the 20th century, the meaning had changed to refer to the, uh, more unfortunate partner in the prison love arrangement. Until recently, punk as a verb was still widely used to refer to the act of prison rape, which forces us to see Ashton Kutcher in an entirely new light.
But not necessarily a surprising one.
But the word's out-of-prison use is mostly due to hobo slang, the dialect used by the vagabonds who once traveled the country, stealthily hitching rides on cargo trains. This dialect also gave us flophouse, handout and moniker, as well as the phrase "Man, maybe we shouldn't have locked the grizzly bear transport carriage from the outside."
The beard is for blending in with the bears. The leather gloves are for the wrasslin'.
In Hobo, punk meant a boy who worked as a criminal apprentice for a much older hobo, with or without the NAMBLA-ish implications. By the time the word crossed over into general usage, it had mostly lost these overtones altogether, and was instead a general insult for young criminals, rebels and anyone disliked by Clint Eastwood. In 1970, a music critic decided to use the word to describe a new type of rock music, and it went from there.
Viz., "this terrible band raped my ears and called my skull a whore."
"Man, Bill left the lab monkey's cage open again and now there's Ebola everywhere. He's so flaky."
"Bill is so flaky. I can tell by the way he has more cocaine on his desk than Scarface."
In the 1950s, "flaky" made its way into baseball slang as an affectionate term meaning "eccentric." As in, "Oh, Doc just likes to do that with his bat sometimes. Don't worry about him, he's kind of flaky." But the word originated in criminal slang: flake was a word for cocaine, and flaky meant you were acting like you were addicted to it.
Rodney is so high, he's actually levitating seven feet above the ground.
Compared to the seedy underworlds of hobos and carnies, baseball jargon might seem positively mainstream. It makes up for it, though, by the wildly disproportionate amount of language it has given us for use as sex euphemisms: "Amanda thought she was going to score with her new boyfriend, but did not even make it to first base before she struck out, after which she accused him of playing for the other team. You know, swinging from the other side of the plate."
"Her next boyfriend threw her a curve ball when he hit a line drive straight into her forehead."
Hey, speaking of which ...
"Tom sure has been sleeping with a lot of men lately. I guess he must be gay."
"Jane sure has been sleeping with a lot of men lately, and she just bought that new diamond-studded car. I guess she must be gay."
You're a bitch, Jane.
Today, we often make fun of people in the past using the word "gay." After all, right up until recently it was a totally innocent word meaning "cheerful," right?
In fact, "gay" lost its innocence centuries ago. Starting in the 1700s, the word was used as a euphemism for pretty much anything sexual -- and in a surprising twist, it used to label anybody who was outrageously straight. In the late 1800s, "gay lady" meant prostitute, and "gay house" was a brothel. In fact, if you were a womanizer, you would have been called "gay." If that's not strange enough, a dictionary from 1811 listed "gaying instrument" as a slang term for "penis."
We're so sorry, band geeks.
The shift in meaning, which started around the beginning of the 20th century, started to take hold thanks to Polari, an underground dialect used in Britain among gay men and the theatrical scene back when most forms of homosexuality were still illegal. Polari also gave us the euphemistic terms flaming and camp (from an old French term meaning "to pose"). By the 1960s, "gay" was already established in some circles as meaning a man who prefers the company of men. So it turns out those old Batman comics really have no excuse after all.
We bet Gordon's instrument plays a happy tune.
"I had a dream in which I was surrounded by huge jocks. I think I am nervous about football tryouts tomorrow."
"I had a dream in which I was surrounded by huge jocks. I've never seen so much anthropomorphic foreskin. I think I need to speak to my therapist."
"Jock" started out as a common nickname for John, and was used in the past as a generic term for "man," the same way we say "John Doe" or "Jack of all trades" today. Around 1650, due to the apparently timeless human tendency toward naming male genitalia after people we admire, it became a slang term for "penis."
Calling this guy a dick is linguistically justified.
Hobos, who we're now convinced did nothing but travel around the country on trains thinking up new words for pederasty, even used jocker as a term for the older partner in the now-familiar unequal hobo love arrangement. Later, in the 1960s, people started using the word as a name for young athletes: this came from the shortened version of jockstrap, a fancy word for "penis-holster." Given the fact that "jockstrap" is still in common usage, it's pretty amazing that, since then, we've been able to get away with basically calling America's strongest teenagers "giant, walking cocks."
The day they gain sentience is the day we all lose.