December 18, 2006


You can stop sending me messages about freaking and freak dancing.  Freaking (usually called freak dancing, apparently) clearly belongs on the list of lewd behavior at a school dance, as a dozen or so correspondents have patiently explained to me.  There was a NYT article yesterday about freak dancing (banned in Manlius, New York), and five years ago even Bill O'Reilly took notice of it; there are references to it all over the place.  Pelvic thrusting is involved. 

On the rest of the items in the Zits list, there's less agreement.

(Freak(ing) might be an echo of fuck(ing).  It is, after all, a common avoidance substitute for the tabooed fuck(ing).)

To refresh your memory: I divided the list of 16 items into three sets: words (like bumping) I recognized as referring to behavior that would be considered lewd at a high school dance; words (like moshing) I recognized as referring to other sorts of activities that might be considered inappropriate there, because they are aggressive or dangerous; and words (like pronking and knurling) that I was just dubious about.  Remember that the activities in question were presented in the cartoon as being specifically LEWD, not just inappropriate, so that even the items in group 2 are somewhat problematic.  I was aware of freaking in a drug context, but had somehow missed the dirty-dancing sense (no one can be on top of everything in every part of every culture; we all miss things).  Now it turns out that some of the other words have drug-related senses, according to Ben Lavender: rolling and mashing as well as freaking.  I have no idea how widespread these terms are.

Several correspondents suggested that I should have consulted the Urban Dictionary site, where I would have found, for example, sexual definitions for mash: 'to have sex', 'to engage in sexual foreplay or heavy petting' (hat tip on this one to Elise Stickles).  I've found the Urban Dictionary very frustrating to use.  You can get no sense of how widespread a usage is; some entries are likely to be reports of items used by only a few friends on very specific occasions, and some might be sheer exuberant inventions.  And the definitions (provided by ordinary people, not lexicographers) are often hard to interpret.  In addition, they are from all over the English-speaking world; many are clearly British or Australian, but most of the time you can't be sure.  Ben Judson pointed me to the Urban Dictionary entries for pronk and sledging, as well as mash and freak, and they are typically problematic. 

All four versions of pronk seem to be inventions: 'a joke involving someone else's genitalia' (a play on prank); a style of music (portmanteau of prog and rock); 'a person who likes rock, punk and some pop' (another portmanteau); and the nickname of baseball player Travis Hafner (yet another portmaneau: "It stands for 'half project, half donkey.' ").

For sledging there's one definition that's clearly not American ('to protrude your jaw outwards whilst rolling your eyes back into your head', with a puzzling exemplar that doesn't contain the word but does contain the vocative lad) and two from Australian cricket slang.

Nothing relevant here, nor anything relevant for wallow, knurl, or squean.  (Derry Earnshaw notes that the OED has an entry for squean, but from the early 17th century and in an irrelevant sense.)

Most of my correspondents, including some who are in fact teenagers, agreed with my breakdown of the list, except for freaking.  But Laura Petelle reports that

Pronking and knurling are spastic dance moves. (Pronking I assume from the springbok antelope's similar movements, although may be just because it's a cool-sounding word; knurling I don't know the origin of but I think the move comes from street dancing post-breakdancing. Both are after my time.)

Mashing was a dance move when I was in high school but it was part of house dancing; I think it means something different now. I don't know wallowing, but I've heard my teenaged brother use sledging.

It's not clear to me why any of these moves should be banned at school dances.

In any case, the picture that emerges is that most of these words -- wallowing and squeaning are still unattested with relevant meanings -- have been used, by at least some teenagers on some occasions, to refer to dancing or sexual display or both, and some have been used to refer to drug use.  But most of them are scarcely widespread, and it's unlikely that any single teenager has ever had the relevant uses for all 14 of the currently attested items.  Petelle thinks that Zits is unusually accurate in its portrayal of teenagers.   It is certainly sympathetic to them, but it often takes the viewpoint of baffled adults.  In fact, we've pointed out before (here and here) that the cartoon sometimes offers stereotypes of teenage behavior.  In the latest case, I still think that there's a lot of sheer invention going on, rather than keen observation of the actual adolescent world.

zwicky at-sign csli period stanford period edu

Posted by Arnold Zwicky at December 18, 2006 01:25 PM