January 02, 2007

One last squean and knurl

A while ago I reported on a Zits cartoon featuring guidelines for a high school dance, titled:

Winter Mixer guidelines
Provocative dress and lewd behavior are prohibited

and proscribing the following list of activities:

Grinding, bumping, moshing, mashing, licking, squeaning, shoving, sledging, rolling, kicking, wallowing, freaking, pronking, booty dancing, fondling, and whole- or half-body knurling will not be permitted.

In tracking down this vocabulary I eventually extended my search from lewd behavior to take in other sorts of behavior that would be out of place at a school dance, in particular drug use.  Still, some of the items looked suspicious (while others were clearly genuine), and the whole list seemed jokey -- definitely entertaining, in fact -- rather than like a report on current teen vocabulary.

Eventually squean (the noun) was traced to the world of cartoonists.  Now I have a final report on the Zits vocabulary list, including some information from one of the cartoonists.

E-mail, in the order of its arrival:

From our own Ben Zimmer, links to his ADS-L postings of a year ago on the history of freak dancing / freaking.  I'm hoping Ben will post a bit here on the topic.

From Idris Mercer, a link to the 11/19 Mark Trail strip, about antelopes and their inclination to pronk, and a link to the comments section at Comics Curmudgeon, where occasional comments about the delights of the verb pronk began springing up.

From Jake Schneider, identifying rolling as associated with Ecstasy use

From Keith Handley, providing the link between squean and comics, already reported on.  Since then, I've checked Mort Walker's The Lexicon of Comicana to verify that the squean is in there.  But neither the knurl nor knurling is.

From Russell Borogove, suggesting a possible relationship between knurling and the game of knurdling, a.k.a. bottle walking, described as follows:

Mark a line on the floor, and stand behind the line with a beer bottle in each hand. Ensuring that your feet remain behind the line, "walk" forward with the bottles in your hands, and plant one of the bottles upright as far from the line as you can manage. Then, using the remaining bottle only, "walk" back to the line and return to your standing position, still ensuring that your feet remain behind the line.

Not something for a high school dance, I'd think, but probably not relevant here, especially in the context of "whole- or half-body knurling".  [Addendum: also check out nurdle at Grant Barrett's Double Tongued site (thanks to Ben Zimmer).]

And then, from Brad Skaggs, a report on an e-mail exchange with the cartoonists who draw Zits.  Skaggs specifically asked about squeaning and knurling.  Jim Borgman responded with delight at the attention of linguists -- but without an answer to Skaggs's question.  He did say that "most of the terms came straight off a note sent home by my teenage daughter's high school principal in advance of a homecoming dance", adding that he and Jerry Scott embellished the list some, "but not always where your linguists suspected" (though he doesn't identify which items were their embellishments).

This would be a good time to stop searching for the sources of the words on the list.  I suspect that quite a few people were playing around here: the principal's sources (presumably teenagers at the school), maybe the principal himself, and certainly Scott and Borgman.  The overall effect of the list is an entertaining avalanche of words, some familiar, some puzzling.  They might all be teen slang, somewhere, sometime.

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Posted by Arnold Zwicky at January 2, 2007 02:07 PM