A Short History of the English Language, as Spoken by the Most Strange Inhabitants of St. Albans School
Humor by Fred Horne '18
This report was originally published in the January, 2018 Edition of American Anthropologist.
The inspiration for the following history comes from a puzzling experience that befell me on the grounds of St. Albans School a fortnight past. I was meandering through the library, noting the local fauna as they scurried to lunch, when I happened upon a document, a packet of the latest World History readings. On the cover were these words: “Drs. Reed Ng, PhD, and Du Wang, MD.” How curious! I stood dumbfounded threescore seconds before the meaning finally struck me: the author was expressing his distaste for reading! You can imagine, Dear Reader, the extent of my amazement. Such ingenuity and intelligence used merely to express a desire not to do schoolwork! Naturally, my curiosity was piqued. I set myself to uncover what drove these strange creatures to such elaborate japes and knavery, to the creation of an entire dialect of English.
Responses to my inquiries varied in helpfulness: one called the language “an outpouring of a collective soul shared among the exploited student underclass...against their bourgeois oppressors”; another merely answered “gangu.” (The meaning of this word is unclear.) Nonetheless, what you see before you today is the culmination of my two weeks’ research into the idiosyncratic and convoluted world of St. Albans slang. My time and resources were limited, so I was forced to neglect the darker and more twisted parts of the lexicon, but what I present here should suffice as an introduction to that vast world.
The first words of the language appear with the Class of 2015. Their signature words were “uff” and “terra-good,” the first a moderate exclamation of displeasure, the second equivalent to “very good.” From the initial terra-good came “yerra-bad,” or “very bad.” The second word owes obvious phonological and morphological debts to the first. What drove this change was the innerlichkeit, or inwardness, that has characterized the language’s growth from its inception. The small size of the creative pool, some three hundred souls, reduces its linguistic viability, for there are too few people to create and sustain an autonomous dialectic community. The students cannot invent enough new words. New words, therefore, are inherently self-referential, for the students must draw out rare flashes of true creativity—terra-good, Magwitch, cass, and the like—into dozens of new and increasingly vapid derivatives. This circularity both restores needed freshness and ensures the language always teeters on the brink of triviality.
The Class of 2017 served as the fulcrum of linguistic development from the Class of 2015’s graduation to their own. One of their great contributions is the odds-zucchini duality. In standard English, “odds” is a gambling game. A challenger and a challenged agree on a dare and a range of numbers; on the count of three, both people say a number within the range. If they say the same number, the challenged must complete the dare. After the first try, the players repeat the procedure, but with their roles reversed: the original challenger must complete his own dare if the two guess the same number. At St. Albans, odds took on a sarcastic, self-aware meaning. To say “odds” asks, “what are the chances I will do this?”, the answer being “none” or “very low.” In odds, we see the first indications of the language’s deep sarcasm. Rarely does one use St. Albans slang without one or more layers of sarcasm. The roots of sarcasm itself shine light here: sarcasm comes from the Greek “σαρκάζειν,” meaning “to tear flesh,” and this darkness is apparent throughout the language.
“Zucchinis” comes from different roots but means the same thing as odds. In Form II, 8th grade, a certain math teacher used to say “ok ok ok” to a student to acknowledge his point or silence him. From “ok ok ok” came “oak oak oak,” the pronunciation spelling of this teacher’s catchphrase. In freshman year, the Class of 2017 discovered “zounds,” an exclamation of surprise, in Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream. The two words melded, for obscure reasons, to form “zooks.” From zooks came zucchinis, an obvious phonological relative, and at some point both came to mean odds. Zooks is doubly ironic because it appropriates a teacher’s tool and references a ridiculous Shakespearean word simultaneously. Another word, “zatch,” also comes from zooks. Zatch can mean anything from “odds” to “bad, useless, or annoying” to an insult. All of these meanings flow from the original zooks, again demonstrating how new words incorporate and elaborate on the meanings of the old.
The third great section of the St. Albans language is the “ass” suffix. Simply put, add “ass” to the first one or two letters of a word, and you have a new word. As one can imagine, this abbreviation causes much confusion, because multiple words have the same abbreviation. For example, I once overheard a student say, “Hey, could you please sice me the nasses from Ms. Dass's lectass on Wass Shass's The Tass?” How befuddling! After several minutes of scalp-scratching, I puzzled it out. The student asked, “Hey, could you please give me the notes from Ms. Denizé’s lecture on William Shakespeare’s The Tempest?” In that one sentence lie all the buffoonery and erudition of the whole language.
Since the Class of 2017 departed, the slang vocabulary has begun to implode for want of original ideas. The only truly new words of the last six months have been “mooch” and “Dr. Wang,” both adaptations of standard English to a sarcastic purpose. More typical are words like “case,” a corruption of “cass,” sarcastically meaning “I care.” Here my investigation of two weeks ends. It is yet to be seen whether the language will gain new life or dwindle into self-referential meaningless.
Dr. Harry Lang, PhD, MD, JD, DA, RE, AL
Chair of Anthropology
University of Phoenix, Online College