Slang City Mail

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July 26, 2007

Slang of the Week: sissy (noun)
a weak and/or feminine male (from "sister")

Jebediah was so macho, he thought men who cried when they lost a limb were sissies.

Celebrity quote:
“I am Ulster, my people an abrupt people
Who like the spiky consonants in speech
and think the soft ones cissy [sic]; who dig
the k and t in orchestra, detect sin
in sinfonia, get a kick out of
Tin cans, fricatives, fornication, staccato talk,
Anything that gives or takes attack”

—Irish poet W. R. Rodgers

You find slang in the strangest places. I like to include old-fashioned terms in the newsletter from time to time, but I found this vintage word when reading something really old—Beowulf. (Obviously, I’m not much of a beach person, or my summer reading list would be topped by The Manny instead.)

Translator Seamus Heaney quotes Rodgers in his introduction to the poem as he explains his decision to make it sound more like the rough guys he grew up with in Northern Ireland and less like a bunch of gentrified sissies.

It’s not a bad idea; Beowulf and his fellow Geats are pretty manly men. If you haven’t read it (or just don’t remember) the story begins when Beowulf comes to Denmark from Geatland to kill off Grendel, the evil monster that keeps showing up at King Hrothgar’s Hall every night and eating people.

Before and after this feat, Beowulf spends quite a bit of time boasting about his fighting skills and other macho exploits. Of course, he occasionally takes a break from self-aggrandizement to spar with rivals; when his daring deeds are questioned by a member of Hrothgar’s court, he snaps back with, “I cannot recall any fight you entered, Unferth, that bears comparison.”

In other words, Beowulf’s speaking style has more in common with modern-day rappers than the college professor who forced you to read this classic in English Literature 101. The Geat’s beef with Unferth is not so different from 50 Cent’s famous criticism of Ja Rule: “You said you a gansta but you neva pop nuttin’.” The more things change, the more they stay the same.

Take a look in our bookstore for books and DVDs on all kinds of slang! This week’s pick: Talk the Talk by Luc Reid.