Slang City Mail

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June 12, 2008

Slang of the Week: goon (noun)
1. a stupid person 2. a thug

Jimmy thought he’d started a new life through the Witness Protection Program until he came home one day to find a couple of goons with baseball bats in his kitchen.

Celebrity quote:
"Car full of goons and everybody certified
And if you froze up last time you can't ride
It's going down tonight 'cause these goons out lurkin'"
— Rapper Plies on the song Goons Lurkin'

This week's word is yet another example of how bad things become good in slang. In 1987, Michael Jackson released his album Bad, which really meant good. Since then, we've heard teenagers praise things with words like ill, sick and even nasty.

In its earliest incarnations, a goon was a fool. In the iconic 1950s family show, Leave it to Beaver, for example, Eddie Haskell explains to his friend Wally, "...if you can make the other guy feel like a goon first, then you don't feel like so much of a goon." (The same decade ushered in a popular British radio comedy called The Goon Show.)

The word first appeared in the 1920s with that meaning, and it wasn't until the 1930s that it began to describe thugs. Those goons were usually men hired to threaten and beat union members on strike. However, it can be use more generally, and often shows up in stories about gangsters who send goons out to collect debts through intimidation and/or injury.

But like ill, sick and nasty, this word has begun to experience a linguistic flip. The synonym thug often carries a positive connotation of manliness in hip hop songs, and some rappers, particularly Plies (rhymes with fries) are giving goon the same treatment. In the example above, goons are shown as the brave ones; those who were cowards last time are not invited. Some of Plies' songs even extol the romantic appeal of goons. In Hypnotized, for example, he explains, "I'm too real and she knows, she want the goon and it shows."

Take a look in our bookstore for books and DVDs on all kinds of slang! This week's pick: The Oxford Dictionary of Slang. Although it’s called a dictionary, this reference is arranged more like a thesaurus, with chronologically arranged slang terms for words that carry the same meaning. If you’ve ever wondered what kind of alcohol can be called pine-top, forty rod, snake poison and screech, this is the book for you.