Wednesday October 17, 2007
Time for a cougar?
We are pleased to start today a fortnightly colum by a lexicographer who, of course, knows about words and what they do. Writing from New York City, he begins with a few slang words, like ‘cougar’ and ‘political football’.
By GRANT BARRETT
THE game that is played wherever I go is ‘Stump the Lexicographer’.
A lexicographer is someone who compiles and edits dictionaries, which I currently do with learners’ dictionaries for various publishers. For my own projects, I specialise in slang and new words. I also co-host a radio call-in show about language.
To be more specific, you could call my work “poking a finger in the chest of language to ask it what, precisely, it thinks it’s doing” – language is a living creature, you see.
More specifically still, I think of slang language as a dashing young cricket player who is fond of riddles and backtalk. Fun to play alongside but rather difficult from which to get a straight answer, though slang lexicography, my focus, is very intellectually rewarding and I enjoy my work.
One small penalty darkens my trade, however. It is a shadow doctors and lawyers will recognise. It is that my services are called upon at all occasions.
It is not at all rude here in New York City to ask someone what they do for a living. When they ask, I answer, and then the questions commence. Grammar, spelling, usage, etymology, anything even slightly linguistic or lexical is fair game. At parties, in meetings, in casual encounters in the park, wherever. The questions flow freely.
I fully expect that on the day of my funeral a mourner will sidle up to my casket and murmur those familiar opening words, “Grant, quick question ...”
One quick question I took recently was about the slang word “cougar”. The questioner wanted to know where it came from.
Now, in standard North American English, a “cougar” is a large wild cat sometimes also called a “puma” or a “panther”. Cougars look like female lions, only smaller.
In slang use, however, “cougar” is a term for an older woman who prefers to date younger men. There’s a connotation there of a wily, experienced feline going after a toothsome little rabbit.
While I’ve seen it in Australian and British newspapers, the slang term is far more common in North America.
Most of its popularity stems from a 2001 book by Valerie Gibson, called Cougar: A Guide for Older Women Dating Younger Men. This is the sort of book you buy as a joke for your newly single women friends, but one that they will read with interest when no one else is around.
When seeking the origin of terms, lexicographers look for printed evidence. In hunting cougars – the term, not the women or the wild cats – I found a March 3, 2001, article in the Globe and Mail of Toronto which credits “cougar” to a Canadian website called Cougardate.com, which the story says was started in 1999. It is, as you have guessed, a website where older women can meet younger men.
The story given in that article is that one of the two women who founded the website was told by a nephew that the two ladies were like cougars in search of small defenceless animals. The nephew said he picked up the term from players on his hockey team. So, 1999 is the earliest probable date we have for the term and it’s fairly reliable.
Other digging for slang word origins does not go so well.
A “Texas bull’s eye” is when you shoot at a target and miss; however, instead of admitting defeat, you paint concentric circles – a bull’s eye – around the bullet hole and claim that’s where the bullet was supposed to go all along. It’s a popular tactic among politicians worldwide but not one that lexicographers can use.
I couldn’t, for example, do an entry for “Texas bull’s eye” because I found only two printed uses of it. At least, only two uses for that meaning, because I also found it to mean “a gunshot in an animal’s derričre”, numerous uses referring to a design pattern used on glass goblets, one referring to an egg cooked inside brioche, and one use in a 1994 e-mail where I’m not sure what the author meant at all.
On the other hand, if you were to ask me about the expression “political football”, I could do rather better. A “political football” is a sensitive issue for which nobody takes responsibility, in which blame is constantly handed around, and which is never resolved.
I first tackled the term for the Oxford Dictionary of American Political Slang in 2004 and since then I’ve found that it dates to at least as early as 1828 and possibly before 1807.
The expression does not come from any type of modern organised sport by the name of “football”; it simply refers to any ball that is kicked around for any game.
I cannot profess to know much more about it: I am kept far too busy by the lexical game to have time to chase a ball across a pitch.
Grant Barrett is currently part of teams editing dictionary matter for Cambridge University Press, Oxford University Press, and Thomson Heinle. He is co-host of the language radio show A Way with Words, http://www.waywordradio.org, and editor of the Double-Tongued Dictionary, http://www.doubletongued.org/.