1-2. Juno/Jennifer’s Body
There’s a reason why writers of films and television shows about young people love slang: It’s an unbeatable way to convey the divide between kids and adults in linguistic terms, hooking in sharpies hip to the newfangled jive while alienating oldsters. Writers wanting to go one step further have another option: Making up slang of their own. Much of the buzz surrounding Juno—the zeitgeist-capturing, young-people-friendly, Diablo Cody-written Oscar-winner about a sass-talking pregnant teen—centered on Cody’s colorful use of slang, some homemade, some modified from Cockney rhyming slang and other improvised idioms. Though some found Cody’s use of homemade slang phrases like “Honest to blog?” insufferable, Cody clearly felt that haters needed to MoveOn.org, since she filled her follow-up, Jennifer’s Body, with even more obnoxious slanguage, like “salty” as slang for “beautiful.” Jennifer’s Body casts Megan Fox as a hottie cheerleader who hungers for human flesh, and in an even more horrifying development, starts speaking exactly like Diablo Cody after an unfortunate incident in a van with Satanic rockers. Smart use of slang helped make Juno feel fresh and novel; returning to the linguistic well a second time with Jennifer’s Body, however, totes reeked of desperation.
When Cody filled Juno with slang of her own devising, she was also paying tribute to one of the film’s clear inspirations: the classic late-’80s black comedy Heathers. Slang changes so rapidly that by the time a film makes the leap from page to screen, it’s liable to be outdated, so screenwriter Daniel Waters simply invented his own slang. Like most teenager-isms, Waters’ homemade vernacular is all about putting people down and ostracizing losers, whether that means mocking questions like “What’s your damage?” or dismissing someone as a “pillow case.” Heathers’ use of language came full circle when its title became slang for popular, vacuous high-school girls who are pretty on the outside and empty on the inside, just like the film’s titular aggregation of evil babes.
4. The Smurfs
“Shalom” famously takes on multiple meanings in the Hebrew language. As an all-purpose greeting, for instance, it means both “hello” and “goodbye.” Alas, “Shalom” has nothing on the Smurfs’ favorite word/phrase/entity, “smurf.” In both the television and movie versions of The Smurfs, the word “smurf” means just about anything; it’s open-ended to the point of being meaningless. So, as with so many films and television shows rich in homemade coinages, context is of the utmost importance. “Smurf” and its variations can replace nouns, verbs, and adjectives. In the trailer for The Smurfs alone, it stands in for everything from “vomited” to “fuck” to “farted.” Ah, 3-D children’s films based on highly licensed and marketable international franchises, you truly are the Algonquin Round Table of our time.
Ringo Starr’s malapropisms (“A Hard Day’s Night” was his accidental title) helped make him the most loveable Beatle. But while he had a steady career in front of the camera, his charm and gift for employing language oddly couldn’t save this 1981 stinker—a stoner-friendly slapstick comedy in which Starr’s character learns to stop being bullied by bigger cavemen—from critical catcalls and audience indifference. Its main point of interest historically is that Starr met his future wife, Barbara Bach, on the set. (They married a year later.) But it also deserves mention for being written and spoken in mostly made-up, English-like gibberish. (One character speaks English, but no one understands him, hardy-har-har.) In fact, booklets with interpretations of key words were given to audiences so they could understand that “aiee” means “help,” “ca-ca” means “excrement,” “fech” means “bad,” “gwee” means “to go,” and “ool” means “food.” Roger Ebert began his review: “Aieee! This movie is fech! We can hardly wait for the end so we can gwee. We kill time in between by eating popcorn and other ool. The movie is ca-ca.”
6. Pootie Tang
“Back when I was a kid,” Louis C.K. told The A.V. Club in 2004, “I used to enjoy talking nonsense. But I used to try to talk nonsense believably… ‘Hey, it’s a tippi tai a ma tammy fae.’ I just used to talk like that.” Years later, as a writer on The Chris Rock Show, C.K. imagined someone else doing the same thing: “[A] guy who’s so cool, he doesn’t even speak English, but he exudes this coolness and this ease, and Chris buys into it and doesn’t question it, and just chats with him.” The first time another of the show’s writers, Lance Crouther, went out as Pootie Tang—whose every utterance runs along the lines of “Sipi-tai!” and “Sepatown!” and “Sine your pity on the runny kine” and, of course, “Sadatay!”—the crowd went crazy. Eventually, the character got so popular that Paramount, where Rock and C.K. were writing a movie, decided to let them make a film about Pootie, made-up words and all. “It’s word for word,” Crouther told Entertainment Weekly about the dialogue. “I never ad-libbed. The absolute accuracy of this is the fun part.”
The slang in this 1995 reworking of Emma paid homage to various sources. Most obviously, starting with the title, the movie brought Valley-speak back to a country thirsting for words like “Whatever” used as a sentence. Amy Heckerling’s clever screenplay also included a few sprinkles of urban lingo (“jeepin,” “trippin”) to keep the film from being obnoxiously lily-white. Today, the movie’s lingo is a charming look back at ’90s sensibilities, with PC-speak descriptors like “ensembly challenged” and “hymenally challenged,” not to mention the fact that “Baldwin” is used to refer to a good-looking man. Moreover, the language of Clueless reflects the fondness Heckerling had for her ditzy yet educated characters, kids who watch films like “Sporadicus” and reference French impressionist painters when dissing their rivals—if you’re a full-on Monet, you’re living in Hagsville.
Produced at a time of creative crisis, when Steven Soderbergh couldn’t find a satisfying way to follow up his 1989 independent breakthrough Sex, Lies And Videotape, the experimental comedy Schizopolis was intended as a clearing of the cobwebs, a chance to deconstruct his themes and process in order to find a new way forward. And for Soderbergh, part of that experiment was playing with language: In one scene, he replaces the banal pleasantries of a married couple with the raw social coding they represent (e.g. “Imminent sustenance,” “Overly dramatic statement regarding upcoming meal,” “Ooo… false reaction indicating hunger and excitement”); elsewhere, previous scenes are repeated from a different perspective using various un-subtitled foreign languages. But Soderbergh invents his own language entirely for a subplot involving Elmo Oxygen, an exterminator who uses his unaccountable seductive powers to bed bored housewives. The phrases exchanged are complete and utter gibberish: “Nose army.” “Beef diaper.” “Fragment chief butter.” “Precision galley sponge.” And yet as the film goes on, this linguistic exercise starts to make sense in context, with “nose army” meaning “hello” or “smell sign” as “goodbye.” A sequel or two down the road, perhaps arthouse mavens would have been fluent in Soderberghese.
9. A Clockwork Orange
Along with its graphic violence and disturbing political subtext, Anthony Burgess’ novel A Clockwork Orange had a difficult road to the silver screen because of the dense futuristic slang used by sociopathic narrator Alex. But Stanley Kubrick kept the language intact for the film version, allowing viewers to gradually pick up on the subtleties of Alex’s speech while alternately being repulsed and attracted by his horrific actions. To Kubrick and Burgess’ credit, Alex’s language has actually become a part of our language, with words like “droog” and “ultraviolence” now widely used in the common vernacular.
Writer-director Rian Johnson mashed up the conventions of film noir with the structure of a teen drama in his debut feature, Brick, using language as the unifying thread. Heavily influenced by Dashiell Hammett, Johnson’s script is thick with hard-boiled talk about “the upper crust” (which refers to the popular kids in school) and lines like “Still picking your teeth with freshmen?” The incredible thing about Brick is how natural Johnson’s language sounds coming out of the mouths of babes. Teenagers already create their own worlds kept separate from adults by similarly hard-to-decipher insider codes and turns of phrase. The fact that Brick’s language is lifted from a late-period speakeasy rather than a Lil Wayne record seems like only a minor detail.
11. Mean Girls
The story of Gretchen Wieners (Lacey Chabert) serves as a cautionary tale for those who would attempt to kickstart their own slang. Although Chabert is part of the so-called “Plastics,” the trio of girls who rule the social cliques of North Shore High School, her secondary position to leader Regina George (Rachel McAdams) leaves her as ineffective as most vice presidents. Then, in an effort to secure her own notoriety, she decides to invent her own adjective: “fetch.” In spite of her reputation for knowing everything there is to know about everyone in the school—it’s widely known among the student body that her hair is so big because it’s full of secrets—Chabert remains woefully unaware that her newly devised terminology is failing to make its way into the student lexicon until McAdams finally snaps and screams, “Stop trying to make ‘fetch’ happen! It’s not going to happen!” As a result of the outburst, which stuns Gretchen into a rare moment of silence, “fetch” is never uttered again. Sorry, slang, you can’t win ’em all.