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Lex maniac

Investigating changes in American English vocabulary over the last 40 years


(2000’s | teenagese | “dangerous,” “creepy,” “uncanny,” “bizarre”)

A new meaning of “sketchy” arose while I wasn’t paying attention, still mainly the property of kids and young adults, though such words invariably become the property of the superannuated fifty years on. Ten years ago, you had to be in college, or younger, to hear it this way. I learned the new meaning from kids within the last three or four years. Last year I asked my niece (then thirteen) if “sketchy” meant “scary” or “disreputable,” and she answered, “Both!” It has taken on a dark shade, and a new set of nouns. “Sketchy” (or simply “sketch”) now describes people or places — very unusual in standard English as late as 2000. (The change seems unrelated to the old use of “sketch” to mean “eccentric person.”) “Sketchy neighborhood” meant nothing thirty years ago, but now it means something very definite: it’s a neighborhood you don’t want to be in. Maybe because it’s ill lit, maybe because it has a bad reputation, maybe because drug deals happen on every corner. An app called SketchFactor encourages users to submit information or impressions about what we used to call bad parts of town; the designers note, “Sketchy means a number of different things. To you, it may mean dangerous. To someone else, it may mean weird.” Just like my niece said.

I have been bedeviled for some time trying to understand how “sketchy” went from inchoate or incomplete to sinister or screwy. But with a little help from lovely Liz from Queens and my own research, I think I get it now. If you search LexisNexis in the seventies or eighties, the overwhelming majority of your results will show the term describing details, statistics, or reports. That usage is quite venerable, and it wasn’t a long step from “inadequate” to “dubious.” But occasionally you would see something a little different, as when “sketchy” modifies accounting practices, or recordkeeping. There are some contexts in which it is not o.k. to be quick and dirty or less than thorough; in such cases to be sketchy is to be unethical or illegal. Another possible contributor is the fact that the word showed up often in early reports on disasters or tragedies, and may have picked up a negative tinge that way. But the truth is “sketchy” has had a bit of an underbelly for decades now; it has been used to mean unsavory or subpar for a long time, as in a sketchy character or reputation. For another example, E.B. White referred to his “sketchy health” in a letter from 1943 cited in the OED. I haven’t tried, but it might even be possible to demonstrate that this aspect of the word has been increasing in frequency for some time and has finally won out among the younger generation.

But maybe more evolution is on the way. “Sketchy” has changed emphasis in the last twenty years, since the dawn of the internet. So we would expect a lot of web sites with “sketchy” in the title to be about scary or disreputable things. There are some; is pretty good, and Sketchy Santas are popular. But Google calls forth a surprising number of sites that confer on “sketchy” still another meaning distinct both from the older and the newer: of or pertaining to drawing. Sketchy Notions and Let’s Get Sketchy are both run by artists. I had high hopes for Sketchy Miami, but right there on the home page it says, “The goal of Sketchy Miami is to create a portrait of every person in Miami.” Sketchy Neighbors? Nope — it’s an artists’ collective in Houston. I don’t have enough examples to determine if this is a new trend or just some silly coincidences, but never doubt the power of earnest artists to change the language.

This is the second, possibly third, week in a row I’ve taken on a recognizably slang expression, which I am supposed to leave to What interests me about “sketchy” is how decisive the change was, and how quick. People under 20, probably even 30, hear some variation on “icky” as the predominant meaning, though most of them also recognize the sense of “dashed off.” I hear kids use the newer sense all the time, the older sense rarely. But “sketchy” was a solid citizen of a word with a decent foundation; “sketch” goes back to the seventeenth century, for Pete’s sake, the adjective almost as far. The old meaning had been standard English for well over a hundred years; the new one most adults would still regard as slang. That distinction, always porous, has become more blurred rather than less over time. There are still arbiters — judges, professors, Associated Press editors — and I wouldn’t say the distinction is dead yet, any more than the distinction between clean and dirty words has disappeared, but the once forbidden, or at least frowned upon, has crept into many more contexts and is getting harder and harder to avoid. The barrier between slang and standard English used to be higher, and it had fewer tunnels undermining it.

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