Skip to content

Lex maniac

Investigating changes in American English vocabulary over the last 50 years

Tag Archives: youth culture


(2000’s | African-American | “cool,” “nice,” “great,” “excellent”)

A rich old word, at least two centuries old. Descended from the Dutch word for “sauce” and related to “dip,” it generally meant gravy or another thick liquid (lubricants, etc.) in the nineteenth century. (That sense, now rare, survives in the practice of calling sundae toppings “dopes.”) I doubt anyone says it any more, but in the South it long denoted Coca-Cola (or other fountain sodas), from the rumor that it contained cocaine. Somewhere around 1900, in a puzzling development, “dope” came to mean information or gossip (as in “latest dope”). Somewhat more understandably, also around 1900, “dope” took on medical uses, as it became popular to refer to drugs licit and illicit (the distinction was less rigid then). The homey term made the exotic and dangerous seem more familiar and acceptable. During the twentieth century, it became an all-purpose word for any illegal drug, most often marijuana or an opiate. From there “dope” merged with another meaning: slow or stupid person; “dopey” still means “stupid” or “out of it.”

Now, for some reason, the culture has adopted from African-American youth the practice of calling anything really awesome “dope.” (See many examples on Urban Dictionary.) Major’s dictionary of African-American slang reports that the usage was current in the eighties among young people; it does not seem to have entered white mainstream print or consciousness until after 2000. Today it is still characteristic mainly of the younger set, but it is creeping into middle-aged mouths and will continue to do so. Already it has shown more staying power than most youth slang, which is usually pretty ephemeral, and it may yet make the roster of long-term vocabulary. Today I saw a t-shirt that said, “God is dope.” At least it didn’t say “Dope is God.”

I wonder why “dope” has held onto the new meaning. (For starters, why an adjective?) The normal purpose of kids’ slang is to confuse adults. The normal way to do that is to take a relatively harmless word and substitute it for whatever you’re trying to conceal. It goes right over the grown-ups’ heads, at least for a while, and then another misleading word comes along. But as late as 2000, “dope” would have had negative associations for many older people — so why turn to it? It does meet the standard of causing confusion, which helps account for its success. Didn’t most of us have to have it explained the first time we heard it? Eighties slogans like “no hope in dope” still ring in my ears, and I would never have guessed “dope” meant “the greatest” unless it was unmistakable from context. The only connection I can imagine runs through potheads admiring a new variety, raving about how good the dope is. “That’s real dope, man” might become “That’s really dope, dude” without too much effort.

My old buddy Charles supplied this week’s expression. It is slangier than the usual subjects, but it’s such a fun word that I couldn’t pass it up. Charles hasn’t steered me wrong yet.

Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , ,

secret sauce

(1990’s | journalese? | “secret ingredient,” “secret formula,” “magic (trick),” “trade secret”)

Back in the day, only food writers used “secret sauce,” usually in reference to this great chef or that. By the eighties the expression had acquired an association with fast food, probably prompted by the “Colonel’s secret recipe” for Kentucky Fried Chicken and the McDonald’s mantra anyone my age can still rattle off: “Two all-beef patties, special sauce, lettuce, cheese, pickles, onions on a sesame-seed bun.” True, that was “special sauce,” not “secret sauce” — which isn’t secret any more; there’s a recipe in Woman’s Day — but some linguistic cross-breeding was inevitable, and over time the expression has acquired the taint of the Golden Arches. Whether concocted by Escoffier or a corporate chemist, your secret sauce enhances the other ingredients and makes the dish unforgettable, so diners keep coming back. It’s what gives you an edge over the competition.

And that’s the figurative meaning, too. It may be a person, or a bit of wisdom won through observation, or just something you know that the others don’t. Whatever form it takes, it’s the catalyst or the solvent; that is, it makes the heterogeneous elements on the job, in the dugout, or in the studio work together toward superior results. A 2014 article in USA Today defined it thus: “that thing that you do that is unique, different, and special.” It is used strikingly often in the negative to remind us there are no shortcuts to success — it’s mostly hard work and trial and error. (In 1990, NBC Television executive Brandon Tartikoff observed, “Once you reach a certain level of success in this job, people start to believe you have a secret sauce. They want to know, why isn’t that sauce spread across the whole [programming] schedule?”)

We started using “secret sauce” figuratively right around 1990, as far as I can tell; there were a few tentative examples before that, but it started to show up in quantity then. There doesn’t seem to be any obvious channel from the literal to the figurative use. Its earliest avatars tended to turn up in entertainment reporting (including sports). Somewhere back there, someone got the idea of taking the old culinary expression, which had already dropped a brow-level or two through persistent association with fast food, and applying it to non-comestible situations. And it stuck, then spread into more and more contexts like a béarnaise slowly smothering your entrée.

A new adjective, “awesomesauce,” has recently come to my attention. It’s still a young person’s word, I think, that sounds strange to older people like myself, though I suppose the built-in rhyme makes it catchier. Also used as an interjection, the word implies a state of felicity beyond mere awesomeness, tending toward exhilaration or delirium. It first showed up in Urban Dictionary in 2005 (they spell it with a space), but those people are early adopters, and I doubt it was in general use that soon. It’s not in general use now, for that matter, but I’ve come across it and I’d guess most alert readers have as well. Can “criss-cross awesomesauce” be far behind?

Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , ,