Pencil points and Burgers
August 28, 2009
We once received an invitation to a dinner in Trenton, and the invitation came with a menu. We noticed on the menu the term “pencil points,” but we didn’t know what that meant. We resolved to be scrupulous about what we ate, but the dinner was several months later and by that time we forgot about it. After we had eaten, one of us recalled it and asked our table companion, who lived in that area, what had happened to the “pencil points.” “You ate them,” he said — the pasta. He was referring to penne, which had been the course before the entree. When we said we had never before heard penne referred to as “pencil points,” our companion said, “Well, I guess you’re not Burgers.” Hmmmm? “I guess you don’t come from Chambersburg,” he said. Comes the dawn, as my mother used to say: He was referring to a section of Trenton that at one time had been the “Little Italy” of the city and still maintained some vestiges of that past, including a few good Italian restaurants.
Chambersburg, incidentally, was a distinct municipality from 1872 to 1888. It had been a part of Hamilton Township. Janet Evanovich, who is from South River, has used Chambersburg — the Burg, as it were — as the locale for her series of novels and stories about bounty hunter Stephanie Plum.
“Pencil points,” “the Burg,” and “Burgers” are examples of slang in the strict sense. By the strict sense, I mean that these terms originated among and in a way distinguished a certain group of people — the residents of Chambersburg. Slang can evolve within social groups, demographic groups, professional or occupational groups — within pretty much any subset of society.
Heaven knows we had enough slang in the newspaper business, and I mean slang in the strict sense. During the summer semester I was explaining something to my class and I used the term “graf” — a common expression in publishing industries. I noticed a quizzical look on one student’s face and I asked him what was the matter. He said, “You always use that word – “graf.” What does it mean? This was about half way through the term; the class had sat there in silence up to that point, and I don’t know how many references to “paragraph” they hadn’t understood.
Douglas Quenqua, writing for the New York Times News Service, reports that slang terms of that kind may be passing from the scene. “Keeping up with the latest slang,” Quenqua writes, “is at once easier and harder than ever. The number of slang dictionaries is growing, both online and off, not to mention social networking media that invent and discard words, phrases and memes at the speed of broadband. The life of slang is now shorter than ever, say linguists, and what was once a reliable code for identifying members of an in-group or subculture is losing some of its magic.”
Quenqua points out that slang dictionaries as such are nothing new, but they used to appear at a pace that was in keeping with the natural evolution of language. Quenqua says dictionaries of slang have been around since the 18th century. I just finished reading a new book by Bernard Patenaude about the Leninist-Bolshevik Leon Trotsky. According to Patenaude, while Trotsky was living in exile in Mexico, he received from a union activist in Minneapolis a dictionary of American slang, designed to help him better understand the Americans who were a part of his security staff. In a letter thanking the donor, Trotsky wrote: “In the part I have already studied, which is devoted to college slang, I had hoped to find some abbreviations for the various sciences, philosophical theories, etc. (B)ut instead I found merely about 25 expressions for an attractive girl ….”
Quenqua’s story, which I read in The State of Columbia, South Carolina, is at this link: