'It's the Hamster's Ass': How Slang Reflects the Way We Live Now


"Well isn't that just the hamster's ass," I said of the cute little evening bag my acquaintance was brandishing.

She looked confused for a moment.

"Oh, like the bee's knees?" she said.

Yes, exactly like the bee's knees. Except that it lacks the pedigree. I made it up last week and I'm wondering if I can make it go, as those in the phrasemaking biz say.

As slang, it has all the markers of an expression that ought to become the cat's pyjamas, the snake's hips, or quite possibly the flea's eyebrows. Most obviously because it echoes those phrases from the Jazz Age, an era that loved using slang to bring impossible things to life.

I suspect that kind of wordplay appealed to them because so many impossible things sprang to life in that period: planes, radio, and movies. And let's not forget women voting.

Since we're now reliving the early 20th century via dramas set in the interwar period and showing newfound enthusiasm for their old fads, like ukuleles and moonshine, I have a hunch the hamster's ass will take off. It feels both appealingly fresh and charmingly retro. As well as fluffy, in every sense of the word.

Since we're also a more literal-minded people, less given to whimsy or wit, I think the crudeness of it will strike the current slang-y sweet spot. Although I suspect that as it spreads, a certain sort of precious speaker will alter it to become "the hamster's butt."

One of my friends has already modified it to be "the hamster's balls." (Was there ever a copy editor who could resist a pun?) Another shortened it to HamAss -- as in, "inventing a new slang term is HamAss!" Given that he teaches in one of the universities, I expect that take on the phrase should be spreading like measles in an anti-vaxxers' school right about now.

But the real reason I think "it's the hamster's ass" might be a hit is because enthusiasm for rodent posteriors really is a thing. In Japan. (Where else?) As The Wall Street Journal reported, photos of fuzzy little hamster butts are all the rage there, and it has led to two coffee table books featuring their charming rear ends.

If the land that brought us Hello Kitty and remarkably lifelike sex dolls says Hamuketsu -- literally, hamster-buttocks -- is a trend, then I think we have to believe it. And truth-be-told, the furry little tushies are adorbs. Which means it will also play to the current love of slang that sounds like baby talk. (I'm eternally mystified over the cutesy sounding "rapey" being used to describe the views and values that go with an ugly, violent act.)

Cool, kewl, sangfroid

According to the people who study such things, slang began as a response to English becoming standardized among the wealthy and educated. It first shows up in roughly the 16th century, among subcultures of the criminal variety, as a way of distinguishing friends from respectable citizens. It's also why teenagers have long tried to distinguish themselves from the 'rents with a packet of mystifying terms.

Slang's unsavoury antecedents also explain why our grandparents were so opposed to us varying staid, dull, standard English with jazzy terms like "gunsel" or "ho," depending on the era.

Speaking of jazz, that's where a lot of the terms came from. For some reason, that music is all about temperature. It's Le Jazz Hot, but it's also cool. And as the music goes mainstream, so does the concept. By the 1950s, cool was applied to everyone from beatniks to James Dean.

There's also sangfroid, an icy personal style that includes being unflappable under duress.

And there's a 1990s variation, "kewl," which has a Valley Girl inflection and favours that sort of deliberately dumb style that those who think they're too good to value coolness often adopt.

Cool is the one word that originated as slang and came to have universal meaning. It's so much a part of the lexicon that in the 1990s a new kind of job sprang up -- coolhunters. These were hip young things who had their finger on the pulse.

Some marketing companies sent them out as scouts to spot the next rad trend. Others tried to identify the "bellwethers" among them and paid them to wear the latest gear or attend the newest hotspots in the hope that the other sheep would follow.

More than one novelist has looked at the implications of cool. Connie Willis's sharp, comic novel Bellwether (1996) is about a market researcher trying to figure out how fads are sparked. William Gibson's insightful Pattern Recognition (2003) looks at some of these manipulative marketing techniques through the experiences of a branding expert. Her authority comes courtesy of a psychological quirk, an allergy to brands, which is a lovely metaphor for those of us who object to being walking billboards for some creepy corporate logo.

While we're on the subject of Gibson, there's a writer who generates slang with a Shakespeare-like genius. I stole "meat puppet" from him to describe the way choreographers employ dancers, but he also gave us cyberspace, the matrix, and net surfing -- and he inspired cyberpunk.

A friend was recently muttering about his online addiction. "I'm always jacked-in," he said, evoking Gibson's Neuromancer (1984).

Submissive and subversive

Slang generally tells us about who we are in a given place and time. One of the vintage terms I love is "canoodling." It means to make out, and cropped up in the mid-19th century all over the English-speaking world. But it came into widespread use around the turn of the last century, when they needed it to explain what men and women were doing with their time in an era when chaperones were passé.

Which makes the endurance of cool all the more fascinating -- it's one of the oldest slang terms to be found and yet it remains part of the lingo of every era.

Philosophy Now traces the origin of cool to American slavery, when black men adopted emotional detachment as a strategy for dealing with powerlessness. Which is probably why the term became part of the slang of early jazz.

Cool (like pornography) is notoriously hard to define, but we all know it when we see it. We just know, for example, that starlet Jennifer Lawrence is cool while her colleague Anne Hathaway isn't.

Philosophy Now has a definition of cool that's more illuminating that most -- "a fusion of submission and subversion." That's Jennifer Lawrence to the life: the go-along, get-along girl, who pretends to be subversive.

And it's at the heart of why I believe "it's the hamster's ass" will become just the thing to freshen up our speech this summer. It will be briefly cool, since hamster butts are at that perfect point where enthusiasm for them is both a growing trend and a subculture. It's cute, both literally and figuratively. Bonus: it taps into the Internet's love of animals. (I just spotted a hammie-in-a-sweater meme.) And it's only a touch subversive. There's still something a teensy bit naughty about the word ass.

It may never have the cool of cool -- but then, what does? Still, as an expression-du-jour (and with apologies to Trollope), the hamster's ass really does reflect the way we live now.

And wouldn't it be just HamAss if it became a thing?

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