Tuesday 20 July 2010

Filler Words Part the Third: People

As with the previous filler-word posts (here and here), this post is all about voice. If I write:

Louis Armstrong was the first man on the moon.

The sentence is flat. But if I write:

Louis Armstrong was the first chap on the moon.

You immediately know what my voice is. You know what accent to read in. Chap doesn't say anything new about the great trumpet-playing astronaut, but it says something about me, the writer, and about how I should be read.

Man, woman and person are all dull and give no indication or hint of voice. Here are some alternatives and what I consider to be their implications. (All are British, unless otherwise stated).

Chap = Relaxed, posh
Fellow = Relaxed, middle-class
Bloke = Heading down the social ladder
Gentleman = Not posh at all, I'm probably a waiter in a provincial hotel. I may also be in the closet.
Geezer = Cockney (but nobody actually says this any more)
Guy = So universal as to be almost as insipid as man.
Dude = American, young
Son of a bitch = Welcome to America!
Varmint = Welcome to more frightening parts of America!
American = It's very strange that Americans will use American as a synonym for human. Only Americans do this. So, by identifying Louis Armstrong as American you are also identifying yourself as such.

Lady = Slight delicacy
Bird = Equivalent of bloke
Filly = I have a moustache, gout, and a bad reputation
Lass = I'm terribly healthy and traditional. I may be into folksongs.
Chick = American male
Broad = Do any Americans still say this?
Dame = Ditto
Chappess = Preposterously good fun
Sheila = There has been much discussion in the comments on whether this word exists outside of one farm near Alice Springs

Individual = I'm a prick, or a policeman, or both.
Fucker = Amusing, I suppose. Take a long serious document on Microsoft Word. Go to EDIT, FIND, REPLACE, REPLACE ALL and then change "the" to "the fucking" throughout. It's great.

It annoys me more than I can say that Adam and Eve are always represented with navels


  1. Another is "bod", as in "the first bod on the moon". Presumably it's a shortening of "body", meaning "person". The writer is flippant but also perhaps a little meticulous.

  2. My favourite is "female," as in "I like a female with whopping norks." With one word, the listener gets an instant subtext of misogyny, fear and social awkwardness.

  3. What about if you call people 'Miss,' ala Miss Podean or, if I recall correctly, Miss Biro?

    I use 'chick,' although generally not in a very positive way. Also 'son of a bitch,' definitely not in a positive way. On the other hand, 'bastard' and 'bitch' are used by myself and others (colloquially, of course) as both terms of endearment, terms of abuse and general descriptors, although 'bitch' is usually at one of the extremes. I can picture one of my uncles saying laconically "Neil Armstrong was the first bastard on the moon, ey." He'd be leaning on the bar with a beer and wearing his flannelled shirt because he is the stereotype. He also works in mining.

    And I have an aunt called Sheila.

  4. Antipodean - It depends on the tone, but I think addressing someone as "Miss" is generally affectionate and wryly courtly - it goes along with walking on the outside of the pavement, carrying girls' shopping for them, and doffing hats (real or imaginary).

    Joel/Antipodean - Do you know if "norks" is an Australianism? I only mention this because it is only the second time I have heard it, and because most of the citations in the OED seem to be from Australia. If so that might be another helpful Australianism for the list someone is vaguely compiling.

  5. The Antipodean, wondering why so many Australian terms are rude in one way or another,20 July 2010 at 13:25

    I wouldn't have said so Mrs M, but apparently it is. Despite also citing it as a Geordie term, the Urban Dictionary's #1 definition says it's Australian and includes an etymology reasonably popular on the internet, that it derives from "the prominent udders on the cow used to advertise Norco, New South Wales' North Coast Dairy Co-Operative."

    This would explain why I'm not as familiar with it (being from the West) and also (along with Joel's points) why I would think anyone using it is a wanker.

    Which I would normally never put in writing, but it is exactly what I thought when I reflected on how I would think of someone using that term.

  6. There is also "hen" - only used in Scotland and by shocked returning visitors from Scotland. Kind of like the adult "chick" in my mind. My current irritation is the insistence by certain groups of women and some media outlets to refer to women as "girls". We don't refer to men as boys unless we're being derogatory. Why is it okay to refer to women as girls? Infantilisers.

  7. In Tasmania, males refer to each other as 'cock' (similar in meaning to 'mate'). I guess it's a British dialect form that's been preserved there. Is it used anywhere in the UK?

  8. By chance, I saw this seaside postcard reproduced in a London newspaper yesterday - the slogan reads "A stick of rock, cock?". I think it is probably from the 1950s, although I am not sure.


    The double entendre would only work if cock were a familiar term of address - so I am guessing it must have been used fifty years ago or so.

    My sense (and this is just from personal observation) is that it is no longer widely used in this way - I have never heard anyone address somebody else as "cock", at least not in a friendly way.

  9. I think it should have been "if cock WAS", not "if cock WERE" - although both phrases look a little odd in isolation.

    Dogberry, can you or any of your readers shed any light on this?

  10. Personally, I say "If X was" and let the "If" do the heavy irrealis lifting. "Were X" works if I'm being formal and/or snobbish. "If X were" may be correct for some values of correct, but it just sounds wrong anymore.