Talking About Words: Squatchetery
With Prof. Richard Bailey
Nothing dates alumni so much as the slang they picked up in college.
An archaeologist carefully brushing away the silt from a prehistoric
kitchen midden can look downward into deep time, descending from nails
to spear points to fire-hardened sticks. Today’s students are embarrassed
by a parent who says groovy and intrigued, in a patronizing way, at the
grandparent who says swell. Their turn will come when their children smirk
at them when they say awesome.
In the 1895-96 school year, a teacher in the rhetoric course at Michigan,
Willard Clark Gore, collected nearly a thousand slang terms used by students.
He published portions of the list in a Michigan magazine, The Inlander,
and thus afforded us hints about the way students talked more than a century
Some of these expressions are entirely familiar today. Students might
flunk a quiz in psych or math and afterwards complain to the prof.
But 21st-century students would be at a loss to communicate with their
19th-century counterparts at the corner of State Street and North University
Imagine, in 1895, a brick approaching that corner. Let our present-day
student appear suddenly and approach the brick who is salamandering along
Our time-traveler would see at once that this handsome stroller is phat
candy. Soon the brick hails a passing co-ed: “Those togs are squatchetery.”
Entirely bewildered, our traveler squints at The Inlander and finds: “Your
new gown is decidedly squatchetery.” That example sentence is accompanied
by a definition: “admirable, pleasing.”
Most of the expressions Gore published are long forgotten: a chiselly
day was a cold, overcast, blustery one; a skinchy piece of pie was a stingy
slice; collegers at the varsity might be blug (stylish) or skatey (the
opposite of blug).
Our visitor would be bewildered by very ideas encased in the slang of
the day: hen-medic for a woman in medical school (as opposed to a man-medic),
some of them homeops (“students in the homeopathic department’).
No longer do hashlets (boarders) put themselves through college by work
as a “k. m.” (dishwasher < kitchen mechanic). No longer
would an especially admired freshlet or soph be described as right as
The initialisms would simply overwhelm our visitor. “What does
n. g. mean?” she might ask.
“No good,” replies the brick.
“What’s a plunk?”
‘D. Y. W. Y. K.,” says the impatient brick. (Only later
by searching in Gore’s list would our visitor learn that a plunk
is a dollar and D.Y.W.Y.K. means “Don’t you wish you knew?”)
Our 21st-century student was flummoxed by the 19th-century one and ended
up feeling like a yup (“a person of inferior ability,” according
So to prepare our 19th-century fox for a 21st-century comeuppance, I
have made a small inquiry into the slang at Michigan today.
More about that next time.