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6 Phrases That California Started Using Before Everyone Else

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Fri, Apr 27, 2012 at 12:08 PM

click to enlarge Dictionary of American Regional English, Volume 5
  • Dictionary of American Regional English, Volume 5
The Southern California vocabulary, as endearing or maddening as it can be, doesn't exactly have a reputation for erudition. And we're totally chill about that.

The Dictionary of American Regional English, which you may have heard of recently, is an ambitious lexicographical project that recently reached the end of the alphabet and released its fifth and final volume: a diligently researched, 1,200-page compendium of American words -- from slab to zydeco -- traced through history and from region to region.

As I navigated the book's heft, I noticed that most of the words with California origins referred to either flora (like "tule," or a kind of cattail plant) or fauna (like "splatter-ass," a kind of duck). After much thumbing I managed to find six (legit) phrases that Californians can call their own.

Who knows? Maybe we can get them circulating again.

6. Snake poison: (noun) Liquor, whiskey.

Though this word was first published in 1889 in a London magazine called The Cornhill Magazine, the story in which "snake poison" was first used was set in California (the dictionary doesn't give the title or author). During Prohibition, the word spawned a cousin, "snake-bite," meaning moonshine whiskey.

5, Spit bath: (noun) A hurried or partial washing of the body.

Yes, the Los Angeles Times has won 41 Pulitzer Prizes, but it can also lay claim to being the first to publish the idiom "spit bath" in 1922. The idea of showering in your own saliva probably only seems good after you've had too much snake poison the night before.

click to enlarge Overland Monthly when it was still thriving
  • Overland Monthly when it was still thriving
4. Swap ends: (verb) To turn abruptly through 180 degrees, turn end for end; to reverse course.

It's an odd phrase, but interesting in a way that leaves you wondering why it's not really used anymore. However, DARE lists the most recent use of the phrase as 2005, which means it has come quite a long way from its first use in 1874 in the now-defunct California publication Overland Monthly. The magazine published the likes of Ambrose Bierce, Jack London, Willa Cather and Mark Twain before it folded in 1935.

3. Toot: (noun) Something of the smallest value, a "hoot"

Nice one, L.A. Times -- again. In 1905, the paper published the word in a flippant dismissal of ex-President Grover Cleveland's attack on women's suffrage, saying that it "was scarcely worth a toot."

2. Two-bit: (adjective) "Of little value or significance; petty, small-time"

Though first published in a work called Tekel by Henry A. Bragg in 1870, Overland Monthly quickly printed it up a year later, in a story about a man panning a "two-bit prospect." How appropriate -- a gold reference! Though "two bits" literally meant 25 cents back then, "two-bit" developed into a common metaphorical turn of phrase.

click to enlarge Marco Almera's Hawaiian Surfer Girl. - PHOTO BY MARK MAUER
  • Photo by Mark Mauer
  • Marco Almera's Hawaiian Surfer Girl.

1. Uptight: (adjective) All right, OK; superb -- used as a term of approbation

This may be the closest ancestor to our current "tight." In 1966, it was published in a Surfer magazine piece that begs to be quoted: "The waves are a perfection 10 to 15 feet and straight over. Really up tight and out of sight!" Sadly, that usage only lasted for a few years before it came to take on meanings as disparate as "under control," "sophisticated," "affectionate" and "well-dressed (in reference to a woman)."

Follow Lenika Cruz on Twitter at @HappyLenika, and follow @LAWeeklyArts on Twitter and Facebook.

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