Lexicon Valley

Sure, Back to the Future Was Wrong About Hoverboards, but How Well Did It Predict Slang?

Michael J. Fox in Back to the Future Part II (1989).
Michael J. Fox in Back to the Future Part II (1989).

Courtesy of Universal Studios

Read more in Slate about Back to the Future Day.

The Back to the Future franchise may not have gotten everything right about 2015, especially in the realm of aerial transport. (What, you haven’t ordered your hoverboard on Kickstarter yet?) But what about its kirbo imagining of futuristic slang? While at first glance, the lexical prognosticating of director Robert Zemeckis (along with screenwriter Bob Gale) may seem just plain garbed, some of the movie’s coinages make a lot of sense. Or at least, you can see where he’s coming from. (Yes, 1985.)

Look no further than the yibberin’ of Valleymen in Cloud Atlas or the invented Old English of Paul Kingsnorth’s novel The Wake: The easiest way to dream up some plausible-sounding dialect is to pick new words that sound like the old words they mean. This precept is loosely related to the idea of the “phonestheme,” or sound that carries a certain connotation not because of etymology, but by pure association. Consider bojo, a Zemeckian noun meaning “idiot” or “fool.” Sure, it evokes bozo, but it also partakes of the contempt around the abbreviation boho for “bohemian”—and it carries shades of hobo, a disreputable word for a homeless person. The lo-bos described disdainfully by Officer Foley in the movie take this a step further: They’re “hobos,” but with the derogatory syllable “low” swapped in for extra abjection. And within the world of BTTF, lo-bo shares a resonance with low-res, a shortening of “low resolution” that figuratively conjures something shoddy or downscale. (In a computer-saturated age, poor quality images are more than technically flawed—they’re morally repugnant.) Then there’s garbed, wrong or mixed-up, redolent of both garbled and, more distantly, garbage. (Congratulations, Zemeckis, for semi-accurately predicting the ascent of garb, as in “That song is hot garb”!) Trank, of course, is a perfectly sensible shortening of tranquilizer, and an apt term for any lo-bo whose frontal lobes have been addled by sedatives.

You can see the same associative principles operating in Cloud Atlas, where a babbit denotes a baby (with the added softness and helplessness of rabbit thrown in) and to cogg a truth is to recognize or understand it. Likewise, just as Zemeckis chops “tranquilizer” to trank, David Mitchell extracts spesh from “special” and curio from “curiosity.” (According to linguists who study the propagation of slang, contraction and abbreviation represent two of the most common methods for concocting a new word.) But Mitchell also reaches for a less obvious technique: Unlike Zemeckis, he sometimes repurposes proper nouns (e.g. “Judas”) as standard-issue nouns or verbs (to judas, to betray). Gary Shteyngart does the same when he enlists “Starbucks” to signify generic coffee in Super Sad True Love Story. Kingsnorth, for his part, seems more reliant on aural similarity than his fellow term-crafters. Throughout The Wake, he invents homophones that sound almost exactly like the words he’s suggesting—wolde for “would,” waepens for “weapons”—but look utterly different.  

Beyond these tacks lie a plethora of methods for word invention that Zemeckis barely touched: reduplication, as in bye-bye and higgledy-piggledy; augmentation (adding extra syllables, as in a-tonality); even antimeria (the use of one part of speech as another, as in science the shit out of this). While the evolutions of vocabulary are mysterious and hard to predict, it turns out that creating new slang is pretty easy. Making new slang “happen,” on the other hand … therein lies the nump.