February 16, 2013

So many slang words about how suspicious you find every place and everyone

Earlier I took a look at the rise of slang words that assume nobody trusts you -- "honestly," "literally," "seriously," "I'm not gonna lie," etc. They're all from the '90s onward, part of the broader social trend toward lower trust in people you meet in everyday life. If you expect your listeners not to trust you, you have to continually reassure them that you're telling the truth.

Well, there's a flip-side to that as well: the rise of slang words that signal how little trust you have in others. This reminds your conversation partners that, in general, you're a very suspicious person, so if they really do mean what they say, they'd better mark that overtly with one of the many "honestly" kind of declarations.

"Sketchy" is the first that I remember, and that was from the '90s. I think before then it used to mean "hazy," as in "the details of the robbery are sketchy for now, but police are interviewing witnesses to fill in the blanks." I'm pretty sure that in the '90s it was used primarily for places, particularly unfamiliar public places, that you found suspicious. "I dunno, this place looks kinda sketchy," or "Holy shit this neighborhood is sketchy, let's get the fuck outta here."

Only in the 2000s did it get used to refer to people, as individuals or groups, who are unfamiliar. "That guy who keeps checking you out looks kinda sketchy," or "I thought about rushing Omega Mu, but those girls seem pretty sketchy." It's typically girls who use these low-trust words, as females are less trusting and fearful of strangers and public places than males are.

Then there was "shady" in the '90s, which again I think first referred to a public place or a situation that was not part of your daily routine. "Dude, that McDonalds that we ate at last night in Anacostia was so shady," or "They're having a party Friday night in the woods behind the school? I dunno, sounds shady if you ask me." (Did not mean for that to be a pun.) Now it's more of a term for strangers, as in "That guy who just posted on your Facebook looks pretty shady, to be quite honest."

Also from the '90s and early 2000s was "shiesty" (based on "shyster," with a long-I vowel), meaning someone who presents a trustworthy appearance but is actually devious. It didn't refer to places or situations. I think this is the only one that guys used more than girls did, and it generally referred to other guys -- like ones who wouldn't get your back when you thought they would. "Chris said he forgot his wallet, so we covered his part of the check. Then we see him hailing a cab to get home -- I told you that dude was shiesty."

Two of the most commonly used slang words of the 21st century also refer only to suspicious people or social situations, not places -- "stalker" and "creepy," and their variants (stalking, creeper, etc.). "Stalker" took off in the early 2000s, and "creepy" more like the mid-late 2000s. They primarily refer to male behavior toward females in the domain of dating and mating, whether some guy who makes a pass at a girl, looks like he's going to, or even a guy who shows no awareness of the girl, but if he did, she'd be creeped out. "Who's that fat ugly creeper asleep in the corner over there?"

It's not just a message about how undesirable the guy is -- there were and still are other words for that. Like, "Who's that goofy-looking dork who keeps asking you to dance?" or "Can you believe that loser actually thought I'd go out on a date with him over Brad?" The new words add a layer of connotation that he's not only undesirable but suspicious, threatening, and so on. "OK, not gonna lie, but that stalker sitting at the table behind you, literally looks like he's thinking of raping you." "Ewww, creepy guy number 4 just looked at us again -- I honestly need to go take a shower now."

Their targets are not actually threatening -- probably some awkward, video-game-addicted dork -- but they exaggerate the sense of suspicion and threat in order to fence themselves off from everyone else, no matter how harmless.

Therefore, the rise of "stalker" and "creepy" can be seen as an extension of the date-rape hysteria that began in the late '80s and lasted well into the '90s. But now that boys and girls don't date each other that much anymore, the panic has shifted from the date-rape scenario to creepy guys thinking about or looking at you in the first place, before even approaching you.

In the same way, most of these low-trust words first referred to unfamiliar places, and only later came to refer to people too. The first phase of cocooning behavior was to abandon public spaces, while still having some fellow feeling for your peers (early-mid-'90s). Now with so few people willing to hang out in public, it's common to hear people say that someone is "stalking" them on Facebook, not even in real life. Once you were spatially secure in your narrow private sphere, you would proceed with the second phase by cutting off your social ties to would-be friends and mates.

Cocooning begins once the crime rate rises to such a high point, and most people sense that it's those unguarded public spaces that are most dangerous, so they ditch those first. But you could always be harmed by someone you know and have allowed to get close, so you have to follow up by ditching your peers too, just to be safe.

Honorable mentions go to less popular words like "sus" (from "suspect"), usually referring to someone whose heterosexuality is under suspicion. "I dunno, shaving your balls sounds pretty sus." In this fag-friendly age, it's reassuring to know that at least some of the Millennial generation still finds what they do disgusting. Then there's "seems legit," a self-conscious commentary on what is obviously bogus, polluting, etc., not merely suspicious. "Bro, check out this ad. 'Hot MILFs waiting to fuck you tonight in your city' -- seems legit."

Finally, there's "dodgy," a word that pretentious Americans imported from Britain in the 1990s, judging from its appearance in the New York Times. In British usage, it means risky or chancy, and can refer to inanimate isolated places, like "be careful, the drive up that hill gets a bit dodgy." Americans use it with paranoid and suspicious connotations -- "that new character in Downton Abbey seems a bit dodgy."

The books in Google's digitized library (Ngram) show an initial rise and fall of the word "dodgy" in British English during the Victorian era, beginning in the 1860s. That would've been 20 years after Dickens nicknamed one of his dodgy characters the Artful Dodger. I'm not sure in what contexts it was used back then, as opposed to the contemporary usage of "risky" or "chancy" in general, including inanimate things. But based on the Dickens character, I wouldn't be surprised if it had a connotation of untrustworthiness in human beings, or public places. The Victorian era was another period of low trust and social isolation, following in the wake of the opposite Romantic-Gothic period.


  1. I've always had the sense that "creepy" is more of a rationalization of an aversion to unattractive men. A lot of people have a certain pseudointellectual notion that it's shallow to romantically or sexually reject others just because they're unattractive. So they have to invent other reasons. If a man is ugly, that's not his fault, and a girl would have to be really shallow not to see past that. But if he's creepy, then he's just a bad person, and a girl can feel good about rejecting him.

    There's a male analogue of this, which is the "fat girls have low self-esteem" meme. A lot of guys can't admit to themselves or to others that they don't like fat girls because they're physically unattractive, so they have to rationalize it with some psychobabble about how they're fat because they're psychologically damaged.

  2. I think you're giving them too much credit for being civilized. Girls are happy to call a guy ugly if he really is (not to his face perhaps, but then they don't call him a creeper to his face either).

    It's not just ugly guys who girls call stalkers and creepers. It's anyone who gives off vibes of unwanted sexual interest / attention, or potential interest.

    Also, it's not a rationalization that they talk themselves into calmly -- it's a gut reflex that can nearly send them into a state of panic.

    These signs point to it being an exaggerated kind of suspicion, lack of trust, paranoia, etc.

  3. I don't really recall "shady" being used in reference to places or situations. It's pretty much always been used mainly to describe people, usually as part of the expression "shady character."


  4. agnostic, OT, but any thoughts on Turchin's latest (as covered by Sailer here - http://isteve.blogspot.co.uk/2013/02/peter-turchin-on-big-picture.html)?

  5. I think its an improvement. I've seen groups of high school girls who were approached by obvious undesirables, who obviously made them uncomfortable, and just sat there and took it. Calling the guys creeps only after they left.(I would sit close and shoot dirty looks until they were gone, but I"m not sure if it helped any).

    Falling-crime is conformist, and part of that is an inability to tell people to fuck off. Labeling some guy who looks at you a creep, while not the most mature thing, is still better than under-reaction to real creepy behavior.

    As more girls get the nerve to shame men in public, their instincts will become more experienced and not prone to overreaction. And if women can call a guy out publicly on his bad behavior, than other guys can back her up. And you have the beginning of decent people retaking public spaces.

    (contrary to popular belief, the younger generation are not really assertive in shaming men, unless you're talking about sending a nasty email)


  6. "any thoughts on Turchin's latest"

    Nothing that Turchin didn't cover... other than, I'd quibble with calling the age at marriage a indicator of "social mood". He says that it's tied more to expectations about material prosperity -- earlier marriage when economic times look good, later when they look bad. So, it's a material account, not a social one.

    And in his write-up at the Social Evolution Forum, he says that in a dynamic system there are no causes and effects, since both variables interact. That's true, but to make sense of what happens after what, it's useful to keep track of which is the leading and which is the lagging variable.

    In his data, it's the popular attitude about politics and economics that "turns a corner" before the material picture that results from the political/economic domain. Ideas have consequences!

    So it's like people in more and more prosperous times start to take it for granted that there's so much to go around -- so why bother worrying about others? They're able-bodied, not lazy, etc., right? So they'll get their fair share of the bounty too.

    Somehow the elites pick up on that sentiment among the masses. It's not antagonism, just a feeling of we don't need to look out for others' material well-being. With the glue loosening up among the majority, the elites use that to grab more of the goodies for themselves.

    That goes on for so long that the majority get angered and change their attitudes -- I guess we *do* have to look out for each other after all. The elites pick up on that sentiment (and organized action), and reform in more equitable directions.

    Then the cycle repeats.

  7. "Labeling some guy who looks at you a creep, while not the most mature thing, is still better than under-reaction to real creepy behavior."

    It's not just immature, it reinforces the paranoia, hysteria, and antagonism between the sexes. Then the average guy gets this strong sense that girls in general view guys in general as untrustworthy, suspicious, bothersome, etc.

    That just breeds more of the same from guys directed at girls. Vile rap lyrics, watching porn with some girl getting throat-fucked, and so on. The whole vicious circle is sick and degrading.

    Guys and girls have to start putting more blind faith in each other to break out of the cycle. Probably won't happen for another few years, but in the meantime we shouldn't give a pass to socially retarded behavior and thoughts.

  8. Vile rap lyrics are a great contrast to the mid-century, whose music is more often derided for not being edgy enough. Of course pretty much everyone other than agnostic regards the 50s as relatively wholesome.

  9. Weak comparison -- obviously the change there is due to a lot more blacks percentage-wise.

    And pretty much everyone else doesn't know anything about the 1960s, let alone anytime before then. For example, if they couldn't tell you about horror / crime comics, Seduction of the Innocent, what "j.d." stands for, what the bullet bra is, wise-cracking dames, widespread use of amphetamines and barbiturates and tranquilizers, burlesque and atrocity films screened outside of the Hollywood system, etc. ... then they have no idea what they're talking about.

    I used to think the '50s were all Leave It to Beaver too, but I'm curious and more interested in finding things out than in walling off the '50s as sacrosanct, on the other side of the bright line vs. the '60s.

    Shoot, most of these ahistorical nerds couldn't even tell you about the '60s -- they probably thought the Shirelles and the Chiffons were from the '50s, that the Beatles showed up on the charts before 1964, that the Stones showed up before '65, that there was a rad-fem movement in the '60s, etc.

  10. Has the black percentage of the population increased that much? It seems more that musically blacks regarded whites as more normative and made stuff anyone can listen to. Now it's nigger this, bitch that, as Chris Rock acknowledges frequently indefensible. And plenty of whites listen to it as well. Could it be related to asabiya, since you've pointed to that earlier as a big difference.

    My parents were around in the 1950s. My dad has said "Leave it to Beaver" is the most realistic TV show he has ever seen.

    I'm sure there were lots of people who lived throughout the 50s and 60s/70s and have written about how they compared. That would be useful to look at.


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