Tuesday, March 29, 2011

semantic "rhyming" slang

Cockney rhyming slang uses a phrase, or more cryptically the first word of a phrase, the last word of which rhymes with a target word, to stand in for that word. For example, "trouble and strife" for "wife" or, more tricky, "have a butcher's" for "have a look", since "butcher's hook" rhymes with "look."

Of course, understanding the intended referent depends crucially upon viewing the phrase as salient. If one doesn't think "hook" upon hearing "butcher's ___," it will be awfully difficult to conclude the intended meaning is "look." As such, cockney rhyming slang has inspired some awfully amusing parodies. For example, 1 min. in or so, Reginald Perrin's son begins using completely obscure and ridiculous rhyming slang:

including, for example "chitty chitty" for "rhyming slang" (since "chitty chitty bang bang" rhymes with "slang").

More recently, Stephen Fry has had his bourgeoise way with rhyming slang:

using, for example, "bulletproofs" for "guests" (from "bulletproof vest") and "Barney" for "double" (via "Barney Rubble").

Now, the difficult trick with rhyming slang is that the sound of the unspoken word is relevant for determining the meaning. But we can see a similar effect, when it is the meaning of an omitted word which gives a compound meaning. For example, consider the sequence "cyberpunk," "steampunk," and "icepunk." The foremost was coined by Bruce Bethke in 1983, and combines the terms "cybernetics" and "punk." The basic idea, of course, was a mixture of the information-flow, artificial intelligence, computer programming nerd priorities associated with the computer age (for some early sci-fi writers, cybernetics was synonymous with AI (e.g. Stanislaw Lem)) with the hip anarchic attitude of 80s punk rock.

But once the term caught the public imagination, "steampunk" was coined. Steampunk still assumes a technological acumen, but now focuses on counterfactual developments, including in particular the possibility that sophisticated technology might be developed with an alternate power source, such as steam. The funny thing here, of course, is that there's more of the "cyber" at issue than the "punk," even though the latter half of the term was preserved while the former dropped. "Cyberpunk" as a whole came to stand for hipster technology, and the "technology" part could be replaced with the word "steam," and yet the new compound could retain the technological connotation. As such, "steampunk" is a kind of semantic rhyming slang, depending upon the missing morpheme (cyber) to imbue it with the appropriate meaning.

But then we reach the back jacket of the recent (first English language) reprint of Jacques Tardi's The Arctic Marauder, which describes it as: "a vintage 'icepunk' graphic novel."

No, not "ice," nor even "steam," but electricity!

First, what might "icepunk" mean? And why the scare quotes? Certainly not because a preexisting word is being quoted; though it's almost as if Fantagraphics wishes to imply they're merely picking up the lingo of the "hip" kids. Except they aren't. And the meaning? Well, there's nothing "punk" in the sense of "hip" or "anarchic" about the story, at least not in an 80s kinda way. In fact, it's a deliberate homage to the sci-fi style of yesteryear, esp. Jules Verne. The story is set in 1899, and ostensibly features technology which barely supersedes that in theory possible during the late 19th century.

But, whereas "cyber" (the style of information flow idea) had previously been replaced with "steam" (power source for the technological device), now it is replaced with "ice" (merely stuff that's around for most of the story). The whole thing makes no literal sense; nor does it make strict analogical sense.

Instead, the sense depends upon semantic rhyming slang. Only someone familiar with the previous terms cyberpunk and steampunk could piece together then intended meaning (anarchic (in the 19th, not 20th cent., style) sci-fi (in the Verne, not Gibson, style)).

Of course, if you're into Verne, and beautiful art, and the 19th century style of anarchy, the story is awesome and highly recommended.

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