Friday, February 8, 2013

Wicked, Wicked Way of Talking

Almost any occasion provides an opportunity for the good citizens of Massachusetts to celebrate the local lingo.
            I find the latest example both funny and curiously uplifting: The much-shared digital sign outside a small town grocery to warn everyone to get a head start on their panic buying in anticipation of the latest much-ballyhooed weather event. "Wicked Stawm Comin'".
            What's not to like about this way of screwing around with standard English to put a Massachusetts stamp on the fixation of the moment?
            First, and foremost, this cut-to-the-chase warning uses the regional intensifier of choice for anything important enough to merit our attention: "Wicked."
            We are speaking of a "wicked" bad storm here. If it were merely just another blizzard, why bother to pay attention?
            For example, the prospect of all those political ads for a third Senate election in the last three years? It's wicked annoying.
            In everywhere America, almost anything a speaker finds agreeable or even just OK earns the denomination "cool." In Massachusetts, if you mean it, it's "wicked cool."
            In mining the connotations of its w-word, the local vernacular struck linguistic gold. The word draws on the region's Puritan roots, when the word was a straight forward and oh so serious judgment of acts or personages influenced by the forces of evil. Think of the mindset behind the contemporary usage "evil doers." That's the solemn, black and white view of the universe that predominated when Puritan Massachusetts led the league in witch hangings.
            We still trade on that bygone celebrity by building a local industry around the "Salem witches." Only we don't think they're wicked any more. We think witches are wicked fun. They figure in dark-side entertainments like haunted houses and local color stories focusing on eccentric characters who worship nature.
            By the time Hollywood got around to recognizing the word's potential, as in "The Wicked Witch of the West," we were already skipping through poppy fields of high camp. As a character, or caricature, in the merry old land of Oz, the Wicked Witch was wicked fun.
            We still recall her campy nastiness in contributions to the Pop Hall of Fame Quotations like "I'll fix you and your little dog too!" Or, "What a world, what a world... Oh, my beautiful wickedness!"
            There's something wickedly cunning in Midwestern sci-fi wizard Ray Bradbury's title "Something Wicked This Way Comes," though of course that line is a borrowing from MacBeth. Shakespeare's own time, which birthed the Puritans, took "wicked" wicked serious too, burning witches and heretics, and disembowling traitors.
            But by the 20th century English speakers were so relaxed about the word that wicked increasingly became a sly reference to behavior that was a little naughty, perhaps even shocking, but in its naughty pursuit of pleasure appealingly "cool."
            As in "My Wicked, Wicked Ways," the title of the autobiography of actor Errol Flynn, wicked became a code word for thumbing one's nose at conventional moral standards. Sometimes it was simply  an in-word for an ironic point of view. It's hip or, again, cool, to have a member of the opposite sex say something on the order of "must you be so wicked, Reggie darling?"
            Hollywood icons, urbane bigshots, decadent aristocrats -- and almost any British speaker -- played at turning around ordinary meanings of value words to suggest superiority, detachment, boredom, dispassion, or weary superiority to the claims of conventional values and ordinary Joes.
            But nobody exploits the cool, ironic, knowing resources of the w-word like native Massachusetts speakers. Here the word has been totally democratized in the home of those who invented "wicked awesome" decades ago.
            The expression has since gone national, you hear all over in the entertainment media. Each new generation of college athletes make free with the nomenclature's heady potential as if they invented it. Along with, say, drinking and sex.
            To get back to this latest sign of our times, in the land of the constantly rising or falling barometer, the weather is a particularly apt subject for the "wicked" intensifier -- hot, cold, awful, and various banned adjectives I don't want to use here.
            That leads us to the sign's brilliant second term, "Stawm." Only Massachusetts could come up with anything quite so wicked smaht. It's a word that both gives a warning, references the region's history of snowy disasters, and yet puts the newcomer in its place. Once you're localized the monster "stawm," you're almost ready to pat it on the head and give it a bone.
            I know I couldn't have thought of that. Try as I might, when it comes to regional patois I'm still a New Yawka.