I’ve always been a bit of a late bloomer – even the slang term used in the title of this post is probably already out of date. But things are cyclical. Just look at how leg warmers have made a comeback!
Oh excuse me, I just had a minor spasm at that memory. I’ll shake it off…
A few weeks ago in class, we were discussing the story “A&P” by John Updike. The climax of the story involves the teenaged main character, Sammy, making a grand gesture to defend the honor of three girls in bikinis. The problems was, they had already left before they could witness Sammy’s largess and presumably shower gratitude and adoration over him. Instead, he is left in an empty parking lot.
At this point, a student said, “Sammy just got deaded!” My reaction?
Of course I had to get an explanation for this term and find out how it was used. The students were much too happy to oblige, considering it delayed them from having to understand what first-person narration is. A few of them also found it quite amusing that I got just as excited about new slang terms as I did about insightful analysis of literature.
To ‘get deaded’ apparently means to be rejected, turned down by a member of the opposite sex. It could also more generally mean having your ego deflated in any number of ways. The Urban Dictionary has quite a few variations on these themes. I got a few more examples from my students (which I unfortunately didn’t write down!) and then, much to their chagrin, we returned to Updike.
Naturally, I couldn’t let it go at that. I did some sleuthing. At first, I kept finding entries for deaded as being the past tense of dead. But since when is that word a verb? It’s an adjective (a dead car battery), a noun (the living dead), and an adverb (dead quiet). I consulted my faithful sidekick, the OED. I found no fewer than 9 columns of dense dictionary text before finally getting to the entry for dead as a verb.
It dates back to the 10th century and one of its first recorded uses was in Beowolf. It was listed as an obscure or regional word meaning, which was eventually replaced by deaden around the mid 17th century. It meant, “to become dead; lit. to die” and also “to lose vitality, force or vigour; to become numb; to lose heat or glow.”
Sounded not too far off from what happened to Sammy. I’m sure he lost a bit of his vitality and glow when the girls walked off before he could impress them.
Here’s where it got interesting. There are two listings for the verb dead as having a specific use in U.S. college slang:
1. To be unable to recite; to be ignorant of the lesson: to declare one’s self unprepared to recite.” Example from 1848: “Be ready, in fine, to cut, to drink, to smoke, to dead.”
2. To cause one to fail in reciting. Said of a teacher who puzzles a scholar with difficult questions and thereby causes him to fail.” Example from 1884: “Whose…enquiry, ‘What is ethics?’ had deaded so many a promising…student.”
I was delighted. Okay, that’s a pretty geeky thing to admit, but I was. Not only has this expression survived amongst college students – albeit with expanded definitions – but I realized that on certain occasions in the past, I had done just that: I had deaded my students! Suddenly, instead of feeling like some weird nerdy English professor oddly interested in ‘what these kids are saying these days’, I felt like I had a leg up, that I knew something about their slang that they didn’t. I felt like I had put one over on them – yes, they of the allegedly newly-invented wheel. Not only was their slang first in use over 100 years ago, but it originally referred to not doing well in English class!!! Snap!
Then the irony hit me. I learned of this term from my students. They informed me, which meant that I was the one who was not prepared to perform her recitations.
I had been deaded.
But I can live with that.