Written by: Phoebe Raven, CC2K Staff Writer
CC2K's resident Buffy scholar takes us on a tour of the vivid parlance of Whedon's greatest show.
Anyone who knows anything about me, and anyone who has ever seen a forum post by me here on CC2K (hint: my avatar), can tell that I am a huge Buffy fan. Now, in America this may not be quite so remarkable, but here in Europe us Whedonites are fewer and farther between. When people found out the show was even going to be the topic of my bachelor thesis (yes, they have crazy things like that in Germany), I gathered looks of utter disbelief and disdain. (Large parts of what you will read in the following are actually taken from this thesis paper, in modified form). People here don’t understand the phenomenon that is Buffy and the Whedonverse in general and that is largely because a lot gets lost in translation.
One of the most striking features of almost all Whedon shows and especially Buffy is the dialogue and innovative speech, which intentionally invents slang. The language of BtVS is so iconic and recognizable that it even has its own name, ‘Buffyspeak’ or ‘Slayer Slang’. Linguists like Michael Adams have even written entire scientific books about the influence and appeal of the language of Buffy. And to be sure, the unique language had always been a huge draw for me in my Whedon fandom. The problem is though that all these linguistic adventures cannot be translated into each and every other language there is. However, the language and created slang are a large source of the humor of Buffy and one of the most obvious signs that the show doesn’t always take itself seriously (a big plus in my book). Subtract this factor from the equation when you translate it into German, for example, and you end up with Beverly Hills 90210 plus some monsters. Decidedly immature and entirely unfunny. No wonder no one here saw the awesomeness that is Buffy.
What is so cool about Buffyspeak is that you can use it in every day life. And you can even add your own words. There are certain linguistic patterns and rules at work in Buffyspeak, of which I will present some in a moment, so that you can even invent your own words, which never appeared on the show, but might as well have. Phrases like “lots of much”, “What’s the uppage?” or “the seven undeadly sins”. None of these were ever uttered by a Buffy character, but they sound like they could have been.
It is an established fact the unique language of Buffy (as well as Angel and in parts Firefly and even Dollhouse) originated in Joss Whedon himself. He actually speaks somewhat like that, Buffyspeak is only an amplified version of it. However, due to a lot of writers contributing to the show over the years, there’s a few different styles to Buffyspeak, making it all the more intriguing and alive.
However, there have to be certain underlying linguistic patterns at work or we wouldn’t be able to identify phrases and terms as Slayer Slang or Buffyspeak. For example, Slayer Slang has a preference for using certain prefixes and suffixes to arrive at new words, such as un- for ‘unlife’, ‘undeath’, ‘unfun’ and ‘unrelationship’ or -age for ‘slayage’, ‘saveage’, ‘kissage’ and ‘sparkage’. Suffixation, adding prefixes and shifting the function of words (adjectives become nouns or similar processes) are in fact the most powerful and popular ways to create memorable Slayer Slang. Merely utilizing these formative processes to arrive at new slang though would not be up to par with the general level of innovation usually found in BtVS, therefore these linguistic rules are challenged and on occasion even broken. The aforementioned prefix un-, for instance, traditionally signifies the cancellation of something else, i.e. ‘unhappy’ means ‘not happy’, yet this concept is not applicable with a lot of the Buffy-isms created with it. ‘Undead’ by no means implies ‘alive’ in Buffy, it signifies a state in between life and death and this is precisely what a lot of Buffy-isms with un- describe, a state of being in between, neither one thing nor the other. Whedon specifically likes to use the double negative and this amplifies the ‘in between-ness’ of the un- terms. Consider ‘not unlazy’, ‘not unworried’ or ‘not unfun’. The rules of prefixing are therefore stretched or even broken and suffixation experiences a similar fate in Slayer Slang, because it is taken to extreme levels. Since inventing new suffixes is almost impossible, Slayer Slang sets itself apart from convention by using the existing suffixes in abundance, particularly the mentioned -ness, -y and -age.
English also lends itself to compounding quite well, making way for such Slayer Slang terms as ‘Buffyfan’, ‘vampface’ and ‘beefstick’. Blends are also present in Slayer Slang, ‘Buffyverse’ being the most prominent one, ‘manimal’ and ‘Buffybot’ being other examples. Slayer Slang even produced an acronym I frequently reference (yes, I am a geek): ‘MOO’, Mothers Opposed to the Occult, from the episode “Gingerbread”.
As I mentioned, the language functions also as a source of much of the humor of BtVS and so enables the show to address topics and issues that might be too dark and grim or too far-fetched to warrant the continuing attention of the audience if presented as entirely serious.
Most notably, however, it establishes a division between the adults and the teenagers of the show and so draws attention to the lack of communication between the generations, a theme of Buffy as a series that uses the symbolism of monsters to represent social problems. Of course the adults on Buffy can still be witty, but more often than not they are left puzzled by the way the teenagers communicate, particularly the abundance of pop culture references. Just one poignant example is an exchange between Giles and Xander after yet another battle in “The Zeppo”. (The episode title itself of course is a reference to the Marx brothers.) Xander had tried to intervene in a fight and ended up in trouble again, Buffy needing to save him.
Giles: Xander, I think in the future perhaps it would be best if you hung back to
the rear of the battle. For your own sake.
Xander: But, gee, Mr. White, if Clark and Lois get all the good stories, I’ll never
be a good reporter.
Xander: Jimmy Olsen jokes are pretty much gonna be lost on you, huh?
Xander: Hey, it’s OK.
Xander’s Superman-reference is completely lost on Giles, who has proven himself ignorant of many of the pop culture the teenagers quote or reference. Yet these pop culture references do more than establish a line between generations, they also tie the series into a specific historic context and cultural background, therefore giving it depth and texture. The viewer must be fluent in popular culture in order to fully understand the text of BtVS and pick up on references like “She’s quelle Fiona” or “We must Clark Kent our way through the dating scene” (from “Wild at Heart” and “Hush”).
Within the internal context of the show the language is also a key factor in the self-image of the characters. An example from the show’s pilot “Welcome to the Hellmouth”:
Willow: When I’m with a boy I like, it’s hard for me to say anything cool or
witty or at all. I can usually make a few vowel sounds and then I have to go away.
Buffy: It’s not that bad!
Willow: No, it is. I think boys are more interested in a girl who can talk.
Willow is aware that in order to be noticed as a cool person to hang out with, she needs to master the art of witty wordplay or at least manage to say something sensible at all. Taking away speech from Buffy and the other characters therefore is even more tragic and meaningful in “Hush”, because language is a big part of how they define themselves.
What I often criticize about scripted television shows and what most people recognize as “bad dialog” without ever having taken a screenwriting class, is the fact that all characters talk alike and utter sentences that are completely unnatural as spoken language. Not so the characters in BtVS. Xander loves to crack wise and reference comic books or movies. Buffy is heavily reliant on her sarcasm and puns. Willow is known for starting sentences in one place and ending up in a completely different place. Giles is English and a scholar, therefore his language is elaborate and saturated with ‘big words’. Oz is monosyllabic and stoic. Anya takes things too literal and says exactly what she thinks. (I am omitting the specific rundown for each of the characters with linguistic examples and explanations for them. If you are interested, contact me and we can get into the scientific specifics.)
In a show about battling vampires and demons, words take on a particular power, speech acts are a weapon in the fight against evil. Look at what happens to Xander in “Superstar”:
Xander: Yeah, you can’t just go ‘Librum incendere’ and expect…
(The book he is holding burst into flames, he slams it shut.)
Giles: Xander, don’t speak Latin in front of the books!
Even though Xander has no magic powers per se, his uttering the words to a spell has an effect on the world. Willow’s magic of course is a more powerful example of words having an impact on the world, but even Cordelia manages to change reality in “The Wish” by saying “I wish Buffy Summers had never come to Sunnydale”. In the Buffyverse you have to be careful what you wish for, or even what you say, or you could end up changing the world like Willow does in “Something Blue”, where Giles goes blind, Xander attracts monsters and Buffy and Spike plan to marry, because Willow sarcastically wished it so. And even when magic words are spoken by characters who know how to wield the magic, like Willow, things can still go askew. In “Buffy vs. Dracula”, Willow lights the fire in the grill by uttering “Ignes incente”, explaining that you have to be careful to balance the elements with a spell like this, so you do not end up causing a storm. A rain shower does hit the beach immediately after Willow’s spell, but she promises she did not cause it. Even the usually adept speakers of the Buffyverse therefore slip up every now and then in their use of the weapon language. Language is a part of their fight against evil and being in control of it means having power.
The most impressive, if somewhat convoluted example of this concept of words having power is in the final glorious battle sequence of Season Seven’s “Chosen”, when Buffy is seemingly mortally wounded and drops to the ground, yet when the First Evil in the shape of Buffy’s own self taunts her about it, she rises again and says “I want you… to get out of my face.” This exclamation leads to the First vanishing and though it has been criticized as too sudden and miraculous, within the show’s text it makes perfect sense. Buffy always has the last word and her words have power. (The mythic justifications of this comeback and sudden healing of Buffy have also been discussed, since the Scythe Buffy fights with can be interpreted as Excalibur, but this would lead too far from the point here.)
Most famously though BtVS brought to flourish the art of punning and throwing out witty comebacks even in situations of utter danger. These CBSs (Cute Buffy Sayings) stand in contrast to the Buffy lexicon the show has invented, meaning single words or terms, called Buffy-isms. Buffy always gets the last word in her fights, Xander often manages to startle evil by throwing a quirky reference or quote in its face, Willow succeeds in lightning up the gravest situations by taking a saying too literal. In fact these witty comebacks and quips are such an integral part of the show that their absence immediately tells the viewer something is wrong or changing. In the Season Four episode “The Freshmen” Buffy’s inability to come up with a witty pun or a trademark sarcastic comeback when fighting the vampire Sunday is clearly an indication that Buffy is ‘off her game’ and not completely herself. As soon as she finds her inner center again though, she is also back to her linguistic sass.
Buffy demands appreciation for her punning as well, because people seem to forget that punning is hard work and not easily delivered, see specifically the episode “Wild at Heart”. The Scooby Gang soon learns this when they have to take over Buffy’s patrol duties when Buffy has run away from Sunnydale. Willow tries the quip “Come and get it, big boy!” on a vampire and is immediately chastised for it by Xander, who admits “We always took her punning for granted”.
Yet the most striking example of the absence of a comeback signifying something special is in “Chosen”, when the First taunts Buffy that she does not stand a chance in the final battle because she is all alone, as the Slayers’ mission statement says: “One girl in all the world. She alone will stand against the forces of darkness.” Buffy’s failure to put the First in its place at least with words is a telltale sign to any experienced Buffy-viewer that she has just thought of something important, namely that she can defeat the First by activating all Potential Slayers.
Buffy is a show conscious of language and heavily involved in creating it and playing with it. Put simply, the language of BtVS serves multiple functions on the show. It gives each of the characters an identity and personal style, supplies humor and depth via cultural references and sarcasm, marks a clear division between the generations and also invites the audience to participate in the special brand of slang. Slayer Slang is as innovative, interactive and relatable as many other aspects of the show. Most importantly the show’s writers are aware that they are creating slang and toy with words, which is why sometimes characters are allowed to comment on this with the self-deprecating humor so often applied in the show.
Buffy asks “And in some languages that’s English?”, Xander states “To read makes our speaking English good” and Willow wonders whether the right past tense of ‘to slay’ is ‘slayed’ or ‘slew’. The language of BtVS invites the audience to participate in the show and simultaneously symbolizes the show’s identity and appeal.
As an ending note let me say that to a wide extent a lot of what I have just laid out applies to the spin-off show Angel as well, even though over time Angel moved away bit from the formative processes (i.e. creating new words) more towards the situational comedy and witty wordplay.
Firefly, of course, is yet again a bit different, because it throws some Chinese into the mix and works more with sarcasm than linguistic ingenuity.
But even Whedon’s latest show Dollhouse has some very small symptoms of Buffyspeak. For example, in the episode “Man on the Street”, Patton Oswalt’s character says “Sure, I deserve some moral spankitude for that”. Such a classic Buffy-phrase. Or should I say Whedon-phrase?
Author: Phoebe Raven, CC2K Staff Writer
Born in Germany, lived in the US, now in the UK. Always taking my love for TV and writing with me. Life participator. Blogger. Gaming enthusiast.