Did people actually say "shwench"?
July 22, 2015 10:26 PM   Subscribe

Many years ago I read this William Safire article in which he claims that "shwench" is 1985 slang for a female college first-year. Did anyone ever actually use this completely bogus-sounding slang term?

I've heard "rents" for parents. I've heard "za" or "zaw" for pizza. But boy, do I strongly doubt anyone has ever said "shwench". Is the article supposed to be satire? Was someone having him on? Most of the other slangs in there seem plausible.

I probably read it in 1995 or thereabouts, in a decade-old Reader's Digest at my grandparents' house, if I had to guess. For some reason "The rents will pay for the shwench's za" has been in my head since then and it just occurred to me that I could Ask Metafilter if this article was BS or not. Googling "shwench" was not fruitful but I figure maybe someone on Metafilter was >1 year old at the time of the article's writing, and maybe even in college, and could fill me in.

I can't believe I'm using a question on this, but what can I say. The heart wants what it wants. I am praying one of you will be like, "Yeah, my ex-girlfriend totally told William Safire this was a thing to see if he'd publish it, what a gullible doofus."
posted by town of cats to Writing & Language (26 answers total) 9 users marked this as a favorite
I went to a school where "shmen" was in common usage, so I must regretfully say I find "shwench" possible.
posted by roger ackroyd at 11:21 PM on July 22, 2015 [3 favorites]

I don't know about shwench, but "rents" and "za" are authentic, and that makes me suspect that perhaps shwench Is too. Though the phrase that's been lodged in my brain lo these 35 years is "za with shrooms."
posted by islandeady at 12:51 AM on July 23, 2015

I was, in fact, a college freshman in 1985. I have no recollection of "shwench," but "the 'rents" was not uncommon, and the only use of "'za" I can recall was by a local shitty pizza place, notable mainly for the vast quantities of bright orange grease seeping from their cheap and terrible pizzas, which tried to make it a thing, to resounding failure. (This was all in Michigan, if that's relevant.)
posted by skybluepink at 3:08 AM on July 23, 2015

College sophomore in '85, Midwest. Yes to 'rents; no to 'za, at least within my group, although I was aware that some people probably said it; 'shrooms said used in reference to the psychedelic kind, not the kind you eat. Definitive no to swench.
posted by Sweetie Darling at 3:24 AM on July 23, 2015

Best answer: I've found that when I'm looking for information from a specific pre-Internet time period, doing a Google Books search can be more fruitful than a general Google search. In this case, I found this entry in Contemporary American Slang from 1991 and this entry from Slang American Style from 1996. These entries seem to confirm Safire's use of the term -- but of course, they were both published after Safire's column, and it's entirely possible they were using him as a source.

My own personal experience: I was 13 in 1985, so I can't report on college slang. But I do recall a vogue for substituting "sh" for "s" . In particular, "nice" became "nische" and then, bizarrely, "dische," while "sweet" became "shu-weet." At least at amongst the teenage boys I was in school with, both these words were applied most often to girls. I never heard "shwench," but it doesn't sound any more ludicrous than "dische" and "shu-weet."

I should note that these slang terms were often hyper-local. I was aware of "za" but it would have sounded very laid-back and Californian to my east-coast ears. It's entirely possible that nobody outside of my one particular all-boys' school ever said "dische" or "shu-weet." So if "shwench" was a real thing, it could plausibly have been restricted to Dartmouth College, which is where William Safire's informant "Jonathan Pelson" went.

If you're really passionate about this issue -- and who wouldn't be?-- you might try tracking Mr. Pelson down and asking if he was making the whole thing up. I don't think he'd be too hard to find, given that you know his name, his college, and a fairly narrow range of years in which he probably graduated. But that might be crossing over from curiousity into madness.
posted by yankeefog at 3:44 AM on July 23, 2015 [9 favorites]

Began college on the west coast a few years after 1985. Yes to 'rents, yes to 'za and 'shrooms (of both varieties), yes to fro yo, and a big ol' fat no to 'schwench or 'shmen. I think our abbreviation was 'frosh'.
posted by correcaminos at 3:44 AM on July 23, 2015

I graduated from a college in the Midwest in 1985--never heard "schwench".
posted by bookmammal at 4:04 AM on July 23, 2015

What skybluepink said. I was also a freshman in '85 and had never heard this term (this was at a small liberal arts school in Oregon that isn't Reed). Also I didn't hear 'rents till I was on the east coast during the '90s.
posted by computech_apolloniajames at 4:28 AM on July 23, 2015

I was a freshman and then a sophomore in 1984 in the Boston area and never heard the purported word "shwench".
posted by nicwolff at 4:31 AM on July 23, 2015

Class of '86 at Penn State and never heard that word either.
posted by octothorpe at 4:37 AM on July 23, 2015

People actually said "'za"? I always thought that was made up by writers for the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles.

Frankly, I'm still kind of in denial here.
posted by Faint of Butt at 5:39 AM on July 23, 2015 [7 favorites]

Freshman in '87, heard "rents" a lot and "za" occasionally (always used ironically). Never heard "shwench," but "wench" was super popular at the time, so I could see how "frosh-wench" might be shortened to it. Doesn't ring any bells at all, though. High school in PA, college in CT, fwiw.
posted by Mchelly at 5:43 AM on July 23, 2015

And seconding yankeefog about changing "s" to "sh", though I feel like that was around the time of Wayne's World on SNL so maybe a hair later?
posted by Mchelly at 5:45 AM on July 23, 2015

Freshman in '84, grew up in New Jersey went to college in Ohio. 'rents' for sure, 'za' for sure, 'shwench' never.

Freshperchild, yes, shwench no.
posted by plinth at 5:56 AM on July 23, 2015

but "wench" was super popular at the time

Google ngram viewer does show a slight peak in the 60s and another in the mid 80s.

Even the original source indicates the 'shmen usage is specific to Dartmouth, so I don't think anecdotes from anyone who wasn't at Dartmouth in the 80s are useful data.

The 'sh prefix appears to be flexible, and I can believe a Dartmouth 80s-bro would apply it to wench.

The term ‘shmen (or ‘shwomen) seems especially prevalent at Dartmouth College, where its initial sound has come to modify other words to indicate that they relate to freshmen: ‘shmob (freshman mob) and ‘shmenu (freshman “menu” or the Freshman Book/Green Book, a photograhpic directory of new students).

Originally a jab at political correctness, the modification of this slang word to “‘shpeople” and “‘shperson” have also become increasingly popular on campus.
posted by zamboni at 6:13 AM on July 23, 2015 [6 favorites]

> Even the original source indicates the 'shmen usage is specific to Dartmouth, so I don't think anecdotes from anyone who wasn't at Dartmouth in the 80s are useful data.

Just want to reinforce this point. Any answer that isn't of the form "I remember hearing/using that word" or "I know for a fact [cite references here] that it was made up and sent to Safire as a joke" is not actually an answer, and people should refrain from posting any more "I never heard of it!" responses if they possibly can.

Given the proven existence of "shmen" and popularity at the time of "wench," it seems overwhelmingly likely to me that "shwench" also existed.
posted by languagehat at 6:23 AM on July 23, 2015 [13 favorites]

Hmm, I don't think that only Dartmouth is relevant: it could have existed in other places, brought home to the younger siblings of Dartmouth students! But alas, my sibling was not at Dartmouth (rather, was touring with the Grateful Dead) and I never heard "shwench", although I did hear the Wayne's World "shw" a lot.

If you're really passionate about this issue -- and who wouldn't be?-- you might try tracking Mr. Pelson down and asking if he was making the whole thing up.
I hope this is the theme of the next episode of Mystery Show!

posted by latkes at 6:31 AM on July 23, 2015

I didn't say only Dartmouth is relevant, I said only actual information about the word is relevant. "I never heard of it!" is chat, not information.
posted by languagehat at 6:35 AM on July 23, 2015 [6 favorites]

Nitpicky footnote - "rents" for parents has been around since at least the late '60s. I first heard that in the 70's from a guy who went to a NE U.S. boarding school.
posted by gudrun at 7:38 AM on July 23, 2015

I was at Dartmouth in the 80s and we did say 'shmen and I never heard 'shwench. "Co-hog" was the term used to refer to female students by particularly obnoxious male students who still wished Dartmouth hadn't started admitting women roughly a decade earlier. So witty.

"Rack" meant going to bed; "re-rack" meant going back to bed after getting up to go to class, or hand in a paper, or go to work, or boot. "Boot" means throw up. I don't know exactly how hyperlocal those particular terms were.
posted by rtha at 2:08 PM on July 23, 2015 [5 favorites]

East Coaster, started college in 1988. Never heard the word.
posted by Miko at 4:20 PM on July 23, 2015

LA native, went to New England colleges beginning in 1986 . The only "shw" slang I've ever come across was Wayne's World's "schwing".
posted by brujita at 5:51 PM on July 23, 2015

Best answer: It really was a word that was used. I know, because I wrote the letter to Safire.

To be fair, it was the least common of all the slang I sent him -- maybe even "hyper local." But all the terms I sent him were Dartmouth slang in the early '80s. I didn't make it up, and it wasn't a prank or joke. I was a bit surprised that he included "schwench" in his column, and I never sent him words combined into the sentence that he used as his hook ("The rents will pay for the shwench's za".) But I sent all the terms in use at the time, which he explored in that column, including a lot of the other terms that he didn't attribute to my letter, like tool, power tool, and Black and Decker.

All schools have their own local slang, and each fraternity or dorm has its own terms. I remember that people would say "That guy is such a Ted." Who knows who Ted was, but he achieved brief infamy in New Hampshire in the '80s.

For me the big kick is coming across this discussion thread nearly 30 years later.
posted by Slanguage Guy at 1:58 PM on August 19, 2015 [61 favorites]

Welcome aboard Slanguage Guy. Thanks for joining and chiming in with your definitive answer. How did you happen to find out the question got asked?
posted by alms at 1:36 PM on August 22, 2015 [1 favorite]

I saw that a NYT writer has a book out about how Robert Frost's poem "The Road Not Taken" was really about self deception, not bold choices. I wrote a letter to Safire pointing that same thing out, and he used it in a book (Quoth the Maven) he published in 1993. I was wondering if my letter had appeared anywhere else, and my Google search (maybe 'Safire and Pelson'?) led me to this series of posts, coincidentally only a few weeks after it was created.
posted by Slanguage Guy at 10:56 PM on August 27, 2015 [1 favorite]

Wow, that's so great. Thanks for signing up and sharing your story.
posted by alms at 6:38 AM on August 31, 2015

« Older Was the art of film making developed with white...   |   What Seattle restaurants serve 'authentic'... Newer »
This thread is closed to new comments.