On the Edge

Nigella: Edgy

Nigella: Edgy

Even crème fraîche can be described as ‘edgy’ these days – has the term lost all meaning?…

Words have to multi-task. It comes with their territory. One dictionary entry, several, even many definitions; some nuanced others seemingly oppositional though there, perhaps, one may have a homonym. The bulk of slang is a ludic reinterpretation of standard English; its own inventions being far less common. Standard or slang, such developments may be a tribute to our inventiveness, our manipulative creativity; they may alternatively attest to our inability to think up neologisms and a lazy fall-back to what others have conjured up. Six and two threes, as they say. Language remains open to mutability.

So let us turn to such a word: edge. Its roots, the OED explains, take us back to the Old English ęcg which is the equivalent of Old Saxon’s eggia which meant edge, corner or point and brings us eventually a link with modern German ecke or eck, a corner. The OED also notes a supposed Old Aryan root *ak , whence come such cognates as Latin acies, Greek κίς, both meaning point, and in English, the spiked ear of corn.

The word edgy is a derivative. It combines edge and the suffix –y, denoting ‘having the quality of.’ It means nervous, irritable – ‘on edge’ and so defined its first use is recorded in 1937. That use stands. (There had been other,  earlier meanings: sharp, cutting, edged; enthusiastic and, of a painting, overly hard-edged, but let us forget those). The most recent definition emerges, to date, in 1976. Oxford explains it as that which: ‘challenges received ideas or prevailing aesthetic sensibilities; at the forefront of a trend.’ It refers back to cutting edge, which surfaced briefly as a noun in 1851, the submerged till the 20th century. The adjectival form held off, at least in print, until 1975, since when it has been a staple.

These words, ripped from their original meanings and recycled for propaganda’s or promotion’s purposes, keep coming. Elsewhere Jonathan Meades has eviscerated iconic. I have written here of that most weaselly of words, appropriate, and its caviling, censorious sibling, prefaced by in-. A gutless duo, sidestepped by those who fear the declarative honesty of ‘Based on nothing more than personal prejudice I permit/forbid it’. That pair of sibs, doubtless unimpressed by my plaint, remain in vogue. As does the most recent iteration of edgy. It has become, to use a popular combo, the go-to term for those who wish to imply excitement, usually of some form of product. Such excitement seems innately ersatz. It surfaced almost simultaneously with cutting edge, whence it derives its force; the OED’s first cite comes from a piece of artfilm crit dated 1976. Artfilm crit being what it is – here the comparison was between the widely known Andy Warhol and the far less accessible Jonas Mekas – I can see that this ur-edgy had some point. It is possible that it also owes something to the term Edge City, which had already taken root among the hippies, striving to imply some form of the extreme that transcended the then ubiquitous and all-purpose heavy.

Whatever the source, the trend has been to vapidity. Oxford’s most recent cite, dated 1998, is attributed to the currently unfortunate Nigella, she of kitchen deity and alleged spousal abuse, who adjures her readers: ‘Show Euro-cool by dolloping on some good and edgy and far more grown-up crème fraîche instead.’

Were this a talk, and that cite projected via Power Point I should pause and rather than add my comment, simply let you take it in. Please do so.

Let us continue. My own work, I am enormously relieved to say, makes no mention. Edge means a glance or look, also used as a verb, and edgy exists only in the phrase keep edgy, or keep edge, which means to keep a lookout, whether during an actual crime or simply a youthful prank (I have seen it listed as being currently Glaswegian but I have also seen it noted in 1909, with no geographical label); it is the equivalent of prep school’s keep cave, Australia’s keep nit or keep yow and Edinburgh’s (or certainly Irvine Welsh’s) keep shoatie. There may be more.

It is rare that I quote the Urban Dictionary, but I refer you to one Red Sewer Rat, posting there in 2006: ‘As far as I can make out, edgy occurs when middlebrow, middle-aged profiteers are looking to suck the energy — not to mention the spending money — out of the “youth culture.” So they come up with this fake concept of seeming to be dangerous when every move they make is the result of market research and a corporate master plan.’

Politics aside, this seems near the mark, though I’m not sure whether youth comes into it that much. Fakery: absolutely. A matter of PR. The need to sell, the need to sugar-coat that need, and the knowledge that, as Mr Barnum put it so long ago, there is one, very likely more, born every minute. In addition, a paradox: edgy has come in from the cold; thus used it suggests not the outer limit but in terms of chic the very heart. Or so it is hoped.

A quick edge at the Internet and it is suggested that one might like to search from this list: edgy fashion, edgy style, edgy personality, edgy clothes, edgy photography, edgy haircuts (there are also edgy short haircuts), the edgy meme and edgy girls’ names. (I intended to quote a few of these, but list follows list and why keep such plenitude to myself? They are legion; they are here: http://yhoo.it/13O3pEu. My apologies if some of you may find them, as a poster puts it, ‘too out there’.)

A site that offers the word in sample sentences offers ‘Edgy boy dolls, blake and brandon will hit the groovy scene this fall.’ Groovy originally meant conservative, a fact that invariably delights me, but I think perhaps not here. It also mentions the shooting of Iraqi civilians by ‘edgy troops’ but I suspect this harks backwards to earlier use and does not imply some rococo feature of their uniforms or even weaponry. Not wishing to pour further pain on Ms Lawson I checked ‘edgy food’. She cannot be alone and of course she is not. I offer another link: http://bit.ly/18FaFE5. It’s Australian. It may well taste delicious but I don’t envy the chefs who have to assemble it. Zooming in we find edgy cakes and edgy vegetables, and in even tighter focus edgy potatoes though this may be a Mumbai restaurant.

I resist further searches: there is no avoiding it. Edgy centrality. Point, and I speak etymologically, taken.

image ©Gabriel Green
You can buy Green’s Dictionary of Slang, as well as Jonathon’s more slimline Chambers Slang Dictionary, plus other entertaining works, at his Amazon page. Jonathon also blogs and Tweets.
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Jonathon 'Mr Slang' Green is the world's leading lexicographer of English slang. You can buy Green's Dictionary of Slang, as well as Jonathon's more slimline Chambers Slang Dictionary, plus other entertaining works, at his Amazon page. Jonathon also blogs and Tweets.

4 thoughts on “On the Edge

  1. wormstir@gmail.com'
    August 1, 2013 at 12:44

    my word that Nigella quote is cringe-worthy!

    Let us not forget the london chattering-class use of the word ‘edgy’ to describe an up and coming neighbourhood as a liberal, yet hypocritically coded way of saying ‘there’s a lot of foreign people there.’

  2. johngjobling@googlemail.com'
    August 1, 2013 at 14:24

    We might add that the word had entered the armoury of that monument to the trowel, Time Team, “found an edge” said the odd person in sideburns to the even odder one in striped pullover and pet lip whilst the man who used to be Baldrick made a nuisance of himself. I suspect they had just found Stanage Edge.

  3. andrewnixon@blueyonder.co.uk'
    August 1, 2013 at 19:44

    “Don’t push me cos I’m close to the edge,” as Grandmaster Flash put it, and I think we’ve all been there, especially when it comes to craime fraiche.

    • Frank Key
      August 2, 2013 at 06:49

      For some of us, the phrase “close to the edge”, in musical context, summons not Grandmaster Flash but uber-prog rockers Yes. Rick Wakeman in his cape playing several keyboards simultaneously, while Jon Andesron caterwauls in his high-pitched voice about god knows what. Was prog ever “edgy”? Perhaps this question needs to be worried away at.

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