By Curtis Honeycutt
In November 1992, the Seattle grunge music scene was exploding in its popularity. While the angsty grunge fans were rocking in their flannel shirts, Nirvana frontman Kurt Cobain was penning hits including “Smells Like Teen Spirit,” “Come As You Are,” and “Lithium.”
If those songs don’t sound familiar, that’s OK. What’s notable is what happened next.
While fans were riding the grunge wave, a reporter at “The New York Times” wanted to inform readers about the growing subculture. A freelance reporter named Rick Marin phoned Megan James, who, at the time was a sales representative for Seattle record label Caroline Records.
James, who had recently been laid off from legendary grunge label Sub Pop Records as its receptionist, decided to have a little fun at the Times’ expense. Marin phoned to ask about any slang terms used in the grunge subculture. James was more than happy to rattle off some fake terms, which became known as “grunge speak.”
When Marin inquired about grunge terminology, James enlightened him with these made-up phrases, which soon after appeared in the pages of the Times: “wack slacks” (old ripped jeans, “cob nobbler” (loser), “fuzz” (heavy wool sweaters), “bound-and-hagged” (staying home on Friday or Saturday night) and even “swingin’ on the flippity-flop” (hanging out). These terms and ten others appeared as grunge gospel in Marin’s November 15 article, “Grunge: A Success Story.”
This wasn’t the first or last time fake news showed up in a well-respected newspaper. The fact that Marin swallowed James’ made-up terms hook line and sinker surprised even James herself.
Once the article was published in the Times, Megan James became a folk grunge legend. The grunge speak terms were copied and blown up onto t-shirts. The lexicon itself got baked into the grunge culture, first as a joke in many songs of the genre’s “don’t take yourself too seriously” mindset.
However, some of the terms survived into bonafide grunge speak. “Score” still means “great,” a hunky dude is still known as a “dish,” and “rock on” still serves as a “happy goodbye.”
Whatever happened to Megan James? Sub Pop Records, the label that propelled Nirvana to fame, re-hired her; she currently serves as its CEO. Rock on, indeed.