If you haven’t heard by now, the American press recently picked up on an interesting linguistic phenomenon in Norway, where the word “Texas” is slang for “crazy.”
Indeed, it turns out that for several years Norwegians have used the word to describe a situation that is chaotic, out of control or excitingly unpredictable (The crowd at the concert last night was totally Texas!).
While this may seem like a bit of a stretch to many American English speakers, when examined through the lens of linguistics it’s actually a pretty natural extension of the word Texas.
How new meanings emerge
It’s fairly common for a word’s meaning to shift over time. Speakers will often use a word in a new way that applies to just one aspect of the term’s earlier connotations, and emphasizing this single aspect will eventually narrow the word’s meaning, depending on its context.
In fact, “crazy” itself is currently undergoing multiple meaning changes. More broadly, it was traditionally used to convey insane or aberrant thinking.
However, English speakers have since split apart these aspects, emphasizing just one to create a new meaning:
crazy = fast-paced, frantic (I’ve been crazy busy this week.)
crazy = bizarre, odd (Mustard on your taco? That’s crazy!)
crazy = dangerous, lethal (What’s your plan for when a crazy gunman breaks into your school?)
This last usage, in particular, has annoyed mental health activists. (Even though people with mental illness aren’t usually dangerous, expressions like “psycho killer” and “crazed gunman” often appear together.)
It’s the first meaning of crazy, however, that Norwegians are invoking when referring to situations that are “totally Texas”: the kind of crazy that is wild, frantic or chaotic.
You used to call me on my…handy?
The story of Norwegians using Texas also demonstrates that words don’t simply get refashioned within the same language; rather, words can be borrowed from one and applied to another, which often results in a changed meaning in the new setting. This, too, has a long history that can be seen as words cross geographic and cultural boundaries.
Beyond Texas, other English words have changed meaning when borrowed by other languages. For example, the Japanese now use the word feminisuto, adapted from feminist. In Japanese it means a chivalrous man, one who “does things like being polite to women.”
Another shift shows up in the word handy, which Germans borrowed from the English language. There, it refers to a cellphone.
Words can also change meaning when absorbed into English. For instance, poncho has become narrower in meaning. Borrowed from South American Spanish, it originally meant “woolen fabric”; now it describes a particular piece of clothing, often a plastic one used in the rain. And tycoon had shifted, too. It’s borrowed from Chinese (via Japanese) and originally meant “high official” or “great nobleman.” Today it’s primarily used to describe a businessman who’s made lots of money.
Dreams of the American West
The borrowing of words isn’t a modern phenomenon. According to Diane Nicholls of MacMillan English Dictionaries, it’ll often take place when “different language communities come into contact with each other.”
And settlers did come from Norway to Texas. The town of Clifton, Texas, where a third of the population is of Norwegian descent, has been dubbed the Norwegian Capital of Texas. (However, this New World outpost of Norway uses a different, older dialect of Norwegian, so Texans from Clifton are unfamiliar with this new bit of slang.)
It turns out that communities can come into contact in ways that are not actually physical. In the case of Norwegians’ use of Texas, the borrowing may not originate from physical contact, but through cultural aspiration. In fact, throughout much of Europe the image of the American Wild West appeals to a set of beliefs (perhaps stereotypical or false) about the apparent freedom and lawlessness in the West during the 19th century.
These enthusiastic ideas about American frontier life can be seen in places like Sweden’s Wild West theme parks. And Germany has been fascinated with cowboys and the American frontier from as early as the the 1890s, when Buffalo Bill Cody toured Germany. Twentieth-century movies, novels and TV shows continue to promote myths of the Wild West, while prominently featuring Texas.
Ultimately, the Norwegian use of Texas makes sense because it follows some recognized linguistic principles: it indicates the narrowing of meaning over time, it reflects a change in meaning when applied to a new cultural context, and it represents a glamorized (if stereotypical) view of another culture.
So why did Norwegians settle on the term Texas to describe something fast-paced and frantic?
Given the portrayal of Texas in 19th- and 20th-century popular culture, they’d be crazy not to.