Chewing on ‘corny’

Jessica Doojphibulpol/Staff

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Slang: sometimes its use in publication is lit, but other times it gets wack, and, shall we say, corny? Maybe we should not. After all, corny is one of those colloquialisms that when used typically is up for debate. The word’s negative connotation tends to cause people to get defensive if their taste is labeled corny.

Like any good copy editor, upon wondering about the word, I flipped open my Oxford English Dictionary and found the corny definition: “Trite, banal, or mawkishly sentimental — ‘It sounds corny, but as soon as I saw her I knew she was the one.’ ”

The OED is hardly the people’s dictionary, as it defines “corny” with less common words, so we might have to look those up, too. But I like the sentence it uses because it sounds like a movie cliche, and even the speaker seems conscious that they sound like a lovestruck fool.

Not satisfied with the definition, I looked up the etymology. Most believe the first use of “corny” comes from 1930s references to jazz, used to describe something “banal, or mawkishly sentimental” (as opposed to something tasting like corn). The musical genre thrived off finding new ways to string melodies and rhythms together, so paying the same old overly emotive melodies everyone had heard before was considered corny. In its first usage, the word also casts country folks as traditionalists, who presumably were trying to play jazz but were ignorant to anything but old-fashioned tunes. “Corny” has also been used in a derogatory way to describe people who live in rural areas.

One theory also goes that seed catalogues around the turn of the 20th century had simple, predictable jokes printed on them. Thus, “corny” became attached to a style of comedy. My research is incomplete, but I believe both of these explanations. Farmers could have repeated those jokes and coined the word. How this colloquialism turned up in jazz clubs is another story, but the tie-in between comedy and music best epitomizes the term “corny.” To see what I mean, look up the Looney Tunes cartoon “A Corny Concerto” from 1943.

Still, how is “corny” different from “cheesy?” Or any of the various synonyms we might think of? Corny represents a simplistic style, one that lacks subtlety and flaunts emotion. The style uses cliches up the wazoo, and it is commonplace, but corny is the overall aesthetic that describes music, jokes, a single remark or even someone’s entire personality. The lover in OED’s example doesn’t use just any cliche; they reference an endless archive of love-at-first-sight moments, each resembling the next, like the kernels of corn on the cob.

The copy desk is where we scrutinize the news to ensure the most clear and accurate word use. Colloquial terms are challenging because the rules for their use are being written in real time. It’s on us to ensure the slang of our generation stands out in a cornfield.

Contact Keaton Peters at [email protected]