What Does Webster Say About Metal?
Last week, the Merriam-Webster website added the word metal to their “words we’re watching” list, where they keep track of words that could potentially be added to the dictionary. Of course, metal is already in the dictionary as a noun, but the word is now under consideration as an adjective. As in: “this burrito is metal.”
In their post, Merriam-Webster said that using metal as an adjective “evokes the powerful energy and dark themes of heavy metal music, communicating toughness, intensity, and general badassery.” To back this up, they cite examples of the word describing a lightsaber fight, the Book of Revelations, and a hawk eating a squirrel.
If you’ve spent time around metalheads, you’ve undoubtedly heard the word “metal” used this way. You may have used it this way yourself. Among those in the know, describing something as being metal is a quick way to say, “hey, you know that thing that we’re both intimately familiar with? This other thing reminds me of that, and I enjoy it in the same way.” However, metal (the adjective) showing up on Webster’s radar means that its usage has spread outside of the metal community and reached a critical mass with the public.
This has little to no effect on heavy metal music, but it does present an opportunity to see what associations people have with the genre.
Important to note: Merriam-Webster are concerned with metal’s use as a non-musical adjective. This is a minor distinction, but not an insignificant one. Saying “this song is metal” means that the song is similar to heavy metal music. “This burrito is metal” means that somehow a delicious, wrapped collection of cooked meats, cheese, and rice has temporarily embodied the spirit of heavy metal. The former carries at least some objectivity: even though genre lines are porous around the edges, when describing a piece of music as sounding “metal,” there are always concrete examples in the music itself that you can point to as evidence. Our metal burrito, on the other hand, has no such example to speak of.
Using metal as a non-musical adjective has more to do with what metal feels like and what it represents to people than what it really is.
Metal is far from the only genre tag to be used in non-musical conversation. A “rock ‘n roll lifestyle” could refer to the debauched hedonism of rock musicians, but could also be applied to the behaviour of athletes, actors, and celebrities of any stripe. Describing something as punk signifies that it has a “no fucks given” ethos or is otherwise subversive of the status quo. If you were to call someone “emo,” not only would you be in for a whole lot of bad news after waking up from a ten-year coma, but you’d also be saying that they were whiny, oversharing, and probably a bit self-centered.
In all three cases, the utility of the adjective comes from flexibility. Punk is particularly illuminating in this regard: what you consider to be punk largely depends on what you consider to be the status quo. This is why both fanny pack-wearing lo-fi musicians and morons like Paul Joseph Watson can claim to be punk despite having nothing in common with each other. Both see themselves as operating in opposition to authority, they just happen to be see that authority in different places.
The same is true with metal. If metal the adjective is synonymous with “toughness, intensity, and badassery” as Webster-Merriam claims, then its meaning will depend on what you find tough, intense, or badass. Unsurprisingly, this opens up a field of meanings as diverse as the genre itself. Is a man wearing a gimp suit playing the turntables metal to you? Maybe if you grew up on nü-metal. How about a dude on a motorcycle fighting off ninjas, also on motorcycles? Fuck yeah. A horde of zombies? Sure! Goat-human hybrids having sex during a satanic ritual? A bit much, but ok.
Who knows? Maybe someone raised on Deafheaven, Alcest, and Asira will look at a gorgeous sunset over a peaceful meadow, turn to their friends and say: “this is metal as fuck.”
This malleability is likely going to keep metal from being accepted into the dictionary. Of what use is an adjective that can be applied to so many different situations without a universal meaning? If Webster-Merriam are serious about this, they’ll have to hunker down and decide what metal truly means.
To which I say, get in line buddy.