By late 1992, grunge had become more than a zeitgeist-shifting musical phenomenon, as Seattle’s distinctive fashion sensibilities spread nationwide. A curious editor at The New York Times decided to get out in front of the trend by assigning a reporter to learn more.
That’s when things entered a harsh realm.
Rick Marin called Sub Pop Records, a Seattle-based label that had signed central figures in the burgeoning grunge movement like Nirvana, Mudhoney and Soundgarden. He was specifically curious if the trend included any hip new slang – and Megan Jasper, the “totally overcaffeinated” 25-year-old employee who answered the phone, was happy to oblige.
“I was like, ‘Really?'” Jasper remembered years later. “I thought, ‘Sure, but there really wasn’t a secret language. It seemed like a rather bizarre request.”
So, she simply made one up – beginning with “harsh realm,” which Jasper confidentially described as anything that bummed out grunge fans. “Wack slacks” meant torn jeans. “Score!” had become synonymous with “awesome.”
“I tried to say things that were kind of believable,” Jasper later admitted in a radio interview. “I figured I wouldn’t go too hard, as far as the nonsense goes – but at some point, he was believing me so much that I started to feel bad and I thought, ‘I’m just going to get a little bit more outrageous.'”
She said people who were hanging out were “swingin’ on the flippity-flop.” “Bound and hagged” were those who decided to stay home rather than go to a show. “Big bag of bloatation” described people who got drunk. “Cob nobblers” were losers. “Lamestains” were worse.
“I felt it got pretty silly,” Jasper added. “I thought it was going to end with him going, ‘Oh, come on!’ – and that never happened.”
To some degree, this was part of the plan. Sub Pop co-founder Jonathan Poneman had specifically directed the reporter to Jasper, recognizing her impish sense of humor. (She had, after all, once been in an all-woman band called Dickless.) “I’m having a day where I’m not quick on my feet,” Jasper remembers Poneman saying. “I knew you’d have fun with this.”
What nobody expected: Marin dutifully wrote it all down, and the Times published the story on Nov. 15, 1992. “All subcultures speak in code; grunge is no exception,” he earnestly reported, framing it all as “this lexicon of grunge speak, coming soon to a high school or mall near you.”
Jasper found a copy at a local 7-Eleven, after getting a breathless call from her mother back in Worcester, Mass. “It was truly unbelievable,” Jasper told The Ringer in 2017. “Everyone in my family is a schoolteacher. For me to be in The New York Times because I fucking lied? You wouldn’t think that they’d feel proud – but they were psyched. My family was so happy. They thought it was hilarious.”
This dictionary of grunge was eventually revealed to be a hoax. A Chicago-based newspaper was credited with first uncovering the ruse in early 1993: “We at The Baffler don’t really care about the legitimacy of this or that fad,” they memorably argued, “but when the Newspaper of Record goes searching for the Next Big Thing and the Next Big Thing piddles on its leg, we think that’s funny.”
Then some of Jasper’s made-up words became real. “Score” and “lamestain” were absorbed into the common language. Mudhoney sprinkled some of this slang into a conversation with Melody Maker. A Seattle indie label called C/Z Records printed up “Lexicon of Grunge” T-shirts. Fox began airing a paranormal-themed drama titled Harsh Realm.
Jasper initially reconfirmed the fake language to Marin’s editor, Penelope Green, but mostly because she “would feel pretty shitty if someone lost their job over a stupid prank.” Green then confirmed the deception through The Baffler and wrote a correction.
Decades later, however, “Grunge: A Success Story” remained on The New York Times website – with no attached correction. Nobody lost their job.
Marin continued with the Times until leaving in the early ’00s to complete a memoir called Cad: Confessions of a Toxic Bachelor. More recently, he’s written for Law and Order: Organized Crime, Commentary magazine and other publications. Jasper didn’t turn out to be a cob nobbler either. She worked her way to the very top, becoming the chief executive at Sub Pop.
Even Marin’s former editor eventually put the whole thing in perspective. “We were trying to have a bit fun at The New York Times, which is always a particularly awkward thing to do,” Green told The Ringer. Ultimately, however, she concluded: “It was just fucking funny.”
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