Slang Today and Yesterday

Peculiarities of slang development and functioning in the historical prospective. Specific features of slang use, identify slang origin. Specify chat slang categories. Studies on the use of different types of jargon in the speech of the youth of today.

Рубрика Иностранные языки и языкознание
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Diploma Paper “Slang Today and Yesterday”


Language constantly evolves and the meanings of words in it change. Slang refers to words or phrases that begin to be used in a widespread way. This way, our language renews itself and changes with the times. Slang words show the attitudes of the group or sub-culture that uses them. Slang can appear as a brand new word, a new meaning for an existing word, an abbreviation for a word, or a word that becomes more generalized than its former, narrow meaning.

Slang is a kind of language consisting of very informal words and phrases. Slang is more common in speech than in writing. Slang words are often used in a particular context or by a particular group of people.

Slang is a type of language consisting of words and phrases that:

- are considered to be very informal

- are more common in speech than in writing

- are typically restricted to a particular group of people or context

Slang may be all things to all people. According to the American poet Carl Sandburg (1878-1967), slang is "language which takes off its coat, spits on its hands - and goes to work."Parshall, Gerald. U.S. News & World Report, 06/27/94, v116:n25. p61 The Concise Oxford Dictionary is more prosaic: "words, phrases, and uses that are regarded as very informal and are often restricted to special contexts or are peculiar to a specified profession, class, etc (racing slang; schoolboy slang)."Spears, Richard A., ed. NTC's Dictionary of American Slang and Colloquial Expressions. 3d ed. Chicago: NTC Publishing Group, 2000. Accessible and up-to-date, p. 587

The problem for learners of English is to know when or when not to use slang. Many people condemn slang, but in fact we all use it. The trick is to use slang in the right context. For the learner, perhaps the first thing to remember is that slang is normally spoken, not written. The second thing is that you may wish to learn slang so that you can understand it when you hear it, but not necessarily to use it.

With the view at the above-said, the topic of our investigation was chosen to be “Slang Today and Yesterday”.

The topicality of our investigation is predetermined by the wide popularity of slang in modern language.

The object of the investigation is slang language.

The subject of our investigation is peculiarities of slang development and functioning in the historical prospective.

The aim of our investigation is to determine specific features of slang functioning in previous years and in our today life.

To gain the aim of our investigation we have specified the following tasks of our investigation: slang origin jargon

- determine the origins of the word "Slang" ;

- specify the nature of slang;

- investigate slang definition;

- analyze the history of slang;

- determine specific features of slang use;

- identify slang origin;

- studykinds of slang;

- analyze modern slang formation;

- specify chat slang categories;

- investigate youth slang.

Paper structure. The paper consists of the introduction, theoretical and practical parts, conclusions, and bibliography.

Theoretical part

The Origins of the Word "Slang"

The word “slang” is defined by Webster's Third New International Dictionary (1961) Thorne, T. Dictionary of Contemporary Slang, (3rd edition), London: A & C Black. - 2007, p. 482 as a language belonging to some group, such as the code-language used between thieves or the jargon used within a particular profession.

It is also defined as a vocabulary composed mostly of very informal, colloquial words that are often coined words, shortened words, or words given arbitrary meanings. Such words are, therefore, generally outside the bounds of the standard language, and usually experience a brief stint of popularity and a rapid death, or a gradual inclusion into the standard vocabulary of the language.

The Random House Dictionary of the English Language (1966), meanwhile, gives a definition that, while much shorter, may be more illustrative of the nature of the word “slang”: “A very informal usage in vocabulary and idiom that is characteristically more metaphorical, playful, elliptical, vivid, or ephemeral than ordinary language.”

The actual origin of the word “slang” is unknown. The Oxford English Dictionary (1991) suggests it has possible connections to the Norwegian word sleng, due to a certain similarity in meaning, but largely rejects the idea due to the dates and early uses associated with the two words. The OED's earliest date for the use of the word “slang” is 1756. An entry for the word appeared in the Encyclopedia Brittanica in 1801. In 1872, the word appears in a quote by George Eliot, which is perhaps most effective due to the seeming contradiction between the definition of “slang” and Eliot's use of it: “Correct English is the slang of prigs who write history and essays. And the strongest slang of all is the slang of poets.”Mattiello, E. An Introduction to English Slang: A description of its Morphology, Semantics and Sociology, Monza: Polimetrica. - 2008, p. 205“Slang” appears again in 1848, in Vanity Fair by William Thackeray; in 1937, A Dictionary of Slang and Unconventional English appeared.

One of the most interesting things about the word is that “slang” itself has at least two slang meanings. One, from A Dictionary of American Slang (1960), is that of “a watch chain,” hailing from 1916. A “white slang” was a silver watch chain, while a “red slang” was a gold one. This usage may have come from the rhyming pattern “watch and chain/clock and slang,” and may also have passed at least somewhat into today's standard English; at least, this definition is found in the Oxford English Dictionary.

The British also have a slang use of the word “slang” that is different from the American “watch-chain” meaning. Norman Schur's British English A to Zed (2000), a collection of British slang and colloquialisms, gives a definition of “slang” as a verb meaning to use slang or abusive language, and as a noun in the form “slanging match,” meaning an argument “in which everybody washes everybody else's dirty linen but nobody's gets clean.” Partridge, Eric. Slang Today and Yesterday, with a Short Historical Sketch and Vocabularies of English, American, and Australian Slang. New York: Barnes and Noble, 1970. Dated, but thorough, p. 88 This is a sort of exchange of abuse between verbal combatants.

Overall, while the origin of the word “slang” is unknown, its definition does not apply to the word itself except in special cases. It appears to be a standard part of our vocabulary, since it has not only entire dictionary entries but entire dictionaries devoted to examples of its meaning.

The nature of slang

Slang is more or less common in nearly all ranks of society and in every walk of life at the present day. Slang words and expressions have crept into our everyday language, and so insiduously, that they have not been detected by the great majority of speakers, and so have become part and parcel of their vocabulary on an equal footing with the legitimate words of speech. They are called upon to do similar service as the ordinary words used in everyday conversation--to express thoughts and desires and convey meaning from one to another. In fact, in some cases, slang has become so useful that it has far outstripped classic speech and made for itself such a position in the vernacular that it would be very hard in some cases to get along without it. Slang words have usurped the place of regular words of language in very many instances and reign supreme in their own strength and influence.

Cant and slang are often confused in the popular mind, yet they are not synonymous, though very closely allied, and proceeding from a common Gypsy origin. Cant is the language of a certain class--the peculiar phraseology or dialect of a certain craft, trade or profession, and is not readily understood save by the initiated of such craft, trade or profession. It may be correct, according to the rules of grammar, but it is not universal; it is confined to certain parts and localities and is only intelligible to those for whom it is intended. In short, it is an esoteric language which only the initiated can understand. The jargon, or patter, of thieves is cant and it is only understood by thieves who have been let into its significance; the initiated language of professional gamblers is cant, and is only intelligible to gamblers.

On the other hand, slang, as it is nowadays, belongs to no particular class but is scattered all over and gets entre into every kind of society and is understood by all where it passes current in everyday expression. Of course, the nature of the slang, to a great extent, depends upon the locality, as it chiefly is concerned with colloquialisms or words and phrases common to a particular section. For instance, the slang of London is slightly different from that of New York, and some words in the one city may be unintelligible in the other, though well understood in that in which they are current. Nevertheless, slang may be said to be universally understood. "To kick the bucket," "to cross the Jordan," "to hop the twig" are just as expressive of the departing from life in the backwoods of America or the wilds of Australia as they are in London or Dublin Eckert, P. Jocks and Burnouts: Social Categories and Identity in High School. New York: Teachers College Press - 1989, p. 66-67.

Slang simply consists of words and phrases which pass current but are not refined, nor elegant enough, to be admitted into polite speech or literature whenever they are recognized as such. But, as has been said, a great many use slang without their knowing it as slang and incorporate it into their everyday speech and conversation.

Some authors purposely use slang to give emphasis and spice in familiar and humorous writing, but they should not be imitated by the tyro. A master, such as Dickens, is forgivable, but in the novice it is unpardonable.

Slang definition

As discussed in Microsoft Encarta 97 Encyclopedia, slang can be described as informal, nonstandard words or phrases (lexical innovations) which tend to originate in subcultures within a society. Slang often suggests that the person utilizing the words or phrases is familiar with the hearer's group or subgroup--it can be considered a distinguishing factor of in-group identity. Microsoft Encarta states: "slang expressions often embody attitudes and values of group members." In order for an expression to become slang, it must be widely accepted and adopted by members of the subculture or group. Slang has no societal boundaries or limitations as it can exist in all cultures and classes of society as well as in all languages.

Slang expressions are created in basically the same way as standard speech. As stated in Microsoft Encarta, "expressions may take form as metaphors, similes, and other figures of speech." In addition, it is noted that the words used as slang may be new coinages, existing words may acquire new meanings, narrow meanings of words may become generalized, words may be abbreviated, etc. However, in order for the expression to survive, it must be widely adopted by the group who uses it. Slang is a way in which languages change and are renewed.

Britannica Concise Encyclopedia characterizes slang in the following way. Nonstandard vocabulary of extreme informality, usually not limited to any region. It includes newly coined words, shortened forms, and standard words used playfully out of their usual context. Slang is drawn from the vocabularies of limited groups: cant, the words or expressions coined or adopted by an age, ethnic, occupational, or other group (e.g., college students, jazz musicians); jargon, the shoptalk or technical terminology specific to an occupation; and argot, the cant and jargon used as a secret language by thieves or other criminals. Occupying a middle ground between standard and informal words accepted by the general public and the special words or expressions of these subgroups, slang often serves as a testing ground for words in the latter category. Many prove either useful enough to become accepted as standard or informal words or too faddish for standard use. Blizzard and okay have become standard, while conbobberation (disturbance) and tomato (girl) have been discarded. Some words and expressions have a lasting place in slang; for instance, beat it (go away), first used in the 16th century, has neither become standard English nor vanished.Dalzell, T. and Victor, T. The New Partridge Dictionary of Slang and Unconventional English, London: Routledge. - 2006, p. 307

Gale Encyclopedia of US History says the following as to slang definition. Slang, the carbonation that often puts fizz into everyday language, usually does not last. "Twenty-three skiddoo" of the 1920s, "Daddy-O" of the 1950s, and "far out" of the 1960s are gone, but other slang terms such as "cool" continue to live. Some even lose the label "slang" in the new dictionaries, as did "peter out" (from miners' argot) and "jazz" (originally a slang expression for "sexual intercourse" in juke joints in the South). The shelf life of slang may depend on the environment that produces it. Connie Eble found that four words had endured in college slang at the University of North Carolina from 1972 to 1989: "bad" (good); "bummer" (an unpleasant experience); "slide" (an easy course); and "wheels" (car). Coleman, J. The Life of Slang, Oxford: Oxford University Press. 2012, p. 26

Slang should be distinguished from dialect, speech peculiar to a region. "I got screwed by that used car salesman," is slang. "I reckon so," is Southern dialect. The essence of slang, according to the iconoclast H. L. Mencken, in his classic The American Language (1918), is its "outsiderness." Mencken, H. L. The American Language: An Inquiry into the Development of English in the United States. One-volume abridged edition. Edited by Raven I. McDavid. New York: Knopf, 1963., p. 98 Slang works to prove that the speaker is "hip" or "with it" or "in the know." Can you dig it? Along with being "outside" comes the quality of being "disreputable." After all, an "outsider" has to be outside of something and that something is (in 1960s slang) the Establishment.

Outsiders whose slang has found acceptance by the Establishment include circus folk (guys, geeks), hoboes (handout), criminals (cop, the third degree), actors (makeup, star), aviators (to bail out, tail spin), and deep-sea sailors (aboveboard, shipshape, to keel over). Eric Partridge, whose Slang Today and Yesterday (1970) remains a valuable (if stylistically dated) study, refers to this process of acceptance as "ennobling." Partridge, Eric. Slang Today and Yesterday, with a Short Historical Sketch and Vocabularies of English, American, and Australian Slang. New York: Barnes and Noble, 1970., p. 104-106

Such language is usually referred to as argot while used within the group itself. Picked up by others, these terms become slang. As noted in Webster's Third New International Dictionary of the English Language, Unabridged, "There is no completely satisfactory objective test for slang, especially in application to a word out of context. No word is invariably slang, and many standard words can be given slang connotations or used so inappropriately as to become slang." The word "screw," for example, which in a hardware store has a specific standard English denotation, was often used as vulgar term for sexual intercourse, but during the late twentieth century it came into widespread use meaning "to take advantage of; cheat" according to The American Heritage College Dictionary (1997)--which, however, still labels it as slang.

While some slang is borrowed from a group, it is often created by shortening a word, as "mike" for "microphone." This kind of slang becomes more surprising when the stressed instead of the unstressed syllable is dropped: "ig" for ignore, "za" for pizza. This form seems startlingly modern until we recall wig (now standard English), a shortening of "periwig."

Sources of slang at the turn of the twenty-first century have included advertising, cyberspace, and media. "Where's the beef?" evolved from a hamburger slogan to a political slogan. Online conversations have elicited their own shorthand: TTYTT (to tell you the truth), IRL (in real life) and BTW (by the way). This extreme form of shortening is seen in college acronyms: TAN for an aggressive male (tough as nails); MLA for passionate kissing (major lip action). Movies often make a slang expression popular (as with "bodacious ta-tas" for large female breasts, from An Officer and a Gentleman), but like bell-bottom trousers, these fads quickly passed.

Many scholars see slang, because it is powerfully metaphoric, as "the poetry of everyday language" or "the plain man's poetry." Others, especially those of Victorian vintage, were much more negative. George H. McKnight (1923) finds it "akin to profanity." There is a certain in-your-face quality about slang, since it often, as Mencken notes, "embodies a kind of social criticism." As the late twentieth century American public grew more comfortable with satire and sexual innuendo, slang became more acceptable, though The Random House Dictionary of the English Language (1987) comments, "Because slang expressions are characterized by a sort of general irreverence, raciness, or figurative zest, their use is often avoided in the presence of social or hierarchical superiors."

NTC's Dictionary of American Slang and Colloquial Expressions (2000) is an accessible and up-to-date resource for tracking down the meaning of contemporary slang terms, but many can be found in standard dictionaries. Currentness is the key. For example, the 1986 edition of Webster's Third International Dictionary provides only the standard English meaning for "geek": a circus performer who performs bizarre acts such as biting off the heads of chickens. The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language (2000) includes the new slang association with technology (as in computer geek)Spears, Richard A., ed. NTC's Dictionary of American Slang and Colloquial Expressions.3d ed. Chicago: NTC Publishing Group, 2000. - p. 307.

In addition to general dictionaries of slang, there are specialized ones for cowboy slang, sexual slang, British and American slang, even Vietnam War slang. The Dictionary of Sexual Slang claims that "no other language can rival the variety, color, or sheer number of sexual terms to be found in English."

History of Slang

It should be noted, slang, vernacular vocabulary not generally acceptable in formal usage. It is notable for its liveliness, humor, emphasis, brevity, novelty, and exaggeration. Most slang is faddish and ephemeral, but some words are retained for long periods and eventually become part of the standard language (e.g., phony, blizzard, movie). On the scale used to indicate a word's status in the language, slang ranks third behind standard and colloquial (or informal) and before cant. Slang often conveys an acerbic, even offensive, no-nonsense attitude and lends itself to poking fun at pretentiousness. Frequently grotesque and fantastic, it is usually spoken with intent to produce a startling or original effect. It is especially well developed in the speaking vocabularies of cultured, sophisticated, linguistically rich languages. Characteristically individual, slang often incorporates elements of the jargons of special-interest groups (e.g., professional, sport, regional, criminal, and drug subcultures). Slang words often come from foreign languages or are of a regional nature. Slang is very old, and the reasons for its development have been much investigated. The following is a small sample of American slang descriptive of a broad range of subjects: of madness-loony, nuts, psycho; of crime-heist, gat, hit, heat, grifter; of women-babe, chick, squeeze, skirt; of men-dude, hombre, hunk; of drunkenness-sloshed, plastered, stewed, looped, trashed, smashed; of drugs-horse, high, stoned, tripping; of caressing-neck, fool around, make out; of states of mind-uptight, wired, mellow, laid back; the verb to go-scram, split, scoot, tip; miscellaneous phrases-you push his buttons, get it together, chill, she does her number, he does his thing, what's her story, I'm not into that.Dumas, B.K., and Lighter, J. Is Slang a word for linguists? American Speech 53: 5-17.- 1978

Slang was the main reason for the development of prescriptive language in an attempt to slow down the rate of change in both spoken and written language. Latin and French were the only two languages that maintained the use of prescriptive language in the 14th century. It was not until the early 15th century that scholars began pushing for a standard English language.

During the Middle Ages, certain writers such as Chaucer, William Caxton, and William of Malmesbury represented the regional differences in pronunciations and dialects. The different dialects and the different pronunciations represented the first meaning for the term “slang.”

However, our present-day meaning for slang did not begin forming until the 16th or 17th century. The English Criminal Cant developed in the 16th century. The English Criminal Cant was a new kind of speech used by criminals and cheats, meaning it developed mostly in saloons and gambling houses. The English Criminal Cant was at first believed to be foreign, meaning scholars thought that it had either originated in Romania or had a relationship to French. The English Criminal Cant was slow developing. In fact, out of the four million people who spoke English, only about ten thousand spoke the English Criminal Cant. By the end of the 16th century this new style of speaking was considered to be a language “without reason or order” Thorne, T. Dictionary of Contemporary Slang, (3rd edition), London: A & C Black. - 2007. P. 49. During the 18th century schoolmasters taught pupils to believe that the English Criminal Cant (which by this time had developed into slang) was not the correct usage of English and slang was considered to be taboo.

However, slang was beginning to be presented in popular plays. The first appearance of the slang was in a play by Richard Brome's and later appeared in poems and songs by Copland. By the 1700's the cultural differences in America had begun to influence the English-speaking population, and slang began to expand.

Almost all of the slang words during this time were anatomical and well known all through Britain and in America due to the British colonists. Furthermore, certain events happened in the 18th century that helped the development of slang such as, Westward expansion, the Civil War, and the abolitionist movement . By this time scholars such as Walt Whitman, W. D. Whitney, and Brander Matthews all considered slang to be anything that sounded new, and that was not in the “glossaries of British dialects”Mattiello, E. An Introduction to English Slang: A description of its Morphology, Semantics and Sociology, Monza: Polimetrica. - 2008, p. 34. Walt Whitman consider slang to be the life of the language. Whitman wrote “that slang was a wholesome.....of common humanity to escape the form bald literalism, and express itself illimitably” Thorne, Tony. The Dictionary of Contemporary Slang. New York: Pantheon Books, 1990., p. 661.

This was a turning point for slang it was starting to escape the harsh criticism of being associated with criminals or foreigners. It was not until the early 1920's that slang had gained the interest of popular writers. It was during the post-World War I era that society gained new attitudes about slang. There was now a demand for entertainment, mass media, and slangy fiction.

Today modern American slang has been shaped and reshaped by the different cultures and the emergence of technology, which has left our society with varieties of slang from extremes like Street/Drug Slang to African-American Slang.

Specific features of slang use

There are many reasons people use slang words and expressions. It can be used just for fun or as a way to be witty or clever. You can use it to be different or startling. Even if you don't know it, slang enriches the language. Many use it as a way to be friendly, or to show that they belong to a certain group or profession. Some engage in slang usage to be secretive, like those in secret societies, children, students, or prisoners.

Slang is a way of using descriptive or figurative language. It sometimes is irreverent and humorous. Slang expressions describe activities or objects. There is a high number of slang terms associated with the activity or object if it is prevalent. In 1901, G. K. Chesterton wrote “All slang is metaphor, and all metaphor is poetry,Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1995” in Defence of Slang.

Most people use slang because they are individuals who desire uniqueness, it stands to reason that slang has been in existence for as long as language has been in existence. Even so, the question of why slang develops within a language has been hotly debated. Most agree that the question is still unanswered, or perhaps it has many answers. Regardless, there is no doubt that we can better explain slang's existence by analyzing how and why it exists.

Foreign words are a common resource for the development of slang, as are regional variations of standard words. David Crystal, author of The Cambridge Encyclopedia of the English Language, calls the introduction of foreign words into a language "borrowings." Likewise, slang may incorporate "elements of the jargons of special-interest groups (e.g., professional, sport, regional, criminal, and drug subcultures)." The Historical Dictionary of American Slang says that "Slang is lexical innovation within a particular cultural context." Sometimes these foreign words and regional variations become part of the standard language.

The Historical Dictionary of American Slang points out that many groups "use slang largely because they lack political power." It is simply a safe and effective way that people rebel against the establishment. Often, however, it appears that slang is ever present and exists even in complacent times. It is created by individuals and perpetuated based upon its usefulness and applicability.

The Columbia Encyclopedia notes that slang is often "well developed in the speaking vocabularies of cultured, sophisticated, linguistically rich languages."Волошин Ю.К. Семантика сленговых инноваций (на мат-ле.Американского сленга) // Семантика языковых единиц разных уровней. - Самара , 2003.- С. 13 Whereas slang was once considered as the lowest form of communication, many now consider slang to be an intelligent and insightful variation to the blandness of the standard language. Gerald Parshall, in a 1994 article for U.S. News & World Report, describes this as "proletarian poetry." The Oxford English Dictionary points out that George Eliot's character in Middlemarch, written in 1871, says that "Correct English is the slang of prigs who write history and essays." Eble, C. Slang and Sociability: In-Group Language among College Students, Chapel Hill and London: University of North Carolina Press. - 1996, p. 77 For some, it is enough that Shakespeare often used slang.

Others, however, condemn the use of slang, believing that it undermines the standard language and reflects poorly upon its users. Parshall notes that Ambrose Bierce, in his dictionary, called slang "the grunt of the human hog." Even The Oxford English Dictionary's 1989 edition defines slang as "the special vocabulary used by any set of persons of a low or disreputable character; language of a low and vulgar type." In fact, both Crystal and The Historical Dictionary of American Slang point out that Samuel Johnson and Jonathan Swift produced the very first dictionaries partly out of great concern for the corruption of the standard English language.

Whatever the reason(s), slang is here to stay, and its longevity demands attention and explication. Below is an excerpt from David Crystal's book. Crystal cites examlpes from Eric Partridge's Slang, Today and Yesterday to illustrate the many uses of slang. Partridge, according to The Historical Dictionary of American Slang, is "perhaps the century's best-known collector of unconventional English." Of Partridge's "fifteen important impulses behind the use of slang," Crystal notes that he considers numbers 13 and 14 to be the most significant:

"According to the British lexicographer, Eric Partridge (1894-1979), people use slang for any of at least 15 reasons:

1. In sheer high spirits, by the young in heart as well as by the young in years; 'just for the fun of the thing'; in playfulness or waggishness.

2. As an exercise either in wit and ingenuity or in humour. (The motive behind this is usually self-display or snobbishness, emulation or responsiveness, delight in virtuosity).

3. To be 'different', to be novel.

4. To be picturesque (either positively or - as in the wish to avoid insipidity - negatively).

5. To be unmistakeably arresting, even startling.

6. To escape from clichйs, or to be brief and concise. (Actuated by impatience with existing terms.)

7. To enrich the language. (This deliberateness is rare save among the well-educated, Cockneys forming the most notable exception; it is literary rather than spontaneous.)

8. To lend an air of solidity, concreteness, to the abstract; of earthiness to the idealistic; of immediacy and appositeness to the remote. (In the cultured the effort is usually premeditated, while in the uncultured it is almost always unconscious when it is not rather subconscious.)

9a. To lesson the sting of, or on the other hand to give additional point to, a refusal, a rejection, a recantation;

9b. To reduce, perhaps also to disperse, the solemnity, the pomposity, the excessive seriousness of a conversation (or of a piece of writing);

9c. To soften the tragedy, to lighten or to 'prettify' the inevitability of death or madness, or to mask the ugliness or the pity of profound turpitude (e.g. treachery, ingratitude); and/or thus to enable the speaker or his auditor or both to endure, to 'carry on'.

10. To speak or write down to an inferior, or to amuse a superior public; or merely to be on a colloquial level with either one's audience or one's subject matter.

11. For ease of social intercourse. (Not to be confused or merged with the preceding.)

12. To induce either friendliness or intimacy of a deep or a durable kind. (Same remark.)

13. To show that one belongs to a certain school, trade, or profession, artistic or intellectual set, or social class; in brief, to be 'in the swim' or to establish contact.

14. Hence, to show or prove that someone is not 'in the swim'.

15. To be secret - not understood by those around one. (Children, students, lovers, members of political secret societies, and criminals in or out of prison, innocent persons in prison, are the chief exponents.) Partridge, Eric. Slang Today and Yesterday, with a Short Historical Sketch and Vocabularies of English, American, and Australian Slang. New York: Barnes and Noble, 1970., p. 264-272

Slang fills a necessary niche in all languages, occupying a middle ground between the standard and informal words accepted by the general public and the special words and expressions known only to comparatively small social subgroups. It can serve as a bridge or a barrier, either helping both old and new words that have been used as "insiders' " terms by a specific group of people to enter the language of the general public or, on the other hand, preventing them from doing so. Thus, for many words, slang is a testing ground that finally proves them to be generally useful, appealing, and acceptable enough to become standard or informal. For many other words, slang is a testing ground that shows them to be too restricted in use, not as appealing as standard synonyms, or unnecessary, frivolous, faddish, or unacceptable for standard or informal speech. For still a third group of words and expressions, slang becomes not a final testing ground that either accepts or rejects them for general use but becomes a vast limbo, a permanent holding ground, an area of speech that a word never leaves. Thus, during various times in history, American slang has provided cowboy, blizzard, okay, racketeer, phone, gas, and movie for standard or informal speech. It has tried and finally rejected conbobberation (disturbance), krib (room or apartment), lucifer (match), tomato (girl), and fab (fabulous) from standard or informal speech. It has held other words such as bones (dice), used since the 14th century, and beat it (go away), used since the 16th century, in a permanent grasp, neither passing them on to standard or informal speech nor rejecting them from popular, long-term use.

Slang words cannot be distinguished from other words by sound or meaning. Indeed, all slang words were once cant, jargon, argot, dialect, nonstandard, or taboo. For example, the American slang to neck (to kiss and caress) was originally student cant; flattop (an aircraft carrier) was originally navy jargon; and pineapple (a bomb or hand grenade) was originally criminal argot. Such words did not, of course, change their sound or meaning when they became slang. Many slang words, such as blizzard, mob, movie, phone, gas, and others, have become informal or standard and, of course, did not change in sound or meaning when they did so. In fact, most slang words are homonyms of standard words, spelled and pronounced just like their standard counterparts, as for example (American slang), cabbage (money), cool (relaxed), and pot (marijuana). Of course, the words cabbage, cool, and pot sound alike in their ordinary standard use and in their slang use. Each word sounds just as appealing or unappealing, dull or colourful in its standard as in its slang use. Also, the meanings of cabbage and money, cool and relaxed, pot and marijuana are the same, so it cannot be said that the connotations of slang words are any more colourful or racy than the meanings of standard words Mencken, H. L. The American Language: An Inquiry into the Development of English in the United States. One-volume abridged edition. Edited by Raven I. McDavid. New York: Knopf, 1963., p. 166-169.

All languages, countries, and periods of history have slang. This is true because they all have had words with varying degrees of social acceptance and popularity.

All segments of society use some slang, including the most educated, cultivated speakers and writers. In fact, this is part of the definition of slang. For example, George Washington used redcoat (British soldier); Winston Churchill used booze (liquor); and Lyndon B. Johnson used cool it (calm down, shut up).

The same linguistic processes are used to create and popularize slang as are used to create and popularize all other words. That is, all words are created and popularized in the same general ways; they are labeled slang only according to their current social acceptance, long after creation and popularization.

Slang is not the language of the underworld, nor does most of it necessarily come from the underworld. The main sources of slang change from period to period. Thus, in one period of American slang, frontiersmen, cowboys, hunters, and trappers may have been the main source; during some parts of the 1920s and '30s the speech of baseball players and criminals may have been the main source; at other times, the vocabulary of jazz musicians, soldiers, or college students may have been the main source.

To fully understand slang, one must remember that a word's use, popularity, and acceptability can change. Words can change in social level, moving in any direction. Thus, some standard words of William Shakespeare's day are found only in certain modern-day British dialects or in the dialect of the southern United States. Words that are taboo in one era (e.g., stomach, thigh) can become accepted, standard words in a later era. Language is dynamic, and at any given time hundreds, and perhaps thousands, of words and expressions are in the process of changing from one level to another, of becoming more acceptable or less acceptable, of becoming more popular or less popular.

Slang origin

Slang tends to originate in subcultures within a society. Occupational groups (for example, loggers, police, medical professionals, and computer specialists) are prominent originators of both jargon and slang; other groups creating slang include the armed forces, teenagers, racial minorities, ghetto residents, labor unions, citizens-band radiobroadcasters, sports groups, drug addicts, criminals, and even religious denominations (Episcopalians, for example, produced spike, a High Church Anglican). Slang expressions often embody attitudes and values of group members. They may thus contribute to a sense of group identity and may convey to the listener information about the speaker's background. Before an apt expression becomes slang, however, it must be widely adopted by members of the subculture. At this point slang and jargon overlap greatly. If the subculture has enough contact with the mainstream culture, its figures of speech become slang expressions known to the whole society. For example, cat (a sport), cool (aloof, stylish), Mr. Charley (a white man), The Man (the law), and Uncle Tom (a meek black) all originated in the predominantly black Harlem district of New York City and have traveled far since their inception. Slang is thus generally not tied to any geographic region within a country.

A slang expression may suddenly become widely used and as quickly date (23-skiddoo). It may become accepted as standard speech, either in its original slang meaning (bus, from omnibus) or with an altered, possibly tamed meaning (jazz, which originally had sexual connotations) Stenstrцm, A-B., Andersen, G. and Hasund, I.K. Trends in Teenage Talk: corpus compilation, analysis and findings. Amsterdam: John Benjamins. - 2002, p. 99-101. Some expressions have persisted for centuries as slang (booze for alcoholic beverage). In the 20th century, mass media and rapid travel have speeded up both the circulation and the demise of slang terms. Television and novels have turned criminal cant into slang (five grand for $5000). Changing social circumstances may stimulate the spread of slang. Drug-related expressions (such as pot and marijuana) were virtually a secret jargon in the 1940s; in the 1960s they were adopted by rebellious youth; and in the 1970s and '80s they were widely known.

Slang emanates from conflicts in values, sometimes superficial, often fundamental. When an individual applies language in a new way to express hostility, ridicule, or contempt, often with sharp wit, he may be creating slang, but the new expression will perish unless it is picked up by others. If the speaker is a member of a group that finds that his creation projects the emotional reaction of its members toward an idea, person, or social institution, the expression will gain currency according to the unanimity of attitude within the group. A new slang term is usually widely used in a subculture before it appears in the dominant culture. Thus slang--e.g., "sucker," "honkey," "shave-tail," "jerk"--expresses the attitudes, not always derogatory, of one group or class toward the values of another. Slang sometimes stems from within the group, satirizing or burlesquing its own values, behaviour, and attitudes; e.g., "shotgun wedding," "cake eater," "greasy spoon." Slang, then, is produced largely by social forces rather than by an individual speaker or writer who, single-handed (like Horace Walpole, who coined "serendipity" more than 200 years ago), creates and establishes a word in the language. This is one reason why it is difficult to determine the origin of slang terms. Sornig, K. Lexical Innovation: a Study of Slang, Colloquialisms and Casual Speech, Amsterdam: John Benjamins. - 1981, p. 145

Civilized society tends to divide into a dominant culture and various subcultures that flourish within the dominant framework. The subcultures show specialized linguistic phenomena, varying widely in form and content, that depend on the nature of the groups and their relation to each other and to the dominant culture. The shock value of slang stems largely from the verbal transfer of the values of a subculture to diametrically opposed values in the dominant culture. Names such as fuzz, pig, fink, bull, and dick for policemen were not created by officers of the law. (The humorous "dickless tracy," however, meaning a policewoman, was coined by male policemen.)

Occupational groups are legion, and while in most respects they identify with the dominant culture, there is just enough social and linguistic hostility to maintain group solidarity. Terms such as scab, strike-breaker, company-man, and goon were highly charged words in the era in which labour began to organize in the United States; they are not used lightly even today, though they have been taken into the standard language.

In addition to occupational and professional groups, there are many other types of subcultures that supply slang. These include sexual deviants, narcotic addicts, ghetto groups, institutional populations, agricultural subsocieties, political organizations, the armed forces, Gypsies, and sports groups of many varieties. Some of the most fruitful sources of slang are the subcultures of professional criminals who have migrated to the New World since the 16th century. Old-time thieves still humorously refer to themselves as FFV--First Families of Virginia.

In criminal subcultures, pressure applied by the dominant culture intensifies the internal forces already at work, and the argot forming there emphasizes the values, attitudes, and techniques of the subculture. Criminal groups seem to evolve about this specialized argot, and both the subculture and its slang expressions proliferate in response to internal and external pressures.

Most subcultures tend to draw words and phrases from the contiguous language (rather than creating many new words) and to give these established terms new and special meanings; some borrowings from foreign languages, including the American Indian tongues, are traditional. The more learned occupations or professions like medicine, law, psychology, sociology, engineering, and electronics tend to create true neologisms, often based on Greek or Latin roots, but these are not major sources for slang, though nurses and medical students adapt some medical terminology to their slang, and air force personnel and some other branches of the armed services borrow freely from engineering and electronics.

The processes by which words become slang are the same as those by which other words in the language change their form or meaning or both. Some of these are the employment of metaphor, simile, folk etymology, distortion of sounds in words, generalization, specialization, clipping, the use of acronyms, elevation and degeneration, metonymy, synecdoche, hyperbole, borrowings from foreign languages, and the play of euphemism against taboo. The English word trip is an example of a term that has undergone both specialization and generalization. It first became specialized to mean a psychedelic experience resulting from the drug LSD. Subsequently, it generalized again to mean any experience on any drug, and beyond that to any type of "kicks" from anything. Clipping is exemplified by the use of "grass" from "laughing grass," a term for marijuana. "Funky," once a very low term for body odour, has undergone elevation among jazz buffs to signify "the best"; "fanny," on the other hand, once simply a girl's name, is currently a degenerated term that refers to the buttocks (in England, it has further degenerated into a taboo word for the female genitalia). There is also some actual coinage of slang terms.

The best way to learn the meaning and origin of slang words is to look at a dictionary of slang words. The dictionary will tell you what a slang word means and when it started being used. For example, “bad” has been used to mean “good” since 1897, and “dude” which means a “guy”, first appeared in the 1870s.

Here are five common slang words and expressions from each decade:

From the 1950s: boo boo - mistake; cool - alright or slow, romantic music; garbage - nonsense; hot - sexy or attractive; neck - hug or kiss

From the 1960s: bread - money; far out - amazing; hassle - annoy; spacey - odd, eccentric; vibes - feelings

From the 1970s: bogus - unfair; gross - disgusting; horn - telephone; no brainer - easy problem; zip - nothing

From the 1980s: crib - where you live; go postal - go crazy; melt down - total collapse; wannabe - someone who wants to be something; wicked - excellent or very cool

From the 1990s: bling - glitter; hood - juvenile delinquent; loot - money; po-po - police; senior moment - memory loss

From the 2000s: buzz - shave your head; cougar - older woman dating younger man; holla - call on the phone; peep - person; tat - tattoo Lewin, Albert, and Esther Lewin, eds. The Thesaurus of Slang: Revised and Expanded Edition. New York: Facts on File, 1994., p. 160-162

Kinds of slang

There are several kinds of slang attached to different professions and classes of society. For instance, there is college slang, political slang, sporting slang, etc. It is the nature of slang to circulate freely among all classes, yet there are several kinds of this current form of language corresponding to the several classes of society. The two great divisions of slang are the vulgar of the uneducated and coarse-minded, and the high-toned slang of the so-called upper classes--the educated and the wealthy. The hoyden of the gutter does not use the same slang as my lady in her boudoir, but both use it, and so expressive is it that the one might readily understand the other if brought in contact. Therefore, there are what may be styled an ignorant slang and an educated slang--the one common to the purlieus and the alleys, the other to the parlor and the drawing-room.

In all cases the object of slang is to express an idea in a more vigorous, piquant and terse manner than standard usage ordinarily admits. A school girl, when she wants to praise a baby, exclaims: "Oh, isn't he awfully cute!" To say that he is very nice would be too weak a way to express her admiration. When a handsome girl appears on the street an enthusiastic masculine admirer, to express his appreciation of her beauty, tells you: "She is a peach, a bird, a cuckoo," any of which accentuates his estimation of the young lady and is much more emphatic than saying: "She is a beautiful girl," "a handsome maiden," or "lovely young woman."

When a politician defeats his rival he will tell you "it was a cinch," he had a "walk-over," to impress you how easy it was to gain the victory.

Some slang expressions are of the nature of metaphors and are highly figurative. Such are "to pass in your checks," "to hold up," "to pull the wool over your eyes," "to talk through your hat," "to fire out," "to go back on," "to make yourself solid with," "to have a jag on," "to be loaded," "to freeze on to," "to bark up the wrong tree," "don't monkey with the buzz-saw," and "in the soup." Most slang had a bad origin. The greater part originated in the cant of thieves' Latin, but it broke away from this cant of malefactors in time and gradually evolved itself from its unsavory past until it developed into a current form of expressive speech. Some slang, however, can trace its origin back to very respectable sources.

"Stolen fruits are sweet" may be traced to the Bible in sentiment. Proverbs, ix:17 has it: "Stolen waters are sweet." "What are you giving me," supposed to be a thorough Americanism, is based upon Genesis, xxxviii:16. The common slang, "a bad man," in referring to Western desperadoes, in almost the identical sense now used, is found in Spenser's Faerie Queen, Massinger's play "A New Way to Pay Old Debts," and in Shakespeare's "King Henry VIII." The expression "to blow on," meaning to inform, is in Shakespeare's "As You Like it." "It's all Greek to me" is traceable to the play of "Julius Caesar." "All cry and no wool" is in Butler's "Hudibras." "Pious frauds," meaning hypocrites, is from the same source. "Too thin," referring to an excuse, is from Smollett's "Peregrine Pickle." Shakespeare also used it. Gotti, M. `The origin of seventeenth century canting terms' in A changing World of Words: Studies in English Historical Lexicography, Lexicology and Semantics. Amsterdam-New York: Rodopi. 165-196. - 2002

Some scientists divide slang into following types:

Offensive slang

These words should be used with care. Although they are not particularly "hot", they can be offensive to the person they are applied to. For example, if you call somebody an "airhead", that person could be insulted although anybody listening would not be shocked.

Vulgar slang

Vulgar slang words should be used with extreme care. In general we recommend that non-native speakers do not use this language. If used inappropriately, you could easily shock both the person you are talking to and anyone listening. You could cause resentment and anger.

Taboo slang

In general, taboo words are the most shocking in the language and should be avoided. We recommend that non-native speakers do not use this language. As with vulgar slang, you could easily shock both the person you are talking to and anyone listening. You could cause extreme resentment and anger, with unpredictable results.

The literature of slang is vast, its two most important monuments being Eric Partridge's “Dictionary of Slang and Unconventional English” (1937) and Harold Wentworth and Stuart Berg Flexner's “Dictionary of American Slang” (1960) . Coleman pays due if reserved respect to the former (she finds it useful but dated, which is fair enough) but mentions the latter only in passing, which is strange given the importance of American slang not only to her overall subject but also to her book. Given that she is English, a British bias is understandable and forgivable in “The Life of Slang,” but American readers are likely to feel that she gives too much attention to British slang of the 18th and 19th centuries and too little to the American slang that, for better and worse, has become a central part of the English-speaking world's vocabulary and, for that matter, has encroached on the vocabularies of other languages.

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