Slang is unconventional, hard-hitting, metaphorical language that is colloquial, sometimes vulgar, and always innovative—nothing registers change in cultural thought faster or more dramatically than slang. Lexicologist Stuart Berg Flexner defines slang more precisely as "the body of words and expressions frequently used by or intelligible to a rather large portion of the general American public, but not accepted as good, formal usage by the majority." Linguists Lars Andersson and Peter Trudgill, on the other hand, claim there is no good definition of slang and quote the poet Carl Sandburg: "Slang is a language that rolls up its sleeves, spits on its hands, and goes to work." Although linguists make no value judgments on levels of language, the general public seldom views slang without passion. It is seen as either a harbinger of hope and change (particularly among the young) or as a threat to what is perceived as "proper" language and society.
Informal and spoken rather than formal and written, slang is not the same as dialect, nor is it equal to swearing, although it may take on a vulgar edge, and it almost always evokes negative attitudes. Characterized by its ability to startle, slang falls below the "neutral register" of daily speech: terms such as "whore," "ho," "tart," and "slagheap" for the neutral "prostitute," for example. Perhaps most importantly, slang changes its identity according to who is speaking. What is slang to one, to another is not, depending on one's educational, economic, or social position, and even according to location and generation. Slang is generated from any number of specific language communities or subgroups: jazz musicians, college students, narcotics addicts, immigrants, the military, show business, street gangs, etc. From each of these sometimes overlapping groups come specific terms which identify practices and behaviors particular to its members. Distinct lifestyle choices fuel the need to find a language to name evolving social behaviors and thought, which often challenge more established cultural codes. "Mallie," a term unthinkable prior to the rise of American shopping malls, refers to persons (usually young) who frequent shopping malls for sociability and entertainment. Although most slang is generated by male speakers, the rise of feminism has spawned a female slang or "girl talk," showing the degree to which ideas about gender are changing. Because slang is spoken rather than written, it lacks the status of standard written English. Once slang terms appear in dictionaries, they are seen as having gained currency and, therefore, fuller entrance into the culture. Until then, slang is fully accessible only to insiders of particular subgroups.
Slang also changes over time, and either disappears quickly or becomes fully integrated into the language. Few, if any, would now recognize the word "knucker," which originated from the criminal world of the mid-1880s, but most would understand its current incarnation, "pickpocket," which originated from late eighteenth-century criminal slang. Drug slang changes quickly, in part so that drug dealers can more easily spot undercover agents. "Phone," "bike," and "bus," once slang versions of the more formal "tele-phone," "bicycle," and "omnibus," have now all but replaced the original terms. Most slang coinages are local in both time and place; much of it, like other cultural phenomena, originates in such large cities as New York or London and fans out to distant towns and cities.
The exact origin of slang is not known, although given the nature of language as a living, changing entity, it is probably as old as language itself. Andersson and Trudgill identify Aristophanes, the fourth-century-B.C. Greek playwright, as the first writer to use slang. The Roman writers Plautus, Horace, Juvenal, and Petronius also employed slang for stylistic purposes. Shakespeare also used slang in his plays. During the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, underworld criminal societies became rich and potent sources of slang, some of which is reflected in early detective fiction by such writers as Wilkie Collins and Agatha Christie.
What differentiates slang from other categories of speech (such as jargon or argot) is one's reasons for using it. In Slang, Today and Yesterday, Eric Partridge identifies several reasons for using slang, including the desire to be different, novel, or picturesque; to enrich the language; to engage in playfulness; to identify one's self with a certain school, trade, or social class; to reduce or disperse the pomposity or excessive seriousness of an occasion; to be secret. Slang is always used self-consciously, with a desire to create a particular identity. One might say (but not write) affectionately, "Sweetheart, you da cat's meow," or "Yo—what's happenin'?"
In the twentieth century, the development of slang has paralleled the rise of dominant cultural movements throughout the decades. The 1920s left its mark with jazz and the rise of the machine, creating such terms as "flapper" (a female dancer in a short skirt) and "percolate" (to run smoothly). The 1930s contributed "dehorn," a hobo word for bootleg whiskey or denatured alcohol, and such railroad slang as "groundhog," meaning a train's brake operator. The 1940s was the decade of the military with such coinages as "pea-shooter," from World War II Army Air Force pilots to denote a fighter pilot or plane, and the word "buddy" (meaning "pal"), which, although created in the 1800s, was heavily used by American GIs and took on a particularly sentimental connotation. This term later evolved into several variations such as "ace boon" or "ace buddy" in the black community. The 1950s' beatnik generation revived 1930s jive talk and used such enduring slang phrases as "cool it" to mean relax, and such colorful phrases as "cool as a Christian with aces wired" to signify someone who is tranquilly confident.
By the 1960s, political unrest resulted in the use of such words as "Dove" and "Hawk," which by the 1980s became accepted terms for antiwar advocates and the military. The youth culture (or "NOW generation") coined such phrases as "where it's at" to signify being up-to-date, and also used the term "groady" (with variations of "grotty" and "groddy") to denote anything that was disgusting, nasty, or repellent. Often this was followed by the phrase "to the max" for emphasis. The 1970s' drug scene left numerous terms: "crack" for cocaine and "narc" for undercover agent (which actually comes from Romany, "nak" or nose). During the 1990s, computers created not only a whole new way of life, but a language to describe it, although this resulted in a computer jargon rather than a computer slang. Nonetheless, such terms as "PC" (personal computer) and "e-mail" (electronic mail) were not even thought of prior to the development and widespread use of personal computers. By the end of the 1990s, the term "Y2K" had gained widespread usage to signify "the year 2000," with particular reference to anticipated problems stemming from the inability of existing programs to recognize dates beyond the year 1999.
While slang itself always reflects contemporary trends of thought, the practice of recording slang in Anglo-American dictionaries goes back more than two hundred years. The British antiquarian Francis Grose published A Classical Dictionary of the Vulgar Tongue in 1785, the first known lexicon of slang. Grose's work went through several editions and remained the seminal work in the field until John C. Hotten's A Dictionary of Modern Slang, Cant, and Vulgar Words was published in 1859. From the latter nineteenth century through the early twentieth century, several dictionaries of slang were produced, but it was not until 1937 when Eric Partridge published the landmark A Dictionary of Slang and Unconventional English, that slang was bestowed with respectability. This text was enlarged and reprinted several times through the 1980s and remains one of the best resources available. Also significant was Harold Wentworth and Stuart Berg Flexner's Dictionary of American Slang, published in 1960.
Since then, numerous dictionaries of slang have appeared. The titles of these texts alone trace the degree to which slang has become more accepted by the general public; by the late 1990s, slang was viewed with an increasing degree of amusement, as illustrated in such playful titles as Juba to Jive: A Dictionary of African-American Slang. As public sentiment moved toward a greater sense of multiculturalism during the 1990s, slang enjoyed increased acceptance, although with a recognition of its lower than standard status in the language.
Andersson, Lars, and Peter Trudgill. "Slang." Bad Language. Cambridge, Massachusetts, Basil Blackwell, 1990.
Chapman, Robert L., editor. New Dictionary of American Slang. New York, Harper and Row, 1986.
Flexner, Stuart Berg. "Preface to the Dictionary of American Slang."New Dictionary of American Slang. Edited by Robert L. Chapman. New York, Harper and Row, 1986.
Lewin, Esther, and Albert E. Lewin. The Thesaurus of Slang. New York, Facts on File, 1994.
Major, Clarence, editor. Juba to Jive: A Dictionary of African-American Slang. New York, Penguin, 1994.
Partridge, Eric. A Dictionary of American Slang and Unconventional English. New York, Macmillan, 1953.
——. Slang, Today and Yesterday. 2nd Ed. London, George Routledge and Sons, 1935.
Rawson, Hugh. Wicked Words: A Treasury of Curses, Insults, Put-Downs, and Other Formerly Unprintable Terms from Anglo Saxon Times to the Present. New York, Crown Trade Paperback, 1989.
Spears, Richard A., editor. Slang and Euphemism: A Dictionary of Oaths, Curses, Insults, Ethnic Slurs, Sexual Slang and Metaphor, Drug Talk, College Lingo and Related Matters. New York, Signet, 1991.
Wentworth, Harold, and Stuart Berg Flexner, editors. Dictionary of American Slang. New York, Thomas Y. Crowell, 1960.
Defining slangThe word is widely used without precision, especially to include informal usage and technical JARGON, and the social and psychological complexities captured in slang vocabulary make the term difficult to define. For linguistic purposes, slang must be distinguished from such other subsets of the lexicon as regionalisms or dialect words, jargon, profanity or vulgarity, COLLOQUIALISM, cant, and argot, although slang shares some characteristics with each of these. It is not geographically restricted (like BrE lift, AmE elevator), but is often regional (BrE bloke, AmE guy). It is not jargon (vocabulary used in carrying out a trade or profession), but it frequently arises inside groups united by their work.
Although slang synonyms abound in the taboo subjects of a culture, not all slang terms violate social propriety; Mickey Mouse meaning ‘easy’ and dough for ‘money’ may be inappropriate in some contexts, but they are not usually offensive. Slang belongs to the spoken part of language, but not all colloquial expressions are slang: shut up for ‘be quiet’ would rarely be written except in dialogue, but it is not slang, which is often the usage of the young, the alienated, and those who see themselves as distinct from the rest of society.
TransienceDespite the difficulty of defining the term, slang does have some consistent characteristics. Foremost, taken as a whole, the slang vocabulary of a language is ephemeral, bursting into existence and falling out of use at a much more rapid rate than items of the general vocabulary. This rapid change requires a constant supply of new words, sometimes replacing or adding to already established slang words, like a waste case for a ‘drunk’, and sometimes extending to new areas of meaning, like jambox, ghetto blaster, or Brixton suitcase for a portable stereo tape player. This makes novelty, or innovation, an often cited characteristic of slang and freshness a large part of its appeal. Yet some slang items have long lives. Thus, bones as slang for dice was used by Chaucer in the 14c and is still slang. But when such items remain in the language for years, they often lose their slang status: for example, jeopardy from gambling and crestfallen from cockfighting have even acquired a learned tinge.
SoundsAlthough, for the most part, slang items conform to the general constraints on sound combinations that govern English, the venturesome spirit behind much slang includes playing with sounds. Onomatopoeia accounts for many slang terms, including these for ‘vomit’: barf, ralph. The American linguist Roger Wescott has noticed that some sounds appear to give words a slangier flavour, most noticeably: z, in words like scuz from ‘scum’, and zap from ‘slap’ or ‘whap’; the replacement or addition of a vowel with oo, in words like bazooms from ‘bosom’ and smasheroo from ‘smasher’. Rhyming, however, is the favourite sound effect of slang, as in boob tube television, frat rat member of a US college fraternity. The rhymers par excellence have been the Cockneys of London, who have developed an elaborate and colourful collection of slang terms based on rhyme, such as trouble and strife for ‘wife’ and mince pies for ‘eyes’. See COCKNEY.
SemanticsThe intricate interplay of exclusivity, faddishness, and flippancy which breeds and supports slang guarantees semantic and etymological complexity. Nevertheless, slang items often diverge from standard usage in predictable ways, especially by generalization and melioration. In generalization, a term acquires a wider range of referents: for example, in the 19c dude was ‘a dapper man, a dandy’ but in current US slang, via Black usage, it can be applied to any male. Schiz out is to have any kind of mental or emotional breakdown; it is not restricted to schizophrenia. Evaluative words in slang sometimes become so generalized in application that they lose specific meaning and retain only a value: for example, AmE awesome, heavy, key, and solid, BrE ace, brill, and triff, and def in both varieties, all mean ‘worthy of approval’. Generalization often operates in conjunction with melioration, a process in which the connotations of a word become more favourable. Many words enter general slang from the taboo words of subcultures. Through increased use and broad application, they can lose their shock value and become more positive; the verb jam a century ago had specific sexual referents, but now means ‘to dance, play music, have a good time, succeed’. Yet many words in slang remain negative, especially the large and constantly replenished set of epithets available at all time in slang: for example, the pejorative boob, dork, dweeb, jerk, nerd, scuzbag, slimeball, wimp.
Another characteristic of the semantics of slang is the tendency to name things indirectly and figuratively, especially through metaphor, metonymy, and irony. Couch potato one who lies around doing little except watch television, coffin nail a cigarette, are metaphors. Brew and chill (beer) take their meaning by association and are metonyms. Irony, in its simplest form, categorizes the tendency in slang for words to evoke opposite meanings: bad, wicked, killer can all mean ‘good’ when signalled with appropriate ironic intonation. The influence of semantic fields on productivity in slang is also important, as they provide an established framework to shape the form and meaning of new words. In English, the semantic field ‘destruction’ sets the pattern for the proliferation of terms for being drunk, such as blitzed, bombed, fried, hammered, polluted, ripped, slammed, smashed, toasted, wasted. Slang also often evokes meaning by drawing on the shared cultural knowledge of its users. The verb bogart (to take an unfair share, originally of a marijuana cigarette) alludes to the American actor Humphrey Bogart's tough-guy image in films.
FunctionsThe aim of using slang is seldom the exchange of information. More often, slang serves social purposes: to identify members of a group, to change the level of discourse in the direction of informality, to oppose established authority. Sharing and maintaining a constantly changing slang vocabulary aids group solidarity and serves to include and exclude members. Slang is the linguistic equivalent of fashion and serves much the same purpose. Like stylish clothing and modes of popular entertainment, effective slang must be new, appealing, and able to gain acceptance in a group quickly. Nothing is more damaging to status in the group than using old slang. Counterculture or counter-establishment groups often find a common vocabulary unknown outside the group a useful way to keep information secret or mysterious. Slang is typically cultivated among people in society who have little real political power (like adolescents, college students, and enlisted personnel in the military) or who have reason to hide from people in authority what they know or do (like gamblers, drug addicts, and prisoners).
See BACK SLANG, COCKNEY, DICTIONARY OF SLANG AND UNCONVENTIONAL ENGLISH, PARTRIDGE, POLARI, RHYMING SLANG.
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).
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." 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."
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).
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."
Clark, Gregory R. Words of the Vietnam War: The Slang, Jargon, Abbreviations, Acronyms, Nomenclature, Nicknames, Pseudonyms, Slogans, Specs, Euphemisms, Double-Talk, Chants, and Names and Places of the Era of United States Involvement in Vietnam. Jefferson, N.C.: McFarland, 1990.
Eble, Connie. College Slang 101. Georgetown, Conn.: Spectacle Lane Press, 1989.
Hayakawa, S. I. Language in Thought and Action. 4th ed. New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1978.
Lewin, Albert, and Esther Lewin, eds. The Thesaurus of Slang: Revised and Expanded Edition. New York: Facts on File, 1994.
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. Includes a chapter on "American Slang."
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.
Richter, Alan. The Dictionary of Sexual Slang: Words, Phrases, and Idioms from AC/DC to Zig-zag. New York: Wiley, 1992.
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.
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. The first dictionary of English slang is said to be Thomas Harman's A Caveat or Warening for Commen Cursetors, published in 1567.
Characteristically individual, slang often incorporates elements of the jargons of special-interest groups (e.g., professional, sport, regional, criminal, drug, and sexual 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.
See H. L. Mencken, The American Language (3 vol., 1936–48); P. Farb, Word Play (1973); J. Green, The Dictionary of Contemporary Slang (1985) and Green's Dictionary of Slang (3 vol., 2011); R. Chapman, Thesaurus of American Slang (1989); E. Partridge, A Dictionary of Slang and Unconventional English (1990); J. E. Lighter, ed., Random House Historical Dictionary of American Slang (A–G, 1994, H–O, 1997); Bodleian Library, ed., The First English Dictionary of Slang, 1699 (2010); J. Coleman, The Life of Slang (2012).
slang / slang/ • n. a type of language that consists of words and phrases that are regarded as very informal, are more common in speech than writing, and are typically restricted to a particular context or group of people: grass is slang for marijuana army slang. • v. [tr.] inf. attack (someone) using abusive language: he watched ideological groups slanging one another.
Hence slang vb. †exhibit at a fair XVIII; rail, or rail at, abusively (as in slanging match) XIX.