What is Slang?

Dr. Goodword (Robert Beard, PhD, Linguistics)

Slang is crucial part of a young person's 'coming of age', one of the first detectable signs of their breaking away from their parents and their parents' values. It is a cheap second language that expresses the differences between a young person who is about to enter adulthood from his or her parents' generation.

Slang is actually not a language or a dialect at all, however. It is more a code in which one vaguely related or unrelated word or phrase is substituted for a more common one. The words that are replaced in slang are the most common ones: good (cherry, boss, phat, da bomb), bad (icky, yucky, jankety), crazy (nuts, bananas, crackers, bonkers), smart (brainy, savvy, sharp), fast (scream, tear out, fly, like greased lightning), slow (dragging, poky, crawling, creeping).

Each generation of slang has its word for those who are making the break from those who are not. People who are making the break are hep, hip, with it, in, in the know, or cool; they talk the talk and walk the walk. The 'in' people are part of what is often called the New Generation, even though it is usually only vaguely defined other than that it speaks a new generation of slang and listens to the newest fad in music.

Young people who do not talk the talk are more focused on their parents' values and their world must have names, too. They are squares, cubes, dweebs, geeks, nerds, wonks. These young people work hard in school to please their parents and in order to find a place for themselves in the established order. They are not trying to make a radical break.

Linguists often refer to slang as a register. A register is a something like a dialect that we speak in a specific situation. We talk differently in church than we do at a football game. We speak differently at home than we do on a job interview. We know which words and phrases are appropriate for any given situation.

Slang is different from a register, though. We would use slang at a football game though probably not on a job interview. We might use it at home but probably not in church. However, we could use slang in all these situations, so if it is a register, it is a uniquely different one, associated with an stage of development rather than a profession or situation.

Doctors and lawyers speak in registers. Their registers are tied to their professions. Criminal argot is also a register tied to a sort of profession but designed to conceal the subjects of conversation. Slang tends to emanate from high schools and colleges but it isn't limited to those places. And slang is associated with youth; the older we get, the less likely we are to maintain it.

So slang is not a language, dialect, or ordinary register. It is a special code that differentiates those who are 'with it', who 'make the scene'. The scene is defined by the youth culture, whether that culture is based hot jazz and raccoon coats, be-bop and saddle Oxfords, rock-and-roll and poodle skirts, or rap and baggy pants. The scene is where you go to get away from the 'rents.

Slang may borrow from registers. Bump off, knock off, to ice meaning "kill" came from the criminal register. Shiv comes from criminal register (argot) but rip off for "steal" came from youth slang. Kill for "kill the lights" probably came from the theater. Slang borrows from registers the way the language borrows from other languages.

Slang is not profanity or bad grammar. There are slang words for drugs and sex but that is only because these are subjects young people breaking away—and criminals—take interest in. "Yo, man, say what you is thinkin'?" is simply bad grammar and articulation. That has nothing to do with slang.

Slang does favor various grammatical means of forming new words. Clipping is one of them, removing syllables from words, like teach for teacher or phys ed for physical education. This is a common means of creating new words. Did you know that van was originally caravan?

Slang mostly relies on metaphor, though. Let's blow (leave) is a metaphor based on the movement of the wind. Diamonds look like ice (simile) and you'll find a lot of copper on a copper's uniform (synecdoche). When something exciting is called the bomb (implying a nuclear bomb), slang is relying on hyperbole. (Remember, calling it da bomb is just bad articulation.)

Many slang words are simply made up and used because they are funny or onomatopoetic: icky, yucky, dweeb, and nerd are fanciful concoctions that probably spread because the sound funny.

It is important to remember that slang is not bad grammar so there is no need to deprecate or discourage it. It sometimes contributes words to the general vocabulary. Live-wire, jive, copacetic, and jazz are all words that came to us from slang. While slang is often accompanied by bad grammar and pronunciation, these are separate issues.

Dr. Goodword

© Robert Beard, March 22, 2006. All rights reserved.
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