Slang, or “short language”, consists of a lexicon of non-standard, informal words and phrases which can refer to a precise social phenomenon, geographical location, and can be used to indicate membership of a particular group. The etymological origins of slang are difficult to trace, largely because it is a spoken discourse which is not registered in corpus linguistics. When Elisha Coles became, with his English Dictionary of 1630, the first lexicographer of Standard English to include slang terminology, he explained that ‘Tis no Disparagement to understand the Canting Terms: It may chance to save your Throat from being cut, or (at least) your Pocket from being pick’d’. The lexicographer, usually male, middle-aged and middle-class, was very much excluded from this contemporary language of criminality known in England as cant. In a society where printing was a relative novelty, books tended to be devoted to the concerns of the educated and powerful, and slang was simply ignored.
What distinguishes slang from other spoken languages, however, is that, while it develops in the same way any semantic change might occur, its meaning often takes on a very specific social significance. To a greater extent than standard language, which it usually flouts, slang outlines social space and constructs group identity. Its specific social contexts are what distinguish it from colloquial or jargon terms. While colloquial terms are considered widely acceptable in speech across a wide range of contexts, and jargon aims to optimize conversation through terms linked to technical understanding, slang aims to, above all, emphasize social and contextual understanding, which renders it unacceptable in many contexts.
In An introduction to English slang: a description of its morphology, semantics and sociology, Elisa Mattiello defines the various levels of identification which slang can take, identifying three orders of indexicality – a behaviour or utterance which indicates a particular state of affairs. In first and second order indexicality, the use of speaker-oriented terms aimed at reinforcing connections with a particular group and excluding others. In the third, and higher-order indexicality, slang terms aimed at drawing on a shared understanding of the term’s nuances in order to enhance standard language and to show one’s subscription to popular or ‘hip’ culture. In her book Life of Slang, Julie Coleman likewise suggests that slang typically contains a certain degree of ‘playfulness’, with a ‘spontaneous, lively, and creative’ development of the speech process. Similar to regular lexicon, she claims, slang terms undergo a process of semantic change and can become obsolete with time.
Examples of subculture associations of slang include Leet, or ‘Leetspeak’, which surfaced during the 1990s among certain internet subcultures associated with software crackers and online video gamers. Today, ‘chatspeak’ or internet slang, which has emerged on instant messaging and social media platforms, has become increasingly more commonplace and has virtually entered mainstream language, with acronyms such as LOL (laugh out loud), and verbs such as ‘to google a term’ or ‘to follow someone’ entering the popular lexicon.
To understand a bit more about how slang has become ingrained in today’s popular culture, why not look at Doc Brown’s ‘Slang 101’, a rap slang buster for the uninitiated:
Slang, therefore is a conscious dismissal of accepted standard lexicon, ‘a deliberate substitute for a word of the vernacular’, according to Henry Bradley’s entry in the 11th ed. of the Encyclopaedia Britannica, but we should not dismiss it as representing the user’s inarticulacy, or as futile and debased language. To quote John Camden Hotten in A Dictionary of Modern Slang, Cant and Vulgar Words: ‘Slang represents that evanescent, vulgar language, ever changing with fashion and taste, […] spoken by persons in every grade of life, rich and poor, honest and dishonest. Slang is indulged in from a desire to appear familiar with life, gaiety, town-humour and with the transient nick names and street jokes of the day […]. Slang, then, is a reflection of our society, spilling out from its conventional mould, refusing to be bound up by propriety and unified by custom. It might not have the linguistic flare of Shakespeare, or the natural beauty of Wordsworth, but it is nonetheless part of the true expression of our various cultures, and as such perhaps we should give it due credit.
If you want to find out more about slang, here is some suggested reading:
Coleman, Julie. Life of slang (1. publ. ed.). Oxford: Oxford University Press. ISBN 0199571996.
Mattiello, Elisa (2008). An introduction to English slang: a description of its morphology, semantics and sociology. Milano: Polimetrica. ISBN 8876991131.
Written by Iweta Kalinowska
Communication Trainee at TermCoord