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A Wicked Analysis



Rob Hardy


If you are a prim grammarian you detest slang. And yet you use it. Sure, you might not praise something as being "wicked," but you might let yourself go and say it was "fantastic." You're still using slang, but you are merely out of date. "Fantastic," strictly defined, refers of course to fantasies, but around 1938, teens began using it as a term of approval. In The Life of Slang (Oxford University Press), professor of English Julie Coleman points out that teens did this all through the last century. "Wizard," "fabulous," "gnarly," and "radical" are among the words that got recruited from some other use to become trendy terms to show appreciation. Sometimes such terms popped up with no previous history; no one knows where "snazzy" came from, although the OED first cites it in 1931. And then there is "cool," which used to be cool and then was uncool until it became cool again. Coleman would be the first to recognize that her study of slang will go quickly out of date, and although she cites many historic documents purporting to bring people up to date on the latest word trends, hers is not a book to use for decoding what other people are saying nowadays. Rather, it is a longer view of why we have slang in the first place, who makes it, what keeps it going, and what purposes it serves. After all, the use of slang is commonplace in all modern societies, so there must be some reasons for it. Coleman's jaunty book has scads of examples (although "scads" as "heaps" is not here, but it is as slang for "dollars," whence OED implies the "heaps" definition came.) It ought to be fun for anyone who uses slang, and that's all of us. 




Defining slang is difficult, and Coleman repeatedly stresses the importance of context. "... it isn't possible to point at a word out of context and say 'that's slang'. Words don't have slanghood; there's no state of slangness inherent in a word or even in a sense of a word." If "awesome" is in some dictionary of slang, it certainly deserves its place there, but "awesome" isn't itself slang, unless it is used that way, and it can be used in other ways as well. For centuries, people have dissed slang (I could have written "dismissed", but given the subject of this review, I am strutting my slang cred) as somehow inferior. "Slang" is often used, says Coleman, "either very loosely to mean 'not Standard English' or more narrowly, but less helpfully, to mean 'any feature of language I don't like.'" We have all heard a language scold maintain that people who use slang have a limited vocabulary, and only use it because they don't know any better words. Having a vocabulary full of slang, of course, does not empty it of other words. "While it may be true," says Coleman, "that some unintelligent people use slang, there's no shortage of stupid people using Standard English." She also says, however, that there is no reason to think that people who use slang are particularly inventive or creative. One thing they might be is young; especially since World War II, young people have been the main users and creators of slang. Before that time, it might have come from wealthy young people, or young infantrymen, or young officers, but the groups were not considered as representative of "our youth." The classic syndrome of the older generation disapproving of the general behavior of the younger one might explain a lot about why slang is regarded as bad language. Coleman quotes plenty of people who fret about slang, like the gentleman who felt that young men were compounding the language with "hordes of barbarous words, threatening the entire extinction of genuine English." He wrote this in 1858, so such a threat was exaggerated. 




Coleman cites specifically the military as being a fine generator of slang, for specific reasons. Young men in uniforms with regulated behavior have an increased need for self expression. They are in a lower rung of a hierarchy, and may feel that their situation is unfair especially compared to previous freedoms. They have a sense of group identity, reinforced by slang terms. The same causes, more or less, mean that prisons and schools are good sites for the development of slang; similar forces are at work to bring forth slang from young people. Slang might be thought of as representing rebelliousness and nonconformity, but that is not the main function. "In use, slang is often much more about fitting in than rebelling. It's about saying the same thing as the rest of the group rather than about saying something new." Slang terms found useful within the small group might be useful in the large; "by the numbers" to mean "in a precise military fashion" originated in World War I, and spread to wider use since World War II.  




Coleman is very good in the sections about how slang is spread. In the newspapers, slang used to be confined to the sports pages and sometimes the court reports. In the later 19th century, newspaper reports about language and slang (often to bewail the use of slang) became common, and these might include lists of current slang. It is unlikely that users of slang saw such lists in the paper and picked up the terms that way, but writers might consult such lists to learn shorthand for depicting a stereotyped group. More important as a newspaper vehicle for slang was the comic strip, whose characters used pop language. "Milquetoast," "sad sack," "malarkey," and "security blanket" all come from the comics. Writers like Damon Runyon and O. Henry wrote newspaper articles using slangy idioms. Hollywood has given us the invented slang words "Rambo" and "shagadelic", but of course what movies do is show people using slang. In 1913, for instance, The Daily Mail complained that the American slang "heard" in the movies was causing "mental indiscipline" among British youths and their choice of vocabulary.  




The biggest shift in the world of slang and slang research is that slang gets used on the internet. Usually online slang is pretty much the same as spoken slang, researchers have found, but definitions that have stressed the use of slang as spoken language are now outdated. Typed communication, via e-mail or text or tweet, is very much closer to the way people speak than the way they produce formal written documents. Online slang has the same utility as spoken slang; it helps define a group, playing slang's social as well as communicative function. In addition, typed slang is usually quicker to type than standard terms, and in the middle of a video game battle, Coleman says, "superfluous key strokes could be a matter of virtual life and death." There are online slang dictionaries, which Coleman reviews in her professional capacity, with hope that such dictionaries could someday combine efforts of professional lexicographers and wiki inputs from slang users worldwide. The search functions of the internet have already been a useful tool in documenting the rise and prevalence of slang terms. 




Nobody uses slang because they have to or because it impedes communication. As long as there has been language, slang has gotten the message across, and carried social signals as well. And slang is simply fun to use. The sense of fun is conveyed here in every chapter; Coleman may have mined the court records from the Old Bailey and yellowed newsprint or electronic archives for her considerable research, and the erudition is here. Her sense of humor and her delight in making obscure speech plain are key, though, in making the lessons fun, and many readers will agree that the book is def or even mega. 




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