2017-08-08DIctionary of Slang and Unconventional EnglishCarl Sandburg, an American Pulitzer Prize-winning poet and author, said that slang is a language which “takes off its coat, spits on its hands and goes to work.” Being generally correct, Carl Sandburg’s definition doesn’t take into account that alongside lower-class slang there’s upper-class slang too, the users of which may be not so willing to ‘spit on their hands.‘ However, even the “classy” characters of P.G. Wodehouse can also be tempted into a “very informal language used by a particular group of people” (probably, I know more about the writer because my daughter is an aficionado and a subtle connoisseur of Wodehouse’s style). Just compare a sentence from Wodehouse’s “Service with a Smile”: “She lugged the poor wench off to Blandings, and she’s been there ever since, practically in durance vile (= in awful confinement), her every movement watched. “In durance vile” is a marker of upper-class slang.

Over time, slang terms either die out from lack of use as groups move on to new terminology, or they may become so popular that they are absorbed into the common language. In this case, everyone understands the terms, and they aren’t likely to be considered inappropriate or poor grammar any longer. This is how language grows and evolves over time, as new words are added to the dictionary while old ones fall into disuse and disappear.

Examples of Old-Fashioned Slang

Some words that were once fashionable are no longer used. For example:

  • The cat’s pajamas: This term was used by flappers in the 1920s to mean that something was exciting, new, or excellent. Though it doesn’t make much sense, it does use vivid imagery. — “That new phonograph is the cat’s pajamas.”
  • Wallflower:This term describes a shy person. It was used for decades in the twentieth century to describe a person — typically a girl — who preferred to stand along the wall instead of participating in a dance. — “You’ll have more fun at the dance if you aren’t such a wallflower.”
  • Don’t have a cow:This term is used to try to calm someone down. It was popularized by “The Simpsons” in the 1980s, and though you might still hear Bart say it in reruns, it’s no longer very common to hear in conversation. — “Don’t have a cow, mom! I didn’t eat all the ice cream.”

Examples of Evolving Slang

Some slang words change their meaning over time, usually across generations. This keeps the word in usage, but can lead to some miscommunication between older and younger speakers. For example:

  • Busted:To your grandparents, “busted” probably meant that something was broken. To your parents, it means getting caught doing something wrong. The latest use? As an adjective to mean “ugly.” — “No, I won’t go out with your little sister. She’s busted.”
  • Ride: Originally a verb for the act of being a passenger in a vehicle, this word also evolved into a noun to describe a car. Most recently, “my rides” can mean sneakers. — “I got new rides to match my favorite shirt.”
  • Hip:Originally “hip” or “hep” meant someone very fashionable in the first half of the twentieth century. It evolved to mean someone into jazz and beatnik culture in the 1940s and 50s, and changed further still into “hippie” to describe flower children of the 60s. Today it’s changed again to “hipster,” meaning a self-aware artsy person. — “My hip grandfather plays the sax, but my hipster brother just makes homemade pickles.”

 Examples of Portmanteau Slang

Some slang terms are created by combining two words into one that has a new meaning. A new word created by combining portions of two existing words is called a portmanteau, and they are very popular as a way to give a new name to a celebrity couple. For example, Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie were known as “Brangelina” when they were married. Other examples of portmanteaus:

  • Frenemy:This combination of “friend” and “enemy” describes a person who is a little bit of both, perhaps a friend with whom one experiences regular conflict. — “You’d be a lot happier if you stopped hanging out with your frenemy.”
  • Ginormous: This combination of “gigantic” and “enormous” means something very large. — “You could find a parking space more easily is your car wasn’t so ginormous.”

Examples of Modern Slang

Slang is changing all the time, but here’s a list of words that are in use today:

  • Goat: Current usage is actually a compliment, as this is now an acronym that stands for “greatest of all time.” — “I don’t care what you say, because Tom Brady is the goat.”
  • Woke: Slang for “awakened,” as in being made aware of social injustices. — “If you’re so woke, why didn’t you vote?”
  • Basic:A put-down describing someone or something that’s not very interesting or highly evolved. — “Those boys are so basic. Why do they all want to dress the same?”
  • Bye Felicia:A fast way to tell someone to go away. This term comes from the 1995 movie “Friday.” — “No, I will not go out with you. Bye Felicia.”
  • Bae:A term of endearment, usually for romantic partners, but possibly for close friends as well. — “Bae, you’re the best.”
  • On point:Outstanding, perfectly executed.  — “Her accessories are on point. She looks great.”
  • Dead:Overwhelmed, unable to keep up. — “I have two finals and a full work day tomorrow. I’m dead.”
  • Sips tea:Minds one’s own business, as opposed to making a comment or giving an opinion. — “Should I do something about that? No way. Sips tea.”
  • Salty: Angry or bitter about something. —“Why you so salty? I said I would share if I win the lottery.”
  • Fam: A group of close friends. — “I’m going to hang with the fam tonight at the tailgate party.”
  • Throw shade: To insult or say something unkind about someone. — “I can’t believe he said that. He just threw some serious shade.”

Why Do People Use Slang?

Because slang terms are often understood by people only in a certain group, using slang is, above all, a way to show that you “belong.” That is the way to show that you’re “in the swim”, you’re one of the “gang.” You start using terms that others don’t understand, and you can connect with like-minded people who understand just what you mean by using the latest slang terms.

For this reason, slang is often a mark of being “cool,” or at least in the know about something. People who are “in” with a group know the slang, and people who aren’t do not. Slang is, therefore, a way to use language to separate yourself from others. The best example of this is the way each generation of teens uses new slang to separate themselves from their tragically uncool parents.

Eric Partridge, the author of Dictionary of Slang and Unconventional English (1937), indicated some more reasons for being infatuated with slang. Slang is used, he wrote, “in sheer spirits by the young in heart as well as by the young in years, just for the fun of things, in playfulness or waggishness… it is used as an exercise in wit and ingenuity, or in humor, … to be picturesque, to avoid insipidity, to take delight in virtuosity.” For me, the words “…by the young in heart…” are particularly prominent in Eric Partridge’s argumentation.” No wonder that when I think of Frank Sinatra’s “You Make Me Feel So Young” I unwittingly link it with my attitude to slang 🙂


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