Do you know your bangin’ from your slammin’, your

Desmond from your Douglas? Student slang is now the

subject of serious academic attention.


 Tony Thorne, the former Head of the

Language Centre at King’s College London

and compiler of the Dictionary of Contemporary Slang,

has made a special study of the language of

students, and King’s students in particular.

The Archive of Slang and New Language at

King’s brings together printed publications

from the 17th century to the present day, and

includes an electronic database of new usage

from across the English-speaking world. With

all the Americanisms, Australianisms, and

South Africanisms taken out, the database

now numbers over 10,000 separate items of

contemporary usage and student vernacular.


It’s not always easy to carry out a survey of

authentic, non-standard usage. Eavesdropping

is problematic, and the mere presence of a

stranger in a group, especially one armed with

a tape recorder, is likely to inhibit the use of

slang, or lead to slang-users playing to the

gallery. So for several years now, students at

King’s have been asked simply to make a note

of the phrases that they use or hear, and to

contribute them as part of an ongoing project.


But why is it so important to study slang?

‘Among linguists, this area is not quite as

neglected as it was,’ says Tony. ‘Thirty or

forty years ago slang was barely discussed.

But there’s a realisation now that youth

language may be more important than

previously thought.’

Historically, key student slang words have

tended to be taken-up by a much wider range

of users. For several centuries the jargon of

Oxford and Cambridge, in particular, has

found its way into mainstream English. ‘Mob’,

‘bus’, ‘toff’ and ‘posh’ (which does not after

all derive from ‘Port Out, Starboard Home’)

all probably originated as student slang.

And if anything, ‘future generations may be

less likely to abandon slang as they get older.

There’s less social pressure now to do so.

Slang will probably have more of an influence

on mainstream English than it does now.’

So there’s a social reason to take slang more

seriously. ‘And looking at it nonjudgementally,

as a linguist, you can also see

that it’s technically very interesting. This is

a highly inventive style of language.’


Like other forms of cant used by specific

groups in society, student slang is both a

prestige way of speaking (conferring status

within a particular sub-culture), and one that

is stigmatised by the mainstream. It is a highly

specialised, exclusive form of language, which

strengthens the sense of belonging within

a group, while being – deliberately – barely

intelligible to outsiders.


But is King’s slang different from other

types of student jargon? Some phrases are

specific to the College – if a student says

Trunky wants a bun, for example, they’re

probably accusing one of their peers of

sucking-up to their tutors, the modern

equivalent of saying apple for teacher.

Apparently the original Trunky was an

elephant who would perform tricks for

a confectionery reward.


According to Tony, ‘King’s slang is often

quite theatrical, with a number of different

terms for hissy-fits and stroppy behaviour.

It’s generally very creative and articulate.

And a large amount of King’s slang

celebrates living in London.’ There’s a

strong liking for rhyming slang, for example,

including the College’s principal gift to the

world of student slang, through one of our

most illustrious alumni – Desmond (Tutu;

a 2:2 degree).


Given the nature of slang, new words have

a constant habit of appearing, to take the

place of older ones. With new influences –

currently from the Caribbean and Asia in

particular, as well as from things like texting –

come new ways of saying things. And as

with other types of slang, student cant seems

to be able to generate an endless number of

words that mean pretty much the same

thing. For ‘very good,’ yesterday’s ace, brill

and fab become today’s standard and solid.

There are hundreds of words for being drunk

(mullered, gurning), and dozens of synonyms

for ‘exciting’, such as (kicking, slamming).

The ruder ones you’ll have to look up in the



Should we be worried that our favourite

in-phrases when we were at College

probably won’t impress today’s students?

For Tony Thorne, ‘even conservative

commentators like Johnson and Swift spoke

about the generation of new expressions,

and acknowledged that it’s inevitable and

enriching. Language can’t stand still –

you can’t legislate for it.’


And it’s still crucial to fit language to its

social context. ‘Maybe in years to come it

will be acceptable for you to use slang words

in a job interview, but for that to happen slang

itself would have to change radically. It’s not

true that the language is degenerating, or that

anything goes. I think we can relax about

slang, and enjoy it for what it is.’


To help you understand the youth of

today, we’ve given you a short glossary

of contemporary terms that are currently

popular with King’s students. But be warned

– using slang in the wrong context, or

trying to sound like you’re down with the kids

when you aren’t, can make you sound like

a real spanner.



Were there unusual slang words and phrases

that had a particular meaning for you when

you were at College? Send your examples to – contributors are

acknowledged by name in publications.




Catalogue man – someone who is

unfashionable, who buys their clothes

from a catalogue


Desmond (Tutu, a 2:2 degree, one class

above a Douglas Hurd: a first is a Raging (Thirst))


Down with the kids – in touch with the

younger generation


Ledge – a conceited student (from ‘legend

in his own lunchtime’)


Pants – disappointingly poor or low quality


Pukka – excellent


Spanner – a foolish or contemptible person


Standard, solid, molly – very good


Throw a bennie – lose one’s temper


Tonk – physically attractive


Tough, uggers – very unattractive


Trust, squids – money


Vamping, flexing – showing off



A version of this article first appeared in In Touch, King’s College’s alumnus magazine in 2012


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