TRUNKY WANTS A BUN
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
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
firstname.lastname@example.org – 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
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