‘Old Georgie’s chucked a Benny: she’s a real spackafish sometimes.’ ‘Well san fairy-ann: she always weirds out after a couple of Britneys.’
Translation: ‘Young Georgina has had a tantrum: she can be socially awkward on occasions.’ ‘It doesn’t really matter: she tends to lose control whenever she has drunk a couple of glasses of beer.’ This exchange took place on a university campus and students in higher education, in recent years at least, have been some of the most enthusiastic users of slang, a language variety identified with irreverence, exuberance and youth. It’s recognised that adolescents are responsible for a great deal of lexical innovation – the creation of new words and phrases – in English, and by rights students, in theory the most linguistically gifted and aware members of their age group, should be at the forefront. Institutions such as prisons, army barracks and schools have always been breeding grounds for new language. In-groups often like to invent a new lexicon or vocabulary (often in fact by adapting and playing with existing language) to describe afresh their surroundings, their experiences and obsessions. They also use their special terminology as a badge of identity, and as a way of excluding outsiders from their conversations. The university campus is a social space that allows extraordinary freedom from all forms of authority and is a temporary haven from the responsibility to earn or conform. It is also a nexus, a point where many different influences come together. The language of babyhood and the primary and secondary school playground is mixed in with words picked up from parents, grannies, uncles and aunts, military jargon from Officer Training Corps, sporting colloquialisms from players and fans and, of course, the online cyberslang traded by geeks of all ages.
Within one campus there are dozens of cliques, each little speech community, (microscene, microculture or microniche are alternative designations) with its own sociolect, as the technical terminology has it. One person’s colourful turn of phrase is, in technical terms, part of their idiolect – their private language – and it’s there that new slang first appears. Somewhere an anonymous individual tries out a new witticism, insult or notion and, providing that their conversation partner (their interlocutor) grasps and accepts the novelty, it has a chance of catching on, first within the group and later perhaps in the wider world.
Words vary from place to place; shimmy means hurry up in Leicester, in Newcastle it’s get a bolt on, and in London it’s duss, but of course all this could change in three years or so as the intakes come and go. To the extent that they still move away from home to attend colleges, students also bring together expressions from around the country. In London you may hear chill your bills (to relax) from South Wales, gallus (good) from Scotland. Local language finds its way on to the campus. The all-purpose cry of approval of the rural farmhand or truck driver, proper job! can be heard at Exeter and Bristol and the rhyming slang of greater London (having a tin bath, Turkish bath, giraffe or bobble(hat) and scarf is ‘having a laugh’, an Eiffel tower is a shower) has spread across the South and beyond – hence Britney (Spears) for ‘beers’. Overseas Englishes will feature in any multinational student group: US feening or jonesing for craving or obsessing, to flake meaning to drop out of a social engagement or Australian coming the pork chop which means getting agitated, for example.
One way of finding out what a particular social group is interested in is to classify the expressions they use according to meaning. These clusters of related terms are known as semantic fields. If we count the terms in each field, we get an idea of what is most important to that group of speakers. For students across the country these broad categories seem remarkably consistent. I have recorded many words connected with flirting; chirpsing, lipsing, synching, joining, sharking, macking or smacking among them. Jewish students may use their own equivalents, shoms or rowsing. Going out with someone is fashionably termed linking or dealing.
Sneering at un-cool contemporaries makes use of words like flamboy, topshopper, mutt, bumbass, kev, woodentop, duffer, moose and cruit. Spackafish denotes someone clumsy or inept. An unattractive person is called butterballs, anchor, (both versions of the earlier, probably Jamaican, adjective butters). Unsightly bulges at the waistline are bacon-bands, muffin-tops, or lurve-handles, on the upper arms are bingo-wings. Mahoodally, heard in London, is interesting in that it means ugly but seems to be a pure invention, unrelated to any other word, something that happens very rarely in English even in slang usage.
Few chavs, it seems, make it on to the campus, at least legitimately, but many poshos do, there’s a whiff of snobbishness about terms like village or tramp, both adjectives meaning poor, second-rate or shabby. Bush doesn’t denote the former US president, but is an adjective meaning backward and primitive, like the Asian students’ jungli.
There are, though, plenty of ways of indicating approval. Cutting, standard, raar, bom and thug all mean good; confusingly shabby can mean good, too, but so can not so shabby. Legend is an adjective or an exclamation also meaning ‘great’, but a ledge is a show-off, shortened from ‘a legend in his/her own mind.’ BMOC (pronounced ‘bee-mok’) derides a ‘big-man-on-campus’. Physically attractive fellow-students are described, using Black British slang, as chung (also chong or choong –there are no rules for spelling slang) or peng. The main ‘ethnic’ influence on British slang used to be exclusively Caribbean, but now we are beginning to hear ‘Hinglish’ – Indian English – as well as words from Bengali like nang, meaning good.
Mercifully, there’s none of the gang-related slang describing guns and knives, mugging and humiliation which I have heard in secondary school playgrounds – traded gleefully by kids who are probably quite innocent of these things themselves. If there’s one defining characteristic of university slang it’s probably facetiousness. Students can, and very much do, indulge in frivolity, or as they put it, fanny-toots. ‘Excellent’ becomes excrement, ‘fair enough’ mutates into furry muff; thanks are expressed by spank your very crotch, and a common term of endearment on all campuses is You Big Gay Bear! Blatant! or Blates! are exclamations of sheer high spirits and goodbyes can be expressed by laters! Bless! or a cheery over and out, rainbow trout! Some of the verbal oddities would baffle outsiders: for a while whenever someone was showing off or fishing for compliments King’s students would chant Trunky wants a bun! The phrase was apparently inspired by an elephant in a zoo somewhere who would do tricks in return for buns from his keeper.
Overdoing things (not work, though) is caning it; losing control is, as we saw earlier, chucking a Benny, or alternatively spinning out, ragging out, going raggo, weirding, zoning, being on a hype or hissing (from the colloquial hissy-fit). There are plenty of terms for relaxing: chill, cotch and kick back are widespread, and bimble is a nice Leicester term for ‘gently ambling about aimlessly’, but very significantly there seem to be no expressions at all which relate to studying, and this goes for all the campuses I have investigated. Students have to work hard these days, but talking about it is apparently taboo. When they say j.d! (for ‘job done’), it just means ‘I feel OK/everything is fine!’ Twenty years ago money was rarely mentioned by impoverished students, but in these times of student debt and the scramble for future jobs it crops up frequently in the form of squillas, squidlets, cheddar, peas, pebbles, pondos, beer-tokens and spon. The cash dispenser is known as the drink-link and cashback! is a general cry of joy or success.
As this is, even more than standard English, an unregulated lawless variety, it often isn’t possible to be certain where slang terms originate. Trolleyed is a common term for drunk, but should it perhaps be spelled trollied? Does it come from the well-know ‘off one’s trolley’ meaning crazy or out of control (probably from the image of a hospital patient running amok), or from trollies meaning underpants?
Of ‘intellectual’ slang there is not much evidence beyond a little punning with foreign words. The direct French translation action gagnée may be used instead of ‘winning action’, itself a euphemism or disguise for a successful seduction or crafty trick. ‘Thank you very much’ now becomes Saint Cloud Paris Match, while san fairy ann, quoted earlier, is an anglicising of ça ne fait rien dating from World War I. Students still occasionally invent mock-learned words like bosfoculated, meaning baffled or confused. They may loftily observe that someone fastidious and nostalgic is being ‘a bit Proustian’, or if anguished, ‘having a Dostoyevsky moment’, but these cultural or literary allusions are just passing comments and don’t become embedded in the common vocabulary.
What is ‘youth’ slang for? Forming relationships, bonding, expressing solidarity – these, along with establishing one’s prestige as a member of the group are what sociolinguists seize upon – but slang also functions as part of pure play: a stylistic choice employed in mischief, banter, mocking, joshing. It’s just for fun, to express one’s joie de vivre. In every student environment I have come across the number one topic of conversation, the prime activity celebrated in slang is the same. It is getting willied, gattered, hamstered, mullered, laggered, blazed, dribbly, seized and dozens more, in other words ‘becoming intoxicated by alcohol’.
Should we fear for the future of the country? A high frequency of terms for drunkenness proves only that students like to talk about an activity that is emblematic (both symbolic and evoking feelings) of sociability and shared pleasures. Despite the boasting of being completely wombled night after night, most students pass their exams and achieve their degrees. Does a love for this non-standard code undermine students’ ability to use the other kinds of English they need – academic for essays and dissertations, technical for research projects, formal for interviews or applying for loans? Probably not: in my own experience most students, even if they can no longer spell properly– and these days that includes some of the English majors – are sharply attuned to the difference between appropriacy and inappropriate language: they know when ‘yes sir’ works and when aye-aye, shepherd’s pie! sounds right.
While academic linguists in Britain have tended to steer clear of slang analysis, Professor Connie C. Eble at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, USA, has been keeping a tally of current campus slang, donated by her students, for more than two decades. Her collection formed the basis for her 1996 book, Slang and Sociability, probably still the most accessible and comprehensive treatment of the subject. At Leicester University in the UK students have compiled their own dictionary of terms used on campus and in the UK and USA it’s students themselves, rather than their teachers who are the most enthusiastic researchers into slang, some extending their projects into secondary schools, where pupils are at last being taught about the language they themselves create and use. I have also set up a modest resource at King’s College London for anyone interested in slang and other novelties and exoticisms. The Archive of Slang and New Language contains a database of current slang and jargon along with a selection of articles and a small library, and welcomes contributions from you, your friends, family members and fellow students.
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A version of this article first appeared in e-magazine in November 2007
While this Guardian article from seven years earlier recorded the findings of Professor Tony McEnerny with comments by me…