Anyone wanting to learn more, or to teach about slang and youth language might be interested in the following. I’ll update this material soon, to include reference to the concepts of enregisterment and stylisation, and will also put an updated bibliography on these pages shortly…




Tony Thorne


Sub-varieties of language developed by young people may be celebrated (by the media) or stigmatised (by educators and prescriptivists). This extract looks at the forms, functions and social implications of so-called youth slang(s).



While slang was formerly associated with the underworld, and later the armed forces and institutions such as universities or the English public schools, teenagers and young adults are currently thought to be the most prolific linguistic innovators and users of slang in English.

In the USA Teresa Labov (1982), Eckert (1989) and Eble (1996) have studied the use of slang by street gangs, high-school and college students respectively, describing its role in defining member categories in the microsocial order and in ethnic demarcations, and its centrality in dynamic social interactions. Younger slang users are evidently aware of and interested in their own linguistic practices as evidenced by Urban Dictionary, a collaborative user-generated online compilation of over a million items (Damaso and Cotter 2007).

The features ascribed by Halliday in 1978 to anti-languages apply to modern slangs. These are lexical innovation – producing neologisms or reworkings to fill lexical gaps in the language; relexicalisation, or finding novel terms to replace existing ones, and overlexicalisation or hypersynonymy, the coining of a large number of terms for the same or similar concept. Examples are the many nicknames for their weapons of choice used by criminal gangs and the multiple synonyms –‘carnaged’, wazzed’, ‘hamstered’, trolleyed’, etc. – for ‘intoxicated by drink or drugs’ traded by adolescents and young adults.

Slang can be approached by focusing firstly on its social or sociolinguistic functions, then on its lexico-semantic features, that is the ways in which it manipulates language in terms of structure and meaning.



There is a consensus as to the principal functions of slang in socialising processes and social interactions. The ability to understand and deploy slang is an important symbolic element in the construction and negotiation of individual and group identities, enabling bonding, affiliation and expressions of solidarity and engagement. It performs the important function for an in-group of providing a criterion for inclusion of members and exclusion of outsiders. It is at the same time a means (primarily but not only for younger speakers) of signalling ‘coolness’ and indulging in playfulness. The slang vocabulary may be part of a self-referential system of signs, a semiotic repertoire of self-presentation or stylization which can also include dress and accessorizing, body-decoration, gesture, physical stance, etc. It therefore functions not only as a lexicon or linguistic resource but on an ideological level of affect, belief, etc.



From a lexico–semantic perspective slang is of interest in the way it both imaginatively invents and reworks according to the semantic possibilities of a language, and forms expressions according to its morphological potential. Slang employs the standard processes of word-formation in English, among the most common being compounding (‘pie-hole’ for mouth), blending, (‘chill (out)’ and ‘relax’ become ‘chillax’); affixation (‘über-nerd’ which is also a rare instance of borrowing, combining with an earlier slang term), change of part of speech or functional shift (‘weirding’, behaving erratically); clipping (‘za’ for pizza, ‘bab’ for kebab), abbreviation and acronymy (‘FOFFOF’ for ‘fair of figure, foul of face’). For further examples see Sornig (1981) and Eble (1996). Slang makes use of more unusual devices such as re-spelling (‘phat’ for fat in the sense of excellent); punning (‘babia majora’ for an attractive female, ‘married alive’ meaning trapped in a relationship), the insertion of a word or element between syllables or tmesis, sometimes called infixing, as in ‘fanfreakingtastic! It employs phonology-based manipulations such as rhyme and reduplication (‘drink-link’, a cash dispenser), and assonance or onomatopoeia (‘clumping’, attacking with fists or feet).

Arbitrary coinages –completely unprecedented inventions – are extremely rare and difficult to substantiate: even the most unusual- looking expressions are usually derived from some linguistic precedent: ‘bazeracked’ and ‘bosfotick’, UK student synonyms for drunk or exhausted, for instance, employ phonosemy or sound symbolism and imitate other multisyllabics denoting destroyed, damaged or confounded. Some words of unknown origin become popular –‘gak’ for cocaine is one such; others like ‘mahoodally’, a term used by some London students to mean ugly, remain in limited circulation.

Slang makes extensive use of metaphorical manipulation, playing on and with meaning and associations in the mind. Sornig (1981) lists the processes involved, drawing examples from German and other languages. Eble (1996) uses US campus slang to show how a range of rhetorical figures is mobilised in the same way as in poetry or literature. These include metaphor (‘beast’ can denote an aggressive law enforcer, male seducer or unattractive female); metonymy (‘anorak’, later ‘cagoule’, the supposedly typical garment standing for the earnest, unfashionable wearer), synecdoche (‘wheels’ for a car); fanciful comparison (‘as dumb as a box of hair’, i.e very stupid); amelioration and pejoration whereby words acquire a more positive (‘chronic’ now denotes wonderful) or negative (neutral ‘random’ comes to mean bad) sense, generalisation and specialisation in which terms extend or narrow down their meanings so that ‘dude’ denotes merely a person while ‘the man’ refers to an agent of oppression; indirect reference whereby ‘her indoors’ denotes one’s wife and ‘the chilled article’ a cold beer. Peculiar to slang is ironic reversal whereby ‘wicked’, ‘sick’ and ‘brutal’ become terms of approbation.



That slang is in any way inherently deficient cannot be demonstrated according to linguistic principles. Slang usage is not necessarily ‘impoverished’, though in many in-groups a small number of items may dominate (quasi-kinship terms, greetings and farewells, terms of approbation, insults, chants) and be repeated constantly. Halliday and others have used the term pathological (more often applied to impaired language or speakers) when referring to unorthodox varieties; Sornig calls slang a ‘substandard’ language, and Andersson and Trudgill perpetuate a questionable if common hierarchical discrimination in observing that slang is ‘language use below the level of neutral language usage’ (italics mine). Many linguists are nowadays wary of hierarchies of language or of generalising based on the notions of ‘standard’ or ‘nonstandard’ varieties, and sociolinguists are finding the negotiating of roles, relationships, status and power through language, at least by young speakers, to be far more subtle and fluid than previously suggested.

Slang users may be virtuosos of style-switching and crossing (mixing different ethnic varieties), and may be acutely aware of appropriacy – fitting style to context, or may simply use the occasional expression to liven up conversation (many young people of course use little or no slang and Bucholtz (1999) has shown how deliberate avoidance of ‘cool’ slang can itself be an act of identity). They may also question mainly middle-aged researchers’ theorising of their behaviour in terms of prestige, power and class, when these are not necessarily realistic constructs for them, and prefer to invoke notions of a shared, dynamic alternative culture with a special claim to ‘authenticity’.

Transience is often thought to be a defining characteristic of slang, and there is a rapid replacement rate in certain semantic fields and functional categories, but complete obsolescence generally takes a minimum of several years and some terms remain in the language, still in highly informal usage, for many years (‘punk’, which was used in the 17th century and which now means to dupe or humiliate, is one such), or are recycled, as in the case of the 1960s and 70s terms of approbation, ‘fab’ and ‘wicked’. Some cryptic slangs, such as those of drug-users, and slang used by those afraid of obsolescence – the fashion and music industries for example – have a very high turnover of vogue terms, but others – those of taxi-drivers and street-market traders for instance – may retain some core elements for a long time. In secondary or generalised slang, too, terms may persist, ‘shrink’ meaning a psychiatrist and ‘dosh’, for money being examples.



In a multilingual setting, such as a metropolitan secondary school, where standard forms are not the norm and many different first languages are represented, a shifting variegated slang may be the most convenient, accessible (and indeed, locally prestigious) shared style of discourse. Slang is an important component of what linguists such as Cheshire and Kerswill (2004) have identified as an emerging social dialect based on ‘youth’, known as Multicultural London English or ‘multiethnic youth vernacular’. There are suggestions that this variety may impact significantly upon the mainstream. In future what might be viewed as part of a developmental phase in socialisation may have to be reconsidered: the abandoning of the language of adolescence that accompanies full entry into the adult social order may no longer take place to the same extent. Slang’s users are no longer confined to subordinate cultures and, in that it is not nowadays excluded from general conversation or media discourse, slang, at least secondary slang, is no longer a stigmatised variety, yet as part of its function it must retain or at least mimic ‘outsider’ status.





  • extracted from K. Malmkjaer, ed. Routledge Linguistics Encyclopedia 3, (2010), London: Routledge



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