The Word(s) on the Street(s)

GANG CULTURE, RAP MUSIC, STREET SLANG AND POLICING

I have written elsewhere on this site about my own unusual forays into forensic linguistics, whereby I have helped legal defence teams, police forces and other interested parties in decoding, interpreting and assessing the slang used by gang members, an authentic urban language variety which is shared with rap music genres, particularly Drill music.

The citing of rap lyrics in the context of criminal trials and attempts to ban Drill lyrics is very controversial and some academic linguists, musicologists and criminologists argue that they should never in any circumstances be admitted in evidence – a stance I sympathise with, but feel is mistaken.*

One London Met Police officer with whom I have worked has written about his own recent activities at the intersection of music, youth culture and youth violence. The article offers a very rare professional insider’s perspective on the issues in contention, and with Michael Railton‘s permission I have linked to it here…

https://www.college.police.uk/article/analysing-gang-related-music-linked-serious-violence

*journalist Will Pritchard and I have debated the value of such evidence in court. Here he puts the case against in The Face

https://theface.com/music/rap-lyrics-used-in-court-young-thug-gunna-racist-stereotypes-rap-music

Tick Tock, TikTok

Earlier in May I talked to Dillon Thompson of Yahoo News about slang and its online incarnations. Dillon was exploring the ways in which slang and new language both affect the way we interact in an accelerated digital age, and the way in which digital environments such as TikTok and Instagram and Twitter and the internet-based rituals, gestures and poses embraced by Generation Z in turn might influence the sort of language we – or some of us – are creating, adopting and using.

Dillon’s article, with new insights and with contributions by me and from US linguists Sunn m’Cheaux and Daniel Hieber is here…

https://www.yahoo.com/lifestyle/internet-changing-think-slang-133422776.html

DO TRY TO KEEP UP

Following fashions is an exhausting task. And has become more exhausting still.

I have been recording the fads, fashions, cults and trends that energise popular culture, and the labels by which they register themselves on our collective consciousness, for more than thirty years. With the advent of the Internet and messaging the lifestyle innovations, aesthetic novelties and personal badges of allegiance are nowadays free to go viral, go global, and in many cases to disappear, virtually instantaneously. I talked to Olive Pometsey of The Face magazine (itself an iconic vehicle for the propagation of new ideas and images) about the latest, accelerated, overheated iterations of micro and macro-identities competing on online platforms. The equally frenzied quality of much comment and analysis is perhaps conveyed by the notes I made before we spoke…

Olive’s excellent article is here…

A crowdsourced, online, free-for-all, 24/7 source of slang, catchphrases and new terminology is my friend Aaron Peckham‘s Urban Dictionary. As the Face article was going to press this was its phrase of the day…

vibe shift

Coined by trend forecaster Sean Monahan, a vibe shift describes the emergence of a “new era of cool.”

Fashion is a realm that experiences frequent vibe shifts, especially with the arrival of a new decade. Gone are the days when frosted tips and low-rise jeans and Abercrombie & Fitch were in.

We’re in the midst of a vibe shift right now with the widespread lifting of Covid-19 protocols and restrictions. We’re going out again and adapting in new ways to our environment; some will survive the shifting tides, and some won’t.

Yeah I’m in my vibe shift right now. You won’t catch me in the club now that things are opening back up again. I’m all about going to the Home Depot, renovating my home and hearthyknow? Once I tried topless gardening things changed a lot for me.

by bruhdisease April 24, 2022

Those once-thriving subjects, Cultural Studies and Media Studies, which I used to teach in the 1990s, are nowhere to be found in today’s educational landscape, and the cultural practices we used to analyse are these days ignored by most commentators, the subcultures (and microniches, hyperlocal communities) if they are mentioned at all are dismissed by older cohorts as trivial, frivolous and ephemeral. I doggedly persist, in solidarity with The Face, Wire, Dazed, i-D, TikTok, nanoinfluencers and microcelebrities, in finding them fascinating and significant.

Just a few days after the Face article appeared, the Mail Online announced the latest look for Summer 2022…

https://www.dailymail.co.uk/femail/article-10782439/Why-blokecore-set-biggest-trend-summer.html

And if you want a comprehensive list of currently trending aesthetic genres, it’s here…

https://aesthetics.fandom.com/wiki/Special:AllPages

CALIFORNIFICATION

Royal accents in the news again

Just over a year since I defended Meghan Markle‘s speaking style*, the Daily Mail returned to the subject with the latest interview given in his new US home by Prince Harry, in which, along with dropping several ‘truth bombs,’ he was perceived to be modifying his natural accent to sound more American. I once again pointed out that what linguists call ‘accommodation’** or ‘convergence’, the phenomenon whereby participants in a conversation alter their pronunciation and intonation to sound more like their interlocutors, is something quite natural and unsurprising. I have found my own natural rhythms and tones subtly changing when spending time with speakers of Australian or North American English, and the posh-sounding Brit who morphs into a cockney or northerner when the plumber or builder visits is a stock target of mockery on social media. In the case of the royal family, wits remarked long ago that Prince Charles and Princess Diana‘s incompatibility could have been predicted by listening to their differing accents – the former’s clipped, tense, military-sounding while his bride attempted a more muted, classless diction with glottal stops and ‘Estuary English’ vowels.

The Mail’s article, in which they mercifully didn’t distort what I told them (though ‘new wave’ should read New Age), is here…

https://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-10736025/Language-expert-says-Prince-Harry-adopted-Americanisms-sound-approachable-US.html

*https://language-and-innovation.com/2021/03/09/a-duchess-speaks-and-endures-trial-by-tabloid/

** https://www.thoughtco.com/what-is-accommodation-speech-1688964

2022 – THE STORY SO FAR

The themes of the year so far can perhaps be summarised by my hasty posts in passing, on Twitter and elsewhere, in which I considered the keywords trending in the UK’s political and media discourse during the last days of January and the first days of February…

Scurrilous

Rather late to the party – sorry, ‘gathering’ – today’s word is ‘scurrilous.’ Defined by Dr Samuel Johnson as ‘using such language as only the licence of a buffoon could warrant.’ In her resignation letter yesterday Downing Street Policy Chief Munira Mirza accused Boris Johnson of ‘scurrilous’ behaviour when he falsely linked Keir Starmer to the failure to bring paedophile Jimmy Savile to justice. The word first appeared in English in the early 1500s in the form ‘scurrile’, coarsely joking, from the Latin ‘scurrilis’, buffoonlike, itself from the noun ‘scurra’ denoting a fashionable loafer, idler, buffoon, said to be a loan word from Etruscan.

Glee

On 2/2/22, as #BorisJohnson and #jimmysavile jointly trended for the second day, the word ‘glee’ was ascribed to both. It denotes barely repressed mirth/hardly concealed febrile joy and I think describes the desperate glint of triumph in the eyes of the abuser who once again goes unpunished. ‘Glee’ was Old English ‘gliu’, ‘gliw’, ‘gleow’ – entertainment, jest, play, also music and mockery – probably from Proto-Germanic ‘*gleujam’ but its only close relation was the rare Old Norse word ‘gly’ joy. All these are related to Old Germanic ‘gl-‘ words with senses of shining, smooth, radiant, joyful and Celtic cognates such as welsh ‘gloywa’, shining. Dictionary definitions of ‘glee’ note another nuance or connotation (more technically ‘semantic component’) which is often present: ‘exultation deriving from one’s own good fortune or another’s misfortune.’

Image

Airfix nostalgia

As Airfix promoted their 2022 calendar (cover picture above), I was asked again to explain the notion of ‘Airfix nostalgia’, an expression which mocks the delusion whereby nativists, patriots and bigots, most of them under the age of 50, like to imagine that they were personally involved in WWII or the British Imperial project. The reference is to the Airfix plastic modelling kits of fighter planes and warships bought by parents and children in the 50s and assembled at home.

Fib

In among rancorous ongoing denunciations of lying by those in public office (see elsewhere on this site and in this list by Peter Oborne*) came a passing invocation of – or attempt at disculpation by reference to – the lesser offence of ‘fibbing’. A fib is a ‘trifling lie’ or ‘white lie’, so I’m not sure it’s quite the right term in the current context, but it’s from the 1580s, the verb from 100 years later. Its exact origin and first use are uncertain, but it probably began as a jocular version of ‘fable’, perhaps reduplicated as ‘fibble-fable’ and then abbreviated to its modern form.

Rhubarb

When accused of being complicit in the authorising of an airlift of dogs from Afghanistan, PM Boris Johnson described the allegation as ‘total rhubarb’. The colloquial borrowing of the word to mean incomprehensible chatter or nonsense may have its origin in theatrical circles (as noted by Mark Peters in 2015**): it is again a telling choice of words: dated, euphemistic (like ‘mince’ as a euphemism for sh**t which seems similarly to be part of Tory groupspeak), obscure in the sense of being class/age-sensitive, hence condescending.

Endemicity

A new and tendentious, contentious example of #coronaspeak was added to my glossaries on this site in January 2022. The seemingly neutral, technical term was in fact employed in attempts to convince the public that the pandemic was subsiding and the coronavirus morphing into a less lethal presence in the community. Epidemiologist Deepti Gurdasani noted perceptively that ‘Endemicity’ is the rebranding of ‘herd immunity’ by the same people who were repeatedly wrong about how close we’ve been to achieving herd immunity. They’re now moving to claiming we’ve reached endemicity, regardless of what the term actually means – just like they did before.’

Lawfare/lethal aid

As the promoter of Brexit Arron Banks sued investigative journalist Carole Cadwalladr and the US sent the first aid packages to Ukraine I added two key terms to the #weaponisedwords glossary on this site: #Lawfare, referring to vexatious litigation by a nation or individual, and ‘lethal aid’, a euphemism or (as lexicographer Jeremy Butterfield pointed out to me) a dysphemism for military assistance.

Languishing

Are you Languishing? - The Performance Room

In mid-January articles examined the effects of isolation and burnout after nearly two years of restrictions and confinement using a new characterisation of the condition***: ‘languish,’ from the 14th century, meaning to be feeble, listless, moribund or grieving, pining, is from Old French ‘languir,’ from Vulgar Latin ‘languire’ to be weak, faint, idle, from proto-IndoEuropean *'(s)leg’ the ancestor of ‘slack’, ‘lag’ and ‘lax’. ‘Anguish’ is unrelated.

The prospective and retrospective pathways to and from depravity are... |  Download Scientific Diagram

Depravity

Despite the blizzard of slurs and denigrations circulating on social media and in the mainstream press since 2019, some words have been conspicuous by their absence. One such began trending in the UK national conversation, and then only briefly, in mid-January. ‘Depravity’ in the sense of immorality, degeneracy was first recorded in English in 1641, not directly formed from the earlier verb ‘deprave’ (Old French ‘depraver’, pervert, accuse, from Latin ‘depravare’ distort, disfigure) but a version of the noun ‘pravity’ from Latin ‘pravitas’, crookedness, deformity, from ‘pravus’, crooked.

Guile

On January 7 my word of the day was ‘guile’ (first ascribed to the leader of HM Opposition, and then energetically disputed on social media: ‘…it took guile to convince so many on Labour’s left that he was the natural successor to Jeremy Corbyn’ –The Times) The noun, meaning cunning, artful ability to deceive and/or duplicity, was first recorded in the 12th century. It is from Old French ‘guile’ from Frankish ‘wigila’, ruse, from Proto-Germanic ‘*wihl’, ancestor of English wile(s), from Proto-IndoEuropean ‘*weik’, consecrated, holy.

*https://boris-johnson-lies.com/johnson-in-parliament

**https://slate.com/human-interest/2015/11/mark-peters-bullshit-word-of-the-day-rhubarb-is-a-tart-theatrical-term-for-bs.html

***https://theconversation.com/languishing-what-to-do-if-youre-feeling-restless-apathetic-or-empty-174994?utm_source=twitter&utm_medium=bylinetwitterbutton

UNWRAPPING GIFTS – at the first CHRISTMAS

A multitude of camels shall cover you. They shall bring gold and frankincense, and proclaim the praise of the Lord – Isaiah 60:6

Elsewhere on this site you can find reflections on the culture of Christmas cards, on traditional yuletide symbols and on the language of the very first Christmas. I realised this year that I had never considered perhaps the best known symbols of all: the gifts presented to the Christ Child in an act of adoration by the ‘three kings’ of Orient. The earliest known depiction of the Magi, in their ‘traverse afar’, is found in the Catacomb of Priscilla in Rome, a wall painting dating from the middle of the third century CE. The sole biblical account of their arrival, in Matthew’s Gospel, describes an event at an unspecified point after Christ’s birth in which a number of unnamed μάγοι, mágoi – wise men – from the East visit the baby Jesus in a place described not as a stable but as an οἰκίαν, oikian – house. The gifts they brought are specified as chrysós (χρυσός), líbanos (λίβανος)* and smýrna (σμύρνα)**. In English these are rendered as…

GOLD – a familiar symbol of earthly wealth and kingship, the word itself in English is a descendant of Proto-Germanic *gulthan  gold, from the Proto-IndoEuropean root *ghel-  to shine. 

FRANKINCENSE – an aromatic gum resin burned as a perfumed offering in ceremony and ritual and mentioned in the Old Testament, also used in the form of an essential oil. Associated with Christ it probably evokes a priestly function and/or the worship of a deity, hence the divinity of the receiver. Our word is from Old French franc encens, literally noble or high-quality incense.

MYRRH – the rare and costly substance, obtained from an evergreen bush, was used for medicinal purposes but also for anointing the dead and in embalming, so perhaps references death, interment and the afterlife.  An early modern spelling from Old English myrre, from Latin myrrha, from Greek myrrha, from a Semitic source such as Akkadian murru, Hebrew mor, Aramaic mureera and Arabic murr, from a root meaning bitter.

Three caskets they bore on their saddle-bows,

Three caskets of gold with golden keys;

Their robes were of crimson silk with rows

Of bells and pomegranates and furbelows,

Their turbans like blossoming almond-trees.

-Longfellow

* Líbanos was also the ancient name for Lebanon, from a word meaning white. The connection with the perfumed commodity is that the spice trade from the orient passed at one time via the Horn of Africa and the Arabian Peninsula, where frankincense was cultivated, across the Lebanese mountains en route to Europe.

**Smyrna, also known as Myrrha, was an Amazon and the mother of the god Adonis in Greek mythology. In a legend which probably originated in Cyprus she was transformed into a myrrh tree after seducing her own father (the hero Cinyras who was king of Cyprus and Byblos) and giving birth to Adonis in tree form. The resin she exuded was said to be her tears. Present day Izmir on the coast of Turkish Anatolia was for centuries known as Smyrna, after the mythical mother or after the spice.

Three Wise Men Statues | Wayfair

Two days after this post appeared, the aptly named Dr Eoin Lettice of University College Cork wrote about those same precious commodities for The Conversation. His article is here:

THE OTHER ‘P-WORD’ – Postmodernism comes of age – again

Postmodernity is modernity without the hopes and dreams which made modernity bearable. it is a hydra-headed, decentred condition in which we get dragged along from pillow [sic] to post across a succession of reflected surfaces, drawn by the call of the wild signifier.” – Dick Hebdige, Hiding in the Light, 1988

Among the toxic terms listed in the glossary of weaponised words, elsewhere on this site*, is a term that has seemed contentious and which has been imperfectly understood since its first appearance in the late Sixties. I included the same word – Postmodernism – in my 1993 book Fads, Fashions and Cults, provocatively subtitled ‘The definitive guide to post(modern) culture.’ When my book, which was aimed at a popular, not a scholarly readership, was launched in Slovenia and featured on national television the Slovene philosopher and critical theorist Mladen Dolar dismissed it as atheoretical and trivial, two other resonant terms which I was not sure whether to resent or to celebrate at the time. An extract from the offending title follows…

Elsewhere on this site I have tried to follow the trajectory of woke**, another, rather different toxic buzzword now favoured by the same side, the opponents of BLM, eco-activism, ‘leftist’ attitudes, in the so-called culture wars that rage on despite the pandemic. In a perceptive review in the New Statesman this week William Davies sets out postmodernism’s trajectory, its recent reimaginings and reiterations by very different interest groups. His article, with his kind permission, is here…

To end with for now, another extract from my antique 1993 guide. I am still pondering the present and possible future of the second p-word, along with other characterisations of our era such as late-modern, techno-modern, post-industrial, post-capitalist and the tension between the post-individual and hyperindividualism, also thinking about the way in which critical positions which were significant for me – Situationism and McLuhanism, for instance – are today ignored or forgotten, and how more recent terms that I think encode important insights – third places, heteroglossia, superdiversity – remain marginal and under-examined. I will try to unpack these musings on these pages very soon…

Post-Modernism, which deals with the past like one huge antique supermarket, looks very relevant indeed. Pastiche and parody is just an uncomfortable transition to a time when period references will be used without any self-consciousness.” – Peter York, Style Wars, 1980

*https://language-and-innovation.com/2021/01/25/woke-not-woke/

**https://language-and-innovation.com/2018/08/23/a-glossary-of-skunked-terms-brexitspeak-and-the-toxic-terminology-of-populism/

Another review of Stuart Jeffries‘ title, this time by Terry Eagleton, subsequently appeared in the Guardianhttps://www.theguardian.com/books/2021/nov/10/everything-all-the-time-everywhere-by-stuart-jeffries-review-how-we-became-postmodern

FAMILECT AGAIN

DOMESTIC DIALECT FEATURES FAMILY FIXATIONS

Families and Older Generations Stock Vector - Illustration of grandparents,  seniors: 114207016

In 2016 I wrote about so-called familect, the ‘microdialect’ originating in the home*. Also known as ‘family slang’ and ‘kitchen table lingo’, this is one of those underappreciated, under-researched varieties of ‘in-group’ language which, like slang and jargon, make use of the same techniques (metaphor, irony, analogy – alliteration, rhyme, assonance, reduplication) as poetry and literature and at the same time offer a window into the private worlds of ordinary people: their preoccupations, pleasures and ways of bonding. Familect can also be a sharing ritual within the household whereby humour and creativity and inventiveness are enjoyed across generations. Kids are adept in creating new words from an early age and at playing with existing language to create new and colourful expressions, while older family members have their own ways of coining expressions and recycling or reworking the language of their youth, so the home is also a laboratory in which to cultivate new literacies.

Just recently the cApStAn Translation Team reviewed the topic and provided a useful link-fest and bibliography…

Today another article, by my friend Connie Chang, featuring interviews with specialists in the field, was published in the National Geographic

https://www.nationalgeographic.com/family/article/why-your-familys-secret-language-is-good-for-kids?loggedin=true

Familect can provide a useful subject for research and field work as part of exploring word creation and language innovation for school or college projects. Its users can be encouraged to look more carefully at the words and phrases they have invented themselves or shared or just heard, and asked to consider…

  1. Why was the expression invented? (usually because the object, idea or feeling described is precious or important or super-familiar. Sometimes because there isn’t an existing word or a memorable word to describe it in standard English)  
  2. What is it that makes these words funny, understandable, memorable? Is it that they sound like something else, remind you of something already familiar? Or is it the spelling and sound of them itself that makes them amusing?

In fact the school itself may be a source of similar novelties, as Tabitha McIntosh wrote in the TES this summer…

https://www.tes.com/news/schools-teachers-does-your-classroom-have-its-own-unique-language

Grandparents with Kids are Walker Stock Vector - Illustration of happiness,  cute: 153811703

*https://language-and-innovation.com/2016/07/23/family-language/

SLANG NOW – the Language of UK Youth in 2021

At the very end of September this year came another example of a UK school seeking to police its students’ language and to ban the use of slang and colloquialisms. I have been writing about youth slang since 1990 (there are numerous articles on this site, accessible by entering slang, youth or MLE in the search box) and about such interventions for more than a decade: this time I spoke to the Guardian‘s Social Affairs Correspondent Rob Booth and his article is here…*

https://www.theguardian.com/education/2021/sep/30/oh-my-days-linguists-lament-slang-ban-in-london-school

September 2021 also saw the fruition, or culmination (portentous words) of a long-term project of mine dealing with the same topic: the rich, creative, controversial use of highly informal language by younger speakers. I have collected the multicultural slang, traded among younger people and used especially in urban centres across the UK. I have listed authentic examples of this language variety gathered from conversations, messaging, fieldwork interviews and donations and stored these in the Archive of Slang and New Language which I have curated at King’s College London.

Looking for a way to make this data available to the widest possible readership – whether students, teachers, researchers, fellow lexicographers or simply individuals fascinated by language change and novelty – I decided against traditional publishing in hardcopy in favour of putting the material online and so was gratified when, a year ago, the University of Aston’s Institute for Forensic Linguistics agreed to host an extract from the Archive, an up-to-date Glossary of UK Youth Slang, in its Forensic Linguistics Databank. This lexicon, very modest in its format but unique in the UK and I think in the wider Anglosphere, has just been made accessible. I hope it will be helpful for interested parties and I urge anyone consulting it to comment, criticise and, above all, send me additions for inclusion in future versions (rights to the content are restricted, so please don’t circulate it or republish it without full acknowledgement). I am constantly updating and expanding this and other datasets of nonstandard and socially significant language as well as teaching and broadcasting about them.

The Youth Slang Glossary in question is here…

http://fold.aston.ac.uk/handle/123456789/4

I am very grateful indeed to all the collaborators, colleagues, students, parents, youth workers and many others who have helped me to record and analyse this exciting, inventive, sophisticated and technically innovative language – and to celebrate it rather than decry and stigmatise it in doing so.

* Rob Booth’s Guardian article was rewritten very slightly and republished by the Daily Telegraph and the Daily Mail. I think the last word on my contribution to the subject, and indeed my career, should go to the anonymous poster of a comment following the Mail‘s piece…

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An Antique Perspective: Slang in 1997

One of my tasks during this strange summer of 2021 was to try to recover old files and folders, deleted in error from my archive at King’s College London during a redesign of the website. Among them was a tour d’horizon of the characteristics and significance of Slang, written in 1997. Now an antique curio, I thought nevertheless it might be worth reproducing here for anyone teaching or learning about slang, or simply interested in that variety of language, so that comparisons could be made and conclusions might be drawn.

338 TATTOO - 1997 | Facebook

SLANG AND THE DICTIONARY


Tony Thorne  

Slang … an attempt of common humanity to escape from bald literalism, and express itself illimitably … the wholesome fermentation or eructation of those processes eternally active in language, by which froth and specks are thrown up, mostly to pass away, though occasionally to settle and permanently crystallise.

  Walt Whitman, 1885

What is slang?

 Most of us think that we recognise slang when we hear it or see it, but exactly how slang is defined and which terms should or should not be listed under that heading continue to be the subject of debate in the bar-room as much as in the classroom or university seminar. To arrive at a working definition of slang the first edition of the Bloomsbury Dictionary of Contemporary Slang approached the phenomenon from two slightly different angles. Firstly, slang is a style category within the language which occupies an extreme position on the spectrum of formality. Slang is at the end of the line; it lies beyond mere informality or colloquialism, where language is considered too racy, raffish, novel or unsavoury for use in conversation with strangers … So slang enforces intimacy. It often performs an important social function which is to include into or exclude from the intimate circle, using forms of language through which speakers identify with or function within social sub-groups, ranging from surfers, schoolchildren and yuppies, to criminals, drinkers and fornicators. These remain the essential features of slang at the end of the 1990s, although its extreme informality may now seem less shocking than it used to, and its users now include ravers, rappers and net-heads along with the miscreants traditionally cited.

There are other characteristics which have been used to delimit slang, but these may often be the result of prejudice and misunderstanding and not percipience. Slang has been referred to again and again as ‘illegitimate’, ‘low and disreputable’ and condemned by serious writers as ‘a sign and a cause of mental atrophy’(Oliver Wendell Holmes), ‘the advertisement of mental poverty’(James C. Fernal). Its in-built unorthodoxy has led to the assumption that slang in all its incarnations (metaphors, euphemisms, taboo words, catchphrases, nicknames, abbreviations and the rest) is somehow inherently substandard and unwholesome. But linguists and lexicographers cannot (or at least, should not) stigmatise words in the way that society may stigmatise the users of those words and, looked at objectively, slang is no more reprehensible than poetry, with which it has much in common in its creative playing with the conventions and mechanisms of language, its manipulation of metonymy, synechdoche, irony, its wit and inventiveness. In understanding this, and also that slang is a natural product of those ‘processes eternally active in language’, Walt Whitman was ahead of his time.

More recently some writers (Halliday being an influential example) have claimed that the essence of slang is that it is language used in conscious opposition to authority. But slang does not have to be subversive; it may simply encode a shared experience, celebrate a common outlook which may be based as much on (relatively) innocent enjoyment (by, for instance, schoolchildren, drinkers, sports fans, Internet-users) as on illicit activities. Much slang, in fact, functions as an alternative vocabulary, replacing standard terms with more forceful, emotive or interesting versions just for the fun of it: hooter or conk for nose, mutt or pooch for dog, ankle-biter or crumb-snatcher for child are instances. Still hoping to find a defining characteristic, other experts have seized upon the rapid turnover of slang words and announced that this is the key element at work; that slang is concerned with faddishness and that its here-today-gone-tomorrow components are ungraspable and by implication inconsequential. Although novelty and innovation are very important in slang, a close examination of the whole lexicon reveals that, as Whitman had noted, it is not necessarily transient at all. The word punk, for example, has survived in the linguistic underground since the seventeenth century and among the slang synonyms for money – dosh, ackers, spondulicks, rhino, pelf – which were popular in the City of London in the early 1990s are many which are more than a hundred years old. A well-known word like cool in its slang sense is still in use (and has been adopted by other languages, too), although it first appeared around eighty years ago.

Curiously, despite the public’s increasing fascination for slang, as evinced in newspaper and magazine articles and radio programmes, academic linguists in the UK have hitherto shunned it as a field of study. This may be due to a lingering conservatism, or to the fact that it is the standard varieties of English that have to be taught, but whatever the reasons the situation is very different elsewhere. In the US and Australia the study of slang is part of the curriculum in many institutions, in France, Spain, Holland, Scandinavia and Eastern Europe slang, and especially the slang of English, is the subject of more and more research projects and student theses; in all these places slang is discussed in symposia and in learned journals, while in Russia, China and Japan local editions of British and American slang dictionaries can be found on school bookshelves and in university libraries.

 Slang Lexicographers

The first glossaries or lexicons of European slang on record were lists of the verbal curiosities used by thieves and ne’er-do-wells which were compiled in Germany and France in the fifteenth century. A hundred years later the first English collections appeared under the titles The Hye Waye to the Spytell House, by Copland, Fraternite of Vacabondes, by Awdeley, and Caveat for Common Cursetours, by Harman. Although dramatists and pamphleteers of seventeenth-century England made spirited use of slang in their works, it was not until the very end of the 1600s that the next important compilation, the first real dictionary of slang, appeared. This was A New Dictionary of the Terms ancient and modern of the Canting Crew by ‘B. E. Gent’, a writer whose real identity is lost to us. In 1785, Captain Francis Grose published the first edition of his Classical Dictionary of the Vulgar Tongue, the most important contribution to slang lexicography until John Camden Hotten’s Dictionary of Modern Slang, Cant and Vulgar Words, 1859, which was overtaken its turn by Farmer and Henley’s more sophisticated Slang and its Analogues in 1890. All these were published in Britain and it was the New Zealander Eric Partridge’s single-handed masterwork A Dictionary of Slang and Unconventional English, also published in London, in 1937, that, despite its lack of citations and sometimes eccentric etymologies, became the yardstick of slang scholarship at least until the arrival of more rigorously organised compendiums from the USA in the 1950s. Since then several larger reference works have been published, usually confining themselves to one geographical area and based mainly on written sources, together with a number of smaller, often excellent specialist dictionaries dealing with categories such as naval slang, Glaswegian slang, rhyming slang, the argot of police and criminals and the jargon of finance and high technology.

 The Bloomsbury Dictionary Of Contemporary Slang

The Bloomsbury Dictionary of Contemporary Slang was first produced with the idea of combining the enthusiasms and instincts of a user of slang – someone who had been part of the subcultures and milieux where this language variety has flourished ( and in later life still ventures into clubs, bars, music festivals, football matches and, on occasion, homeless shelters) – with the methods of the modern lexicographer (earlier work on the Longman Dictionary of Contemporary English being a particular influence) and applied linguist. The first edition set out to record the 6,000 or so key terms and 15,000-odd definitions which formed the core of worldwide English language slang from 1950 to 1990: the new, updated edition, published in Autumn 1997, extends the time-frame almost to the millennium and expands the number of entries by two thousand, losing a few obscure, doubtfully attested or just plain uninteresting terms in the process. The dictionary aims to pick up the elusive and picturesque figures of speech that really are in use out there in the multiple anglophone speech communities, and many terms which appear in its pages have never been recorded before. In keeping with the modern principles of dictionary-making, the headwords which are listed here are defined as far as possible in natural, discursive language. The modern dictionary ideally moves beyond mere definition and tries to show how a term functions in the language, who uses it and when and why, what special associations or overtones it may have, perhaps even how it is pronounced. Where possible a history of the word and an indication of its origin will be included and its usage illustrated by an authentic citation or an invented exemplary phrase or sentence.

As with all similar dictionaries, the Bloomsbury volume is based to some extent on consulting written sources such as newspapers, magazines, comic books, novels and works of non-fiction. Other secondary sources of slang are TV and radio programmes, films and song lyrics. Existing glossaries compiled by researchers, by journalists and by Internet enthusiasts were also checked, but treated, like fictional texts and broadcasts, with caution; investigators may be misled by their informants and, as society becomes more self-conscious in its treatment of new and unorthodox language, varieties of so-called slang appear that are only partly authentic, such as the gushing ‘teen-talk’ (a variety of journalese) appearing in UK magazines like Just Seventeen, My Guy or Sugar directed by twenty- and thirty-something journalists at their much younger readers, or the argot developed by writers for cult movies such as Bill and Ted’s Bogus Journey, Wayne’s World and Clueless. The embellishing or inventing of slang is nothing new; Damon Runyon, Raymond Chandler and P. G. Wodehouse all indulged in it, as did British TV comedy writers for Porridge, Minder, Only Fools and Horses, etc., over the last three decades. For the Bloomsbury dictionary terms have been admitted if they can be verified from two or more sources, thereby, sadly, shutting out examples of idiolect (one person’s private language), restricted sociolects (terms shared by very small groups) and nonce terms (one-off coinages).

Any description of slang that is based purely on secondary or written sources (and most still are) cannot hope to do justice to a language which is primarily transmitted orally. Slang terms may exist in spoken usage for many years, even for centuries, before being written down; some are never committed to paper, so there is an absolute need for work ‘in the field’ with primary sources; eavesdropping on and interviewing the users of slang themselves, and, where they are not able to report objectively on the words and phrases they are using, their neighbours, parents, colleagues, fellow-students and friends must be mobilised. This is the most exciting part of lexicography, if sometimes the most risky. The modern language researchers going undercover to listen in on conversations or setting up networks of informants at street-level can imagine themselves as successors to the pioneering anthropologists of the last century, rather than ‘harmless drudges’ (Dr Johnson’s memorable definition of the lexicographer) toiling alone in dusty libraries or staring at flickering screens.

Slang at the Millennium

The traditional breeding grounds of slang have always been secretive, often disenfranchised social groups and closed institutions with their rituals and codes. This has not changed, although the users in question have. Where once it was the armed forces, the public schools and Oxbridge that in Britain dominated socially and linguistically, now it is the media, the comprehensive playground and the new universities which exercise most influence on popular language: the office, the trading-floor and the computer-room have replaced the workshop, the factory and the street-market as nurturing environments for slang. The street gang and the prison, whence came nearly all the ‘cant’ that filled the early glossaries, still provide a great volume of slang, as do the subcultures of rave, techno and jungle music, crusties and new agers, skaters and snowboarders. Football metaphors and in-jokes have long since ousted the cricketing imagery of yesteryear. Some special types of slang including pig-latin, infixing, and backslang (reversal, as in yob) seem virtually to have disappeared in the last few years, while the rhyming slang which arose in the early Victorian age continues to flourish in Britain and Australia, replenished by succeeding generations, and the even older parlyaree or polari (a romance/romany/yiddish lingua franca) lingers on in corners of London’s theatre-land and gay community. The effect of the media and more recently of the Internet means that slang in English can no longer be seen as a set of discrete localised dialects, but as a continuum or a bundle of overlapping vocabularies stretching from North America and the Caribbean through Ireland and the UK on to South Africa, South and East Asia and Australasia. Each of these communities has its own peculiarities of speech, but instantaneous communications and the effect of English language movies, TV soaps and music means that there is a core of slang that is common to all of them and into which they can feed. The feeding in still comes mainly from the US, and to a lesser extent Britain and Australia; slang from other areas and the slang of minorities in the larger communities has yet to make much impression on global English, with one significant exception. That is the black slang which buzzes between Brooklyn, Trenchtown, Brixton and Soweto before, in many cases, crossing over to pervade the language of the underworld, teenagers ( – it is the single largest source for current adolescent slang in both the UK and US), the music industry and showbusiness. Within one country previously obscure local slang can become nationally known, whether spread by the bush telegraph that has always linked schools and colleges or by the media: Brookside, Coronation Street, Rab C. Nesbitt and Viz magazine have all helped in disseminating British regionalisms. This mixing-up of national and local means that past assumptions about usage may no longer hold true: the earnest English traveller, having learned that fag and bum mean something else in North America, now finds that in fashionable US campus-speak they can actually mean cigarette and backside. In the meantime the alert American in Britain learns that cigarettes have become tabs or biffs and backside is now often rendered by the Jamaican batty

Speakers of English everywhere seem to have become more liberal, admitting more and more slang into their unselfconscious everyday speech; gobsmacked, O.T.T, wimp and sorted can now be heard among the respectable British middle-aged; terms such as horny and bullshit which were not so long ago considered vulgar in the extreme are now heard regularly on radio and television, while former taboo terms, notably the ubiquitous British shag , occur even in the conversation of young ladies. In Oakland, California, the liberalising process reached new extremes late in 1996 with the promotion of so-called Ebonics : black street speech given equal status with the language of the dominant white culture. 

Youthspeak

The greatest number of new terms appearing in the new edition of the dictionary are used by adolescents and children, the group in society most given to celebrating heightened sensations, new experiences and to renaming the features of their world, as well as mocking anyone less interesting or younger or older than themselves. But the rigid generation gap which used to operate in the family and school has to some extent disappeared. Children still distance themselves from their parents and other authority figures by their use of a secret code, but the boomers – the baby boom generation – grew up identifying themselves with subversion and liberalism and, now that they are parents in their turn, many of them are unwilling either to disapprove of or to give up the use of slang, picking up their children’s words (often much to the latters’ embarrassment) and evolving their own family-based language (helicopters, velcroids, howlers, chap-esses are examples).

The main obsessions among slang users of all ages, as revealed by word counts, have not changed; intoxication by drink or drugs throws up (no pun intended) the largest number of synonyms; lashed, langered, mullered and hooted are recent additions to this part of the lexicon. These are followed by words related to sex and romance –copping off, out trouting, on the sniff and jam, lam, slam and the rest – and the many vogue terms of approval that go in and out of fashion among the young (in Britain ace, brill, wicked and phat have given way to top, mint, fit and dope which are themselves on the way out at the time of writing). The number of nicknames for money, bollers, boyz, beer-tokens, squirt and spon among them, has predictably increased since the materialist 1980s and adolescent concern with identity-building and status-confirming continues to produce a host of dismissive epithets for the unfortunate misfit, some of which, like wendy, spod, licker, are confined to the school environment while others, such as trainspotter, anorak and geek, have crossed over into generalised usage.

Other obsessions are more curious; is it the North American housewife’s hygiene fetish which has given us more than a dozen terms (dust-bunny, dust-kitty, ghost-turd, etc.) for the balls of fluff found on an unswept floor, where British English has only one (beggars velvet)? Why do speakers in post-industrial Britain and Australia still need a dozen or more words to denote the flakes of dung that hang from the rear of sheep and other mammals, words like dags, dangleberries, dingleberries, jub-nuts, winnets and wittens? Teenagers have their fixations, finding wigs (toop, syrup, Irish, rug) and haemorrhoids (farmers, Emma Freuds, nauticals) particularly hilarious. A final curiosity is the appearance in teenage speech fashionable vogue terms which are actually much older than their users realise: once again referring to money, British youth has come up with luka ( the humorous pejorative “filthy lucre” in a new guise), Americans with duckets (formerly “ducats”, the Venetian gold coins used all over Renaissance Europe).

 This introductory article is adapted from the Bloomsbury Dictionary of Contemporary Slang, 2nd edition, 1997.

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