“The Life of Slang” by Julie Coleman

May 25, 2012

Julie Coleman , a linguist who teaches at the University of Leicester in England , attempts in “ The Life of Slang ” to walk a line between academic and popular readerships, with uneven results. On the one hand, the book is cluttered with endless lists of slang terms, graphs and charts as well as fits of academic jargon, all of which presumably lend it scholarly legitimacy. On the other hand, her prose is often lively — in fact chummy to the point of grating — and many of the broad conclusions she draws will seem persuasive to the general reader.

The literature of slang is vast, its two most important monuments being Eric Partridge’s “Dictionary of Slang and Unconventional English” (1937) and Harold Wentworth and Stuart Berg Flexner’s “Dictionary of American Slang” (1960) . Coleman pays due if reserved respect to the former (she finds it useful but dated, which is fair enough) but mentions the latter only in passing, which is strange given the importance of American slang not only to her overall subject but also to her book. Given that she is English, a British bias is understandable and forgivable in “The Life of Slang,” but American readers are likely to feel that she gives too much attention to British slang of the 18th and 19th centuries and too little to the American slang that, for better and worse, has become a central part of the English-speaking world’s vocabulary and, for that matter, has encroached on the vocabularies of other languages.

Like many others before her, Coleman is at pains to emphasize that there has always been tension between slang and standard English . “The arguments in favor of slang [are] about slang itself: it is vibrant, creative, and so on,” she writes. “These qualities might be attributed to slang-creators. The arguments against [are] largely about slang-users: they’re unintelligent and have limited vocabularies. And that’s one of the reasons why I find it hard to take sides in this argument: slang words often are witty and appealing, but not all slang-users are. On the other hand, slang-users might be perfectly charming were it not for their irritating repetition of tired slang words. The arguments are based on an entirely false dichotomy. Because new slang is creative (i.e. new), the argument implies, Standard English isn’t creative. Because some slang users have limited vocabularies, people who speak Standard English know more words. This is all nonsense. . . . What really sets slang apart from Standard English is the way it functions in social contexts: communicating meaning is often a secondary function for slang; it’s really for communicating attitudes and cementing relationships.”

Slang “creates in-groups and out-groups and acts as an emblem of belonging.” To Coleman, “the importance of slang in creating and maintaining a sense of group or personal identity” is paramount, and all the evidence supports her. Groups that have developed slang as a way of cementing their identity include the military, especially in the lower ranks, though oddly enough her discussion does not include perhaps the most famous of all military slang words, “snafu”; African Americans, “the one group that has influenced contemporary American (and international English) slang more than any other”; the working classes; musicians, especially jazz musicians; the underworld, the language of which she calls “canting,” which “usually implies some type of dishonesty and is now generally used with reference to the language of beggars, criminals, estate agents, politicians, and religious hypocrites”; and, of course, teenagers, who are now perhaps the most important and influential sources of slang, all the more so as consumerism, “in constantly striving for the latest new thing,” uses slang to establish its hip bona fides.


’The Life of Slang’ by Julia Coleman (Oxford University Press)

The origins of slang words more often than not are difficult if not impossible to pin down, but in general they are “produced in ways that aren’t particularly different from the ways Standard English words are produced” — both, for example, “borrow words from other languages, reuse existing words with new grammatical functions or with slightly different meanings, abbreviate words, and produce blends, acronyms, and initialisms.” Coleman argues that there are “four stages” in the development of slang: “creation,” “early development,” “adaptation and survival,” and “spreading into wider use.” Probably the vast majority of slang terms never are adopted beyond the relatively narrow circles in which they are created, and many die young, though “if identifying the birth of a slang term is hard, it’s harder still to pin down its death.” Something that was “the cat’s pajamas” in the 1920s might be “awesome” today, and if you tried to call it “the cat’s pajamas” the odds are that almost no one under age 65 would have any idea what you meant.

Still, some slang terms — or slang meanings for Standard English words — have persisted. Charles Dickens , whose ear for language was, well, awesome, caught wind of one while touring the United States in 1842. He described it in his “American Notes,” published that same year. A fellow diner, “handing me a dish of potatoes, broken up in milk and butter,” asked, “Will you try some of these fixings?” Dickens writes:

“There are few words that perform such various duties as this word ‘fix.’ It is the Caleb Quotem [Jack-of-all-trades] of the American vocabulary. You call upon a gentleman in a country town, and his help informs you that he is ‘fixing himself’ just now, but will be down directly: by which you are to understand that he is dressing. You inquire, on board a steamboat, of a fellow-passenger, whether breakfast will be ready soon, and he tells you he should think so, for when he was last below, they were ‘fixing the tables,’ in other words, laying the cloth. You beg a porter to collect your luggage, and he entreats you not to be uneasy, for he’ll ‘fix it presently:’ and if you complain of indigestion, you are advised to have recourse to Doctor So-and-so, who will ‘fix you’ in no time.”

Coleman does a good deal of bending over backward to define what slang is, which ends up involving a good deal of what it is not: “It’s not necessarily new, or linguistically unusual, or associated with uneducated people, or necessarily vulgar. It’s not just colloquial language taken to an extreme. It doesn’t include dialect or jargon, though local and professional slang do occur. It doesn’t include swearing, though some swearing is slang. Neither is it restricted to the spoken language to the extent that it once was.” In sum, according to Coleman , “slang is an attitude (insolence, for example, coolness, disdain, admiration, or a desire for conformity) expressed in words.” True enough, though it seems to me that one of the five definitions she cites from the Oxford English Dictionary comes closest to the mark: “Language of a highly colloquial type, considered as below the level of standard educated speech, and consisting either of new words or of current words employed in some special sense,” as in “wicked” to mean “excellent.”

Slang today isn’t what it was before the age of mass communications, the consumerist society and the Internet. “Slang was once considered a sign of poor breeding or poor taste,” Coleman writes, “but now it indicates that the speaker is fun-loving, youthful, and in touch with the latest trends. Although some adults try to discourage teenagers from using slang, plenty of others want to understand and adopt it.” This can lead to foolishness and self-parody — an adult using teen slang often merely underscores how old and out of touch he or she is — but it also is incontrovertible proof that slang is here to stay, not as the enemy of Standard English but as its partner.

THE LIFE OF SLANG

By Julie Coleman

Oxford Univ. 354 pp. $27.95

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