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.