Slang – how to understand it

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Slang – definition

slang Slang is sometimes described as ‘the language of sub-cultures’ or ‘the language of the streets’.

redbtn It is a term for words or expressions used by small groups of people.

redbtn It tends to be vivid and colourful, and holds a delicate position between the colloquial and the vulgar.

MONEY dough, lolly, spondulicks
FOOD grub, nosh, scoff
DRINK sloshed, smashed, plastered
SEX nookey, the other, crumpet


redbtn Slang is used in everyday informal speech amongst members of the same group.

redbtn It can often act as a ‘code’ which excludes outsiders.

redbtn Linguistically, it can be usefully seen as a sub-dialect.

redbtn It is hardly used at all in writing — except for stylistic effect.

redbtn Today’s slang can be tomorrow’s Standard English.

redbtn NB! Slang may also date very quickly, like fashion in clothes. Yesterday’s slang can become today’s cliché.

redbtn Eric Partridge [an authority on the subject] identifies a number of reasons for the creation and use of slang:

  • to be different, startling, or original
  • to display one’s membership of a group or club
  • to be secretive or to exclude others
  • to enrich the stock of language
  • to establish a friendly rapport with others
  • to be irreverant or humorous

redbtn Cockney rhyming slang is well known throughout the English speaking population. It is a very stylised form of slang which consists of two main elements:

  • the item being referred to — ‘tea’ for instance
  • a pair of words of which the latter rhymes with the referent — ‘Rosie Lee’

redbtn Thus ‘tea’ becomes ‘Rosie Lee’ [names are often used].

redbtn To make matters more complex, the rhyming word is often omitted. Thus the Cockney slang utterance is abbreviated, so that the listener may hear ‘Make us a cup of Rosie.’

redbtn This practice of omitting the rhyming word creates more interest in the usage, making it into a kind of conundrum or a word game.

redbtn Here are some examples of well-known rhyming slang.

‘Time to go up the apples to bed.’
[Apples and pears = stairs]

‘How do you like my new whistle?’
[Whistle and flute = suit]

‘Let’s have a butcher’s.’
[Butcher’s hook = look]

redbtn It was once thought that rhyming slang was dying out, but the recent fashion for using celebrity names has proved this not to be true – as in Garry Glitter = ‘pint of bitter’, abbreviated to a Garry of course. The alternative might be to order a couple of Britneys (Spears).

redbtn Some forms of slang change very rapidly, for various reasons.

redbtn Teenage slang changes rapidly because people are teenagers for a short period of time. For example, in the early 1990s the term used to express enthusiastic approval was ‘Ace’. Now this would be considered rather dated. It has been replaced by ‘Sound’ — which itself will soon be supplanted by whatever the current teenage culture decides is appropriate.

redbtn ‘Smashing!’ and ‘Super!’ the teenage slang of Enid Blyton stories of the 1930s and 1940s is now used to parody the period and the attitudes from which they sprang. Intrinsically however, it is no different from today’s terms.

redbtn One important function of teenage slang is to create an identity which is distinct from the general adult world. Teenagers for this reason do not generally approve of parents or teachers using their slang terms. This defeats the object of what is essentially a group ‘code’.

redbtn Thus new terms are generated every couple of years. It is interesting that the main slang items are adjectives for extreme approval or extreme disapproval.

redbtn The criminal culture has even more reason to refer in slang terms to the key elements of its activities. This is why there are so many terms for illegal substances. ‘Weed’, ‘draw’, and ‘whacky backy’ are just some of the slang terms for marijuana.

redbtn ‘Exstasy’ is a slang term which has now been adopted into Standard English. This is probably because the chemical term is too complex or difficult to pronounce.

redbtn This process can also occur in reverse. For instance the term ‘muck’ is now slang, but it used to be a Standard English word meaning mud or outdoor dirt.

redbtn The most important lesson regarding the concept of slang is that like all other parts of the language, it is in process. Cockney rhyming slang has stayed with us probably because of its creative and almost poetic element. Also, because of its formulaic nature, Cockney slang can continue to be generated according to the formula, suiting a variety of linguistic purposes.

Self-assessment quiz follows …

© Roy Johnson 2004

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