Slang: Humans’ Linguistic Creativity at Work, Not Linguistic Corruption

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Slang words create social identity. Image by Adrian McGarry.

Slang words help create social and cultural identity. Image by Adrian McGarry.

Are We Creating More Slang Words Today?

Although we have always created slang words, do we create and use more slang words than in the past? Has the technological era created a surge in slang creation and use? We asked Professor Curzan, and she responded,

It’s important to distinguish slang from jargon. Slang is informal and often irreverent – scholars frequently use the word “irreverent” in talking about slang and I think it’s helpful in distinguishing it. Jargon is the specialized language we use at work, at our hobbies, for some sports, etc. Jargon can be informal e.g., the jargon servers use at restaurants is often fairly informal but it doesn’t have to be for instance if you think of computer jargon, or literary theory jargon. New technologies can create new jargon; electronic conversations, texting, IM, etc. have also encouraged new slang, for example, in the form of shortenings.”

The Effects of Slang the English Language

Does slang help language progress or degrade its development? Decoded Science asked Professor Curzan what she would say to the people who argue that slang is ruining English. She responded,

“Slang is an important part of language change. To begin, to paraphrase linguist Penny Eckert, young people are the movers and shakers of language change and part of how they change the language is through slang but that is only part of the story. When people create new slang, they are playing with language—and some of that play will result in more lasting change.”

Slang’s Shelf-life

Many slang words become absorbed into the English language permanently, but some new words  are only fashionable for a period then just disappear.

Decoded Science: How long do slang words normally remain in use?

Professor Curzan: Much slang is ephemeral and will fairly quickly give way to new slang as it loses its originality and, therefore, some of its power to surprise. Think about “yolo” (you only live once), which was suddenly everywhere last year, but much harder to find this year: will that word survive the next few years or has its moment already passed? Then some slang will eventually become standard for example, “banter,” “mob,” “bubble.” And then occasionally a slang word will stay slangy for a surprisingly long time – the word “cool” is a good example.

Favorite Slang Words

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Our words are surrounded by slang. Image by SarahB

Decoded Science: Could you give an example of some of your favourite slang words learned in the past year and why?

Professor Curzan: Oh, there have been so many great ones! “Hangry” and “adorkable” are right up there. Students taught me “bromance” when it was just getting started and “antextipation” when you’re checking your phone all the time waiting for a text.

Recently there have been lots of technology-related words – for instance students made sure I knew about “duckface” and “snapchatting,” and, as has been true for centuries, new slang words for being drunk. … This past semester students told me about the “groutfit,” which is the all-grey outfit -often sweats, regularly worn when one does not have the energy to put together a spiffier outfit. A couple of years ago students introduced me to “fomo” (fear of missing out).

Slang Creative and Innovative

So instead of turning your noses up at new slang words maybe it’s a better idea to follow Anne Curzan’s example and take interest in the new words around you. When you pay attention to how language is being transformed and used creatively, and which contexts help form new slang words, you’ll learn more than you’d think about today’s language.

Sources

Crystal, David. The Cambridge Encyclopedia of Language, Second Edition. (1997). Cambridge University Press.

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