Behind the Dictionary

Lexicographers Talk About Language

Slang: Fitting In and Standing Out

In his new book, Slang: The People's Poetry, Indiana University English professor Michael Adams tackles the tough question: what is the nature of slang? Adams, also the author of Slayer Slang: A Buffy the Vampire Slayer Lexicon, looks beyond dictionary definitions of slang to examine the fascinating interplay of social and aesthetic qualities in "the poetry of everyday speech." In this first of a two-part interview, Adams explains how the linguistic practice of slang balances the social and the aesthetic, and considers what directions slang might take in the future.

VT: What inspired you to write a single-volume exploration of slang in a general sense, informed with specific lively examples?

MA: I was prompted in part to write it because after Slayer Slang, a reviewer asked the question, "Where's the definition of slang?" And it occurred to me then that I had been assuming something without going into it very carefully.  When you look around, you find that there are relatively few compact explanations of what slang is.  It just seemed time for something that went into the question generally, though not exhaustively and not definitively.  I'm not sure that we'll ever approach a definitive explanation of what slang is because part of it's a matter of perception on the part of speakers.

Introductions to dictionaries only get you so far because the business of the slang dictionary is to give you lots of slang items analyzed under the principles operating in that dictionary. There are some really great slang dictionaries, but you can't rely on the introductions to those to give you a sense of what slang is as a component of the whole language.

VT: You say it's been 75 years since there's been a book of this type, when Eric Partridge wrote Slang To-Day and Yesterday.

MA: Partridge was a hard-working and serious amateur lexicographer. Nonetheless, the book just gets so much wrong. I think what attracted him often to slang — which attracts many people still, understandably — is its role in everything base and criminal and evil. My sense of slang is much broader than that and includes a lot of colloquial language, because on the spectrum from the least formal to the most formal in language, I think slang is a broader swath than some people would agree. So I've tried to incorporate more "non-nasty" language in the book in trying to explain slang's function, which for me is very much aesthetic as well as social.  Those two things aren't mutually exclusive, though sometimes I think they're competitive. 

VT: You talk about the social versus the aesthetic aspects of slang in terms of "fitting in" versus "standing out." Is there a natural tension there, and how does that tension work itself out?  How can slang be, to use two of your descriptions, both "casual" and "forced"?

MA: I suppose the perfect slang item would be both at the same time.  That would be the paradox to achieve if you could do it.  One way of looking at it is this.  In any group, there will be leaders.  And those leaders are probably more adventurous and creative in their slang than people who are following them.  So there is an edge to the leaders' creation of slang that may be partly aesthetically driven: the aesthetics might be the means of leading.

But I think sometimes it goes beyond that.  Sometimes people are just creating for the fun of creating, and some folks would exclude that from slang because it isn't involved in that social problem of "fitting in."  But I think it's slang, nonetheless, or at least slangy — just to make things up for the sake of making them up to get a particular effect. That might be in conversation and involve a group that you could define. But increasingly, because you can create slang and display it on the Web, where you're not exactly sure who your audience is or how they're responding, the dynamic of slang has changed.

VT: You also talk about the failure of slang's intended effect, when it is used too awkwardly or too self-consciously.

MA: That's where that issue of the "forced" and the "casual" comes back into play. The "forced" in question here, when slang is operating at its best, is pushing against the norm or the mainstream.  You can be forceful in response to mainstream expectations and casual at the same time.  It's difficult to be casual or off-hand and also to be so obviously different or standout-ish.  A lot of the time, I think we opt to be more casual and less effortful.  But sometimes to be casual is very effortful, and the trick to slang well done is that nobody can really detect the effort of something that was inventive and casual at the same time.  Part of being hip is to have nobody notice that you're being hip.

But it's true that you could overplay your hand, and it has to do with understanding your audience.  It has to do too with how important the slang you're uttering is to a social group at a particular time.  And again, I think that sometimes people have the opportunity on the Web to display slangy language creation without necessarily taking social effects into account, because they're not really speaking to an immediate audience.

VT: In the book, a lot of the examples of the failure of slang to create the intended discursive effect have to do with race in America. White attempts at appropriating black slang are obviously ripe for parody.

MA: I think it's just as obvious between generations. We all belong to many, many groups, and the slang that we use in one might not apply in another one.  But the one thing you can't do is use somebody else's slang.  You can't just adopt it.  And this at first is paradoxical too, because it's clear that some items of slang migrate from a group's use, even if it's a big group like "youth today" or "African Americans" generally. Obviously, some items move into the general vocabulary and people use them credibly after a while.  But it takes some time for that to work out, and it's very unlikely that having heard your son or daughter use a bit of slang, you can turn to your son or daughter's friends and use that slang and be part of their group. It's just obviously not part of your vocabulary, and you're deliberately trying to fit into the group.

The same thing works with "ethnic" or "racial" slang, if we want to call it that. I'm uncomfortable somewhat with viewing it that way, just because the overlaps among vocabularies are so big and often we don't really understand them historically.  But things that belong primarily to the African American community pretty much stay within the African American community for good reason, namely that there's a separateness still in our society between African Americans and non-African Americans. That's going to be preserved or maintained some by the language that we use.  And the more people tread on that specifically African American slang, the more productive African American slang will be of new items, so the distinction, the identity can be maintained.

I would say, too, that I hope that the argument of the book is already becoming outdated.  Recently, sociolinguists — some of whom were very important in establishing the status of African American English as a dialect of English — are now coming to the conclusion that what we're calling "African American English" isn't exclusively the dialect of African Americans anymore. And that doesn't mean that the slang that belongs to that dialect won't still be used to maintain a linguistic identity, but it may not be indexed entirely to race. 

I guess what I'm saying is I am very hopeful for a future America in which we're less worried about that issue of what counts as "crossing," at least defined racially.  I'd like to think that we live in a "post-racial" society.  I'm not sure that we do right now, but I wouldn't mind if that happened.  And there's some evidence that at least linguistically, race may be less important in the future in defining dialect.  But that's not going to erase dialect and it's not going to erase slang.  It's just going to make it more complicated to decide who's identifying as what. 

VT: Do you think that the generational divide will continue to define the boundaries of slang?

MA: I think it pretty much has to. That's just something too inherently human, because it has to do with adolescents, particularly, identifying themselves as separate from the adult group. There's no way of separating language from that behavior. So slang that identifies a youth culture versus an adult culture has got to intrude then.  I guess you could say, and I suspect it's true, that there's always been some definition of one generation against another. 

Now, adolescents kind of rule the world.  So much of the economy and media is devoted to them.  I'd venture that the separateness is more obvious and made more desirable as a result, so I wouldn't expect slang to go away.  I'd expect it probably to be identified more brightly as a marker of the difference between the young and the old.

Next week in part two of our interview with Adams, we'll talk about what happens when slang ends up in dictionaries, and how slanginess can get inserted into words through "infixation."


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Comments from our users:

Wednesday June 17th 2009, 1:38 PM
Comment by: Lawrence C. (Montreal Canada)
Would like a print button...to print out articles. Regards, Lawrence Creaghan
Monday June 22nd 2009, 4:46 PM
Comment by: Sharon G.
I have always been fascinated by my friend's familial turns of phrases which have been passed down through at least four generations. This is probably regional slang, but she and her sisters seem to revert to it in any family setting,accompanied by the local twang and cadences of their childhood. This is a group whose slang does not distinguish itself by generation. When you are in their midst, even the 20-year old niece speaks it as a family language.

My friend grew up in Salt Lake City Utah, in a non-Morman family (a very real "outsider" group). Her family's background was agrarian and can be traced back to the nomadic sheep herding life of early Utah settlers.Her 90 year old mother still uses the expression "to get there on shank's ponies", meaning to walk.

Until I met my friend, I had never heard the term "to red (or rett) up", meaning to get everything organized and ready to go. But the one that has us both curious is the phrase used only by her WW II veteran father when camping in the wilderness. He would say he needed to go to "chick (s?) sales" when he needed to use a toilet. Anyone have any idea where that comes from? Of course I have no idea if I have spelled it correctly. Could it be Army French???
Monday June 22nd 2009, 5:21 PM
Comment by: Ben Zimmer (New York, NY)Visual Thesaurus ContributorVisual Thesaurus Moderator
Sharon: You should check out the Dictionary of American Regional English, which has entries on shank's pony, redd up, and chic(k) sale(s). The last of these originated from the name of Charles "Chic" Sale, a vaudeville performer who wrote a play ("The Specialist") about an outhouse builder. The play and a subsequent book were so popular that chic sale became eponymous for "outhouse." More info is at the Outhouse Museum Wall of Fame.
Saturday January 14th 2012, 9:50 PM
Comment by: Lily T. (Mesilla, NM)
Interesting article. I had always wondered about slang. Thanks so much to VT and to Michael Adams.

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