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Julie Coleman's Lively "The Life of Slang"

If you enjoyed Michael Adams' Slang: The People's Poetry, make some room on your shelf for another compelling look at slangology: The Life of Slang by Julie Coleman. Coleman's book is an enjoyable, thorough look at the purposes and particulars of slang that should be required reading, especially for newcomers to the topic. This is a textbook textbook on slang.

Like Adams before her, Coleman focus on the group-identity aspects of slang, especially how "Slang creates in-groups and out-groups and acts as an emblem of belonging." Coleman shows how slang not only binds a group but unites dislikers of that group by providing weapons of caricature and mockery. If you dislike, say, teens or hippies, using their slang (or alleged slang) is a way to make them sound like idiots of the apocalypse. In this respect, her work resonates with Henry Hitchings' The Language Wars, which focuses on how language peeves mask deeper grudges. Coleman promises, "the conflict between slang-lovers and -haters provides a fascinating perspective on social and political change through the centuries," and her book delivers on that promise.

The most striking aspect of this book might be the big-time hay it makes out of its central idea. The Life of Slang isn't just a title; it's an extended metaphor that Coleman plays with and exploits in every chapter, usually to great effect. Lots of writers talk about linguistic change in terms of biological change, but Coleman exploits the comparison to a degree I haven't seen before. References to evolution, mutation, frogs, tadpoles, and biologists abound. There are dozens of critter-based comparisons, such as: "Slang is short-lived in the same way the sea turtle is short-lived: of the hundreds hatching on a beach, many won't even make it to the sea, but some will enjoy a longer life than many humans." Every chapter frames the discussion in similarly biological terms, creating an appropriate lens for the many sub-topics of slang. If you enjoy thinking of lexicography as a branch of zoology, you'll love this book.

In her carefully curated slang zoo, Coleman looks at American slang, British slang, other English slang around the world, slang through the ages, and a spectacular array of slang sources. The depth of research is impressive. Coleman offers good advice on the hazards of etymology ("Be particularly wary of good stories") and looks at and how slang is coined and who coins it. The biological comparisons are particularly appropriate when discussing the social conditions that create slang, as Coleman examines the military, prisons, public schools, and colleges: four of the most prolific Petri dishes for slang. I felt like I had a better sense of slang's natural habitats after reading this book.

Coleman has an understated sense of humor that pops up frequently. After noting that a slang lexicographer "provided a short glossary of terms allegedly collected from beggars under threat of a whipping" she notes "This wouldn't be considered an acceptable or reliable way to collect linguistic data nowadays." That's not what I heard about Duke's linguistics program, but I laughed at that line. Coleman also writes with clarity and force. In discussing the stereotypes that slang attracts, it's hard to argue with the logic or dry humor of Coleman here: "While it may be true that some unintelligent people use slang, there's no shortage of stupid people using Standard English."

The only parts of the book that fell flat for me were some dialogues Coleman constructed as launching pads for various points. This is when the book is least persuasive. Saying "These conversations have more slang than you'd be likely to find in real life" doesn't alleviate their phoniness. To use Coleman's biological metaphor, it's a bit like sticking some fake fossils into the record and then making points based on the fakes. Even if the points make sense, the method discredits it. Fortunately, most of the book is more credible.

Real examples have their perils too, however, and occasionally I did lose track of the forest because there were so many trees, leaves, branches, and squirrels. (Despite my criticism, I think Coleman would appreciate that comparison.) While the range of rare slang dictionaries and sources quoted at length is impressive, and the examples are often enjoyable and interesting, the sheer number of details sometimes doesn't enhance the overall picture. Mentioning 50 kabillion slang terms just isn't as effective as analyzing two or three. I liked this book the most when Coleman stopped throwing fastballs and slowed down to look a term in depth, as she did with bling, examining it's journey from rap albums to newspapers to life as a mega-productive term that produced children such as blingification, non-blingy, and eco-bling. I love slang dictionaries, but a book about slang shouldn't turn into one.

Quibbles aside, Coleman does a terrific job of capturing a topic that's as slippery as the critters she often mentions. Like other slang scholars, Coleman offers her own definition of slang: "Slang is an attitude (insolence, for example, coolness, disdain, admiration, or a desire for conformity) expressed in words." Coleman's biological orientation offers a solid, intriguing look at those attitudes and the terms that convey them. Adams called slang The People's Poetry, but Coleman makes a terrific case that slang is also a social, lexical form of life.


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Mark Peters is a language columnist, lexicographer, and humorist who has written for Esquire, The Funny Times, New Scientist, Psychology Today, Salon, and Slate. He contributes to OUPblog and writes the Best Joke Ever column for McSweeney's. You can read Mark's own jokes on Twitter, such as, "I play by my own rules, which is probably why no one comes to my board game parties anymore." Click here to read more articles by Mark Peters.

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Comments from our users:

Tuesday June 19th 2012, 6:19 PM
Comment by: Judi S. (Spokane, WA)
Wonder what our beloved Snoot Prescriptivist David Foster Wallace would have to say. You've inspired me to get a copy of this book - thanks!

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