Behind the Dictionary
Lexicographers Talk About Language
For the past three decades Professor Connie Eble has been pursuing a unique project: Tracking the slang of her students. The in-house linguist of the University of North Carolina's English Department, she polls her students every semester about their non-standard language. This long-term research has given Professor Eble a singular window into the function of language in society, which she discusses in her book Slang and Sociability. Professor Eble recently gathered the latest crop of slang from her students, so we called her to find out what she found, and what it means.
VT: How did you become interested in slang?
Connie: When I was a beginning assistant professor back in the late 1960's, I was trying to figure out ways to better teach students about morphology, which is the study of how words are put together and how we make up new words. So I asked them if they'd share some of their slang, and we would then test those words against the processes we were working with. These were very ordinary processes, like putting two words together to make a new word, what we call compounding, adding prefixes or suffixes to a word, shortening words or creating acronyms. I thought their slang might make this exercise a little more interesting.
VT: How did this exercise evolve into your academic research?
Connie: For the first few years I didn't think that this was something I would use for research purposes. I was just trying to make a point with my students. But after several years, I had amassed a small collection of slang and a fellow linguist encouraged me to make a presentation about it at a scholarly meeting. That went over very, very well and a lot of people there encouraged me to study this subject further. At the time, I didn't think that this would be my major research project for life. But that's what it turned out to be. My database runs over 30 years.
VT: Tell us a little bit about your research.
Connie: On the day when we talk about morphology, I ask students to bring 10 items of current campus slang written on index cards. As I discuss in my book "Slang and Sociability," I try to describe the forms that this slang takes -- the fact that slang uses the same sort of processes that the general language does. I look into what slang means, the subject areas where it tends to crop up, and the function of its social nature. The characteristics of slang grow from the fact that it is a kind of language which is social in purpose. It's really not for transmitting ideas or factual information from one person to another. We have a standard vocabulary to do that with. The purpose of slang has more to do with bonding - or not bonding -- with other people, and creating a distinct community.
VT: Can you give us some examples from your latest research? Any surprises?
Connie: Well, I recently collected items from my fall semester classes. Surprises? There are some trends, maybe, but nothing terribly surprising. The words reinforce what we already know about the nature of slang. The source of slang, as has been the case for a while, is mainly popular culture that appeals to college students, which means rap, stand-up comedy, certain television shows and movies and the like. A lot of the terms come from lyrics presented by African American musicians. But while many of the terms originate in the African American community, the students in my classes are mostly white and female. By and large they haven't picked up these words from being in personal contact with African Americans. They get them through the media.
The words are very value-laden, so laden with approval and disapproval. That's because that's what serves the community that uses them. The words help the students form little groups and say who's in and who's out. The words are terribly judgmental. And as a whole, they're not associated with pleasant ideas and feelings -- they're filled with things that we would consider obscenities. But students do understand that this is their language. Most of them don't use it when they talk to me, except to tell me something because they know I'm interested in slang. When they come into my office to discuss the problems they're having in class, they use Standard English.
VT: So they differentiate.
Connie: Absolutely. You see, I'm not one of their peers. I don't even try to use their language. I don't go around saying that something's "sketch" if I mean I think something is dangerous. I would say, "I'm not going to go in that parking lot, I think it could be dangerous." The kids would say, "It's sketch, don't go there."
This kind of vocabulary forges an identity out of a group of people who have been thrown together for some reason or another. Here the reason they've been thrown together is that they're all on the same campus for an education. But their slang has nothing to do with that. If you look at their slang, you could hardly tell that they're students because there's nothing in it about their schoolwork, except there might be a slang term for failing a test. For the most part their slang has to do with making judgments about other people. They have all kinds of words for ugly, for picking people up in a bar and for good looking females, like "dime" - a "perfect ten" would be a "dime." These are such judgmental words. There are words about getting in someone's face, words to dominate somebody. They almost all have to do with relationships between people. It's really quite predictable in what subjects areas slang is going to crop up.
VT: These words seem so different than the slang I used in college 25 years ago.
Connie: Well, they are.
VT: Do these slang words disappear quickly?
Connie: Sometimes. For the set of data that I considered for my book, up to 1995, I looked at every single word that had been turned in to me. I discovered that almost half of the words -- in a period of about 20 years -- had been submitted only one time. The students, and not only students, are floating these terms constantly. Some of them take and some of them don't. Some of them are terribly clever, and others are not. The ones that last the longest are usually the simplest ones, like "cool." Of course, cool has been around for so long that it's not even considered slang; the students don't turn "cool" in as an item of slang. They don't consider "awesome" slang anymore, either. It's just ordinary vocabulary for them. "Sweet" is also soon not going to be considered slang. "Sweet," by the way, was the number one term that was turned in over that period of 20 years. But most of the terms you wouldn't recognize. In fact, I have former students who come back six or eight years after they graduate and ask me for the current list. When they look at it they say, "Oh, my God, I'm getting old, I don't know any of these words."
VT: What are the highlights from this past semester's crop of slang?
Connie: The top one was "sketch" or "sketchy," the word I mentioned earlier, which means "potentially dangerous." You can talk about a place being "sketch" or "sketchy" or you can even describe a person in this way. Very often it's used by a female speaker who's talking about a male who is unknown to her or who maybe is trying to make sexual advances toward her. She would say, "That guy's sketch," or call him a "sketchball." "Sketch" has been popular now for a couple of semesters.
"Banging" is another one that is popular right now. When I first collected it, it referred mostly to what a girl looks like, meaning she's very attractive. But now it seems to have generalized, so a situation can even be "banging" if it's good. It now has positive values associated with it. It's also become generalized, which is something that happens in language with a lot of ordinary words. Another popular one was, "random," or "a random." It means a person who's not known to you, as in, "I went to this party, but there were a bunch of randoms there." Students also shorten this to "rando," so they could say, "Oh, this rando came up to me." You can see how these meanings are useful to them because they refer to their social life, the sort of thing these young people are talking about.
VT: It seems like a kind of private language.
Connie: Well, it's not really private. But it changes enough that as a student you to have your antennae out if you want to be accepted and not considered "awkweird" -- one of the new ones, a combination of "awkward" and "weird."
VT: What about the influence of the Internet?
Connie: Given the fact that students live on the Internet, they use things like interrupting a conversation by saying, "Oh, BRB," meaning "be right back." "To facebook" was a very popular word students turned in as slang for about four semesters. But I don't think anybody turned it in this past semester. They don't think of it as slang anymore because they use it so much -- it's so ordinary for them "to facebook" online, it's become as neutral as "to google" information. Even my 92-year-old father knows what "to google" means. So for them "to facebook" doesn't have any special overtones. Slang always has an element of subversiveness or anti-authority or trendiness or something of that sort. There's always some little edge to slang. When a word gets used so much that it loses that edge, it's no longer thought of as slang.