Slang keeps on swinging

Posted by on September 20, 2011

When people lament the state of the English language, they often criticise new vocabulary, such as the slang, buzzwords and jargon that arise from young people, advertising, and technology. But new vocabulary marks linguistic change only in a relatively superficial way. Significant changes in language happen more slowly.

In a short video for Global about how the internet is changing language, David Crystal points out that English has remained essentially the same since the advent of this technology. Grammar and spelling have not mutated – though variant forms and new styles are now more visible – and the common vocabulary has grown only slightly, relative to its total size.

Slang, however, is always an active frontier. Traditionally, lexicographers have been cautious about including new slang, because so much of it is ephemeral. Slang dictionaries are different, of course, and nowadays some dictionaries have websites that allow more flexibility in what can be recorded. Macmillan Dictionary’s BuzzWord and Open Dictionary pages exemplify this by showcasing (and, in the latter case, inviting) words and usages of recent or limited currency.

When popular slang is added to a print dictionary, it can attract considerable media attention. Informal acronyms like OMG and LOL make for catchy, quirky headlines, but unfortunately at the expense of substance. In his recent article “Why say pundigrion when you could say pun?”, Michael Rundell regrets that when it comes to lexicography, newspapers “seem incapable of focussing on anything but trivia”.

The disproportionate interest in peripheral aspects of lexicography can fuel a widespread misunderstanding of it, and of language generally. Time and again, people get bothered about dictionaries “trying to be cool” or even “losing their dignity” simply by including current or recent slang. But dictionaries catalogue and define the words people use; coolness doesn’t enter into it (except in the appropriate entry).

The 19th-century linguist William Dwight Whitney said slang combines “exuberance of mental activity, and the natural delight of language-making”. Most of it fades quickly, but there is always a chance that it won’t, particularly if it captures something vital about a particular culture, subculture, or time.

Innovation in language, just as anywhere else, is a sign of health. The slang condemned by strict linguistic conservatives, far from indicating a decline, rather suggests an interest in language and a creative enthusiasm that propels it in new directions.

Comments (7)
  • “Grammar and spelling have not mutated – though variant forms and new styles are now more visible.”

    I think this is an important point. Many people complain about the decline of literacy with the advent of the internet and texting, but I see no reason to believe that standards are actually slipping. The truth is that most people are not great spellers, let alone great writers. In fact, I’d bet that people are writing a lot more than they used to. But ten or twenty years ago, most unedited writing was hidden from the public; technology has simply shown us how ubiquitous it really is.

    Posted by Jonathon on 20th September, 2011
  • Thanks, Jonathon. That’s how I look at it too: the internet isn’t responsible for poor standards of writing; it might well be improving them. But it does show how widespread bad spelling and non-standard forms are, and this gives doom-mongers something to point to and howl at.

    Posted by Stan on 21st September, 2011
  • [...] blog, David Crystal explored trademarks that have become generic, and Stan Carey discussed slang and innovation in language. Meanwhile, word worlds collided with Mr. Carey’s review of Mr. Crystal’s book, Evolving [...]

    Posted by This Week’s Language Blog Roundup | Wordnik ~ all the words on 23rd September, 2011
  • I remember reading once that beat it ‘go away’ and bones ‘dice’ had remained slang from Chaucer’s day to our own, without ever being lost or becoming standard. (However, the OED traces the former only to 1906, and labels it “originally U.S.”; it fails to list the latter at all.)

    Posted by John Cowan on 5th October, 2011
  • John: I’m amazed that beat it can be traced back so far. I’d have guessed it emerged in modern English, perhaps from criminal cant. (The first time I remember noticing it was in the Michael Jackson song.) Presumably bones has been used for dice ever since bones were actually used for dice; maybe the term was too morbid to become standard – too close to the bone, you might say.

    Posted by Stan on 6th October, 2011
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  • [...] all sorts of clever, funny and inventive new uses of language’, as Michael put it. Texting, like slang, is an ‘active frontier’, and the innovation and flux it illustrates is a sign of linguistic [...]

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