Street slang – the dodgy-looking geezer

Posted by on October 18, 2011

Subcultural English month brings you a guest post by Dan Clayton on the topic of street slang. Dan has taught English Language A level for the past 10 years in south London and is currently working as a Research Fellow at UCL’s Survey of English Usage on the Teaching English Grammar in Schools project. He blogs about language here.

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Ask most people about slang and they’d probably tell you that it’s fairly new, that it’s mostly used by young people and is often associated with urban culture – multi-ethnic communities, hip hop and R&B music, maybe even gangs and crime. Ask a linguist and they’d tell you that slang has been around forever, that it’s used by nearly all age groups and ethnicities and may well have links to crime, but might equally have links to knitting, tap dancing and computers. But street slang is definitely the dodgy-looking geezer in the slang family and actually fits some of the stereotypes laid at its door.

As the lexicographer Jonathon Green put it in the introduction to his Chambers Dictionary of Slang, slang is the “counter-language” that exists in opposition to Standard English. And street slang is one branch of this that certainly runs counter to the norms of polite society: it both conceals and celebrates getting one over on the law and your rivals, perhaps through violence (shanking, nanking or even murking your opponents), perhaps through humiliation of some kind (“You got boyed” or “You got ownedrubbing salt into the wounds of anyone who’s been beaten at something) and often finding new and colourful ways of describing guns, drugs, money and the police (strap, food, paper and the feds).

But even though many of these street slang terms might seem relatively new, they’ve often been knocking around for a good few years. A shank, or knife, and by extension to shank – to stab – has been a slang term for a sharpened object for over a hundred years, perhaps finding its origins in the Old English word for shin bone or leg, sceanca. Indeed, sharpened bones – or anything sharp really – were often used in prisons as weapons when proper knives couldn’t be found. But while shank is almost ubiquitous in modern street slang, its older relative shiv (perhaps derived from the Romany word chive) was more popular back in the 1960s but now seems to be on the wane.

What makes slang such a fascinating field is that it’s often the language of the margins, of people on the fringes of society who have less economic clout than those in the mainstream. But interestingly, when it comes to language, these people – the originators of slang – often have much more influence socially than they do economically.

While polite, mainstream society places a value on abiding by the law, many subcultures have historically tended to place a value on rebellious, perhaps even criminal behaviour and the language associated with it. Linguists (like Peter Trudgill in his 1972 Norwich study) talk about the notions of overt and covert prestige when these values intersect with language. Overt prestige relates to the respectability of language that is closer to the accepted standard, while covert prestige relates to the attraction that some people have to non-standard forms.

Street slang is a neat example of this because it clearly illustrates a type of language that isn’t publicly approved of, but is viewed by many as having power, credibility and a kind of rough glamour. What better way to rebel against your comfortable middle class upbringing than by adopting the language of an inner city drug dealer? Want a dash of danger with your Chardonnay? Just add a few references to your endz (local area) and your yard (house).

But while street slang suffuses its edginess into the language of mainstream society, gradually seeing those edges smoothed out (Let’s face it, even your Granny must know what bling is by now), the originators on the margins move on to generate new slang, reflecting their need to keep a sublanguage that is all their own, which helps define who they are. So as yesterday’s street slang becomes appropriated by the mainstream, today’s street slang starts afresh: new terms are coined by those on the streets to keep their business their business and help define the limits and scope of who they are and who they are not.

Comments (6)
  • Thanks for a fascinating post, Dan. The difficult relationship between slang and dictionaries is well illustrated by your last point: ‘the originators on the margins move on to generate new slang, reflecting their need to keep a sublanguage that is all their own’. By the time slang is recorded in a dictionary, it is – almost by definition =- no longer slang. So a historical slang dictionary is a worthwhile enterprise, but a ‘dictionary of current slang’ is a contradiction in terms.

    Posted by Michael Rundell on 18th October, 2011
  • Thanks, Michael. I know what you mean. Slang often seems quite an ephemeral thing, but it’s also interesting to see how many of the terms have been around for a long time and sunk into our mainstream, standard usage (cool, OK, wicked etc.). I also love the inventiveness of the creators of slang and their wordplay.

    Posted by dan on 18th October, 2011
  • Great article, Dan. Wicked, even — though that strikes me as school/college slang rather than street slang.

    On Michael’s point about a dictionary of current slang being a contradiction in terms: true of periodical print dictionaries, less so of frequently updated online ones, though the most infamous of these (Urban Dictionary) is low on reliability.

    Posted by Stan on 19th October, 2011
  • The BBC News magazine has done a feature on street slang http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/magazine-13445487

    Worth a look!

    Posted by dan on 21st October, 2011
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