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Slang consists of a lexicon of non-standard words and phrases in a given language. Use of these words and phrases is typically associated with the subversion of a standard variety (such as Standard English) and is likely to be interpreted by listeners as implying particular attitudes on the part of the speaker. In some contexts a speaker's selection of slang words or phrases may convey prestige, indicating group membership or distinguishing group members from those who are not a part of the group.
Few linguists have endeavoured to clearly define what constitutes slang. Attempting to remedy this, Bethany K. Dumas and Jonathan Lighter argue that an expression should be considered "true slang" if it meets at least two of the following criteria:
Michael Adams remarks that "[slang] is liminal language... it is often impossible to tell, even in context, which interests and motives it serves... Slang is on the edge." Slang dictionaries, collecting thousands of slang entries, offer a broad, empirical window into the motivating forces behind slang.
While many forms of language may be considered "sub-standard", slang remains distinct from colloquial and jargon terms because of its specific social contexts. While considered inappropriate in formal writing, colloquial terms are typically considered acceptable in speech across a wide range of contexts, while slang tends to be considered unacceptable in many contexts. Jargon refers to language used by personnel in a particular field, or language used to represent specific terms within a field to those with a particular interest. Although jargon and slang can both be used to exclude non–group members from the conversation, the intention of jargon is to optimize conversation using terms that imply technical understanding. On the other hand, slang tends to emphasize social and contextual understanding. The expression "down size" is an example of jargon, while the adjective "gnarly" is an example of slang. "Down size" originated from 1990's era corporate jargon, as a euphemistic way to talk about layoffs. "Gnarly", by contrast, originates from off-roaders, talking about the most treacherous area of a mountain, which likely would have gnarls of some kind, but was extended by this same group to mean any kind of intense or particularly daring act. While colloquialisms and jargon may seem like slang because they reference a particular group, they do not fit the same definition, because they do not represent a particular effort to replace standard language. Colloquialisms are considered more standard than slang, and jargon is often created to talk about aspects of a particular field that are not accounted for in the standard lexicon.
It is often difficult to differentiate slang from colloquialisms and even more standard language, because slang generally becomes accepted into the standard lexicon over time. Words such as "spurious" and "strenuous" were once slang, though they are now accepted as standard, even high register words. The literature on slang even discusses mainstream acknowledgment of a slang term as changing its status as true slang, because it has been accepted by the media and is thus no longer the special insider speech of a particular group. Nevertheless, a general test for whether a word is a slang word or not is whether it would be acceptable in an academic or legal setting, as both are arenas in which standard language is considered necessary and/or whether the term has been entered in the Oxford English Dictionary, which some scholars claim changes its status as slang.
|This section may contain excessive, poor, or irrelevant examples. (May 2014)|
It is often difficult to collect etymologies for slang terms, largely because slang is a phenomenon of speech, rather than written language and etymologies which are typically traced via corpus.
Eric Partridge, cited as the first to report on the phenomenon of slang in a systematic and linguistic way, postulated that a term would likely be in circulation for a decade before it would be written down. Nevertheless, it seems that slang generally forms via deviation from a standard form. This "spawning" of slang occurs in much the same way that any general semantic change might occur. The difference here is that the slang term's new meaning takes on a specific social significance having to do with the group the term indexes.
Coleman also suggests that slang is differentiated within more general semantic change in that it typically has to do with a certain degree of “playfulness.” The development of slang is considered to be a largely “spontaneous, lively, and creative” speech process.
Still, while a great deal of slang takes off, even becoming accepted into the standard lexicon, much slang dies out, sometimes only referencing a group. An example of this is the term "groovy" which is a relic of 1960's and 70's American "hippy" slang. Nevertheless, for a slang term to become a slang term, people must use it, at some point in time, as a way to flout standard language. Additionally, slang terms may be borrowed between groups, such as the term "gig" which was originally coined by jazz musicians in the 1930s and then borrowed into the same hippy slang of the 1960s.
Slang is usually associated with a particular group and plays a role in constructing our identities. While slang outlines social space, attitudes about slang partly construct group identity and identify individuals as members of groups. Therefore, using the slang of a particular group will associate an individual with that group. Using Silverstein's notion of different orders of indexicality, it can be said that a slang term can be a second-order index to this particular group. Employing a slang term, however, can also give an individual the qualities associated with the term's group of origin, whether or not the individual is actually trying to identify as a member of the group. This allocation of qualities based on abstract group association is known as third-order indexicality.
As outlined by Elisa Mattiello in her book, An Introduction to English Slang: A Description of Its Morphology, Semantics, and Sociology, a slang term can take on various levels of identification. Giving the examples of the terms “foxy” and “shagadelic,” Mattiello explains that neither term makes sense given a standard interpretation of English:
Nevertheless, Matiello concludes that those agents who identify themselves as “young men” have “genuinely coined” these terms and choose to use them over “canonical” terms —like beautiful or sexy—because of the indexicalized social identifications the former convey.
In terms of first and second order indexicality, the usage of speaker-oriented terms by male adolescents indicated their membership to their age group, to reinforce connection to their peer group, and to exclude outsiders.
In terms of higher order indexicality, anyone using these terms may desire to appear fresher, undoubtedly more playful, faddish, and colourful than someone who employs the standard English term "beautiful." This appearance relies heavily on the hearer's third-order understanding of the term's associated social nuances and presupposed use-cases.
Often, distinct subcultures will create slang that members will use in order to associate themselves with the group, or to delineate outsiders.
Slang terms are often known only within a clique or ingroup. For example, Leet ("Leetspeak" or "1337") was originally popular only among certain Internet subcultures, such as software crackers and online video gamers. During the 1990s, and into the early 21st century, however, Leet became increasingly more commonplace on the Internet, and it has spread outside Internet-based communication and into spoken languages. Other types of slang include SMS language used on mobile phones, and "chatspeak," (e.g., "LOL", an acronym meaning "laughing out loud" or "laugh out loud" or ROFL, "rolling on the floor laughing"), which are widely used in instant messaging on the Internet.
As subcultures are also often forms of counterculture and counterculture itself can be defined as going against a standard, it follows that slang has come to be associated with counterculture.
In its earliest attested use (1756) the word slang referred to the vocabulary of "low or disreputable" people. By the early nineteenth century, it was no longer exclusively associated with disreputable people, but continued to be applied to language use below the level of standard educated speech. The origin of the word is uncertain, although it appears to be connected with Thieves' cant. A Scandinavian origin has been proposed (compare, for example, Norwegian slengenavn, which means "nickname"), but is discounted by the Oxford English Dictionary based on "date and early associations".
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