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It’s the poetry every American writes every day—a centuries-old epic of abuse, taunt, criminality, love, and bright, mocking beauty.
October 2003 | Volume 54, Issue 5
SLANG IS “INTENTIONALLY UNDIGNIFIED, STARTLING, OR AMUSING.”
Ain’t right isn’t slang, is it?
Ain’t is in some ways a test case. Ninety-eight percent of the American public probably would say, “Yes, absolutely, ain’t is slang,” but I don’t believe that ain’t has been labeled as slang by any dictionary in this century. Sometimes it is described as “nonstandard” or “substandard” or possibly as “informal.” If we knew the exact reasons for this, we might have more of an insight into where the boundary lies between slang and other sorts of English.
Vocabulary exists on a shifting spectrum, ranging from the completely standard and formal to the almost always objectionable. Precise boundaries between Standard or formal English on the one hand and slang and colloquialisms on the other just can’t be identified. The situation reminds me of something Aristotle said: “The trained mind should not expect more precision than the subject matter allows.”
Besides the criminals you mentioned, who used slang almost as a code language, what other groups have contributed the most to slang in America?
The largest group undoubtedly consists of people under the age of 25, regardless of occupation or interests or ethnicity.
Would that be true of all periods?
I suspect so.
Is it a case of each generation’s rebelling against the formal language of its parents?
Possibly, but I’m not so sure it’s simply a question of rebelling. I think young people have a natural tendency toward high spirits in speech, toward showing off and being verbally playful, and that the older one gets, the more one’s attention is diverted elsewhere.
Of course, particular occupational groups have also contributed to our vocabulary of slang. And you get many terms from sports.
In this century, though, probably the single most influential group has been the armed forces. This was especially true when the draft was in effect —during the First World War and then beginning again in 1940 and lasting right up until 1973—when young men from all over the country were brought into unfamiliar institutional circumstances and faced with all sorts of new challenges and difficulties.
The military experience quickly produced a lot of slang. Some of the terms have become well known, such as snafu , from the Second World War, and GI , from a little earlier. Now that we haven’t had a draft in 30 years, the military influence on slang may be declining while the influence from high schools, colleges, and popular music is increasing.
Do a lot of slang words gradually rise to respectability? One thinks of baloney or—perhaps the most famous American expression of all— O.K. , which I guess is standard now. Was O.K. slang in the beginning?
Yes, and certainly O.K. didn’t seem at its inception to be a very promising candidate for survival. Alien Walker Reed, a great student of Americanisms, discovered the earliest-known examples of O.K. in a Boston newspaper of 1839.
During what must have been a very slow news period, there was something of a fad in the Boston paper for creating ridiculous acronyms, which were then explained at the bottom of the page. Reed found a good number of these. They must have been amusing at the time, although they seem awfully stupid today. One of these was O.K. —which was glossed as all , spelled oll to make it funnier, and correct , spelled with a k . By coincidence, the very next year Martin Van Buren ran for President. He was nicknamed Old Kinderhook because he came from Kinderhook, New York. His supporters formed an O.K. Club, where the audience would applaud speeches and yell, “O.K., O.K.” For a long time it was believed that the term itself came from Old Kinderhook , but it’s quite clear now that this was simply an adaptation of the Boston O.K. And because it was a national campaign, O.K. eventually became quite well known. By the time of the Civil War people were writing O.K. without translation. By then most Americans seem to have known what it meant.
What are some of our other sources of slang? What about the various ethnic groups, like the waves of Yiddish-speaking Jewish immigrants? What about African-Americans? What about Hispanics? I haven’t noticed much Hispanic slang creeping into the language. Have you?