By Professor Julie Coleman, School of English, University of Leicester.
Slang-users are sometimes dismissed as uneducated or unintelligent: they use slang because they have a limited vocabulary: they don’t know any better words. This is, of course, all my eye and Betty Martin (1781—), bosh (1834?), rot (1846?), tosh (1892?), crap (1898?), bullshit (1915?), bollocks (1919?), and pants (1994?, UK). An individual whose slang vocabulary includes banging, mega, sound as a pound, super cool, wicked, and wicked bad undoubtedly also knows plenty of colloquial and standard words with the same meaning, like good, great, fantastic, wonderful, excellent, and amazing, several of which were slang themselves when they were first used. Someone who knew all of these terms would probably be able to select one appropriate to a given context without having to think about it. Slang doesn’t drive other words from your head: it merely offers a range of alternatives that are more appropriate to less formal contexts. The slang-user may well have a wider vocabulary than their Standard-English-speaking critic. While it may be true that some unintelligent people use slang, there’s no shortage of stupid people using Standard English.
Slang often involves the use of established words in different ways, which implies that the first users of slang terms either didn’t know the correct use of a word, or that they deliberately and creatively subverted its normal meaning and use. If the first explanation were correct, prostrate would be slang when it’s used for prostate (1686?), bona fides (1845+1885, from Latin “good faith”) would be slang when it’s used as a plural (1942?), and hopefully would be slang when it is used in the sense “it is hoped” (1932?) instead of with the meaning “in a hopeful manner” (c1639—). These aren’t slang because we can’t identify the social group they belong to, and since language just does change, there comes a point when even the most repressive judges have to stop calling changes in use wrong.
So is it the case that slang-users are particularly creative and innovative individuals, who mould language to their own ends and refuse to be restricted by convention? Well, no. Slang-users are no more innovative and creative than anyone else: they didn’t come up with these usages, after all. The creators of slang terms are, by definition, creative, but the same could be said for creators of Standard English terms. Far more difficult than creating terms is getting other people to use them.
Today, slang is particularly strongly associated with teenagers and young adults. We go to school and then perhaps on to university with people of our own age. During this time we do most of our socializing with people our own age. For this reason, we tend to learn our slang from people our own age. This has probably contributed to the sense that slang has a limited shelf-life, because teenagers will always seek to distinguish themselves not only from their parents, but also from their older (and younger) siblings and cousins. For example, attractive males are a common topic of conversation among teenage girls. A woman who was a teenager in the 1950s might have called an attractive man a dreamboat (1944—), but by the 1970s, when her own daughter was dating, the mother’s peers would probably be the only ones still using that word, which would therefore have come to mean, for their daughters, “the type of man who would appeal to your mother”. The daughters, in contrast, might be looking out for a hunk (1942—). It wouldn’t matter that hunk is actually older than dreamboat. The important thing, in this context, is that it’s not a term your mother uses.
It’s only relatively recently, since WWII, that young people have been considered the main users and creators of slang. Before that point, only well-defined sub-groups of young people were considered likely to be slang users. Public school-boys and wealthy young men were written up as the most fluent slang users in nineteenth-century Britain; the infantry were depicted as fluent slang users during WWI; with RAF officers apparently using the most during WWII. These were all young men, but they weren’t considered representative of young people or young men as a whole.
It is also since WWII that slang has come to be associated with particular ethnic groups. From the 1940s, we begin to see terms originating in African-American slang, particularly in the slang of musicians, being depicted as general youth slang. But this isn’t the whole story. This could have been a passing fad if it hadn’t been for the depictions and descriptions of young men who were risking their lives for their country. Entertaining and educational films emphasized the camaraderie that developed among (unrealistically) ethnically mixed servicemen from a wide range of geographical, social, and educational backgrounds. Special Services, the entertainment branch, wasn’t segregated, and entertainments organized for military personnel brought live jazz and swing to young men and women who might never have experienced it if they had stayed in their parents’ homes. Even if the young people who served during WWII had stopped using these slang terms when they got home and settled down into proper jobs, it’s likely that their younger brothers and sisters would have picked them up from films and records.
But many veterans didn’t settle down into proper jobs straight after the war. The G.I. Bill funded college education for many of these slightly older men whose dangerous and exotic experiences gave them a well-founded disrespect for authority, particularly for toothless civilian officials. They must have been irresistibly attractive to female students and to younger males looking for role models. Tertiary education expanded dramatically in the post-war years, and ex-servicemen contributed to a significant change in the nature of university experience in the United States. Veterans of the Korean and Vietnam wars also found their way on to university campuses, and because young men were still subject to the draft, there was a constant interchange of people and slang between these two groups. Moral supervision of students’ social lives became a thing of the past, and students’ energies became more involved with the social trends and political issues of the world off-campus.
There’s one final reason why American Black/youth slang became so influential and innovative during and after WWII, and that’s the growth in consumerism. In constantly striving for the latest new thing, the music and film industries, along with commercial radio and television, advertisers and promoters, did much to promulgate the slang that was already in use, and also sometimes created their own slang in an attempt to appeal to the youth market. Slang can make products seem modern, novel, amusing, intriguing, aspirational, and rebellious, all at once, but it’s necessary to renew this appeal to the youth market with great regularity, and this has contributed to a rapid turnover of slang terms in the post-war period. Advertisers and the media have used Black slang to imbue their products with coolness, and the commercialization of existing slang necessitates the creation of new terms to re-establish the rejection of white values, with these new terms and trends often being commercialized in their turn. Just as fashion-designers have adapted street-wear and the music industry has promoted African-American musical forms, advertisers have co-opted contemporary African-American slang, sometimes operating differently for black and white consumers, to give their products an aura of coolness, modernity, rebellion, and humour.
[Adapted from my The Life of Slang (Oxford, OUP, 2012), with permission from OUP]
Professor Julie Coleman is the Deputy Head of School/Director of Research in the School of English at the University of Leicester. Professor Coleman will be discussing the use of slang at this year’s Literary Leicester Festival – ‘From Ace to Zoot’ – 9 November, Univeristy of Leicester.
You can read more from Julie on the Oxford Words blog and the Huffington Post: