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What is slang, and where does it come from?

C C Offline

EXCERPT: [...] But what counts as slang? Where does it come from? And why does it exert such a powerful hold on the middle--class imagination? Jonathon Green sets out to answer these questions in the course of charting the development of slang as it is recorded in literature, from medieval beggar-books to World War II soldiers’ pornography.

Perhaps appropriately, “slang” has proved a slippery word for dictionary-makers to trace. As Green points out [...] no formal attempt was made to pin down its origins until 1859, and no etymology has been proven. [...] Green, however, has a strong view of where slang originates and why. It is, in his view, a product of the city. It can absorb dialect words and those of professional jargons, but its role is distinct. Slang, he argues, exists as a counter-language, a “language that says no.” It is necessarily oppositional to “standard English” and is spoken to reinforce a community that needs to express itself, often in coded fashion, in a vocabulary that signals its disregard for polite norms.

Some of the earliest written records we have of slang are in books that profess to warn the reader against the cant used by professional criminals and false beggars to evade detection by law-abiding citizens. This genre of book flourished between the 14th and the 16th centuries and endured in various guises into the modern era.

[...] Green shows that in the 19th century, America and Australia both took a more positive view of slang than Britain did. Dickens mocked the vulgar nature of American newspapers by satirizing them as “the New York Sewer, the New York Stabber, the New York Plunderer, and the New York Keyhole Reporter.” But the American popular press, particularly in its court reports, was a creative medium for representing the irreverent voices of a diverse population. It gave us expressions such as the “Bible Belt,” “blurb,” the “Chicagorilla” (gangster), the “cliffhanger,” the “hick,” the “goofball,” and the “pushover.” Walt Whitman, an avid slang collector, observed that “language is .  .  . like some vast living body. .  .  . And slang not only brings the first feeders of it, but is afterward the start of fancy, imagination and humor, breathing into its nostrils the breath of life.”

America’s greater tolerance for the genius inherent in grassroots language may well explain why its literature, from Mark Twain to Philip Roth, is better connected to the “workingman” as a speaking subject rather than as an object of anxiety. In the 21st-century world, where informal oral media (TV, film, YouTube) shape global discourse, it is American slang that has “gone the distance.”...

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