Visit Your Local PBS Station PBS Home PBS Home Programs A-Z TV Schedules Watch Video Donate Shop PBS Search PBS
words that shouldn't be?
students in los angeles, ca

Slang & Sociability
Explore campus trends in colorful,casual language

Slayer Slang
Buffy did more than ward off vampires

Born in the USA
American slang has become global

Additional Resources
Sez Who? Index

Sez Who?

The Power of Slang

The  Common Denominator
Slang is generally a bit wittier and cleverer than Standard American English according to Tom Dalzell.  Slang is everywhere he says — and youth slang, in particular, exerts enormous power. 
Read Summary.

In 1892, Walt Whitman described slang as “the start of fancy, imagination and humor, breathing into its nostrils the breath of life.” [1] In the century-plus since Whitman’s lyrical characterization, the America that Whitman knew has been radically transformed by immigration, industrialization, urbanization and mass communication. Because of these changes and for the reasons suggested by Whitman, slang — with its breath of life — has permeated everyday speech. Slang is to a large extent ephemeral, and so to survive it must constantly regenerate; both the ephemeral and regenerative traits are nowhere more apparent than in the slang of American youth.

newspaper printing press, ohio

Slang pervades American speech to a startling degree. Its popularity can be gauged by the rush of journalists, politicians and purveyors of popular culture to embrace the latest word or phrase to spice up a newspaper headline, stump speech, advertisement or television script.

On the other side of the fence, prescriptive guardians of standard English and morality bemoan slang’s “degrading” effect on public discourse and culture; their outcry further attests to slang’s persistent and powerful presence in everyday American English.

Slang’s popularity and power with speakers of American English should not come as a surprise. By design, slang is wittier and more clever than standard English. As a species that seems to have a genetic inclination to linguistic creativity, we humans (to borrow again from Whitman) seem to find endearing slang’s “rich flashes of humor and genius and poetry.” With slang, each generation or subculture/counterculture group has the chance to shape and propagate its own lexicon, and in so doing to exercise originality and imagination. The end result is a lively, playful body of language that is at times used for no other reasons than that it is fun to use and identifies the speaker as clever and witty.

Slang establishes a sense of commonality

Slang’s primary reason for being, to establish a sense of commonality among its speakers, further ensures its widespread use. When slang is used, there is a subtext to the primary message. That subtext speaks to the speaker’s and listeners’ membership in the same “tribe.” Because “tribe” identity is so important, slang as a powerful and graphic manifestation of that identity’s benefits. At times the primary message is not in the meaning of what is said, but in the very use of slang — a compelling example of how the medium can be the message.

Similarly, in a society preoccupied with status, slang’s varied and explicit vocabulary addressing the nuances of status guarantees its widespread use. Slang plays a critical role whether it delineates winner (top dog) from loser (toast), in-crowd (BMOC) from outcast (dweeb), or oppressor (the Man) from oppressed (doormat), providing catchy and memorable labels for us versus them. In a similar vein, slang is also much more effective than standard or conventional English when it comes to describing sports, sex and intoxication. Conversation often turns to these important aspects of American culture, and when it does we draw upon slang far more than we would if discussing, for example, the economy, religion or foreign policy.

 American slang is also known for its fertility; it reproduces itself in abundance with each new generation. At any given moment, there are many, many slang words and expressions in use across the country. By a semantic process akin to natural selection, only the strong terms or phrases survive, spreading from the regional, cultural, age or ethnic group in which they are coined. The rest are quickly discarded and forgotten, footnoted testaments to a generation or subculture. With a few notable exceptions — most especially  cool — we tire of even the strongest words and they fade away, usually after being co-opted by advertisers and headline writers. Just like a living organism, to counteract its short-lived nature and survive, slang must constantly regenerate as a body of speech and subset of the language.

The four factors that are the most likely to produce slang are youth, oppression, sports and vice, which provide an impetus to coin and use slang for different sociolinguistic reasons. Of these four factors, youth is the most powerful stimulus for the creation and distribution of slang. For, although we are not all members of a group that is oppressed by a dominant culture, or sports fanatics immersed in the language and lore of the game, and we do not all dip our toes into the pool of vice with its attendant argot, we are all young once. When we are young, we are subject to the generational imperative to invent a slang vocabulary that we perceive as our own, rejecting the slang of our older brothers and sisters (let alone our parents) in favor of a new lexicon.

There are slow periods, to be sure. In the late 1970s, for example, the United States paused to gather its collective breath after a decade of presidential scandal, war and social/racial upheaval. During this pause, the coining and use of slang slowed — but not for long. Nature abhors a vacuum, and this is true with linguistic urges. Before long, new slang was on the scene.

Youth slang derives some of its power from its willingness to borrow from other bodies of slang. Despite its seeming mandate of creativity and originality, slang is blatantly predatory, borrowing without shame from possible sources. Foremost among them is the African-American vernacular, whose influence on American youth slang of the 20th century cannot be over-stated. Beginning in the late 1930s with the wild popularity of swing jazz and the jitterbug, continuing into the “jive generation” that fought World War II, through the beats and hipsters of the 1950s, the Sixties’ mainstream youth and hippies alike, into the pervasive patois of hip-hop, American youth slang has borrowed consistently and generously from the slang of the black American urban experience.

dj in nyc

In the 1930s, mainstream youth eager to embrace the language of their jazz-musician idols pored over Cab Calloway’s “hiptionaries,” jive glossaries for the uninitiated. In the 1950s and 1960s, the slang of American teenagers was shaped in large part by fast-talking AM radio disk jockeys, who drew upon the black urban vernacular for their vocabulary, syntax, pacing and soul — “Come on South Philly. Come on, come on, West Philly, come on South Jersey, come on, yon teenagers everywhere. Hit that thing now. Hey, hey, ho, ho. Let me say greetings and salutations…” the disc jockeys would shout. In the 1980s, hip-sounding video-jockeys on MTV joined the ranks of slang instructors; their language was also heavily influenced by the African-American street. For the last two years, the black slang of hip-hop culture and rap music has dominated American youth slang among all classes, whether or not they embrace the actual rap music and the hip-hop ethic. Another source for youth slang is, surprisingly, the slang graveyard of generations past. When teenagers in the mid-1960s jumped onto “groovy” and “boss” as primary adjectives of strong approval, they were simply recycling rejects — from the 1940s in the case of “groovy” and the 1870s in the case of “boss.” When the youth of the seventies embraced “sweet” as their adjective of praise, they unknowingly harkened back to teenage slang of the 1930s. Similarly, the appropriation of “fly” as a prime piece of the vocabulary of hip-hop and rap in the 1980s was no more than a salvage operation from the slang of jazz musicians of the 1930’s, which in turn drew from the 1870s.

Slang is a core element of youth culture

Whatever its source, youth slang is a core element of youth culture, as a defiant gesture of resistance and an emblem of tribe identity. Fashion and hair styles are other key manifestations of a generation’s identity, but they can be easily regulated by adult authorities. With music and language, regulation and restriction are much more difficult. Even the most vigilant and repressive attempts by adult authority cannot completely eradicate slang and music with its slang lyrics. Language can be scrutinized and controlled in some places at some times, but it defies universal regulation, which allows its subversive nature to prevail.

As we move into our twenties, we gradually stop acquiring new slang and then ultimately just stop; we also slowly stop using our existing slang vocabulary. For most of our adult lives, we use the core slang vocabulary acquired in our youth either as a lingering symbol of our generational identity or simply on a vestigial basis. When we think of slang, then, we either think of our children’s slang or the slang of our own youth. For this reason, if no other, the slang of youth exerts enormous power over American English. Of all the vernacular, slang is the most spectacular. Slang swings. Slang moves and grooves. Slang rocks, slang rules.

Back to Top

Suggested Reading/Additional Resources

  • Adams, Michael. Slayer Slang, Buffy the Vampire Slayer Lexicon. Oxford University Press, 2003.
  • Dalzell,Tom. Flappers 2 Rappers: American Youth Slang. Springfield, MD: Merriam-Webster Inc.,1996.
  • Eble, Connie C. Slang & Sociability: In-group Languages among College Students. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1996.
Tom Dalzell received a bachelor's degree in American Civilization from the University of Pennsylvania in 1971. In 1976, he was admitted to practice law in California after studying under the supervision of an attorney for four years. Dalzell has practiced union-side labor law since 1976, and is currently employed by Local 1245 of the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers, AFL-CIO. Since 1983,Dalzell has devoted "a considerable portion" of his life to the study of American slang, and is recognized as a national expert. He has authored two books on slang, Flappers 2 Rappers: American Youth Slang (Merriam-Webster, 1996) and The Slang of Sin (Merriam-Webster, 1998). In addition, Dalzell wrote the chapter on the slang of hip-hop in Speaking Freely: A Guided Tour of American English from Plymouth Rock to Silicon Valley by Stuart Berg Flexner and Anne H. Soukhanov (Oxford University Press, 1997). Dalzell is the senior editor of The New Partridge Dictionary of Slang and Unconventional English, a two-volume dictionary to be published by Routledge of London in 2005. He has appeared made dozens of media appearances, and has also contributed to contributed to William Safire's column in the New York Times.
Back to Top
  1. Walt Whitman: “Slang in America” from Prose Works  (1892).

Sponsored by:

National Endowment for the Humanities Hewlett Foundation Ford Foundation   Arthur Vining Davis Foundations Carnegie Corporation

National Endowment
for the Humanities

William and Flora Hewlett
Foundation

Ford
Foundation

Rosalind P.
Walter

Arthur Vining
Davis Foundations

Carnegie
Corporation of New York