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words that shouldn't be?
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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

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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.
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In 1892,Walt Whitman described slang as “the start of fancy, imagination and humor, breathing into its nostrils the breath of life.” Slang permeates our everyday speech, for reasons that are not difficult to grasp. To persist, it is both ephemeral and fecund, traits that are nowhere more apparent than in the slang of youth.

Slang pervades American speech to a startling degree. One need look no further than the headline writers and purveyors of popular culture who rush to embrace the latest phrase, countered by the prescriptive guardians of standard English and morality who bemoan its use, to gauge slang’s persistent presence in everyday American English.

This fact should not surprise. By design, slang is for the most part a bit wittier and cleverer than standard English; borrowing from Whitman once more, slang’s “rich flashes of humor and genius and poetry” are endearing to a species that seem to have a genetic inclination to linguistic creativity. Slang’s primary reason for being — to establish a sense of commonality among its speakers — ensures its widespread use. And in a society preoccupied with social status, slang’s rich vocabulary addressing status even further guarantees its spread.

American slang is also known for its fertility, reproducing itself in new combinations. At any given moment, there are many, many slang words and expressions in use in America. By a process of natural selection, only the strong survive. Most are quickly discarded and forgotten. With a few notable exceptions — cool being the most notable among them — we tire of even the strong; they fade away, usually after being co-opted by advertisers and headline writers. To counteract its short-lived nature, slang must be — and is — remarkably fertile.

Of the four factors most likely to produce slang — youth, oppression, sport, and vice —youth is the most powerful. Although we are not all oppressed, are not all sports fanatics, and do

not all dip our toes into the pool of vice, we are all young once — and thus all subject to the generational imperative to invent a slang vocabulary that we perceive as our own.

Youth slang is blatantly predatory, pouncing on any and all slang for its own purposes. Foremost among its sources 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, on through the beats and hipsters of the 1950s, the ’60s mainstream youth and hippies, and into the pervasive patois of hip-hop, American youth slang has borrowed continually and generously from the slang of the black urban experience.

As we pass from our teens into our twenties, most of us stop acquiring new slang and our use of it starts taper off. We are, for most of our adult lives, left with a core slang vocabulary acquired in our youth. For this reason, if no other, the slang of youth exerts enormous power over American English.

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.

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