Is it or ain't it? [slang]

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Is it or ain't it? [slang]

Post by spiritus » Thu Dec 29, 2005 11:09 pm

Is there a defined set of criteria for what designates a word or phrase as "slang"? I note that certain factors like longevity of usage; number of users; frequency of usage in formal and informal speech, seem to be arbitrary in application to some forms of slang.

What one word describes a word that is considered, "non-slang"?
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Is it or ain't it? [slang]

Post by dalehileman » Fri Dec 30, 2005 2:13 am

Spirit, that is indeed a good question. What's needed is a manageable set of succinct rules of thumb by which one might quickly decide whether a word or phrase should be classified as slang, vernacular, colloquialism, idiom, patois, argot, metaphor, etc, vs ordinary English

I have posed a very similar thread with little helpful response. Consensus had it that you could do no such thing because all the categories overlap so; and indeed any such listing as I proposed would have to be largely arbitrary. Nonetheless with your query I'd like to see this theme revitalized

Regarding slang itself, Ken referred me to a lengthy discussion, "What is slang?" in the preface
to H-C Dict of Am. Slang, which if you possess the tome I hope you might find helpful
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Is it or ain't it? [slang]

Post by Phil White » Fri Dec 30, 2005 11:16 am

Some of my thoughts on at least part of Che's question are here.
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Is it or ain't it? [slang]

Post by Ken Greenwald » Fri Dec 30, 2005 8:21 pm

Che, My answer to your first question is no. And my answer to your second question is Standard English.

Dale, We have been over this road many times before and the theme to at least my answer hasn’t changed. Do a search for postings with the word ‘slang’ in the title and you will find my opinion and the opinions of others on this subject.

The following is a bit sloppy because my heart just isn’t in it. But trying to find a universally accepted definition of SLANG, etc. seems to me to be an exercise in futility, which is why I have assiduously avoided spending much time on answering the question in the past. But, in the seasonal spirit of giving, here are a few of my random thoughts on the subject, which you may or may not consider more appealing than lumps of coal in your stocking, but which I hope will encourage you and others to stop asking this same question over and over again. (<:)
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What is SLANG? – It’s nonstandard English. What is nonstandard English?– It’s SLANG. Look in almost any slang dictionary and you will find a long discussion in the introduction, telling you not what slang is, but what the particular author is taking it to be for purposes of writing their book. The reason they do that is because there is no universal agreement. Look at the definitions of slang in various dictionaries and the words ‘vague,’ ‘poorly defined,’ ‘contradictory,’ “I don’t agree with that,” and “what do folks in the slang dodge ‘really’ mean by slang” come to mind.

The American Heritage Dictionary, Merriam-Webster’s Unabridged, and the Oxford English Dictionary, for example, provide definitions that just don’t seem to jibe with the reality of what most slang mavens and writers of slang dictionaries take slang to be. A few, such as the Historical Dictionary of American Slang, New Shorter Oxford English Dictionary, and the Random House Unabridged Dictionary, which do a better job, still don’t provide the definite criteria folks would need to make real and practical decisions on what words to include or exclude if writing their own slang dictionary.
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American Heritage Dictionary

SLANG – 1) A kind of language occurring chiefly in casual and playful speech, made up typically of short-lived coinages and figures of speech that are deliberately used in place of standard terms for added raciness, humor, irreverence, or other effect. 2) Language peculiar to a group; argot or jargon: thieves' slang.

SHORT-LIVED coinages? Are they serious? If we look up their definition of ‘short-lived’ we find: “Living or lasting only a short time; ephemeral.” And ‘ephemeral’ is defined: 1) Lasting for a markedly brief time 2) Living or lasting only for a day, as certain plants or insects do.

So what do they mean by ‘short and ephemeral’ – a day, a year, 5 years, 25 years? If one looks through a dictionary of slang such as Cassell’s, Chapman’s, Partridge's, etc., one would hardly consider most of the entries to be what would be considered by most ‘short-lived.’ And I would hazard a guess that the majority are older than 50 years or so – unless they are considering ‘ephemeral’ on the scale of the history of the English language. Unfortunately, the terms in which SLANG is defined by most dictionaries are ill-defined, so they don’t’ provide a great deal of specificity (ughh – did I actually use that word?) to help guide us on our way.
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For a laugh (or is it a cry?) take a look at what the venerable Oxford English Dictionary has to say:

SLANG: 1a) The special vocabulary used by any set of persons of a low or disreputable character; language of a low and vulgar type. 1b) The special vocabulary or phraseology of a particular calling or profession; the cant or jargon of a certain class or period.1c) Language of a highly colloquial type, considered as below the level of standard educated speech, and consisting either of new words or of current words employed in some special sense.

Actually I thought they were doing pretty well on 1c (although ‘colloquial’ is another can of worms) until they said “and consisting of new words or of current words” – do they seriously believe that’s what slang is? What about all those beautiful ‘slang’ words from the 19th century (or even from Shakespeare for that matter), which could hardly be considered by most of us to be ‘new or current’? What about the majority of those 70,000 or so words and phrases in Cassell’s Dictionary of Slang? But since they haven’t precisely defined ‘current and new,’ maybe they consider it to mean newer than 1900, or is it 1800, or is . . .? I do agree, though, that the category of cant and jargon is a legitimate subset of slang, although the Historical Dictionary of American Slang as well as Cassell’s make a point of generally excluding it.
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Merriam-Webster’s Unabridged Dictionary

SLANG: A nonstandard vocabulary composed of words and senses characterized primarily by connotations of extreme informality and usually a currency not limited to a particular region and composed typically of coinages or arbitrarily changed words, clipped or shortened forms, extravagant, forced, or facetious figures of speech, or verbal novelties usually experiencing quick popularity and relatively rapid decline into disuse. [[I thought they were doing pretty good until they got to the ‘quick popularity and rapid decline into disuse’ part]]
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New Shorter Oxford English Dictionary (the 2 volume, 3801 page, 1993 edition)

SLANG: Language that is regarded as very informal or much below standard educated level. [[at least they had the good sense to exclude what I consider the bogus description “consisting of new words or of current words” provided in the earlier full monty OED,]].
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Random House Unabridged Dictionary

1) very informal usage in vocabulary and idiom that is characteristically more metaphorical, playful, elliptical, vivid, and ephemeral than ordinary language, as ‘Hit the road.’ 2) (in English and some other languages) speech and writing characterized by the use of vulgar and socially taboo vocabulary and idiomatic expressions. 3) the jargon of a particular class, profession, etc. 4) the special vocabulary of thieves, vagabonds, etc.; argot.
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If these dictionary definitions are to be our guide as to what slang is, we’re in serious trouble. And this is precisely why most slang dictionaries go through great pains in their introductions to explain what they mean by slang for their particular purposes:

Historical Dictionary of American Slang

Under the title ‘What Is Slang?,' tells us:

Slang may thus be briefly defined: An informal, nonstandard, nontechnical vocabulary composed chiefly of novel-sounding synonyms for standard words and phrases.

And, of course, although this is pretty neat, it isn’t really much of a practical guide on exactly what to include in a slang dictionary. I suppose that’s why their brief definition is accompanied by ~ 4000 words of FURTHER EXPLANATION! Incidentally, notice that they say ‘nontechnical.’ That is because they choose not to include ‘jargon’ under slang – a distinction which some other slang mavens and dictionaries don’t care to make.

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Chapman's Dictionary of American Slang

Under the heading 'Apologies' in the introduction:

In the absence of a litmus test for slang and nonslang we must ask some indulgence . . . . . . . . . . . . .
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Cassell’s Dictionary of Slang

WHAT IS SLANG?: Among many descriptions of slang, both positive and negative, one thing stands out: it is a good way from mainstream English. It can and does share the same vocabulary at times, but slang definitions underpin its rogue status. Whether, as one observer suggests, it is the working man of language, doing the lexicons ‘dirty work’ or, as another suggests, it stands up for the disenfranchised, offering ‘the poor man’s poetry’ or , as many critics still proclaim, it has nothing but the most deleterious effects on ‘proper speech,’ slang remains a law unto itself. NOR IS IT EASY TO DEFINE OF ITSELF . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
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. . . . . . . The line between slang and colloquialism is just too close to call . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .[[and in the 1000 or so accompanying words of ‘atmosphere’ Green attempts to give us a feel for what he thinks slang is, which is actually very good, but which in no way provides us with a set of definite rules or even ‘rule-of-thumb rules’ for deciding what is and is not slang.]]
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And how do the labels formal, informal, colloquialism, regionalism, dialect, idiom, cliché, and neologism fit into the picture and how old and widely used does an expression have to be to be considered slang and how old is too old to be considered a neologism and how does colloquialism relate to slang and regionalism, and . . . . ? Only the Shadow and author of each book can tell you, and even they admit they don’t know, but for purposes of inclusion in their dictionary they are taking it to mean approximately . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
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Ken G – December 30, 2005
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Is it or ain't it? [slang]

Post by Phil White » Sat Dec 31, 2005 1:13 pm

It's often useful to take a different slant on stuff like this. In this case, to look not at what slang is, but at what it does. For many sociolinguists, slang is often a primary means of marking the speaker's social identity, of saying that she "belongs".

David Crystal in his Encyclopedia of the English Language cites Eric Partdidge, who concentrated on the function of slang long before the advent of the discrete discipline of sociolinguistics:

According to the British lexicographer, Eric Partridge (1894-1979), people use slang for any of at least 15 reasons:

1. In sheer high spirits, by the young in heart as well as by the young in years; 'just for the fun of the thing'; in playfulness or waggishness.

2. As an exercise either in wit and ingenuity or in humour. (The motive behind this is usually self-display or snobbishness, emulation or responsiveness, delight in virtuosity).

3. To be 'different', to be novel.

4. To be picturesque (either positively or - as in the wish to avoid insipidity - negatively).

5. To be unmistakeably arresting, even startling.

6. To escape from clichés, or to be brief and concise. (Actuated by impatience with existing terms.)

7. To enrich the language. (This deliberateness is rare save among the well-educated, Cockneys forming the most notable exception; it is literary rather than spontaneous.)

8. To lend an air of solidity, concreteness, to the abstract; of earthiness to the idealistic; of immediacy and appositeness to the remote. (In the cultured the effort is usually premeditated, while in the uncultured it is almost always unconscious when it is not rather subconscious.)

9a. To lessen the sting of, or on the other hand to give additional point to, a refusal, a rejection, a recantation;

9b. To reduce, perhaps also to disperse, the solemnity, the pomposity, the excessive seriousness of a conversation (or of a piece of writing);

9c. To soften the tragedy, to lighten or to 'prettify' the inevitability of death or madness, or to mask the ugliness or the pity of profound turpitude (e.g. treachery, ingratitude); and/or thus to enable the speaker or his auditor or both to endure, to 'carry on'.

10. To speak or write down to an inferior, or to amuse a superior public; or merely to be on a colloquial level with either one's audience or one's subject matter.

11. For ease of social intercourse. (Not to be confused or merged with the preceding.)

12. To induce either friendliness or intimacy of a deep or a durable kind. (Same remark.)

13. To show that one belongs to a certain school, trade, or profession, artistic or intellectual set, or social class; in brief, to be 'in the swim' or to establish contact.

14. Hence, to show or prove that someone is not 'in the swim'.

15. To be secret - not understood by those around one. (Children, students, lovers, members of political secret societies, and criminals in or out of prison, innocent persons in prison, are the chief exponents.)

(From Slang: Today and Yesterday, 1933, Ch. 2.)
I personally find Carl Sandburg's comment as good as any:

Slang is language which takes off its coat, spits on its hands -- and goes to work.
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Is it or ain't it? [slang]

Post by dalehileman » Sun Jan 01, 2006 9:00 pm

Ken: For your heart not being in it, you offer a most comprehensive and scholarly presentation

Phil: Hey thanks, you've caught on, where Partridge offers a dozen fairly concise rules if not definitive

Spirit: However, maybe it would be more productive to start a listing not of what slang does but what it is not; thus it's not slang if it's

1. Not labeled as such in 33-year-old Merriam Collegiate

2. Literal. So "boots on the ground" meaning deployment, is slang while "benign neglect" or "carry off the palm" aren't (idioms? fight it out); while "avatar" meaning gamer robot is a marginal case

3. Likely to be used by the Queen of England (thanks to Laverne); in dictionary definitions, legal briefs; or in presidential addresses (except recently)

4. Declarative statement entirely in Standard English, even though untrue in literal terms, eg, A fish rots from the head down; politics makes for strange bedfellows

There would be only a few such rules, but to be called slang, the expression would have to meet every criterion

But Spirit, don't hold me to these. By rule 1., for instance, "cool" for excellent is slang, but "fuzz" for policeman is not, illustrating Webster's only outright error I have yet encountered. And still looking for an exception to no. 4

Remember, though, they're only rules of thumb. In rule 2 you might prefer 15 or 25 years or Random House. And without a doubt you guys can come up with some additional "nots"
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