"talking American" program; slang as a valuable part of language

Cohen, Gerald Leonard gcohen at UMR.EDU
Thu Jan 6 19:24:19 UTC 2005

  I enjoyed the TV program about "talking American" yesterday and recognized the names of all the dialect consultants except for the newcomer to our field, Dennis Preston. :)

  The one discordant note was the comment by critic John Simon that descriptivists (i.e, people with any appreciation for slang) are, as best I remember, "the curse of their race."

   I've been researching the origin of slang for 25+ years and believe I have some insight into the subject that Mr. Simon does not. There's an interesting story behind "gung ho," for example, connected with a a WWII hero in the Pacific, Evans Carlson.  There's likewise an interesting story behind "shyster" (I wrote two monographs about this topic). There's a wealth of very interesting information on Cockney rhyming slang. There's the subject of cant, etc. etc. etc.

     Most people who have seen my work regard it as praiseworthy. Sure, some errors appear here and there, which I then try to correct. But no one has yet seen fit to regard me as a curse of my race (or anything close to this) for engaging in such scholarly activity.

     Language may be regarded as a vast body of water, an ocean if you will, with rivers, streams, rivulets pouring into it. In English they include the contributions of numerous ethnic groups, sports, professions, etc. etc. etc. They all contribute to the richness of our language. The words and expressions of our language are intangible assets--facilitating and no doubt in many cases enabling--us to think and express ourselves.  And they certainly include slang.

     There's a time and place for everything. Too much of  anything is inappropriate. A tool may be used inappropriately, but that's not the fault of the tool.. Slang certainly *can* be used appropriately, even in seriously written, well-polished articles/newspaper editorials/etc. I've often noticed examples of this without bothering to jot down the information.  Maybe I should start doing so now (others can join in) and sharing the information with ads-l.

   Meanwhile, if John Simon would like a sample of, say, my article on "gung ho," I'd be happy to provide him a complimentary copy. He need only ask me.
If he'd like to engage in a dialogue, on the subject, I'm likewise very willing to oblige.

Gerald Cohen
Professor of German and Russian
Research specialty: primarily Etymology of British/American slang
Editor of  monograph series _Studies in Slang_ (6 volumes thusfar; vol. 6 is co-        edited with Barry Popik)
University of Missouri-Rolla
Rolla, MO 65409
email: gcohen at umr.edu

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