slang (was Re: Phat [was Re: gay/ghey/ghay])

Arnold M. Zwicky zwicky at CSLI.STANFORD.EDU
Sat Jun 26 00:52:29 UTC 2004

On Jun 2, 2004, at 9:05 AM, Jesse Sheidlower wrote:

> On Wed, Jun 02, 2004 at 11:15:31AM -0400, Baker, John wrote:
>>         I think that the last time around, the majority view, which I
>> found convincing, was that words such as "fuck" were not in fact
>> slang.  Consider the AHD4 definition of "slang":
>>         <<NOUN: 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.>>
>>         "Fuck" doesn't really fit either of these definitions, even
>> though AHD4 and other dictionaries do label it as slang.
> It doesn't fit? I do think that "fuck" occurs chiefly in casual speech
> and is deliberately used for added raciness or irreverence or other
> effect. The purportedly "short-lived" nature of slang is something
> I've always thought is wrong, but since AHD modifies it with
> "typically" we can ignore it here.

i realize this is now a bit out of date, but i want to complain about
the whole basis of this discussion.

over on soc.motss, we just had an exquisitely pointless thread about
whether "Ms." (or, if you will, "Ms") was or was not an "abbreviation".
  (the thread was further derailed by the fact that one -- fortunately,
only one, but an incredibly bull-headed one -- participant was
incapable of appreciating the difference between a vowel sound and a
vowel letter.)  my major contribution was to observe that
"abbreviation" is an ordinary-language term, not a technical term of
linguistics, and that though there was a core of examples (like "Rte."
for "Route") that everyone pretty much agreed should count as
abbreviations, there were also a huge number of types of short
spellings -- including initialisms, acronyms, clippings of several
kinds, "reduced" pronunciations spelled with apostrophes, right up to
"&" read as "and" -- with other schemes for spelling/pronunciation
pairing than the relatively simple one for "Rte."  so, the question,
"is X an abbreviation?" often doesn't have a sensible answer.

the deeper point is that linguistics can't just take over
ordinary-language vocabulary about language (which, after all,
represents some rough folk theory about these matters, one that
probably embodies some insight but was never intended as a systematic
analysis of the domain) and elevate it to scientific status.  instead,
you need to start by asking what concepts are needed, and then choose

we shouldn't be asking what abbreviations *really* are, as if the
concept of "abbreviation" was given ahead of time and our task was to
hunt it down.

so it is with slang.  "slang" is a piece of ordinary-language
metavocabulary.  at its broadest, it takes in every sort of expression
that (for whatever reason) isn't appropriate in the general formal
written standard language; this is the parallel to something being a
"short spelling" (for whatever value of "short").  at its narrowest,
it's stuff that's informal, spoken, nonstandard, restricted to some
social group (where it serves as a group marker), and ephemeral.  in
between, there's all *sorts* of stuff, and it really makes no sense to
ask if these things are *really* slang.  the concept of "slang" isn't
given ahead of time, lying out there, just waiting for us to figure out
its shape and nature.

our business is to figure out what concepts play a role in this domain
of language use and then to choose good terminology for them.  maybe we
can find a place for the word "slang" in there, maybe not.  meanwhile,
though, we're just thrashing around, bewitched by words.

arnold (zwicky at

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