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

Jesse Sheidlower jester at PANIX.COM
Mon Jun 28 00:17:41 UTC 2004

On Fri, Jun 25, 2004 at 05:52:29PM -0700, Arnold M. Zwicky wrote:
> 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
> terminology.


I guess the question here is "Is Slang a Word for Linguists?"
a question asked and perhaps answered in an American Speech
article with that title, by Bethany Dumas and Jonathan Lighter
some years ago.

> 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.

Dumas and Lighter thought, and I think, that "slang" can be a
useful word for linguists, and that we can make some attempt
to come up with a definition that will be useful in a
linguistic way. Perhaps we can agree that the "folk" use of
"slang" (the word) is something we won't get upset about, that
we won't walk down the street with our linguists' rulers,
thwacking the knuckles of those who say that _bikini_ or
_ain't_ or _between you and I_ is "slang". But we can still
try to reserve some of the word's utility for our purposes.

There are more specific words for certain types of
shortenings, and in any case, it wouldn't be that bad if we
adopted new ones in technical contexts. "Slang", though, is
sort of on its own. I can't publish a dictionary called _The
Historical Dictionary of American Words and Phrases That Are
Informal, Chiefly Spoken, Serving as a Group Marker esp. for a
Marginalized Group, and Often Ephemeral_. It's too useful to

Jesse Sheidlower, who thinks that "Ms" should not have a

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