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

Arnold M. Zwicky zwicky at CSLI.STANFORD.EDU
Tue Jun 29 18:21:04 UTC 2004

On Jun 27, 2004, at 5:17 PM, Jesse Sheidlower wrote:

> Arnold,
> 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.

which i somehow missed.  and the 1978 AmSp is missing from my library;
1977, yes, 1979, yes, but 1978, no.  so i guess it's time for a trip to
the library.

my complaint was not really that a technical usage of "slang"
*couldn't* be carved out, just that  a lot of discussion of what is or
is not slang (even among linguists) seems not be to grounded in such a
technical usage, but runs with something like the everyday usage.

> ..."Slang"... 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 jettison.

well, yes, there's a problem.  the solution is either to use "slang" as
a technical term, but explain very carefully what it embraces, or to
adopt some fresh label.  the first solution, the one almost everyone
adopts, will mislead some people, who will complain that slang words X,
Y, and Z are not in dictionary but should be (even though they're
excluded by your definition).  the second solution has the minus of
strangeness, opacity.  either solution will work if you're addressing
an audience of specialists -- mathematics get away with both major
wrenchings of ordinary vocabulary and flagrant innovations, but that's
because they're usually addressing other mathematicians, or people who
propose to learn some mathematics -- but both are troublesome when the
audience has lots of nonspecialists in it.

arnold (zwicky at

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