Definition of Slang
Slang consists of words that are non-standard in a given language and is generally spoken to show inclusion in a certain social group. Social groups can be very small—from just a few friends—to very large, e.g., millions of people who frequent a website. Slang is usually considered informal, and thus is common in speech but not in writing (unless that writing is texting or internet chatting). The usage of slang often implies a certain familiarity between those who use it together, and may show certain attitudes on the part of the speaker.
The etymology of the word slang is uncertain. It was first used in the mid-1700s and at that time the definition of slang referred to the specific vocabulary of lower class or disreputable people. As time went on, slang no longer referred to language spoken by disreputable people, but certainly it meant something cruder than formally educated speech. Some theorists have posited that “slang” has the same Scandinavian origin as the word “sling,” meaning “to throw around.”
Common Examples of Slang
There are thousands of words in English alone that are examples of slang. These words come in and out of popularity. Generally slang words are created in a spontaneous manner within a social group; when they begin to be adopted outside of that social group they are often dropped in favor of new words.
Here are some slang examples from different spheres:
Social Media Slang
There are plenty of examples of slang from the rise of the internet and subsequent rise of social media. The terms below are now much too popular to be “cool,” but remain as slang terms for the significance they have taken on.
- LOL: “Laughing out loud.” Abbreviations are very common slang in current texting and social media posting. Other examples are LMBO (“laughing my butt off”), LBS (“laughing but serious), ROFL (“rolling on the floor laughing”).
- Friend/Unfriend/Defriend: Words that already have a meaning, like the very basic word “friend” has taken on new meaning via social media. Now a verb for “to add as a friend on Facebook,” there are opposite verbs such as “unfriend” and “defriend.”
- Hashtag: An interesting slang example which is taken from writing and adopted into speech, the hashtag is used to define the main theme of a post. When spoken it is slang for defining a theme or idea in what a person is talking about. (For example, “My boyfriend bought me the most amazing bouquet of flowers yesterday. Hashtag blessed!”)
Cockney Rhyming Slang
One of the most intriguing systems of slang was developed in the mid-1800s in East London. To create a language that was elusive to outsiders, people in that area substituted certain words for others in a process of finding a rhyming pair and subtracting the actual rhyming word. Here are some examples:
- China=Mate: “China plate” rhymes with “mate” (Ex: “I saw me old China today.”)
- Almonds=Socks: “Almond rocks” rhymes with “socks”
- Bubble=To tell on: “Bubble and squeak” (a British dish) rhymes with “speak”
- Brown Bread=Dead (Ex: “Don’t you bubble on me, or you’ll end up brown bread.”)
- Dog=Telephone: “Dog and bone” rhymes with telephone
No doubt these slang terms from the mid-2010s will soon become obsolete:
- BAE: Short for “baby,” but also meaning “Before anything else.”
- On fleek: Something looking perfect. From “Eyebrows on fleek.”
- Bye Felicia: Bidding goodbye to someone or something you don’t like.
- All the feels: Lots of strong emotion about something.
Significance of Slang in Literature
Authors generally use slang in their works of literature to show that the narrative belongs to a certain time and place. Slang is most often found in dialogue, as characters reveal the social group they feel they belong to. Narrators also sometimes use slang when they function as a character in the story. Some slang words are also so embedded in a culture that authors might use them to mean something which is obvious at the time of writing, but which must be interpreted by readers later on.
Examples of Slang in Literature
FALSTAFF: ’Sblood, you starveling, you elfskin, you dried neat’s tongue, you bull’s pizzle, you stockfish! O, for breath to utter what is like thee! You tailor’s-yard, you sheath, you bowcase, you vile standing tuck—
(Henry IV, Part 1 by William Shakespeare)
William Shakespeare was noted both for his use of slang examples from his day and also for creating new slang terms. In this short excerpt from Henry IV, Part 1, the characters of Falstaff and Prince Henry trade rounds of insults. We see many slang terms in just this short speech full of invective. Falstaff begins with the contraction “‘Sblood,” which stands for “God’s blood,” and was slang for a swear word. The rest of the speech is basically just a list of other insulting slang words.
“He’s a bootlegger,” said the young ladies, moving somewhere between his cocktails and his flowers. “One time he killed a man who had found out that he was nephew to Von Hindenburg and second cousin to the devil. Reach me a rose, honey, and pour me a last drop into that there crystal glass.”
(The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald)
F. Scott Fitzgerald’s novel The Great Gatsby is set during Prohibition Era in the United States of America. This was not a time in which alcohol was not imbibed, but instead a time when people had to obtain their liquor illegally. This gave rise to a whole subculture, of which “bootleggers” were at the center. The term came from hiding alcohol in the leg of one’s boot. The women in this passage refer to the term casually, knowing that all will understand it, but in its inception it was a slang word.
AMANDA: They knew how to entertain their gentlemen callers. It wasn’t enough for a girl to be possessed of a pretty face and a graceful figure – although I wasn’t slighted in either respect. She also needed to have a nimble wit and a tongue to meet all occasions.
(The Glass Menagerie by Tennessee Williams)
Amanda, the mother in Tennessee Williams’s The Glass Menagerie, uses slang from her own era in the American South. She refers to suitors as “gentleman callers” to make their purpose seem more noble. She also talks about the qualities that a woman should possess, including the slang terms “graceful figure,” “nimble wit,” and “a tongue.” While these terms are still understandable in modern-day America, they are somewhat euphemistic about the qualities they represent.
He’s in a pure bevvying mood, so ah tap some cash off ay um. We tan four pints ay heavy then get on the train. Ah dae four cans of Export and two lines ay speed during the journey to Glasgow.
(Trainspotting by Irvine Welsh)
Irvine Welsh used the Scottish dialect for his novel Trainspotting, and uses many colloquialism examples and slang terms as well. In the above excerpt we see the slang phrase “a pure bevvying mood,” which means, in this case, someone who has a strong urge to drink alcohol.
Test Your Knowledge of Slang
1. Which of the following statements is the best slang definition?
A. A form of speaking that is informal and signals inclusion in a specific social group.
B. A subset of language used in a certain profession.
C. A groups of words or phrases which are used only in a certain geographic region.
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2. Which of the following words could be Cockney rhyming slang for “stairs”?
A. Steps (from “steps and ladders”)
B. Chairs (from “tables and chairs”)
C. Apples (from “apples and pears”)
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3. Which of the following lines from F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby contains an example of slang?
A man named Klipspringer was there so often and so long that he became known as “the boarder.”— I doubt if he had any other home.
He saw me looking with admiration at his car.
“It’s pretty, isn’t it, old sport?” He jumped off to give me a better view. “Haven’t you ever seen it before?”
And then came that disconcerting ride. We hadn’t reached West Egg village before Gatsby began leaving his elegant sentences unfinished and slapping himself indecisively on the knee of his caramel-colored suit.
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