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(Slang Subculture Definition)                     [back]

What is slang? Is there a precise definition about it? Usually, slang is rather called slang expression in linguistics. In some famous dictionaries and encyclopedias, some information about slang can be found: language that is not usually acceptable in serious speech or writing; very informal words and expressions; unconventional words or phrases that express either something new or something old in a new way. The origin of the word slang itself is quite obscure. It first appeared in print around 1800, applied to the speech of disreputable and criminal classes in London. The term, however, was probably used much earlier. It is flippant, irreverent and indecorous, and may be indecent or obscene. Its colorful metaphors are generally directed at respectability, and it is this succinct, sometimes witty, frequently impertinent social criticism that gives slang its characteristic flavor. But the above-said details are not enough to define slang.

Actually, the related types of nonstandard word usage include cant, and jargon---synonyms for vague and high-sounding or technical and esoteric language. In England, the term cant still indicates the specialized speech of criminals, the private language of the underworld. In the United States, cant is more often called argot. In addition, dialect, which refers to language characteristic of a certain geographic area or social class, also coins some slang expressions. Obviously, all of them make up a main part of the slang expressions. Moreover, slang, stemming from society, has its complexity and multiplicity. As a result, it is destined that slang is a subculture in society. That is to say, slang includes not just words but words used in a special way in a certain social context.

Civilized society tends to divide into a dominant culture and various subcultures that flourish within the dominant framework. The subcultures around the world show specialized linguistic phenomena that establish another subculture---slang. Varying widely in form and content, it depends on the nature of the groups and their relation with each other and the dominant culture. As a result, slang has many complicated sources and has its various characteristics, and its development also possess the firm relations with others, such as society and linguistics.

. The relations between slang sources and slang development

Looking through the human society, the civilization is filled with all kinds of subcultures. All social strata have their own habits and their own thinking patterns. The habits and thinking patterns create their own culture, which is called subculture in the dominant culture. When the individual social strata feel unsatisfactory to the society or other social strata, they will complain or revolt by way of violence. Slang is produced largely by social forces rather than by an individual speaker or a writer, who himself created some slang expressions. This is the reason why it is difficult to determine the origin of slang terms. Slang sometimes stems from within a group, satirizing or burlesquing its own values (precise signification), behaviors, and attitudes. Usually, Slang emanates from conflicts in values ---sometimes it is superficial, often fundamental. When an individual applies one language in a new way to express hostility, ridicule, or contempt, he may be creating slang, often with a sharp wit, but the new expression will perish unless others pick it up. If the speaker is a member of a group that finds that his creation projects the emotional reaction of its members toward an idea, a person, or a social institution, the expression will gain currency according to the unanimity of attitude within the group. That is to say, a new slang term is usually widely used in a subculture before it appears in the dominant culture. Sometimes the shock value of slang stems largely from the verbal transfer of the value of a subculture to completely opposed value in the dominant culture. Names such as fuzz, pig, fink, bull, and dick for policemen were created not by officers of the law but created by criminal groups or others.

It is true that the occupational groups are legions of slang creators, and while in most respects they identify with the dominant culture, there is just enough social and linguistic hostility to maintain group solidarity. In addition to occupational and professional groups, there are many other types of subcultures that provide slang expressions. These include sexual deviants, narcotic addicts, ghetto groups, institutional populations, agricultural sub societies, political organizations, the armed forces, Gypsies, and sports groups of many varieties. Some of the most fruitful sources of slang are the subcultures of professional criminals who have migrated to the New World since the 16th century. Old-time thieves still humorously refer to themselves as FFV--First Families of Virginia.

Most subcultures tend to draw words and phrases from the contiguous language (rather than creating many new words) and to give these established terms new and special meanings. Take American slang for example, some borrowings from foreign languages are traditional. The occupations or professions like medicine, law, psychology, sociology, engineering, and electronics tend to create true neologisms, though nurses and medical students adapt some medical terminology to their slang, and air force personnel and some other branches of the armed services borrow freely from engineering and electronics.

Food, drink, sex and so on also involve extensive slang vocabulary, and in the future more and more slang expressions will come out, so it is difficult to elaborately draw a list of slang sources.

Å. The relations between linguistic processes and slang development

The slang development is really complicated, not only because of its sociality but also because of its linguistic constant changing forms. Linguistic processes also form the slang. The processes by which words become slang are the same as those by which other words in the language change their form or meaning or both. Some of these are the use of metaphor, simile, metonymy, synecdoche, acronyms, hyperbole, generalization, specialization, clipping. Others are the use of folk etymology, distortion of sounds, elevation and degeneration, borrowings from foreign languages, and the play of euphemism against taboo. Take funky for example, it was once a very low term for body odor, has undergone elevation among jazz buffs to signify the best. Fanny, on the other hand, once simply a girl's name, is currently a degenerated term that refers to the buttocks (in England, it has further degenerated into a taboo word for the female genitalia).

‰. Characteristics of slang

Slang comes from society. On the other hand, during the development of slang, because of its sociality and linguistic changeful form, it has many characteristics. Slang is an active, vivid, colorful, glamorous and attractive form of language, which is real like a living thing.

Every slang word, however, has its own history and reasons for popularity. When conditions change, the term may change in meaning, be adopted into the standard language, or continue to be used as slang within certain enclaves of the population. Some slang expressions become respectable when they lose their edge; spunk, fizzle, spent, hit the spot, jazz, and funky, once thought to be too indecent for feminine ears, are now family words. Other slang survives for centuries, like bones for dice, beat it for run away, duds for clothes, and booze for liquor. These words must have been uttered as slang long before appearing in print, and they have remained slang ever since.

Slang has both a high birth and death rate in the dominant culture. The rate of turnover in slang words is undoubtedly encouraged by the mass media, and a term must be increasingly effective to survive. It is a typical characteristic of slang. It is possible that anybody can create popular slang anytime. But the essence is how effective the expression could be.

Sometimes it is hard to know that a word once was a slang expression. Terms such as scab, strikebreaker, and goon were highly charged words in the era in which labors began to organize in the United States. They are not used lightly even today, though they have been taken into the standard language. So that is to say, once to be slang not always being slang. This characteristic makes a difficult discrimination between slang and stand language words.

Other slang terms may change their form or both form and meaning, like one for the book (anything unusual or unbelievable). Sportswriters in United States borrowed this term around 1920 from the occupational language of the legal bookmakers, who lined up at racetracks in the morning ("the morning line" is still figuratively used on every sports page) to take bets on the afternoon races. Newly arrived bookmakers went to the end of the line, and any bettor requesting unusually long odds was motioned down the line with the phrase, "That's one for the end book." The general public dropped the word end as meaningless, but old-time gamblers still retain it.

While many slang words introduce new concepts, some of the most effective slang provides new expressions---fresh, satirical, shocking--for the established concepts, often very popular or respectable ones. For example, at the beginning of nineteen century, an article was a meaning of a girl or a woman. But in the 1970s, it was used to describe a person who was vile or contemptible, and today it means a bright person. Take surfing for instance, it is a stimulating sport, which Americans are very fond of, but now it is also used for Internet scan. Sound is sometimes used as a basis for this type of slang, as, for example, in various phonetic distortions. It is also used in rhyming slang, which employs a fortunate combination of both sound and imagery. Thus, gloves are turtledoves (the gloved hands suggesting a pair of billing doves). Most slang, however, depends upon incongruity of imagery, conveyed by the lively connotations of a novel term applied to an established concept. Slang is not all of equal quality, a considerable body of it reflects a simple need to find new terms for common ones, such as the hands, feet, head, and other parts of the body.

Sometimes slang expressions will oppose to its literature meaning. This characteristic will cause some misunderstanding. For example, break a leg, its literature meaning is very unlucky, but when used in American slang, it will be a good blessing to someone. If the foreigner does not catch the meaning, it may cause a fight.

Slang, like other normal words, has its rich and abundant expressions to describe the synonymous meaning. For instance, have a cash (or "crush") on someone, get the hot for someone, drool over someone, have it bad for someone, be all over someone, and be head over heels in love with are used for expressing someone been struck by another. As a result, writers sometimes would rather choose a slang expression for their masterpiece.

All the above-mentioned characteristics make the slang expressions fairly special, and the above-said characteristics are just like an angle of an iceberg. Therefore, it attracts the linguists and other social scientists, and all the people who like using it.

♯. Diffusion of slang

As everyone knows, language acts as a tool of communication applied widely by mass media. To be an active thing, slang diffuses in every place. Its hands have reached out to every country and region, every career and profession. In many forms of dissemination, slang is like a magician invading into the dominant culture with his wizardries.

Slang invades the dominant culture as it seeps out of various subcultures. Before the appearance of mass media, such terms invaded the dominant culture slowly and were transmitted largely by oral. Today, with the development of the technology, however, a sportscaster, news reporter, or comedian may introduce a lively new word already used by an in-group into millions of homes simultaneously, giving it almost instant currency. For example, the term "flyaway" was first used largely to indicate something loose and flowing because of unconfined fullness at the back, and it also had another meaning of being an aircraft that is ready to fly. Later, because of reports of NBA (American National Basketball Association) action, it is widely used for describing the excellent motion of a basketball superstar Michael Jordan, and now the term has become a popular words in basketball sport.

When subcultures are structurally tight, little of their language leaks out. Thus the Mafia, in more than a half-century of powerful criminal activity in America, has contributed little slang. When subcultures weaken, contacts with the dominant culture multiply, diffusion occurs, and their language appears widely as slang, such as argot or cant. Criminal narcotic addicts, for example, had a tight subculture and a highly secret argot in the 1940s. Now middle-class teenagers, even those with no real knowledge of drugs, use their terms freely. Slang spreads through many other channels, such as popular songs. Take "a dear John letter" (a letter for breaking off relations) for example, the slang expression came from a song, and the words of the song told a story that a girl was saying goodbye to his boy friend John.

♭.Use of slang

Now, slang has taken its roots over the world, like a big tree standing in a forest. Slang is used for many purposes, but generally it expresses a certain emotional attitude. The same term may express completely varied attitudes when used by different people. For example, the term doll is very typical to the slang usage. The phrase A Barbie doll is used for describing a person who is stupid, but another phrase a baby doll means a pretty girl. Slang sometimes would insult or shock others when used directly; some terms euphemize a sensitive concept, though obvious or excessive euphemism may break the taboo more effectively than a less decorous term. Some slang words are essential because there are no words in the standard language expressing exactly the same meaning, for example, freak-out, barn-storm, rubberneck, and creep. At the other extreme, multitudes of words, vague in meaning, are used simply as fads.
There are many other usages which slang is put to, according to the individual and his place in society. Most slang expressions are used in spoken level, but persons probably are unaware that it is slang. The choice of terms naturally follows a multiplicity of unconscious thought patterns. When writers use the slang expressions, slang is chosen much more consciously and carefully to achieve a specific effect. Writers, however, seldom invent slang. It has been claimed that slang is created by ingenious individuals to freshen the language, to vitalize it, to make the language more pungent and picturesque, to increase the store of terse and striking words, or to provide a vocabulary for new shades of meaning. Most of the slang originators, however, are probably not conscious of these noble purposes and do not seem extremely concerned about what happens to their language.

†. Attitudes toward slang

With the rise of naturalistic writing demanding realism, slang began to creep into literatures, but oppositions have been confronting. The important reason is that some of slang comes form other subcultures, such as underworld, criminal groups, narcotic addicts and prostitution. Most of them are very vulgar and coarse. So in some formal occasions, slang is refused and seldom drawn into. Then the schools waged warfare against it, the pulpit thundered against it, and many women, who aspired to gentility and refinement, banished it from the home. Furthermore, some formal types of literatures certainly refused slang expressions. Take research paper writing for example, it has to be a formal style.

But many people still accept slang. By 1925 a whole new generation of United States and European naturalistic writers was in revolt against the Victorian restraints that had caused even Mark Twain to complain. Today any writer may use slang freely, especially in fiction and drama. It has become an indispensable tool in the hands of master satirists, humorists, and journalists. Not only just because it is slang but also because, when used with skill and discrimination, it adds a new and exciting dimension to language. At the same time, linguists and other social scientists are seriously studying it as a revealing index to the culture that produces and uses it. As everyone knows, slang is now socially acceptable. Especially in some countries, slang is widely used. In the United States slang is so rich and varied that collectors have as yet only scratched the surface. A dictionary (written by Harold Wentworth and Stuart B.Flexner) named Dictionary of American Slang t can prove that the slang is a very popular language expression in the United States. Today slang does continue its vitality, and update slang expressions come in everyday, for many people support it and approach it.

‡. Role of slang

A famous linguist, Doctor Walter Chapman pointed out that the linguistics was like a king of the world, and slang was more like a jester entering into the magnificent imperial palace, making an excellent performance in front of the king for a solemn ceremony. In Walter's words, it was obvious that slang had jumped out of the restriction to be a special one. Undoubtedly, slang has been acting as an important role thought the long river of the human history. During the long history, slang itself becomes an active and indispensable language. More over, slang is the most active part of the language and it concluded large quantity of information of culture in our society. Thus, the most primary role is that slang will act as a transportation of information. As we know, slang expression is a vivid form of language. Slang not only has its strong vitality but also includes much information of different cultures. Foreign culture, like United Kingdoms or U.S., usually prefer to use slang, especially in some newspaper or magazines such as Times, New York Times, Thames and so on. In order to understand the content of the publication, learning more slang seems very necessary to the language learner. Thus, by way of learning slang, people in the world can study and comprehend more subcultures. So, learning slang will enlarge the knowledge and cultural background of cultures. It is obvious that slang itself has much practicality.

¶. Experiencing slang

As everyone knows, sometimes the slang expressions are so complex that anybody cannot grasp it. A foreigner probably can use his native slang easily to express in his country but not in other countries. A medicine student might be able to list all the technical slang terms in medicine but not in other fields of special study. Thus, for an American English major who has been studying English for a long time, it is impossible to him to master the American slang. It seems very disappointed. But actually not, it is a truth that nobody can finish drinking all the water of a whole sea. Now just imagine, when a foreigner spits a misunderstanding slang expression out, which he or she regards as a splendid expression. It might be embarrassed and puzzled, then what can be done and how to deal with it? Nevertheless, just say, "Sorry, I'm in the dark (be not sure), can you make it please?" In fact, it is lucky to everyone to learn a new slang expression more. Undoubtedly, it is a good thing. So, make slang our food, digest it and burn it. Only in this way, people can completely make use of slang on one's heart's content.

In a word, slang is a significant part of linguistics and an important part of culture. With the development of civilization, more and more slang expressions are appearing while some slang expressions are disappearing. And slang itself has come to form its system, existing in the dominant culture. And it deeply takes its roots and becomes a subculture in human society. Undoubtedly, it is very close to our day life. So it is necessary for us to concern about slang. And slang is the thing that we have to confront and keep in touch with.


Editors of the Encyclopedia Britannica. Slang. Encyclopedia Britannica, Inc. 1994-2000.

Li Beida. trans. Oxford Advanced Learner's English-Chinese Dictionary. By A S Hornby. Hong Kong: Oxford University Press, 1994.

Wang Fuxiang and Wu Jinpei. 500 English Slang Expressions in Current Use. Beijing: Foreign Languages Press, 2000.

Zheng Rongcheng and others. trans. Longman Dictionary of American English. By Arley Gray, Della Summers. Beijing: Foreign Language Teaching and Research Press, 1992.

Zhang Qing. Selected Wisecracks and Witticism. Beijing: Foreign Languages Press, 2000.

Unknown writer. American School Slang Expression. California. U.S. Press unknown 2001.

WRITTEN BY CAREY 2001                      [back]