Garner’s Usage Tip of the Day: Slang (1).

Slang (1). Today: Generally. "Slang," a notoriously difficult term to define, has potentially four characteristics: (1) it is markedly lower in dignity than standard English; (2) it typically surfaces first in the language of people with low status or with a low level of responsibility; (3) it is more or less taboo in the discourse of those with high status or a high degree of responsibility; and (4) it displaces a conventional term to protect the user either from discomfort caused by the conventional term or from the annoyance of fully elaborated expression. See Bethany K. Dumas & Jonathan Lighter, "Is Slang a Word for Linguists?" 53 Am. Speech 5, 1415 (1978). A term meeting any two of those four criteria probably qualifies as slang. (Ibid.) Most slang is linguistically rebellious — purposely infra dig. It is a mistake to think of slang as being the same as dialect, although the two may overlap. It can hardly be surprising that reactions to slang vary widely. The famously nonconformist Walt Whitman called slang "an attempt of common humanity to escape from bald literalism, and express itself illimitably, which in the highest walks produces poets and poems." "Slang in America" (1885), in 2 The Collected Writings of Walt Whitman 572, 573 (Floyd Stovall ed., 1964). Others have extolled it in hardly less exalted terms: "Slang originates in the effort of ingenious individuals to make the language more pungent and picturesque — to increase the store of terse and striking words, to widen the boundaries of metaphor, and to provide a vocabulary for new shades of difference in meaning." H.L. Mencken, "The Nature of Slang" (1919), in A Language Reader for Writers 150, 155 (James R. Gaskin & Jack Suberman eds., 1966). Next: More Reactions. For information about the Language-Change Index, click here. ——————– Quotation of the Day: "The introduction to a work is not the mysterious and formidable affair that many deem it, but a very common-sense and natural procedure. It is simply saying what is necessary to make your reader aware just how you are going to treat your subject." John F. Genung, Outlines of Rhetoric 247 (1893).
Scroll to Top