Garner’s Usage Tip of the Day: Slang (3)

Slang (3) Today: The Middle Road. So where does the truth lie? Perhaps somewhere in between the two views. If the focus is on speech, then slang undoubtedly has its place in every normal person's mouth. Some will use it more than others. It grows out of a desire for novelty (freshness), experience shared with others (specialization), a sense of humor and a delight in metaphor (playfulness), an economy of words (pithiness), and sometimes a desire to be part of an in-group (secrecy). One commentator has unscientifically suggested an archetypal pattern for the spread of much slang: from the underworld to the lower classes, then to hip middle-class youths, then to Madison Avenue and TV comedians, and then to the general population. See Frances D. Ross, "The Spread of Slang," 52 Am. Speech 97 (1977). She notes that "steps are sometimes skipped or reversed" with a given slang term and that "there is generally a three- to fifteen-year lag between its first appearance and its wide use or understanding." This may accurately describe how some slang develops and spreads, but certainly not all — since slang is produced by linguistic mavericks of all descriptions. Most slang is ephemeral; it never makes its way into the general language. One linguist estimates that the "half-life of a slang expression is of the order of magnitude of one year, which implies that about one specimen in a thousand will survive for ten years." Martin Joos, The Five Clocks 2627 (1961). So a slang term can make writing look noticeably dated. But some of it does survive and become standard (e.g., "fad," "joke," "redeye flight," "rubbernecking," "skyscraper," "slump"). Slang is one of the main sources by which the language is renewed. We shouldn't think of it as something new and threatening; it is old and for the most part wholesome. It has always been with us, and with our forebears from time immemorial or should this be "for gee whiz, who knows how long"? For information about the Language-Change Index, click here. ——————– Quotation of the Day: "Discarding portions of a manuscript is an act of renunciation that may cause the inexperienced writer great anguish. But it is a sacrifice on a worthwhile altar — the altar of organic unity." Lester S. King, Why Not Say It Clearly 107 (1978).
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