Slang is a subject guaranteed to divide opinion. Some people celebrate its raw democratic creativity and revel in its irrelevance and political incorrectness. Others consider it a sign of vulgarity to use slang at all and argue that it lowers morals and indicates a limited vocabulary and low intelligence. I don’t agree with either. For me, slang is at the social interface of language. Slang words aren’t linguistically different from other words, except that they keep on moving. It is my considered opinion that slang is a bag of snakes.
Words slither easily from slang into colloquial language, jargon and dialect and back again the other way. And they change in meaning and use too. All the time. It would be bad enough if this was sequential, but it’s all going on at the same time, so that what I use as slang might sound dialectal to you, and your colloquialism might sound slangy to me. What seems like a novel witticism to me might sound stupidly clichéd. When it leaves your mouth, a word might mean one thing; when it reaches my ear, it might mean something else entirely.
Some potential misunderstandings occur between the generations, but they’re also possible across national lines. A British person who’s pissed is drunk, not angry (that’s pissed off). When an Australian describes someone as arsey, they mean “lucky,” but in Britain it means “uncooperative, difficult.” Cozzie means “swimming costume” in Australia, “police officer” in Britain. Fanny and fag mean “butt” and “male homosexual” in the U.S., “female genitals” and “cigarette” in the UK. Plenty of opportunity for miscommunication there!
Introducing seven slang words and phrases and their curious journey…
Julie Coleman is the author of Life of Slang [Oxford University Press, $27.95].
Geek“an expert in computers or science” (1984) is an obvious extension of “an unsociable and over-diligent student” (1957). The earlier meaning was usually entirely negative, but the later one can be neutral or even positive. Both originated in the US, as did the meaning “a carnival performer (especially one who bites the heads off live animals)” (1919), but the carnival performer isn’t the origin of geek.Geek was first used in northern British dialects to mean “a fool” (1876), like the related terms gawk (1837) and gowk (a1605). Gowk “a cuckoo” (c1325) was introduced to Britain by Viking invaders. This makes “cuckoo” an appropriate response to being called a geek – 100% guaranteed to improve your social status.
Gay has been used in English since the 14th century to refer to cheerful people, bright colours and fancy clothes. By a chain of euphemisms, gay extended to encompass the meanings “carefree” (c1400) -> “promiscuous” (1597) -> “living by prostitution” (?1795).
It’s difficult to know for sure which sense gay “homosexual” (1922) developed from. A gay man might have been unusually brightly dressed, carefree, promiscuous or living by prostitution as well as being gay, and content doesn’t always help to make the meaning clearer. There’s no question about the origin of the “stupid; lame” (1978) sense, though. Sadly, gay proves that you can self-define but it’s much harder to change other people’s prejudices.
Another really flexibly used word is dope. It appears to be from two separate origins: Dutch doop “sauce” and a dialect term dope “fool” (1851). In the 19th century, dope could refer to any thick liquid used for food or as a lubricant (1809), but when it narrowed to refer to medicine (1872), the further narrowing to refer to the gloopy brown substance that is opium (1888) was almost inevitable. Sedatives given to race-horses were also called dope (1900) and this may be the origin of the “information” sense (1901), or it may be that the information is acquired illegally, paid for dearly and led the listener into foolish actions (pulling the drug and fool senses back together).