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Slang is a set of highly informal words and expressions that are not considered standard in the speaker's dialect or language. Slang is often highly regional, specific to a particular territory or subculture. Slang words and expressions can spread outside their original arena, and some may even lose their slang status and become accepted as a standard language. Often, the widespread adoption of a slang term by mainstream culture will cause the subculture it originated in to create a new, less recognized term.

The origins of slang are usually found in the desire of those members of a particular group, or subculture, to communicate freely and intelligibly with each other from their common base of shared experience, interests, attitudes, and identity. This is, however, coupled with the desire to differentiate themselves either from another group, or from the larger society as a whole. Thus, slang involves the unconventional, even the taboo, (to differentiate the speaker from the norms of society) and often hostility and vulgar epithets for authorities or rivals (to differentiate from the "others" who are not members of the same group). Slang, therefore, has both positive and negative aspects. When it facilitates easier and familiar communication among those with a common base it functions to improve harmonious communication; when it draws distinctions, particularly hostile ones, building barriers between groups of people, it enhances the problems in human relationships that have been experienced throughout history.


According to Bethany K. Dumas and Jonathan Lighter,[1] an expression should be considered "true slang" if it meets at least two of the following criteria:

  • It lowers, if temporarily, "the dignity of formal or serious speech or writing"; in other words, it is likely to be seen in such contexts as a "glaring misuse of register" (where a "register" is a subset of a language used for a particular purpose or in a particular social setting).
  • Its use implies that the user is familiar with whatever is referred to, or with a group of people that are familiar with it and use the term.
  • "It is a taboo term in ordinary discourse with people of a higher social status or greater responsibility."
  • It replaces "a well known conventional synonym." This is done primarily to avoid "the discomfort caused by the conventional item [or by] further elaboration."

It is important to make a distinction between slang and jargon. Jargon is the technical vocabulary of a particular profession. Similarly to slang, those outside of the profession may not understand the terms or meaning of jargon. Unlike slang, however, jargon is not intended to exclude non-members of the group, and is concerned mainly with the technical peculiarities and specifics of a given field. Additionally, jargon does not fit the definition of slang, as it meets only a single criterion.

Origins of slang

During the Middle Ages, there was very little standardized language. Different dialects and pronunciations often represented one of the first concepts of "slang," although dialects are specifically not slang. During the sixteenth century, English Criminal Cant evolved. A specific set of language that was created for use by criminals and cheats, English Criminal Cant was not originally considered slang (since it was a specifically developed "language"), but by the eighteenth century it had evolved into slang.

Around the mid-1600s, slang began to appear in popular plays, like that of Richard Brome, and also in poems and songs. By the eighteenth century, English slang was influenced by the cultural differences in America, and slang usage began to expand. Slang was often associated with either criminals or foreigners during this time, and often dealt with human anatomy or taboo topics like sexuality. It was not until the 1920s that society began to adopt a more liberal attitude towards slang. Slang became popular with fiction writers and society at large. The development of English slang was assisted by a number of events, such as the American Civil War and the abolitionist movement.[2]

Types of Slang

One use of slang is to circumvent social taboos, as mainstream language tends to shy away from evoking certain realities. For this reason, slang vocabularies are particularly rich in certain domains, such as sexuality, violence, crime, and drugs. Argot (French and Spanish for "slang"), also known as cant, is slang used particularly by thieves and other criminals, to prevent outsiders from understanding their conversations.

Slang very often involves the creation of novel meanings for existing words. It is very common for such novel meanings to diverge significantly from the standard meaning. Thus, "cool" and "hot" can both mean "very good or impressive."

Alternatively, slang can grow out of mere familiarity with the things described. For example, wine connoisseurs may refer to Cabernet Sauvignon as "Cab Sav," Chardonnay as "Chard" and so on.[3] Not only does using the abbreviated names for different wines expend less superfluous effort, but it also serves as a shared code among connoisseurs and evokes a sense of the speaker's familiarity with wine.

Even within a single language community, slang tends to vary widely across social, ethnic, economic, and geographic strata. Slang sometimes grows more and more common until a term can become regarded as mainstream, acceptable language (for example, the Spanish word caballo or the English "movie"). Other times, the terms fall into disuse. Numerous slang terms pass into informal mainstream speech, and sometimes into formal speech, though this may involve a change in meaning or usage.

Cockney rhyming slang

Cockney rhyming slang is a form of English slang which originated in the East End of London, and has been popularized by film, music, and literature. Anthony Burgess used rhyming slang as a part of the fictitious "Nadsat" dialect in his classic book A Clockwork Orange.

Traditional Cockney rhyming slang works by taking two words that are related through a short phrase and using the first word to stand for a word that rhymes with the second. For instance, "boat" means "face" as "boat race" rhymes with face. Similarly, "plates" means "feet" ("plates of meat"), and bread means "money" (bread and honey).

The origins of rhyming slang are disputed. It remains a matter of speculation as to whether rhyming slang evolved as a linguistic accident or whether it was developed intentionally to confuse non-locals. If deliberate, it might have simply been used to maintain a sense of community, or in the marketplace for vendors to talk amongst themselves without customers knowing what they were saying, or by criminals (similar to thieves' cant) to confuse the police.

The proliferation of rhyming slang has meant many of its traditional expressions have passed into common language, and the creation of new ones (often ironically) is no longer restricted to Cockneys. Some substitutions have become relatively widespread in Britain, such as "have a butcher's" (which means to have a look, from "butcher's hook"), and these are often now used without awareness of their origins. Many English speakers are unaware that the term "use your loaf" is derived from "loaf of bread" meaning head. The extent of the use of rhyming slang is often exaggerated; only a very few phrases are in everyday use. Many examples are only used by people who are discussing rhyming slang, or by people who are being ironic or are making up a term on the spot for a joke, often at the expense of the tourist. In addition, since the original purpose was to encode or disguise speech from the comprehension of bystanders, terms that become too well-known still have a tendency to lose actual currency fairly quickly, putting whatever usage the slang enjoys into a constant flux.

Below are just a few of the most common examples of Cockney rhyming slang.

  • Apples = apples and pears = stairs
  • Barnet = Barnet Fair = hair
  • Brass = Brass Flute = Prostitute
  • Dog = dog and bone = telephone
  • Jam = Jam jar = Car
  • China = China plate = mate
  • Frog = frog and toad = road
  • Rosie = Rosie Lee = tea

Internet slang

The Internet has created an entire subculture of users, who have developed an extensive library of slang. Many internet slang terms originated with the purpose of saving keystrokes, and often appear in lower case. For example, "you" becomes "u" and "are" becomes "r." Web forums are often credited with helping popularize and spread forms of internet slang. Online gaming is often responsible for the development and popularization of internet slang.

Within the Internet community, there are numerous subcultures with their own specific set of slang. Leet speak originated with hackers, and later became popular with the online gaming community. Leet (sometimes written as 1337 or l33t) uses various combinations of alphanumerics to replace letters of words. "E" is commonly replaced by "3," and "S" by "5." Leet commonly has its own sets of colloquialisms and jokes, and exists in a number of languages in addition to English, such as Greek, Russian, and Chinese. Excessive use of leet is often used to ridicule or satirize new members of an internet community, who are often referred to as n00bs (newbies or newcomers).

One of the most popular types of internet slang is the use of acronyms. For example, well-known acronyms include "LOL," which stands for "laughing out loud." "IMHO" for "in my humble opinion," and "TTYL" meaning "talk to you later." Instant messaging and texting over mobile phones have popularized a large amount of acronyms and abbreviations, as they are both quicker and easier to type than the full version. Numbers are sometimes incorporated into internet and text messaging slang. "L8r" uses the phonetic sound of "eight" to create the word "later." Similarly, "h8" means "hate."

"Emoticons" (smileys) are another popular form of internet slang. Emoticons are a form of ASCII art in which a short sequence of typed characters are used to resemble a facial expression and convey an emotion. They are viewed sideways, where a clockwise rotation of ninety degrees would orient them vertically. The most basic emoticon is :), where the colon represents the eyes and the parenthesis the mouth, forming a rough approximation of a "happy face." Other common emoticons or "smileys" are "sad face" :( and "shocked" 8-O. A great many variants of emoticons exist, such as 8D, =), =D, =>), >=D,:p, |=[, >8), >XD, and so forth. There is another variation of "smileys" resembling a wink by combining a semicolon and a parenthesis, such as ;), ;] or ;}. The differing use of parentheses can give the emoticon a slightly different slant; for example ;} can represent an evil or otherwise malicious wink.

The other major style of emoticon, which does not require the viewer to tilt their head, evolved in East Asia. In the basic smiling manga emoticon, ^_^, the carets representing the eyes, and the underscore a mouth. Notably, this "smiley" has a straight mouth and smiling eyes, suggesting a cultural difference in reading emotions.[4] Other popular east Asian emoticons use Japanese characters.

Slang in popular culture

Many subcultures have numerous slang phrases unique to that specific subculture. Prison inmates have their own slang, as do musicians. Slang often originates within a group as a way to communicate without including outsiders, and thus is often found within groups of teenagers. The use of slang not only gives a group the ability to exclude outsiders, but serves as a means of bonding the group together through a shared vocabulary. Each culture generally has its own set of slang vocabulary, which can vary from region to region. In a large city, slang can even vary substantially from neighborhood to neighborhood.

Slang is often used in film and fiction. The proper use of slang can add a sense of realism to a work of fiction, as well as evoke a specific time period or point in history. Conversely, improper or forced use of slang can be the subject of ridicule. For example, teachers or other authority figures who attempt to use teenage slang are often made fun of by the teenagers they are trying to connect with.

It is important to note that while slang is often employed in creative works, it is rarely acceptable in formal and scholarly works. The use of slang in a formal or scholarly setting can instantly discredit the value of what a person has to say. (The major exception to this is, obviously, formal and scholarly studies on slang itself.)


  1. Bethany K. Dumas, and Jonathan Lighter, "Is Slang a Word for Linguists?" American Speech 53 (5)(1978): 14-15.
  2. Winona Bullard, "History of Slang" Retrieved October 31, 2007.
  3. William Croft. Explaining Language Change: An Evolutionary Approach. (Pearson ESL, 2001. ISBN 978-0582356771).
  4. Melinda Wenner, Americans and Japanese Read Faces Differently LiveScience (May 10, 2007.) Retrieved December 8, 2007.

ISBN links support NWE through referral fees

  • Ayto, John. The Oxford Dictionary of Rhyming Slang. Oxford University Press, 2002. ISBN 978-0198607519
  • Cohen, Gerald L. and Barry Popik (eds.) Studies in Slang. Part VI. Peter Lang Publishing, 1999. ISBN 978-0820443775
  • Croft, William. Explaining Language Change: An Evolutionary Approach. Pearson ESL, 2001. ISBN 978-0582356771
  • Franklyn, Julian. A Dictionary of Rhyming Slang. London: Routledge, 1992. ISBN 978-0415046022
  • Green, Jonathon. Cassell's Rhyming Slang. London: Cassell, 2000. ISBN 978-0304355136
  • Lillo, Antonio. "Bees, Nelsons and Sterling Denominations: A Brief Look at Cockney Slang and Coinage." Journal of English Linguistics 28(2) (2000): 145-172.
  • Lillo, Antonio. "From Alsatian Dog to Wooden Shoe: Linguistic Xenophobia in Rhyming Slang." English Studies 82 (4)(2001): 336-348.
  • Lillo, Antonio. "A Wee Keek at Scottish Rhyming Slang." Scottish Language 23 (2004): 93-115.
  • __________. "Exploring Rhyming Slang in Ireland." English World-Wide 25(2) (2004): 273-285.


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