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What is Slang?

Updated on January 23, 2012

Slang is a colloquial form of speech used to express ideas in an unconventional, often striking manner. Slang is frequently characterized by humor, exaggeration, brevity, vulgarity, or surprising metaphors. Many slang expressions contain rhyme. English cockney slang, for example, employs words that rhyme with the conventional term they signify, as in trouble and strife, meaning "Wife".

Cockneys also use back slang, in which words are pronounced as if spelled in reverse, as in efink for "knife".

Slang can add freshness and variety to everyday speech. However, the indiscriminate and repetitious use of slang tends to debase a language by obscuring subtle differences of meaning. It can also lead to a loss of precision and accuracy in communication.

Most slang is limited to a particular region or country, and much of it is short-lived. The American slang word skiddoo, meaning "go away," was once a popular colloquial expression, it fell out of use and is now rarely heard. A still current slang term that conveys the same meaning is scram.

Some slang, however, survives for a long time without being accepted into the standard language. A typical example is the word booze, which originated in the Middle Ages. On the other hand, a number of slang words and expressions have found their way into accepted usage. Many terms, such as mob, were once considered improper in educated speech but are now regarded as standard, and sometimes even preferred, forms. There are also numerous instances in which a slang word has replaced a more conventional term in language.

Many expressions that are now in standard usage were originally slang words that described new objects or concepts, such as skyscraper, taxicab, and beatnik. Other accepted English words that were once slang include bet, blizzard, kidnap, and bike.

One of the common sources of slang is jargon, which derives its vocabulary from specialized fields, such as business, technology, science, and the armed services. Another frequent source of slang is argot, or cant, which is a secret language developed by antisocial groups, such as criminals. When jargon or argot becomes widely used in the colloquial speech of people outside the group originating the expression, it becomes slang.

There are numerous expressions adopted from army jargon that have become familiar as slang. They include goldbrick, meaning "to avoid work," and goof, meaning "to blunder." Some well-known examples of cant are grand, meaning "$1,000," and gat, meaning "revolver."

All languages have some slang words, and expressions. English and French are especially colorful in this respect. American English has probably contributed more slang to all parts of the world than any other language. The Americanism OK, for example, has been adopted as slang in most foreign countries.

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