Slang: Humans’ Linguistic Creativity at Work, Not Linguistic Corruption

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Slang is everywhere, and we all use it for different reasons. Why do you use slang? Image by Decoded Science

Slang is everywhere, and we all use it for different reasons. Why do you use slang? Image by Decoded Science

Slang – everyone uses it, in one form or another, but why? Where do new slang words come from, and how are they affecting the English language?

Although purists look down on slang, some language experts view slang as “the people’s poetry,” and want to learn more – such as Professor Anne Curzan, who is actively learning new slang words from her students. She’s Professor of English at the University of Michigan, where she also holds appointments in the linguistics department and the School of Education.

Decoded Science took the opportunity to discuss the uses, the creation of, and the effects of slang on language with Professor Curzan.

What Is Slang?

According to David Crystal, “slang is a colloquial departure from standard usage; it is often imaginative, vivid, and ingenious in its construction.” Decoded Science asked Professor Curzan whether she could add to this, and if she could provide her definition of slang.

Professor Curzan: Slang is very hard to define, but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t try! David Crystal gives us a great start. Jonathan Lighter, a leading expert on slang, has described slang as “intentionally undignified, startling, or amusing” and I think those adjectives capture a lot about slang.

Professor Anne Curzan. Image by A. Curzan.

Professor Anne Curzan calls slang a type of linguistic creativity. Image by A. Curzan.

Decoded Science: Why do you request that your students teach you two new slang words every day?

Professor Curzan: Well, I learn some great words this way such as  ‘hangry’ which means “cranky or angry due to feeling hungry” and ‘adorkable’ which is “adorable in a dorky way.” More importantly, the activity reinforces for students a key message of my course which is that the history of English is happening all around us and that slang is humans’ linguistic creativity at work, not linguistic corruption.

Uses of Slang – Creates Social Identity

David Crystal states 15 different uses of slang and why we create it from a list compiled by Lexicographer, Eric Partridge, decades ago. He also mentions that the recurring theme among all these reasons is a means of marking social identity. Decoded Science asked Professor Curzan whether she agreed with this and what she thought was the most common reason today as to why slang words are created.

Professor Curzan: Yes, slang is a way to reinforce community—to establish who is in a group and to differentiate one group from another. It allows people to be creative and playful, to be unconventional and challenging, to make other people laugh, to establish solidarity with someone, to offend, to do social commentary. All of us are creative with language all the time, and slang is often language at its most creative.

Decoded Science: Where does slang come from?

Professor Curzan: Slang tends to come from the margins, from groups without a lot of institutionalized power. People can use slang to challenge the mainstream and those in power; people can also use slang to play with language. My colleague Michael Adams has called slang “the people’s poetry,” and I love that description. As he notes, slang can usefully define insiders and outsiders.

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