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«Non-literary vocabulary (slang)»
Extent and origins of slang
Distinction between slang and colloquialisms
1. Defining slang
Slang is the use of highly informal words and expressions that are not
considered standard in the speaker’s dialect or language.
Few linguists have endeavored to clearly define what constitutes
slang. Attempting to remedy this, Bethany K. Dumas and Jonathan
Lighter argue that 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.”
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
An example would be “getting a pop meaning getting a haircut, or buying
threads as in buying clothes”.”
Slang should be distinguished from jargon, which is the technical
vocabulary of a particular profession. Jargon, like many examples of
slang, may on occasion be used to exclude non-group members from the
conversation, but in general has the function of allowing its users to
talk precisely about technical issues in a given field.
Slang may be used in a variaty of ways including insults, compliments,
and just another way of expressing one’s self.
2. Extent and origins of slang
Slang is sometimes regional in that it is used only in a particular
territory, such as California, but slang terms are frequently particular
to a certain subculture, such as musicians. Nevertheless, slang
expressions can spread outside their original areas to become commonly
used, like “cool” and “jive”. While some words eventually lose their
status as slang, others continue to be considered as such by most
speakers. When slang spreads beyond the group or subculture that
originally uses it, its original users often replace it with other,
less-recognized terms to maintain group identity. 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 violence, crime, drugs,
and sex. Alternatively, slang can grow out of mere familiarity with the
things described. Among Californian wine connoisseurs, for example,
Cabernet Sauvignon is often known as “Cab Sav”, Chardonnay as “Chard”
and so on; this means that naming the different wines expends less
Even within a single language community, slang tends to vary widely
across social, ethnic, economic, and geographic strata. Slang may fall
into disuse over time; sometimes, however, it grows more and more common
until it becomes the dominant way of saying something, at which time it
usually comes to be regarded as mainstream, acceptable language (e.g.
the Spanish word caballo), although in the case of taboo words there may
be no expression that is considered mainstream or acceptable. Numerous
slang terms pass into informal mainstream speech, and sometimes into
formal speech, though this may involve a change in meaning or usage.
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”, “impressive” or “good looking”.
Slang terms are often known only within a clique or ingroup. For
example, Leet (“Leetspeak” or “1337”), was originally popular only among
certain Internet sub-cultures, such as crackers (malicious “hackers”)
and online video gamers. During the 1990s and 2000s, however, Leet
became increasingly more commonplace on the Internet, and has even
spread outside of Internet-based communication and into spoken
languages. Other types of slang include SMS language used on mobile
phones, and “chatspeak”, which is widely used in instant messaging on
3. Distinction between slang and colloquialisms
Some linguists make a distinction between slangisms (slang words) and
colloquialisms. According to Ghil’ad Zuckermann, “slang refers to
informal (and often transient) lexical items used by a specific social
group, for instance teenagers, soldiers, prisoners and thieves. Slang is
not the same as colloquial (speech), which is informal, relaxed speech
used on occasion by any speaker; this might include contractions such as
you’re, as well as colloquialisms. A colloquialism is a lexical item
used in informal speech; whilst the broadest sense of the term
‘colloquialism’ might include slangism, its narrow sense does not.
Slangisms are often used in colloquial speech but not all colloquialisms
are slangisms. One method of distinguishing between a slangism and a
colloquialism is to ask whether most native speakers know the word (and
use it); if they do, it is a colloquialism. However, the problem is that
this is not a discrete, quantized system but a continuum. Although the
majority of slangisms are ephemeral and often supplanted by new ones,
some gain non-slang colloquial status (e.g. English silly – cf. German
selig ‘blessed’, Middle High German saelde ‘bliss, luck’ and Zelda, a
Jewish female first name) and even formal status (e.g. English mob).”
PRIVATE a great guy классный чувак, клевый парень
to blow one’s stack не держать себя в руках, заводиться
to fly off the handle выходить из себя, срываться
to be getting on изнашиваться, стареть
to make up for something восстанавливать, компенсировать
to take it easy не брать до головы упражняться,
to work out делать зарядку, качаться
to turn in идти на боковую
to get away with things проворачивать дела
to get it made быть удачливым, уметь все схватывать
this is it вот так, это главное
Cool классный (классно), четкий (четко), клевый (клево)
Dumas, Bethany K. and Lighter, Jonathan (1978) “Is Slang a Word for
Linguists?” American Speech 53 (5): 14-15.
Croft, William (2000) Explaining Language Change: An Evolutionary
Approach. Harlow: Longman: 75-6.
Mitchell, Anthony (December 6, 2005). “A Leet Primer”.
http://www.technewsworld.com/story/47607.html#. Retrieved on
See p. 21 in ‘‘Language Contact and Lexical Enrichment in Israeli
Hebrew’’, by Zuckermann, Ghil’ad, Houndmills: Palgrave Macmillan, 2003.
ESSENTIAL WORLD ENGLISH SLANG
airhead: stupid person.
ace: excellent, great.
Adam and Eve – Rhyming Slang for ‘believe’
aggro – short for aggravation or violence
amber fluid : beer
anorak – geek, nerd.
apples and pears – Rhyming Slang for ‘stairs’.
armpit: dirty, unappealing place.
arse / ass [slightly offensive] (1): backside.
arse / ass (2): an unworthy person.
arse about/arsing about – to fool around
arse-about-face: something that is in a mess or crooked
arseholed: very drunk
arvo : afternoon
Aussie : Australian
awesome: great and impressive.
backhander (1): a payment given, normally in a secretive fashion.
backhander (2): hit someone.
ball (1): a fun time.
ball [slightly offensive] (2): a testicle.
ballistic – to go mad with rage
bang [slightly offensive](1): to make love
bang (2): a powerful effect.
banged up – to be put in prison.
bangers – another name for sausages.
barbie : barbecue, grill.
barf (1): vomit.
barmy – a foolish person, mad.
barney – row, violent argument.
beast [offensive] – an ugly woman.
beemer: a BMW.
bent (1): a ‘gay man’
bent (2): ‘stolen’.
biggie: something important.
biker: a motorcycle rider.
bikkie : biscuit
bimbo – a young woman considered sexually attractive but of limited
bird – woman/girl/girlfriend
bitch [offensive] (1): a very unpleasant woman.
bitch [offensive] (2): complain.
bitchy [slightly offensive]: moody.
bitzer : mongrel dog (bits of this and bits of that!).
bladdered – very drunk
blag – a robbery
bloke – man
blotto – ‘very drunk’
blue (1) – XXX; dirty, hot, steamy, pornographic
blue (2): domestic fight or row.
bluey – pornographic film
boat race – Rhyming Slang for ‘face’.
bonkers; go bonkers: crazy.
bonzer : great.
booboo: a mistake.
bovver – trouble, usually fighting.
boozer (1): a pub
boozer (2): someone who likes alcohol.
Brahms and Liszt – Rhyming Slang for ‘pissed’ (drunk).
brass monkeys – cold weather
brew (1): tea or coffee.
brew (2): beer.
brill – short for ‘brilliant’.
bull: bullshit; lie.
bullshit [offensive]: lie; dishonesty.
bugger – a mild form of abuse or an exclamation.
bunk-off – to be absent without permission
bunk-up – to make love.
bushed: extremely tired.
butt: the buttocks, bottom.
cabbage – someone who is a bit slow or stupid
cakehole – mouth..
catch some rays: get some sunshine.
char / cha – tea.
cheesy: cheap; lacking in good taste.
chook : a chicken
chuck up: vomit
chuck a sickie : take the day off sick from work when you’re perfectly
ciggy – slang for cigarette.
cock and bull story – a rubbish story, nonsense.
(to) cop it – to die, to get into trouble.
cool: excellent; superb.
cooler, the: gaol; jail; prison
couch potato: a person who watches too much television.
cozzie : swimming costume
cranky : in a bad mood, angry.
crap [slightly offensive] (1): something worthless.
crap [offensive] (2): excrement.
crap [slightly offensive] (3): falsehoods and lies.
crikey – an expression of astonishment.
crust – money / wage.
cushy – easy.
dead cert – something that is definite.
deck: to hit someone.
dicey: unpredictable; risky.
dickhead [slightly offensive] – an idiot, fool.
dill : an idiot.
ding-dong – argument or fight.
dipstick – idiot, fool.
dirt: extremely bad person.
dirty: offensive; pornographic.
div/divvy – stupid or slow person.
doodle – something thats easy / no problem.
dodgy – dubious person or thing.
dog [offensive] – an ugly girl.
done over – beaten up
dope – a slow or stupid person.
doobry – a nonsensical word used when you forget the name of something
dorky: strange; peculiar.
dosh – money.
dosser – down-and-out, tramp.
down under : Australia and New Zealand.
Drongo : a dope, stupid person.
dude: a male.
dump [slightly offensive] – to defecate.
dyke [offensive] – lesbian.
dynamite: powerful; excellent.
dinosaur: something out of date or old fashioned.
earbashing : nagging, non-stop chatter.
evil: great; excellent.
eyeball: to stare long and hard at someone or something.
eyepopper: something or someone visibly astounding.
fag [offensive] (1): homosexual
fag (2): cigarette
family jewels – Rhyming Slang for testicles.
far out – splendid.
fart [offensive] (1): an escape of gas from the bowels.
fart [slightly offensive] (2): an unpleasant person
fat head – an idiot or dull person.
fender-bender: small accident.
filth [offensive] – the police.
fit – sexually attractive.
five finger discount – shoplifting.
flashback: sudden memory.
flick (1): film; movie.
flick (2): to give something or somebody the flick is to get rid of it
floating : intoxicated
floozie – a mistress or girlfriend.
flommox – confuse
flutter – a bet (on horse racing or football)
footie – Abbreviated form for football.
for crying out loud ! – a expression of frustration or anger.
forty winks – a short sleep or nap.
fox: attractive, alluring person.
freebie: something that does not cost money.
French kiss : kissing with the tongue.
full monty – ‘the whole lot’, everything.
full-on – powerful, with maximum effort.
funny farm – mental hospital or institution.
funny money – counterfeit money.
gaff – house or flat.
gander – to look at.
geek: an unattractive person who works too hard.
get it: to understand something.
gobshite [offensive] – someone who talks rubbish all the time.
go bananas: go slightly mad.
good onya : good for you, well done
goof (1): make a mistake.
goof (2): a silly and foolish person.
goof off: waste time.
goof up: make a mistake.
Gordon Bennet – an exclamation.
grand: one thousand dollars.
greaser – slang name for a 1950’s style man.
grog : alcohol, beer.
grubby: not clean.
grungy: unclean and stinky.
gut: a person’s stomach; belly.
gyno – gynaecologist
hacked off – fed up, annoyed.
hairy: difficult; dangerous.
ham-fisted – clumsy.
hammered – drunk.
handcuffs: an engagement ring or wedding ring
hang a left: make a left turn.
hang a right: make a right turn.
headcase – mad
hep: sensible; informed.
her (‘er) indoors – wife, girlfriend.
hickey: a love bite on the skin.
hip: sensible; informed.
hole in the wall – a cashpoint machine or bankomat.
hoo-ha – trouble; commotion.
horny: in the mood for sex, sexually stimulated;.
hot (1): sexy.
hottie : hot water bottle
huff – bad mood.
humungous: really big.
hump (1) – to have sex.
hump (2) – bad mood.
hyper: overly excited.
iffy – dubious, doubtful.
I’m outta here: I’m leaving; I’m departing.
jack around: waste time.
jam (1): trouble.
jam (2): improvise (musically).
jamming, to be : going well.
jammy – lucky.
jerk: stupid or annoying person.
jock: someone good at sports.
K : a thousand.
keep your hair on – “keep calm”.
kick back: relax and enjoy.
kick the bucket: die.
kip – sleep.
knackered – exhausted.
knees up – party.
knock: condemn, criticise.
knockout: beautiful woman; handsome man.
knock back : refusal (noun), refuse (transitive verb)
kook: peculiar person.
kraut [slightly offensive] – German
laid back: relaxed; calm.
lairy – loud, brash.
legless – very drunk.
limp wristed – a gay man.
lip: cheeky talk.
loaded – someone with a lot of money.
loo : toilet
loser: a bungling and worthless person.
lost the plot – crazy/mad.
love handles: excess fat around the waist.
luvverly jubberly – wonderful, great, all is well.
make waves: cause problems.
malarkey – nonsense.
mate – friend
max, to the : maximum.
megabucks: a large amount of money.
mickey-mouse: unimportant; time-wasting.
minger [offensive] – an unattractive person (usually female).
mongrel : despicable person
moonie [offensive!] – to show one’s bottom (arse) to unsuspecting
moose [offensive] – an ugly girl.
mozzie : mosquito
mug : a gullible person.
naff – something which is cheap and nasty.
naff off – a milder version off fu*k off.
nancy (nancy boy) – a homosexual.
nark – a police informer.
narked – to be annoyed.
neat: cool; great.
nick – to steal.
nipper – a small child.
no-hoper – somebody who’ll never do well
nosh – food.
not cricket – not normal or correct.
not all there – someone who is stupid, not bright intellectually
not half! – cetainly, for sure.
not the full quid – someone who is stupid, not bright intellectually.
nuke (1): nuclear weapon.
nuke (2): destroy; delete.
nuke (3): cook something in the microwave oven.
nut (1): odd or crazy person.
nut (2): someone passionate about something.
nutter – crazy person.
nuts [slightly offensive]: testicles.
nutty – eccentric.
off your face – to be very drunk.
out of your tree – crazy, drunk or stoned.
pad: someone’s home.
pants (1) – an exclamation of frustration.
pants (2) – bad or rubbish.
party animal: someone that loves parties.
peanuts: very little money.
pee: to urinate.
pig out: eat too much.
pigs ear: to make a mistake with something.
piss [slightly offensive] – to urinate.
pissed – drunk.
pissed (off): angry; upset.
piss-head – a habitual drinker or alcoholic.
piss-up – a big drinking session.
plank – an idiot.
plonker – an idiot
pad: someone’s home.
plonk (1) : cheap wine
plonk (2): sit down – as in “plonk your arse down there”.
poop [offensive]: defecation; shit.
poop out: get tired and quit.
postie : postman
prezzy : present, gift
pro – someone who’s good at something; professional.
psycho: crazy person.
pumped (up): excited.
queer [slightly offensive] – a homosexual.
rabbit – talk.
racket (1): noise.
racket (2): an occupation.
racket (3): something that’s dishonest or deceptive.
rat: a despicable person.
rat-arsed – drunk.
rear (end): buttocks.
(a) riot – something or someone very funny.
rip off (1): stealing.
rip off (2): fraud.
ripper : great, fantastic
rocking: great; excellent.
roll up – a hand rolled cigarette.
rosie lee – tea
rubbish: nonsense; not true.
ruck – a fight.
rug – wig, toupee.
rug rat: a child.
rum – odd, strange.
runs, the: diarrhoea.
scoff: to eat.
screw up: to make a mistake.
screw-up: a person who makes a mistake.
scum (offensive] – a despicable individual.
shades – sunglasses.
shag [slightly offensive] – to make love.
shagged-out – to feel tired.
shed-load – a huge amount.
shite – milder variation of the word shit.
shitfaced [slightly offensive] – very drunk.
shithead [slightly offensive]: a stupid, impolite person.
skint – to have no money
skosh – a little bit.
slapper [offensive] – a loose or easy woman.
smeghead – an idiot.
snog – to kiss
snookered: cheated, stuck.
solid (1): really good; cool.
solid (2): consecutive.
split: to leave.
spunk [offensive] (1): semen
spunk (2): spirit.
spunk (3): an attractive man.
stoned: drunk from drugs or alcohol.
stunner – a very good looking woman.
street smart: knowledgeable about city life.
strewth : exclamation
(I’ll be) stuffed : expression of surprise
suck: to be bad and unacceptable.
sunnies : sunglasses
swagman : tramp
sweet – excellent, cool.
ta – thanks.
tacky – something of poor taste or style.
tanked (up) – to get very drunk.
tea leaf – Rhyming Slang for thief.
telly – television.
thick as shit [offensive]- very stupid.
thick as two short planks [offensive] – very stupid.
thingo : Wadjamacallit, thingummy, whatsit, something you don’t know the
ticker (1): the heart.
ticker (2): a watch.
tiddly – slightly drunk.
toss-pot [slightly offensive] – idiot.
totally: really; completely.
to the max: maximum.
troll – an ugly girl.
(the) trots – diarrhoea.
trouble and strife – Rhyming Slang for ‘wife’.
trout [offensive] – unattractive woman
turkey (1): failure; flop.
turkey (2): dumb person.
turn-off: something that repulses a person.
umpteen: many; countless.
up for it – to be willing to have a good time.
up the duff – to be pregnant.
Uncle Tom Cobley and all – a phrase meaning ‘everyone’.
uptight: nervous; anxious.
veg out : relax in front of the TV (like a vegetable)
wad: a lot of money.
wanker – an idiot or an unpleasant person.
weed (1): marijuana.
weed (2): someone who is weak.
wheels: car; motorcycle.
whiz: someone who shows a special talent for something.
wicked – excellent, cool.
wimp: weak; feeble.
wind up – to tease.
wuss : coward
x-rated – pornographic.
yabber : talk (a lot)
Yank: an American.
yob – a horrible or uncouth young man.
zeds – sleep.
zero – an unimportant person.
zilch – nothing
zip (1) -nothing.
zip (2) – energy; vigor.
zip it – shut up.
zit: pimple; acne.
Slangizms are a very interesting groups of words. One of the
characteristics of slangizm is that they are not included into Standard
EG: mug = face; trap = mouth
Such words are based on metaphor, they make speech unexpected, vivid and
sometimes difficult to understand.
Slang appears as a language of a subgroup in a language community. We
can speak of black-americans’ slang, teenagers’ slang, navy and army
Feature Articles: Magical Slang: Ritual, Language and Trench Slang of
the Western Front
Unprecedented in its conditions, ferocity, and slaughter, the First
World War was also unprecedented in its effect on the psyches of the men
who fought and on the languages they spoke. Like the soldiers who spoke
it, English emerged from the war, as Samuel Hynes maintains, a “damaged”
language, “shorn of its high-rhetorical top…” (1)
French linguistic purists, led by the Academie Francaise, vigorously
denounced damaging incursions of journalistic language and trench slang
into standard French. (2) Only in Germany did a nationalist ideology
with its high rhetoric of struggle, sacrifice, and military glory
survive, adopted and nourished first by rightist veterans’ groups and
paramilitary formations, and finally institutionalised by the National
Socialists and their leader, former Frontsoldat Adolf Hitler.
But whatever damage the war may have wrought on the “high” language is,
in a sense, compensated by the emergence of two new popular “languages”
of great interest to the historian. One is the language of popular
journalism; already well-established in 1914, it was characterised by
its own chauvinistic diction and aggressively patriotic attitude and was
the means by which most civilians got information about the war.
Universally excoriated by the fighting troops as bourrage de crone (head
stuffing, i.e. false stories) and Hurrah-patriotismus (hurrah
patriotism), journalistic prose nevertheless significantly shaped
civilian attitudes about the war and soldiers’ attitudes about the
press. (3) French troops called the official war bulletin le petit
menteur (the little liar). The other language was, of course, what we
call trench slang, the common idiom of the front. The literate mass
armies trapped in the entrenched stalemate of the First World War
provided a fertile medium for the development and dissemination of the
special language of the trenches. (4)
In this essay, I intend to focus on the two predominant roles of slang
in the context of the Western Front: its denotation of membership in the
community of combat soldiers, and its magical or talismanic function as
the protective language of that community and its individual members.
The selected examples are meant to be illustrative rather than
Among the many rhetorical and social functions of slang and jargon, that
of defining and delimiting a social group by reinforcing its social,
professional and often visual identity with a verbal one is broadly
Robert Chapman has noted that “an individual… resorts to slang as a
means of attesting membership in the group and of dividing himself…
off from the mainstream culture.” (6)
Niceforo neatly pinpoints the genesis of slang: “sentir differement,
c’est parler diffJrement; – s’occuper differement, c’est aussi parler
differement” (“to feel differently is to speak differently; – to occupy
oneself differently is also to speak differently”). (7) The creation of
a verbal identity based on occupation and feeling is particularly marked
in military society, where social function, enforced separation from the
civilian world, and uniform appearance already distinguish the members
of a circumscribed, hierarchical society from outsiders.
It would be useful at this point to differentiate between the terms
“jargon” and “slang” in a military context, as both exist, are sometimes
commingled, and often confused. (8) By jargon I mean the language of
the profession, consisting primarily of technical terms (including
acronyms) proper to the military service, what Flexner calls
“shop-talk.” (9) In current American military jargon, for example, the
acronym PCS, which stands for Permanent Change of Station, appears
occasionally as a noun, as in “Did you have a good PCS?” but more
frequently as a verbal structure, as in “He PCSed last month” or “She’s
PCSing in January.”
The “alphabet soup” of acronyms, an enduring characteristic of military
jargon, first appeared in bewildering array in the First World War,
although some had existed earlier. (10) Military jargon is, of course,
not limited to acronyms, but includes such things as abbreviations for
weapons and equipment, terms for promotion and failure, punishments
under the code and the like.
Genuine slang, on the other hand, generally eschews technical terms in
favour of the renaming of objects and actions, and the invention of
neologisms. Chapman remarks that slang relies heavily on “figurative
idiom… (and) inventive and poetic terms, especially metaphors.” (11)
Partridge likewise signals the importance of metaphor and figurative
language of all sorts. (12)
Drawing again on current American usage, the gold oak leaves on a
field-grade army officer’s hat become “scrambled eggs” and the
collective designation for senior officers is “brass hats” or simply
“the brass,” a phrase which, along with many others from the two world
wars, has migrated into the general vocabulary. (13)
The hats of field-grade air force officers are decorated with stylised
clouds and bolts of lightning, universally dubbed “darts and farts.”
Similarly a colonel, who wears eagles as his insignia, is distinguished
from a lieutenant colonel by being called an “eagle-colonel,” or with
the fine pejorative edge present in “scrambled eggs” and “darts and
farts,” a “chicken colonel.” To the disparagement implicit in such
phrases, I shall shortly return.
The military proclivity for acronyms occasionally and amusingly spills
over into true slang. A famous instance is that Second World War
favourite “SNAFU,” politely rendered as “situation normal, all fouled
up.” A rudimentary knowledge of scatological language will quickly
provide the ruder and more popular version. (14)
In wartime, the general store of military slang is augmented by a
special subspecies – the slang of combat troops.
Such troops use the general slang but employ, in addition, a vocabulary
unique to their situation. The slang of combat troops distances its
users from the safe, punctilious (and by implication, cowardly) rear
echelons, while concomitantly reinforcing the separate identity and
moral superiority of the combat units. (15)
Anyone familiar with the literature of World War I will immediately
recall the pervasive “us vs. them” mentality of front and rear and the
suffocating smugness of staff officers. The front line troops
psychologically and linguistically occupied the moral high ground of
courage, suffering and sacrifice, leaving the rear to hold the low
ground of shirking and blind adherence to form and tradition at the cost
of lives. Franz Schauwecker wrote that there was a crack in the
structure of the army that “ran parallel to the front somewhere just
outside the range of enemy fire.” (16)
Before examining the characteristic language of the trench soldiers of
World War I, let us briefly review the physical and psychological
stresses inherent in the static trench systems of the Western Front, and
the ways in which the troops coped with those pressures. In the forty
years of European peace that followed the Franco-Prussian war of 1870,
the general staffs of the armies analysed the campaigns, drew their
conclusions, and plotted their strategies for the rematch that most were
convinced was inevitable.
Unlikely as it may seem, the generals of victorious Germany and defeated
France arrived at the same conclusions: only total offensive – offensive
B l’outrance – could ensure victory. While the Germans planned the von
Schlieffen offensive, Revanche became the motive force behind French
military planning in the years between the wars. (17)
With all sides (including the British, despite their experience in the
Boer War) committed to the theory of the offensive, the sudden
concretion of the long-awaited war into defensive entrenchment baffled
even the generals. In their obsession with the offensive, and with its
psychological component of troop morale, they had failed to recognize
that the enormous technological advances in weaponry worked more to the
benefit of defence than of offence. The Western Front was shaped by
artillery, the machine gun, barbed wire, and the spade. As early as
October of 1914, a prescient young German officer wrote to a friend that
(t)he brisk, merry war to which we have all looked forward for years has
taken an unforeseen turn. Troops are murdered with machines, horses have
almost become superfluous… The most important people are the
engineers… the theories of decades are shown to be worthless. (18)
Unfortunately for the miserable troops mired in the wet, cold, and
filthy trenches, the generals refused to accept the deadly efficacy of
the defensive weapons, and spent the first three years of the war
mounting one costly frontal assault after another, until the abortive
Nivelle offensive of May 1917 precipitated the mutiny of the French army
and ended what J.M. Winter calls “the great slaughter.” (19)
What, then, was the effect of trench warfare on the soldiers? First,
the experience of war was an initiatory one. That is, the experience
is, per se, so remarkable that no one who has not experienced it can
ever share it or understand it. (20)
For Aldington soldiers were “men segregated from the world in this
immense barbaric tumult.” (21) “Ein Geschlecht wie das unsere ist noch
nie in die Arena der Erde geschritten,” (“A generation such as ours has
never before stepped into the arena of the earth”) proclaimed Ernst
This “initiate mentality” among combat troops was immeasurably
strengthened in World War I by the characteristics of the fighting, the
first of which was a tactical stasis that imposed physical inertia on
the front line troops. The soldiers were literally immobilised in a
maze of trenches, subjected to severe shelling and regular sniping, to
say nothing of the rigours of outdoor life in northern Europe, with
virtually no reliable protection from any of them. It is little wonder
that the most common metaphor for the trench system, and by extension
the war itself, was the labyrinth, a true “initiatory underground.” (23)
It was not lost on German troops that the root word of der
Schhtzengraben (trench) was das Grab, a grave. In Otto Dix’s lost
painting, Der Schhtzengraben, the trench becomes a grotesque grave
filled with horribly mutilated bodies.
The group identity of the “troglodytes” (to borrow Fussell’s term)
emerges in the striking special language of trench slang. In his
preface to Dechelette’s dictionary, Georges Lentre recounts hearing a
conversation between two soldiers that appeared to be mutually
intelligible, but which he found incomprehensible. (24)
Against the incomprehension of the rear and the patriotic drivel of the
press, the troops erected a linguistic wall that Jacques Meyer
perceptively calls “le language d’une franc-mahonnerie” (“a language of
The sense of identity and community is evident in what the soldiers
called themselves. The usual two-week stint in the front and reserve
lines tended to leave soldiers filthy, lousy, unshaven, and exhausted.
(26) For the Germans, a front line infantryman was a Frontschwein, a
front pig. For the French, he was a poilu, literally a hairy beast, as
the noun poil is used primarily for the hair of animals. Dauzat points
out that the term implies more than just an unshaven man, because the
poilu is hairy, as he delicately puts it, “au bon endroit,” – a
traditional symbol of virility. (27)
In neither case is the animal reference pejorative. Bill Mauldin’s
World War II cartoons of “GI Joe” stand in the same tradition of
affectionate commonality, all contempt reserved for those who are not a
part of the community of combat.
The sense of community felt by the combat troops (a bond particularly
marked among the Germans) was reinforced by the mass of war material
thrown against them.
The Germans, in fact, use the phrase “war of material”
(Materialschlacht) instead of “war of attrition” for the 1916-1918
Front line soldiers often felt that they had more in common with the
enemy soldiers in the trenches opposite than with their own rear echelon
troops and the people at home. That sense of a common bond of suffering
is reflected in the slang names for opposing and even allied forces.
With the exception of boche, and perhaps “Hun,” to which I shall return,
epithets for opposing forces were generally based on a stereotypical
national name or characteristic or a deformed foreign phrase, and were
On the German side, the favoured names for the French were Franzmann and
several names based on germanised French phrases: Parlewuhs
(parlez-vous), Wulewuhs (voulez-vous), Olala, and the very popular
Tulemong (tous le monde). (28) For British soldiers, the Germans, like
the French, used “Tommy,” although naturally deforming the
English soldiers employed a variety of epithets for the Germans.
“Fritz” was popular early in the war, with “Jerry” favoured later.
According to Brophy, “Hun,” a journalistic creation, was used almost
exclusively by officers, as was the borrowed French “Boche.”
Although the French used Fritz as well, Boche was the term of choice.
Its etymology is complex and uncertain, (29) but its pejorative
implications of obstinacy and generally uncivilised behaviour are
undeniable. The Germans loathed the word and considered it a profound
insult. Bergmann claimed that the Germans used no such derogatory
terms, for “wir Deutschen wissen uns zum Glhck frei von… kindischen
Hass” (“we Germans know ourselves to be happily free from such childish
hatred”), but Dauzat disputes that. (30)
The unusually derogatory nature of Boche may reflect French bitterness
over the defeat of 1870 and the invasion of 1914. Dauzat insists that
Boche is a “mot de l’arripre” (“a word of the rear”), and that the
soldiers preferred Fritz, Pointu (for the pre-1916 German spiked
helmets) or even Michel for artillerymen. (31) Nevertheless, the other
collective epithets suggest, in their general mildness, that the front
line troops considered enemy soldiers less dangerous than the men to
Entrapment, immobility, and alienation led to what Leed has called “the
breakdown of the offensive personality.” (32) Instead of being a mobile
offensive warrior, the soldier of trench warfare was “humble, patient,
enduring, an individual whose purpose was to survive a war that was a
‘dreadful resignation, a renunciation, a humiliation.'” (33)
A young German soldier, Johannes Philippson, wrote home in the summer of
1917 that “only genuine self-command is any use to me.” (34) French
historian Marc Bloch described the feelings of his troops in December
1914: “Trench warfare had become so slow, so dreary, so debilitating to
body and soul that even the least brave among us wholeheartedly welcomed
the prospect of an attack.” (35)
How, then, could soldiers combat the soul-killing existence in the
trenches and the ever-present fear of death and wounds? One method was
through a reliance on talismans and rituals. As Fussell has noted “no
front-line soldier or officer was without his amulet and every tunic
pocket became a reliquary… so urgent was the need that no talisman was
too absurd.” (36)
Luck also depended on ritual – on doing some things and refraining from
others, doing things in threes for example, or Graves’ conviction that
his survival was due to the preservation of his virginity. (37) Another
form of talismanic protection was provided by the use of slang.
Niceforo defines “magical slang” (“l’argot magique”) as the language
used by individuals when they fear (for reasons having a magical basis)
to call things and people by their real names. (38)
Slang allowed the troops to create a ritualised discourse, fully
intelligible only to the initiates, that suppressed fear by avoiding any
mention by name of death, wounds, weapons, and the authorities whose
orders could expose a soldier to those dangers. In short, the trench
slang of World War I served a protective function by creating a language
that familiarised, trivialised, and disparaged those objects and persons
posing the greatest danger to the individual soldier.
One of the most important taboos in the language of soldiers was any
mention of death. While the author of a novel or memoir may state in a
narrative capacity that someone was killed or wounded, such statements
are nearly non-existent in the dialogues of soldiers. Niceforo notes
that the taboo against mentioning death is very widespread, even in
modern cultures. (39)
The taboo is particularly strong when death is omnipresent. A “Tommy”
might say “He’s gone west” or “He’s hopped it.” The Germans simply said
Er ist aus (He’s gone, done for). (40) A poilu remarked that his
comrade had earned la croix de bois, the wooden cross, probably an
ironic formation on croix de guerre. The important decorations for
valour on all sides in the First World War were in the shape of a cross,
providing ample scope for metaphoric formations.
As an interesting comment on the insignificance of medals to common
soldiers, German Frontsoldaten scathingly called all decorations
Zinnwaren, (tinware), while the French referred to them as batterie de
Wounds were handled in much the same way. British and German troops had
similar expressions for desirable wounds, just serious enough to ensure
that the wounded man would be evacuated home. For the British, such a
wound was a “Blighty,” a term derived from a Hindu word meaning a
foreign country and taken up by British troops in India to refer to
For the Germans, it was a Heimatschuss (a home shot), or an Urlaubschuss
(a leave shot), or even a Deutschlandschuss (a shot that gets one to
Germany). For the French, who were already on home ground, une fine
blessure, (the adjective weakens the gravity of the noun), nevertheless
ensured evacuation and convalescence far from the front.
The tendency to familiarise and trivialise is most apparent in the names
for weapons. In the age of the Materialschlacht, the terrifying killing
and maiming power of high explosives posed the greatest threat to
infantrymen on the Western Front, followed by rifle and machine-gun
fire. The distant impersonality of the killing (one scarcely ever saw
the enemy), and its unpredictability made it particularly threatening.
Trivializing names for weapons and their projectiles reduced the
psychological sense of danger. Bergmann notes that the tradition of
naming heavy guns reaches at least to the early seventeenth century.
(41) The soldiers of the Great War, faced with the most destructive
technology then known, were not behindhand. All the combatants referred
to the various artillery weapons by their calibres. Everyone spoke of
“75s,” the French 75 millimetre field gun, and “180s,” the German heavy
German field guns of various calibres were variously dubbed wilde Marie,
dicke Marie, dicke Bertha (the famous “Big Bertha”), der liebe Fritz,
der lange Max, and schlanke Emma. (42) The manoeuvrability of the
French 75 was honoured in the name Feldhase (field hare). The French
called their 75 Julot, which seems to have been one of the few French
names in general circulation for heavy artillery pieces.
The French trench mortar, a squat, blunt-nosed gun with angled supports,
was called “le crapouillot,” a word formed from “crapaud” (toad), either
from its shape or the fact that its shells fired almost vertically and
then dropped into the opposing trench line, much like the hop of a
toad. Bergmann has correctly assessed the effect of naming guns for
people (especially women) and animals: “…man sucht auch auf diesem
Wege sich die unheimlichen Kriegsmaschinen [email protected] zu bringen, sie sich
vertrauter zu machen und ihre Gefahr gleichsam geringer erscheinen zu
lassen” (“in this way one seeks to bring the sinister war machines
closer, to make them more familiar and, as it were, to let their danger
appear slighter”). (43)
The British seem to have been disinclined to name their guns, but all
three languages are richly furnished with names for the projectiles,
probably because ordinary infantrymen tended to be on the receiving
end. Because of the large quantity of black smoke produced by the
explosion, a heavy shell was called a “Jack Johnson”, or a “coal-box.”
In French, a similar shell was un gros noir, and one that exploded with
greenish smoke was un pernod, named after the popular drink. Others
were saucissons (sausages), sacs B terre (sand bags) and marmites, named
after the large, deep cooking pot of the same name. Germans called a
heavy shell an Aschpott (ash pot) or a Marmeladeneimer (jam pot). The
British trivialised the German mine thrower – the Minnenwerfer – by
calling its whistling shells “singing Minnies,” thus reducing a
dangerous weapon to the status of a harmless girl. (44)
Similarly, the German hand grenades, which had handles, quickly became
known as “potato mashers,” which they did, indeed, resemble. The oval
hand grenades of France and Britain were called les tortues (turtles) by
the French and Ostereier (Easter eggs) by the Germans. A German
discus-shaped hand grenade was a Nhrnberger Lebkuchen, the famous
gingerbread Christmas cookie. In all of these cases, the movement is to
trivialise and familiarise the weapons by noting a resemblance to
something common, familiar, and above all, harmless.
The racial and sexual innuendo inherent in several of the slang names
(i.e. Jack Johnson, Big Bertha) is part of the same pattern and reflects
the attitudes of the period; it is not like the deliberately derogatory
and ironic slang used for the rear echelons, as we shall see.
The front line troops also displayed the greatest inventiveness in their
slang names for infantry weapons, colouring the euphemism with an ironic
twist. Take, for example, the machine gun, the most dangerous infantry
weapon. The Germans generally used the acronym MG for Maschinengewehr,
although Stottertante (stuttering aunt) and Nuhmaschine (sewing machine)
were current. (45) The British called their own machine guns Lewis guns
and the enemy’s Maxim guns, named for their inventors.
But for the poilu, the machine gun became un moulin B cafe – a coffee
mill – first because the early gatling-gun types were hand-cranked, and
secondly for the sound they made. In any event, the gun was reduced to
being a familiar household object in everyday use. Later in the war
irony took over, and the machine gun was also called la machine B
decoudre – a machine to rip open seams, ironically formed on machine B
coudre (sewing machine). The verb decoudre also denotes the action of a
horned animal ripping open its attackers, giving the phrase a sinister
But the cleverest French slang involves the bayonet. The French army
had succumbed to a veritable cult of the bayonet in the period before
the war. It was regarded as the infantry weapon par excellence, the
embodiment of the offensive spirit, and the bayonet charge as the surest
indication of military elan among foot soldiers – the infantry
equivalent of a cavalry charge.
In the realities of trench combat, as Jean Norton Cru has shown, the
bayonet, despite its sinister appearance and exalted reputation, was
little used and produced minor wounds in comparison to the effects of
shrapnel and bullets. (46)
But it was a favourite for nicknames, the most famous of which is
Rosalie, from a 1914 song far more popular among civilians than among
soldiers. (47) The bayonet was known as la fourchette (the fork), and
le cure-dents (the toothpick), as well as a tire-Boche and a
tourne-Boche. In the last cases Boche, as the general slang term for
the Germans, is substituted into existing phrases.
The former comes from tire-bouchon, a corkscrew, possibly a reference to
the twisting movement that soldiers were taught to use in a bayonet
thrust. The latter, tourne-boche, is formed from tournebroche, a
kitchen spit for roasting meat and fowl in the fireplace.
One of the most striking characteristics of slang is its inclination
toward degradation rather than elevation, what Partridge following
Carnoy has called dysphemism. (48) Niceforo calls it “l’esprit de
degradation et de depreciation,” (“the spirit of degradation and
depreciation”) and goes on to speak of slang as a form of assault
directed at a higher class by an underclass. (49)
In its deliberate deformation of words, mispronunciation and taste for
impropriety, slang may serve as the only act of rebellion allowed
soldiers at war. While most mispronunciations of French place names
were probably just that, a few are so wonderfully ironic that they must
have been deliberate, such as the German deformation of Neufchatel to
Neuschrapnell (new shrapnel). (50)
Fear, and the hatred it spawned, was directed above all toward the
“powers that be,” the perfidious and murderous ils (they) as Meyer calls
The combat soldiers’ hatred of the rear, which certainly involved some
envy as well as a sense of moral superiority, rested also on a sense of
betrayal – the certainty that the powers, civilian or military, that
ordered their lives cared little for them. As we will see, slang terms
for rear echelon troops in French and German abound in animal and
vegetal metaphors, constituting a figurative vilification of
intelligence, courage, and manhood.
The conviction that their lives were not valued emerges in numerous
guises in the slang, including slang used for food, which was,
naturally, a major preoccupation of troops who were often badly fed.
The men exercised their traditional right to grumble about the food and
create disparaging epithets to describe it, a custom going back to the
“grognards” of the Napoleonic Wars and beyond, and certainly continuing
to our own time.
One of the staple rations in World War I was British canned beef, called
“Bully” beef by the troops. (“Bully” is probably a corruption of the
French bouillie, boiled). The Germans also called it “Bully,” and liked
it so well that they rarely returned from a trench raid without some,
especially since German rations worsened as the war lengthened and the
allied blockade cut off German resources.
By 1916, the staple of the German soldier’s diet was a mixture of dried
vegetables, mostly beans, that the Frontsoldaten called Drahtverhau
(barbed wire). Other German culinary delights included Stroh und Lehm
(straw and mud – yellow peas with sauerkraut), and Schrapnellsuppe
(shrapnel soup – undercooked pea or bean soup).
Jam, essential for softening stale bread, was Heldenbutter (hero’s
butter), Wagenschmiere (axle grease), and
[email protected] (Kaiser Wilhelm Memorial Spread).
(52) Some of these terms may refer specifically to the notorious turnip
jam that became standard issue after the blockade and crop failures
created severe shortages. Spread on ersatz bread made with sawdust and
other fillers, it was neither appetizing nor nourishing.
The French did not share their enemy’s or ally’s taste for “Bully”.
They referred to it as singe, (monkey), and boTte B grimaces, for the
grimaces it produced. Other regular items in the French soldier’s diet
included schrapnells (undercooked peas or beans), and lentils, known as
They called a stew a rata, a shortened form of ratatouille, which in its
general sense refers to a stew, not merely the vegetable stew which it
designates in modern French. Rata however, also suggests the verb
ratatiner (to shrivel or dry up), which may be a remark on the quality
of army cooking.
The use of slang as insult, as defensive and offensive weapon, reached
its peak in the front line soldier’s contempt for rear echelon soldiers
and for civilians. The universal distain for the staffs, soldiers and
officers alike, in their relatively safe and sheltered jobs, surfaces in
all three languages with vitriolic implications of cowardice, greed, and
In the British army, staff officers were distinguished by the wearing of
bright red shoulder tabs and hat bands. The colour constituted a
visible symbol that the wearer did not belong to the colourless khaki
and field-grey world of the front, where distinguishing marks were
abolished because they made good targets for snipers. The frontline
troops soon dubbed the tabs “The Red Badge of Funk.” (53) Along this
line, one of the trench newspapers provided the following definition of
DUDS – These are of two kinds. A shell on impact
failing to explode is called a dud. They are unhappily
not as plentiful as the other kind, which often draws a
big salary and explodes for no reason. These are
plentiful away from the fighting areas. (54)
The implication of cowardice is less obvious in the French and German
terms for staff officers, but the scorn is deepened by the use of animal
references. In the German Frontschwein, used for the front soldiers,
Schwein was an expression of community and commonality, almost of
But the equivalent term for headquarters soldiers, Etappenschwein, was
entirely pejorative. The German focus, understandably, since the German
troops were very ill-fed, was greed. Rear echelon troops were often
called Speck (bacon), and one writer even referred to the
Etappenschweine as “bellies on legs.” (55)
The French slang is inventively pejorative. For them, the headquarters
sergeant was a chien de quartier, a headquarters dog. The choice of
animal is significant, as chien is a broadly-used pejorative in French,
common in such phrases as chien de temps (bad weather), chien de vie (a
dog’s life) and Ltre chien (to be stingy).
The term in widest use for someone who had a safe job was embusquJ,
whose first meaning is someone lying in ambush. The word consequently
carries connotations both of hiding and, worse, of betrayal.
Another term, planquJ, has the original meaning of lying flat, ie.
safely out of the line of fire; a similar term is assiettes plates (flat
plates). The most insulting epithet is the opposite of poilu, JpilJ
(someone who has been depilitated), implying the loss of the vaunted
courage and virility of the poilu.
High ranking officers, invariably staff officers, since the troops
rarely saw anyone above the rank of captain, were reduced to lJgumes
(vegetables) and generals to grosses lJgumes (big vegetables). A
brigadier’s stripes of rank were sardines, suggesting in French, as in
English, a small, smelly fish.
In conclusion then, the unique conditions of the First World War (a war
of defensive weapons led by generals obsessed with offensives)
engendered a level of psychological stress in the combatants hitherto
unknown in Europe. Along with talisman and ritual, the slang of the
trenches provided a stylised discourse for the initiates of the
labyrinth, through which they could define themselves as initiates, and
simultaneously protect themselves from the constant awareness of their
As John Brophy has said of Great War soldiers’ songs, the slang may not
have diminished the soldier’s danger, but it “may well have reduced the
emotional distress caused by fear, and aided him, after the experience,
to pick his uncertain way back to sanity again.” (56)
Background of Cockney English:
Due to the fact that London is both the political capital and the
largest city within England, HYPERLINK
Wells, (1982b) doesn’t find it surprising that it’s also the country’s
“linguistic center of gravity.” Cockney represents the basilectal end of
the London accent and can be considered the broadest form of London
“Wells’,’remote’); ” (Wells 1982b) It traditionally refers only to
specific regions and speakers within the city. While many Londoners may
speak what is referred to as “popular London” HYPERLINK
(Wells 1982b) they do not necessarily speak Cockney. The popular
Londoner accent can be distinguished from Cockney in a number of ways,
and can also be found outside of the capital, unlike the true Cockney
The term Cockney refers to both the accent as well as to those people
who speak it? The etymology of Cockney has long been discussed and
disputed. One explanation is that “Cockney” literally means cock’s egg,
a misshapen egg such as sometimes laid by young hens. It was originally
used when referring to a weak townsman, opposed to the tougher
countryman and by the 17th century the term, through banter, came to
mean a Londoner (Liberman, 1996). Today’s natives of London, especially
in its East End use the term with respect and pride – `Cockney Pride’.)
Cockney is characterized by its own special vocabulary and usage, and
traditionally by its own development of ” HYPERLINK
“http://www.ic.arizona.edu/~lsp/BritEngNote2.html” rhyming slang .”
Rhyming slang, is still part of the true Cockney culture even if it is
sometimes used for effect. More information on the way it works can be
found under the Cockney English features section.
Geography of Cockney English:
London, the capital of England, is situated on the River Thames,
approximately 50 miles north of the English Channel, in the south east
section of the country. It is generally agreed, that to be a true
Cockney, a person has to be born within hearing distance of the bells of
St. Mary le Bow, Cheapside, in the City of London. This traditional
working-class accent of the region is also associated with other suburbs
in the eastern section of the city such as the East End, Stepney,
Hackney, Shoreditch Poplar and Bow.
Sociolinguistic issues of Cockney English:
The Cockney accent is generally considered one of the broadest of the
British accents and is heavily stimatized. It is considered to epitomize
the working class accents of Londoners and in its more diluted form, of
other areas. The area and its colorful characters and accents have often
become the foundation for British “soap operas” and other television
specials. Currently, the BBC is showing one of the most popular soaps
set in this region, “East Enders” and the characters’ accents and lives
within this television program provide wonderful opportunities for
observers of language and culture.
Features of Cockney English:
Some of the more characteristic features of the Cockney accent include
This affects the lexical set mouth vowel.
“Wells’,’remote’); ” Wells (1982b) believes that it is widely agreed
that the “mouth” vowel is a “touchstone for distinguishing between “true
Cockney” and popular London” and other more standard accents. Cockney
usage would include monophthongization of the word mouth
“Wells’,’remote’); ” Wells (1982b) describes the glottal stop as
also particularly characteristic of Cockney and can be manifested in
different ways such as “t” glottalling in final position. A 1970’s study
of schoolchildren living in the East End found /p,t,k/ “almost
invariably glottalized” in final position.
as the realization of word internal intervocalic /t/
As would be expected, an “Estuary English” speaker uses fewer glottal
stops for t or d than a “London” speaker, but more than an RP speaker.
However, there are some words where the omission of ‘t’ has become very
Gatwick = Ga’wick
Scotland = Sco’land
statement = Sta’emen
network = Ne’work
Dropped ‘h’ at beginning of words (Voiceless glottal fricative)
In the working-class (“common”) accents throughout England, ‘h’ dropping
at the beginning of certain words is heard often, but it’s certainly
heard more in Cockney, and in accents closer to Cockney on the continuum
between that and RP. The usage is strongly stigmatized by teachers and
many other standard speakers.
house = ‘ouse
hammer = ‘ammer
by labiodentals [f] and [v] respectively.
The voice quality of Cockney has been described as typically involving
“chest tone” rather than “head tone” and being equated with “rough and
harsh” sounds versus the velvety smoothness of the Kensington or Mayfair
accents spoken by those in other more upscale areas of London.
Cockney Rhyming Slang
Cockney English is also characterized by its own special vocabulary and
usage in the form of “cockney rhyming slang”. The way it works is that
you take a pair of associated words where the second word rhymes with
the word you intend to say, then use the first word of the associated
pair to indicate the word you originally intended to say. Some rhymes
have been in use for years and are very well recognized, if not used,
among speakers of other accents.
“apples and pears” – stairs
“plates of meat” – feet
There are others, however, that become established with the changing
“John Cleese” – cheese
“John Major” – pager
Numerous examples and usage of rhyming slang can be found online. See
HYPERLINK “http://www.ic.arizona.edu/~lsp/BritEngNote2.html” Note 2
Slang and the Dictionary
Slang … an attempt of common humanity to escape from bald literalism,
and express itself illimitably … the wholesome fermentation or
eructation of those processes eternally active in language, by which
froth and specks are thrown up, mostly to pass away, though occasionally
to settle and permanently crystallise.
Walt Whitman, 1885
What is slang?
Most of us think that we recognise slang when we hear it or see it, but
exactly how slang is defined and which terms should or should not be
listed under that heading continue to be the subject of debate in the
bar-room as much as in the classroom or university seminar. To arrive at
a working definition of slang the first edition of the Bloomsbury
Dictionary of Contemporary Slang approached the phenomenon from two
slightly different angles. Firstly, slang is a style category within the
language which occupies an extreme position on the spectrum of
formality. Slang is at the end of the line; it lies beyond mere
informality or colloquialism, where language is considered too racy,
raffish, novel or unsavoury for use in conversation with strangers … So
slang enforces intimacy. It often performs an important social function
which is to include into or exclude from the intimate circle, using
forms of language through which speakers identify with or function
within social sub-groups, ranging from surfers, schoolchildren and
yuppies, to criminals, drinkers and fornicators. These remain the
essential features of slang at the end of the 1990s, although its
extreme informality may now seem less shocking than it used to, and its
users now include ravers, rappers and net-heads along with the
miscreants traditionally cited.
There are other characteristics which have been used to delimit slang,
but these may often be the result of prejudice and misunderstanding and
not percipience. Slang has been referred to again and again as
‘illegitimate’, ‘low and disreputable’ and condemned by serious writers
as ‘a sign and a cause of mental atrophy’(Oliver Wendell Holmes), ‘the
advertisement of mental poverty’(James C. Fernal). Its in-built
unorthodoxy has led to the assumption that slang in all its incarnations
(metaphors, euphemisms, taboo words, catchphrases, nicknames,
abbreviations and the rest) is somehow inherently substandard and
unwholesome. But linguists and lexicographers cannot (or at least,
should not) stigmatise words in the way that society may stigmatise the
users of those words and, looked at objectively, slang is no more
reprehensible than poetry, with which it has much in common in its
creative playing with the conventions and mechanisms of language, its
manipulation of metonymy, synechdoche, irony, its wit and inventiveness.
In understanding this, and also that slang is a natural product of those
‘processes eternally active in language’, Walt Whitman was ahead of his
More recently some writers (Halliday being an influential example) have
claimed that the essence of slang is that it is language used in
conscious opposition to authority. But slang does not have to be
subversive; it may simply encode a shared experience, celebrate a common
outlook which may be based as much on (relatively) innocent enjoyment
(by, for instance, schoolchildren, drinkers, sports fans,
Internet-users) as on illicit activities. Much slang, in fact, functions
as an alternative vocabulary, replacing standard terms with more
forceful, emotive or interesting versions just for the fun of it: hooter
or conk for nose, mutt or pooch for dog, ankle-biter or crumb-snatcher
for child are instances. Still hoping to find a defining characteristic,
other experts have seized upon the rapid turnover of slang words and
announced that this is the key element at work; that slang is concerned
with faddishness and that its here-today-gone-tomorrow components are
ungraspable and by implication inconsequential. Although novelty and
innovation are very important in slang, a close examination of the whole
lexicon reveals that, as Whitman had noted, it is not necessarily
transient at all. The word punk, for example, has survived in the
linguistic underground since the seventeenth century and among the slang
synonyms for money – dosh, ackers, spondulicks, rhino, pelf – which were
popular in the City of London in the 1990s are many which are more than
a hundred years old. A well-known word like cool in its slang sense is
still in use (and has been adopted by other languages, too), although it
first appeared around eighty years ago.
Curiously, despite the public’s increasing fascination for slang, as
evinced in newspaper and magazine articles and radio programmes,
academic linguists in the UK have hitherto shunned it as a field of
study. This may be due to a lingering conservatism, or to the fact that
it is the standard varieties of English that have to be taught, but
whatever the reasons the situation is very different elsewhere. In the
US and Australia the study of slang is part of the curriculum in many
institutions, in France, Spain, Holland, Scandinavia and Eastern Europe
slang, and especially the slang of English, is the subject of more and
more research projects and student theses; in all these places slang is
discussed in symposia and in learned journals, while in Russia, China
and Japan local editions of British and American slang dictionaries can
be found on school bookshelves and in university libraries.
The first glossaries or lexicons of European slang on record were lists
of the verbal curiosities used by thieves and ne’er-do-wells which were
compiled in Germany and France in the fifteenth century. A hundred years
later the first English collections appeared under the titles The Hye
Waye to the Spytell House, by Copland, Fraternite of Vacabondes, by
Awdeley, and Caveat for Common Cursetours, by Harman. Although
dramatists and pamphleteers of seventeenth-century England made spirited
use of slang in their works, it was not until the very end of the 1600s
that the next important compilation, the first real dictionary of slang,
appeared. This was A New Dictionary of the Terms ancient and modern of
the Canting Crew by ‘B. E. Gent’, a writer whose real identity is lost
to us. In 1785, Captain Francis Grose published the first edition of his
Classical Dictionary of the Vulgar Tongue, the most important
contribution to slang lexicography until John Camden Hotten’s Dictionary
of Modern Slang, Cant and Vulgar Words, 1859, which was overtaken its
turn by Farmer and Henley’s more sophisticated Slang and its Analogues
in 1890. All these were published in Britain and it was the New
Zealander Eric Partridge’s single-handed masterwork A Dictionary of
Slang and Unconventional English, also published in London, in 1937,
that, despite its lack of citations and sometimes eccentric etymologies,
became the yardstick of slang scholarship at least until the arrival of
more rigorously organised compendiums from the USA in the 1950s. Since
then several larger reference works have been published, usually
confining themselves to one geographical area and based mainly on
written sources, together with a number of smaller, often excellent
specialist dictionaries dealing with categories such as naval slang,
Glaswegian slang, rhyming slang, the argot of police and criminals and
the jargon of finance and high technology.
The Bloomsbury Dictionary Of Contemporary Slang
The Bloomsbury Dictionary of Contemporary Slang was first produced with
the idea of combining the enthusiasms and instincts of a user of slang –
someone who had been part of the subcultures and milieux where this
language variety has flourished ( and in later life still ventures into
clubs, bars, music festivals, football matches and, on occasion,
homeless shelters) – with the methods of the modern lexicographer
(earlier work on the Longman Dictionary of Contemporary English being a
particular influence) and applied linguist. The first edition set out to
record the 6,000 or so key terms and 15,000-odd definitions which formed
the core of worldwide English language slang from 1950 to 1990: the new,
updated edition, published in Autumn 1997, extends the time-frame almost
to the millennium and expands the number of entries by two thousand,
losing a few obscure, doubtfully attested or just plain uninteresting
terms in the process. The dictionary aims to pick up the elusive and
picturesque figures of speech that really are in use out there in the
multiple anglophone speech communities, and many terms which appear in
its pages have never been recorded before. In keeping with the modern
principles of dictionary-making, the headwords which are listed here are
defined as far as possible in natural, discursive language. The modern
dictionary ideally moves beyond mere definition and tries to show how a
term functions in the language, who uses it and when and why, what
special associations or overtones it may have, perhaps even how it is
pronounced. Where possible a history of the word and an indication of
its origin will be included and its usage illustrated by an authentic
citation or an invented exemplary phrase or sentence.
As with all similar dictionaries, the Bloomsbury volume is based to some
extent on consulting written sources such as newspapers, magazines,
comic books, novels and works of non-fiction. Other secondary sources of
slang are TV and radio programmes, films and song lyrics. Existing
glossaries compiled by researchers, by journalists and by Internet
enthusiasts were also checked, but treated, like fictional texts and
broadcasts, with caution; investigators may be misled by their
informants and, as society becomes more self-conscious in its treatment
of new and unorthodox language, varieties of so-called slang appear that
are only partly authentic, such as the gushing ‘teen-talk’ (a variety of
journalese) appearing in UK magazines like Just Seventeen, My Guy or
Sugar directed by twenty- and thirty-something journalists at their much
younger readers, or the argot developed by writers for cult movies such
as Bill and Ted’s Bogus Journey, Wayne’s World and Clueless. The
embellishing or inventing of slang is nothing new; Damon Runyon, Raymond
Chandler and P. G. Wodehouse all indulged in it, as did British TV
comedy writers for Porridge, Minder, Only Fools and Horses, etc., over
the last three decades. For the Bloomsbury dictionary terms have been
admitted if they can be verified from two or more sources, thereby,
sadly, shutting out examples of idiolect (one person’s private
language), restricted sociolects (terms shared by very small groups) and
nonce terms (one-off coinages).
Any description of slang that is based purely on secondary or written
sources (and most still are) cannot hope to do justice to a language
which is primarily transmitted orally. Slang terms may exist in spoken
usage for many years, even for centuries, before being written down;
some are never committed to paper, so there is an absolute need for work
‘in the field’ with primary sources; eavesdropping on and interviewing
the users of slang themselves, and, where they are not able to report
objectively on the words and phrases they are using, their neighbours,
parents, colleagues, fellow-students and friends must be mobilised. This
is the most exciting part of lexicography, if sometimes the most risky.
The modern language researchers going undercover to listen in on
conversations or setting up networks of informants at street-level can
imagine themselves as successors to the pioneering anthropologists of
the last century, rather than ‘harmless drudges’ (Dr Johnson’s memorable
definition of the lexicographer) toiling alone in dusty libraries or
staring at flickering screens.
Slang at the Millennium
The traditional breeding grounds of slang have always been secretive,
often disenfranchised social groups and closed institutions with their
rituals and codes. This has not changed, although the users in question
have. Where once it was the armed forces, the public schools and
Oxbridge that in Britain dominated socially and linguistically, now it
is the media, the comprehensive playground and the new universities
which exercise most influence on popular language: the office, the
trading-floor and the computer-room have replaced the workshop, the
factory and the street-market as nurturing environments for slang. The
street gang and the prison, whence came nearly all the ‘cant’ that
filled the early glossaries, still provide a great volume of slang, as
do the subcultures of rave, techno and jungle music, crusties and new
agers, skaters and snowboarders. Football metaphors and in-jokes have
long since ousted the cricketing imagery of yesteryear. Some special
types of slang including pig-latin (infixing)and backslang (reversal, as
in yob )seem virtually to have disappeared in the last few years, while
the rhyming slang which arose in the early Victorian age continues to
flourish in Britain and Australia, replenished by succeeding
generations, and the even older parlyaree (a romance/romany/yiddish
lingua franca) lingers on in corners of London’s theatre-land and gay
community. The effect of the media and more recently of the Internet
means that slang in English can no longer be seen as a set of discrete
localised dialects, but as a continuum or a bundle of overlapping
vocabularies stretching from North America and the Caribbean through
Ireland and the UK on to South Africa, South and East Asia and
Australasia. Each of these communities has its own peculiarities of
speech, but instantaneous communications and the effect of English
language movies, TV soaps and music means that there is a core of slang
that is common to all of them and into which they can feed. The feeding
in still comes mainly from the US, and to a lesser extent Britain and
Australia; slang from other areas and the slang of minorities in the
larger communities has yet to make much impression on global English,
with one significant exception. That is the black slang which buzzes
between Brooklyn, Trenchtown, Brixton and Soweto before, in many cases,
crossing over to pervade the language of the underworld, teenagers ( –
it is the single largest source for current adolescent slang in both the
UK and US), the music industry and showbusiness. Within one country
previously obscure local slang can become nationally known, whether
spread by the bush telegraph that has always linked schools and colleges
or by the media: Brookside, Coronation Street, Rab C. Nesbitt and Viz
magazine have all helped in disseminating British regionalisms. This
mixing-up of national and local means that past assumptions about usage
may no longer hold true: the earnest English traveller, having learned
that fag and bum mean something else in North America, now finds that in
fashionable US campus-speak they can actually mean cigarette and
backside. In the meantime the alert American in Britain learns that
cigarettes have become tabs or biffs and backside is now often rendered
by the Jamaican batty .
Speakers of English everywhere seem to have become more liberal,
admitting more and more slang into their unselfconscious everyday
speech; gobsmacked , O.T.T ., wimp and sorted can now be heard among the
respectable British middle-aged; terms such as horny and bullshit which
were not so long ago considered vulgar in the extreme are now heard
regularly on radio and television, while former taboo terms, notably the
ubiquitous British shag , occur even in the conversation of young
ladies. In Oakland, California, the liberalising process reached new
extremes late in 1996 with the promotion of so-called Ebonics : black
street speech given equal status with the language of the dominant white
The greatest number of new terms appearing in the new edition of the
dictionary are used by adolescents and children, the group in society
most given to celebrating heightened sensations, new experiences and to
renaming the features of their world, as well as mocking anyone less
interesting or younger or older than themselves. But the rigid
generation gap which used to operate in the family and school has to
some extent disappeared. Children still distance themselves from their
parents and other authority figures by their use of a secret code, but
the boomers – the baby boom generation – grew up identifying themselves
with subversion and liberalism and, now that they are parents in their
turn, many of them are unwilling either to disapprove of or to give up
the use of slang, picking up their children’s words (often much to the
latters’ embarrassment) and evolving their own family-based language (
helicopters, velcroids, howlers, chap-esses are examples).
The main obsessions among slang users of all ages, as revealed by word
counts, have not changed; intoxication by drink or drugs throws up (no
pun intended) the largest number of synonyms; lashed, langered, mullered
and hooted are recent additions to this part of the lexicon. These are
followed by words related to sex and romance – copping off, out
trouting, on the sniff and jam, lam, slam and the rest – and the many
vogue terms of approval that go in and out of fashion among the young
(in Britain ace, brill, wicked and phat have given way to top, mint, fit
and dope which are themselves on the way out at the time of writing).
The number of nicknames for money, bollers, boyz, beer-tokens, squirt
and spon among them, has predictably increased since the materialist
1980s and adolescent concern with identity-building and
status-confirming continues to produce a host of dismissive epithets for
the unfortunate misfit, some of which, like wendy, spod, licker, are
confined to the school environment while others, such as trainspotter,
anorak and geek , have crossed over into generalised usage.
Other obsessions are more curious; is it the North American housewife’s
hygiene fetish which has given us more than a dozen terms (dust-bunny,
dust-kitty, ghost-turd, etc.) for the balls of fluff found on an unswept
floor, where British English has only one (beggars velvet )? Why do
speakers in post-industrial Britain and Australia still need a dozen or
more words to denote the flakes of dung that hang from the rear of sheep
and other mammals, words like dags, dangleberries, dingleberries,
jub-nuts, winnets and wittens ? Teenagers have their fixations, finding
wigs (toop, syrup, Irish, rug) and haemorrhoids (farmers, Emma Freuds,
nauticals) particularly hilarious. A final curiosity is the appearance
in teenage speech fashionable vogue terms which are actually much older
than their users realise: once again referring to money, British youth
has come up with luka ( the humorous pejorative “filthy lucre” in a new
guise), Americans with duckets (formerly “ducats”, the Venetian gold
coins used all over Renaissance Europe)
The use of slang usually involves deviation from standard language, and
tends to be very popular among adolescents. However, it is used to at
least some degree in all sectors of society. Although slang does not
necessarily involve neologisms (some slang expressions, such as quid,
are very old), it often involves the creation of new linguistic forms or
the creative adaptation of old ones. It can even involve the creation of
a secret language understood only by those within a particular group (an
antilanguage). As such, slang sometimes forms a kind of sociolect aimed
at excluding certain people from the conversation. Slang words tend to
function initially as a means of obfuion, so that the non-initiate
cannot understand the conversation. The use of slang is a means of
recognizing members of the same group, and to differentiate that group
from society at large. In addition to this, slang can be used and
created purely for humorous or expressive effect.
Slang terms are frequently particular to a certain subculture, such as
musicians, and members of a minority. All the same, slang expressions
can outside their original arena and become commonly understood; recent
examples include “cool”. While some such words eventually lose their
status as slang, others conti to be considered as such by most speakers.
In e of this, the process tends to lead to their replacement by other,
less well-recognised, expressions by their original users.
Slang is to be distinguished from jargon, the technical vocabulary of a
particular profession, as the association of informality is not present.
Moreover, jargon may not be intended to exclude non-group members from
the conversation, but rather deals with technical peculiarities of a
given field which require a specialized vocabulary.
According to Bethany K. Dumas and Jonathan Lighter, an expression
should be considered “true slang” if it meets at least two of the
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.”
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 term in ordinary discourse with people of a higher social
status or greater responsibility.” It replaces “a well known
conventional synonym”. This is especially to avoid “the discomfort
caused by the conventional item [or by] further elaboration.”
Functions and origins of slang One use of slang is simply to circumvent
social s. Mainstream language tends to away from everything explicitly
evoking certain realities, and slang can permit one to talk about these
realities, whether euphemistically or not. For this reason, slang
vocabularies are particularly rich in certain ns, such as uality,
violence, crime, and s. They can be quite regional, and in the case of
easily parodied examples, short-lived, such as ‘valspeak’.
Alternatively, slang can grow out of mere familiarity with the things
described. Among Californian connoisseurs, Cabernet Sauvignon might be
known as “Cab”, Chardonnay as “Chard” and so on; this means that
naming the different s expends less superfluous effort. It also serves
as a shared code among connoisseurs.
There is not just one slang, but very many varieties — or dialects — of
it. Different social groups in different times have developed their own
slang. The importance of encryption and identity, of having a secret
code or language, varies between these instances. For slang to maintain
its power as a means of encryption, it must constantly renew its process
of expression, so that those not part of the group will remain unable to
understand it. Many slang words are replaced, as speakers get bored of
them, or they are co-opted by those outside the group. For this reason,
the existence of slang dictionaries reduces the perceived usefulness of
certain slang words to those who use them.
Numerous slang terms pass into informal mainstream speech, and thence
sometimes into mainstream formal speech, perhaps changing somewhat in
meaning to become more acceptable.
Examples of slang Historical examples of slang are the “thieves’ cant”
used by beggars and the underworld generally in previous centuries: a
number of cant dictionaries were published, many based on that published
by Thomas Harman. For example a ‘dingbat’ means a person.
Another famous example, still in use, is ney rhyming slang in which, in
the simplest case, a given word or phrase is replaced by another word or
phrase that rhymes with it. Often the rhyming replacement is abbreviated
further, making the expressions even more obscure. A new rhyme may then
be introduced for the abbreviation and the process contis. Examples of
rhyming slang are apples (and pears), for stairs, and trouble (and
strife), for wife. An example of truncation and replacement of rhyming
slang starts with bottle and glass being used for arse (ass). This was
reduced to bottle, for which the new rhyme Aristotle was found;
Aristotle was then reduced to Aris for which plaster of Paris became the
rhyme. This was, in turn, reduced to plaster. Ergo, plaster means arse.
Backwards slang, or Backslang, is a form of slang where words are
reversed. English backward slang tends to reverse words letter by letter
while French backward slang tends to reverse words by syllables. Verlan
is a French slang that uses backward words, similar in its methods to
the back slang. Louchebem is French er’s slang, similar to Latin. Vesre
is the Rio de la Plata’s region version of a backwards language which
reverses syllables; it is closely associated with lunfardo.
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.” In fact, one common process is for a
slang word to take on exactly the opposite meaning of the standard
definition. This process has given rise to the positive meaning of the
word “bad,” as in the Michael on song of that title, for example.
Polari is an interesting example of slang that drew on various sources,
including ney and Italian. Polari was used in London fish markets and
the subculture in Britain in the 1950s and 1960s, becoming more widely
known from its use by two camp characters, Julian and Sandy, in Round
the Horne, a popular radio show.
Slang terms are often only known within the community of users. For
example, Leet Speak (Leet or “1337”) is a “language” that is popular
among online video gamers. Another example of slang being derived from a
specific element in popular culture is Nadsat, a form of slang used in
the book A Clockwork Orange, which borrows words from the Russian
language and from various forms of English slang.
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? ??¤?¤?$????????????¤?¤?$?????? ????¤?¤?$?????? ????¤?¤?$??????jargon
Stuart Berg Flexner, preface, Dictionary of American Slang, by Robert L.
Chapman (1960; New York: Harper and Row, 1986) xviii.
DJchellette 232252 for French acronyms, and individual entries in
Brophy. Most acronyms are jargon, but some become slang (see SNAFU,
below). A First World War example is the German AEG (allgemeines
[email protected]=, general headquarters gossip) formed on Allgemeiner
[email protected] (General Electric Company) of Berlin. See
“Slang and the Dictionary” Tony Thorne
Dumas, Bethany K. and Lighter, Jonathan (1978) “Is Slang a Word for
Linguists?” American Speech 53 (5): 14-15.
6.Croft, William (2000) Explaining Language Change: An Evolutionary
Approach. Harlow: Longman: 75-6.
A Historical Dictionary of American Slang (2006), ed. Robert Beard,
alpha Dictionary.com, http://www.alphadictionary.com/slang/.
Beard, Robert (2006) What is Slang? alphaDictionary.com, HYPERLINK
On changing slang usage, see Stephanie Smith (2006) Household Words:
Bloomers, er, s, scab, , cyber. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota
The Bloomsbury Dictionary of Contemporary Slang.
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