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Slang, the language of friends

I know that when I begin talking about slang, I enter dangerous territory.

Slang is a touchy subject. Often, the slang of a younger generation is considered an atrocity by the older generation. Sometimes, the younger people think their elders speak like nerds (but they likely use a different word for it).

James Earl Jones and Malcolm McDowell, using their regal acting voices, made slang look hilarious in a series of Sprint commercials a couple of years ago.

McDowell: "He's like the hottest hottie that ever hottied." (He is really good-looking.)

Jones: "And his smile is totes adorbs." (His smile is totally adorable.)

Slang is casual language that replaces a word or phrase.

Doughnuts are a dollar a pop (each).

This apartment is a rathole (horrible place).

That bottle of wine is history (gone).

School on Saturdays is a drag (boring).

Why does he wear that rug (perfectly awful toupee)?

If Mom finds out I broke her favorite vase, I'm toast (finished).

I'm nervous to even mention what I might think is the most current slang because I may be told that I am so 2013. Because of Miley Cyrus, I know what "twerking" is. But only today did I learn that "to throw shade" is to say negative things about someone. People were totally throwing shade after Miley's twerking episode on the MTV Video Music Awards.

Sometimes slang is just shortened words, such as "adorbs" for "adorable.'' Or slang is a new use for an old word or phrase. "A tall drink of water" is someone you find attractive.

Writer Walt Whitman was a fan of slang. In an 1885 essay, he said slang is "the start of fancy, imagination and humor, breathing into its nostrils the breath of life."

So was writer Carl Sandburg. He said, "Slang is a language that rolls up its sleeves, spits on its hand and goes to work."

Many people, though, are not amused by slang. They think it's Nowheresville.

Several readers have asked why they hear certain slang phrases all the time. Why must kids start every sentence with "so" or "actually" or "basically"? Why do people say "like" four or five time per sentence? Why is "friend" being used as a verb now?

When did "rock" become a synonym for "wear"? (One Buzzfeed headline: "Pharrell is still rocking his very big hat.")

Here is my theory on the life cycle of a slang expression. First, it's born. You hear your close friends say it, so you begin to use it, too. You start hearing it everywhere. You hear it on TV. You begin to get a little tired of it. Then comes the day when you hear your mother or father use the term. For you, that's the death knell. You'll probably still hear it, but you won't use it. A few years go by, and one day you use the expression in a conversation with a younger person. You don't know why you used it in that instance because you haven't said it in a long, long time. And suddenly that slang phrase makes you feel older than dirt.

I can remember once when a sister's boyfriend used the phrase, "main squeeze" in front of my mother. He wasn't referring to my sister, otherwise things may have gone far differently. Instead, Mom said, "'Main squeeze.' I like that."

cool beans

Generation after generation has its own slang word or phrase for something that's good, that you like or that you are impressed with:

Awesome, brill, boss, far out, groovy, humdinger, nifty, off the chain, on fire, out of sight, rad, sick, smashing, swell, the bee's knees.

I think "cool" is among the most enduring slang terms for something good. But maybe I think that because I use it several times a day.

Naturally, linguists have tried to explain slang. Two of them, Bethany K. Dumas and Jonathan Lighter, wrote about slang in 1978. One description makes sense:

"Its use implies that the user is familiar with whatever is referred to, or with a group of people who are familiar with it and use the term."

You want to be in the in crowd, so you talk as they do.

Another part of their definition was decidedly judgmental. They said slang "lowers, if temporarily, the dignity of formal or serious speech or writing.''

One PBS story on slang blames headline writers and advertisers for seizing slang terms and using them to death. How many times in the past two or three years have you heard that one person has thrown another person under a bus (blamed them)?

So, slang has always existed and always will. I think the tendency to dislike the slang of the generation that's not yours is nearly universal.

As with so many things in language, context is important. Use slang when you're with your friends. But refrain from using it in formal settings and writing. It may get you thrown under a bus.

Sources: The Guardian, American English blog, Brainy Quote, ManyThings.org, YourDictionary.com, PBS.org,, The Phrase Finder, DanZarrella.com

Reach Bernadette at

bkwordmonger@gmail.com

ActiveStyle on 01/01/2018

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