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The American Dialect Society

Is Slang a Word for Linguists? Author(s): Bethany K. Dumas and Jonathan Lighter Source: American Speech, Vol. 53, No. 1 (Spring, 1978), pp. 5-17 Published by: Duke University Press Stable URL: http://www.jstor.org/stable/455336 . Accessed: 23/10/2013 09:15
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IS SLANG A WORD FOR LINGUISTS?


BETHANY K. DUMAS AND JONATHAN LIGHTER Universityof Tennessee-Knoxville THEPHENOMENON has frequently been discussed, the term SLANG has rarely been defined in a way that is useful to linguists.' Annoyance and frustration await anyone who searches the professional literature for a definition or even a conception of SLANG that can stand up to scrutiny. Instead one finds impressionism, much of it of a dismaying kind. Holding a distinctly minority view, S. I. Hayakawa (1941, pp. 194-95) has called slang "the poetry of everyday life" and said that it "vividly expresses people's feelings about life and about the things they encounter in life." We doubt that many professors of literature would accept such a statement, even if they recognized in it an echo of Walt Whitman (1885, p. 573), who, more than half a century earlier, had gone even further in his praise: "Slang, or indirection, [is] an attempt of common humanity to escape from bald literalism, and express itself illimitably, which in highest walks produces poets and poems, and doubtless in pre-historic times gave the start to, and perfected, the whole immense tangle of the old mythologies.... Slang, too, is 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 chrystallize." Since neither writer defines the term, Hayakawa and Whitman each must have felt that a notion of SLANG would be clear to his readers. The same might be said of John C. Hodges, who observed far less charitably in several editions of the Harbrace CollegeHandbook (for example, 1967, p. 197) that "slang is the sluggard's way of avoiding the search for the exact, meaningful word." Slang, by implication, is inexact and meaningless, but these are characteristics it shares with much of standard English, as fifteen minutes at a water cooler or a political rally will show. Years before Hodges, Norman Foerster and J. M. Steadman, Jr. (1941, p. 290) sneered at slang as "a cheap substitute for good diction," which demonstrated "laziness in thought and poverty of vocabulary." They found it necessary to remark that "to confine one's critical adjectives to swell and lousy certainly does not indicate much critical ability." But to confine one's critical vocabulary to any two adjectives, no matter how sesquipedalian, does not indicate much critical ability either. Similar but even more extreme dicta can be found, especially in the early part of this century. John F. Genung led the way when he claimed
ALTHOUGH

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AMERICAN SPEECH

in 1893 (p. 32) that "slang is to a people's language what an epidemic disease is to their bodily constitution; just as catching and just as inevitable in its run.... Like a disease, too, it is severest where the sanitary conditions are most neglected." As one might expect, Genung never actually defined slang, but he did give examples to be shunned, including "He was badly cut up by the news" and "I am two dollars shy." The legend of the college student with only two adjectives to his name is evidently an old one in pedagogical fakelore. In the midst of one of the bitterest antislang diatribes of all time, James C. Fernald, a Funk and Wagnalls editor, revealed in 1918 (p. 248) that "it was said of a certain student in Harvard that he had but two adjectives--'stunning' for whatever he approved, and 'beastly' for anything he disliked." Biadjectival semiliterates at Harvard! Where would it end? Fernald tells us. He points out that "the noble Hebrew has become the degenerate Yiddish" and that "the Latin of conquering Rome ... has successors in some ways inferior in the Italian, French, and Spanish" (p. 238). A small sample can give the savor of his incredible remarks, made at a time when English teachers might have been better occupied in making the language "safe for democracy": The touch of decayis upon all things earthly.Frost,rain, and windare casting down the mountains,and the rivers are washingthe rock-dustfar out into the sea.... Languageshares the same tendency to decay.... Our schools and colleges have constantlyto correct this tendency, which, but for them, would be overmastering.... Slang,for the most part, comes up from the coarseand more ignorantportion of the community.Readingbut few books,and those usuallyof no literarymerit, they have nothing to hold them up to high standardsof speech.... Even words and phrasesonce excellent in meaningcome to express some idea of the saloon or the gutter.If these expressionsare vigorous,they quicklybecome current,for feeble, lethargic,and uninventiveminds are glad to be caught up and carried along by those of more originalityand force, who are yet not too far above their own grade. Thus some word or phrase... will go down street after street, through whole sectionsof a city.The low theaterscatchit up, the saloonspass it over the bar, the yellowjournals print it, businessmen who deal with the rough element adopt it, children learn it from their playmates.... Slang... savesthe trouble-and the glory-of thinking.The same cheap word or phrase may be used for any one of a hundred ideas.... Slang is the advertisement of mental poverty.... The stir of the lowerlife is constantlybringingto the surfacemud [and]slime. [pp. 238, 247-48, 253] This is a far cry from Whitman's "wholesome fermentation," and sounds more like a cholera epidemic. No definition of slang is offered, but it obviously has something to do with degeneration. We might com-

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IS SLANG A WORD FOR LINGUISTS?

pare Fernald's horrific vision with the medical opinion of Dr. Oliver Wendell Holmes, who suggested that "the use of slang is at once a sign and a cause of mental atrophy" (cited by Partridge 1935, p. 295). This observation at least makes more sense than the following, taken from a current freshman handbook (Leggett, Mead, and Charvat 1974, p. 353): "It is especially poor usage to mix slang and respectable words indiscriminately in the same sentence." Thus, "Crazy, daddy-o!" may be poor usage, but presumably "Let's go to the flicks tonight" is worse because some of its words are respectable. In his widely reprinted preface to the Dictionary of American Slang, Stuart Berg Flexner has attempted what seems at first to be a more systematic approach: "American slang.., is the body of words and expressions frequently used by or intelligible to a rather large portion of the general American public, but not accepted as good, formal usage by the majority" (Wentworth and Flexner 1960, p. vi). Though the attempted objectivity is refreshing, everything is slang by this definition except formal usage and words and expressions of limited currency. It is typical of Flexner's approach (set forth in greater detail in his article in the 1971 edition of the Encyclopaedia Britannica) that his dictionary of with B. Wentworth, contains entries the late Harold slang, compiled such as A-bomb,bikini,garrisonstate, and lagniappe, items that we feel have little in common with words like chick and junkie, though the status of even the last two is questionable. Other writers have defined slang as a function of time. H. A. Gleason (1961, p. 6), for instance, regards it as merely "that portion of the vocabulary which changes most freely." This characterization overlooks the fact that novelty in a locution is apparent rather than real newness. An example is out of sight meaning 'excellent,' first recorded in Stephen Crane's Maggie in 1893, but still "novel" in 1970. Some "four-letter words" are thought by those college students who use them the most to be twentieth-century inventions; in 1971 a New York University coed suggested, on the basis of the author's sexual vocabulary, that the erotic Victorian My SecretLife was a 1960s spoof. In the face of such a mishmash of romanticism, prescriptivism, confusion, and naivete, it is no wonder William Labov (1972, p. 97) has suggested that all articles on slang should be consigned to "an outer, extra-linguistic darkness." The OED defines SLANG (sb. 3, sense lc) as "language of a highly colloquial type, considered as below the level of standard educated speech, and consisting either of new words or of current words employed in some special sense." This is not very helpful. What is "highly colloquial"? What is "standard educated speech"? This definition does not identify

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AMERICAN SPEECH

any special category called SLANG, though it well describes the language so strongly albeit vaguely opposed by the writers of handbooks. The definition in Webster's Third (sense 2) is fuller, identifying slang as "a nonstandard vocabulary composed of words and senses characterized primarily by connotations of extreme informality and usu. a currency not limited to a particular region and composed typically of coinages or arbitrarily changed words, clipped or shortened forms, extravagant, forced, or facetious figures of speech, or verbal novelties usu. experiencing quick popularity and relatively rapid decline into disuse." Though admirable in its attempt at precision, this definition is not very satisfactory for technical use either. Like the OED, Merriam-Webster stresses extrinsic features such as slang's geographical distribution and its "rapid decline into disuse." But such features are not self-evident. Perhaps the frankest statement on the subject is the explanatory note in Webster's Third (p. 19a/1) that "there is no completely satisfactory objective test for slang, especially in application to a word out of context. No word is invariably slang, and many standard words can be given slang connotations or used so inappropriately as to become slang." This statement emphasizes that connotation is in some way a primary determinant of slang. In practice, lexicographers are often at odds about which terms should bear the SLANG label. Webster's Third, published in 1961 with 450,000 entries, calls only 24 entries beginning with the letter W "slang." In Webster's New WorldDictionary,a desk volume with fewer than a third of the entries in Webster's Third and published nine years later, 81 entries W are New World,chickin the sense with beginning "slang." To Webster's New CollegiateDictionary,it is not. To 'young woman' is slang; to Webster's is but RandomHouse Dictionaryit is not. the Collegiate, to the junkie slang, The AmericanHeritage Dictionary considers both terms to be slang. Not only individual but corporate perceptions of what terms are slang vary considerably. The lack of consistency in dictionary definitions and labeling practices may be partly responsible for the fact that articles in journals do not, for the most part, attempt a definition of the subject. Typically, authors of articles in publications such as AmericanSpeech and College English assume that they, their readers, and their informants are by and large referring to the same thing when they speak of SLANG. Dundes and Schonhorn, for instance, in their 1963 study of Kansas University slang, elicited data simply by asking students to give slang equivalents for words and phrases. And Olesen and Whittaker, in a 1968 article called "Conditions under Which College Students Borrow, Use, and Alter Slang" (p. 222), had only this to say about the nature of slang: "A central

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IS SLANG A WORDFOR LINGUISTS?

attribute of slang, most writers agree, is the rapidly changing character of those new words, old words with new meanings, and half words that come to be thought of as belonging to this category of language." Semanticists are not of much help either. We quoted Hayakawa earlier, and Rapoport (1975, p. 144) tells us that "slang is essentially a collection of vivid metaphors in the speech of the less educated who, as a rule, do not write. Whether these 'non-literary' metaphors enter the 'standard' language depends on whether they reflect a genuine expressive need or merely strive for novelty. The latter case is exemplified in passing-fad expressions, especially among teen-age groups." Slang that fills a need, Rapoport continues, "enter[s] the language identified as slang but with a permanent place assured. Examples: guy, O.K., broke, flush, dumb, buck, big shot." This description sounds very sensible (except for the dubious notion that the less educated do not write). But do the cited examples in fact fill "a genuine expressive need"? Their predecessors in American speech must have been no less vivid to those who grew up using them. Why is guy more expressive than bloke,chap, or even fella? The OEDS (s.v. break, 11) indicates that brokein the sense 'ruined financially' was unremarkable usage in the seventeenth century. It has remained, but is it any catchier than the last century's hard up or up against it? What makes the word boozevivid? How does OK compare with the older bang-up or the newer cool? Is bigshotbetter than bigbug? Similarly, all of Rapoport's examples have current synonyms. In short, the supposition that an expressive slang term will remain "in the language" has never been proved, nor has it been proved that limp slang quickly dies out: even as an abbreviation of oll korrect,OK does not seem very dynamic. The state of slang seems to be this: we are all sure it exists, most of us are sure we know what it is, and many of us are sure that everyone else agrees with us. That the last assumption is not true was strongly suggested by a project Lighter designed to examine the question, What do college students think is slang? He discovered that there is little or no agreement when, in 1975, he gave the following sentences to students at the University of Tennessee, with the directions: "Underline all words that you think are slang. Don't look in a dictionary." 1. 2. 3. 4. 5. 6. I don't reckon so. Where'sdaddy? Get lost, kid. A bunch of us guys were hanging out on the corner. Sounds like a wild goose chase to me. She's a good-lookin'chick.

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AMERICAN SPEECH 7. Hi yo, Silver! 8. They were hauling waterin metal buckets. 9. A junkie is somebody on drugs. 10. I'm late for math. 11. Bill ain't here. 12. Get back, Superman!That's kryptonite! 13. Just between you and I, it's a terrificdeal. 14. Joe got fired. He was expendable. 15. Tomorrow'sthe Super Bowl. 16. Call a cop! 17. Some folks call skeeter-hawks "dragon-flies." 18. He fell flat on his ass. 19. How 'bout a hot dog? 20. I'll get you, you kwazywabbit!

To students majoring in language-related fields (English, English Education, Spanish, and German) slang consisted of a very few nonstandard items, for example, chick (sentence 6). To those majoring in other fields (history, psychology, computer science, mathematics, business administration, engineering, urban planning, special education, philosophy, social work), it consisted of many items that are merely not formal English, for example, on drugs (9), math (10), deal (13),fired (14),folks (17), and (17), flat (18). Many students identified reckon(1), ain't (11), skeeter-hawks of some chase and ass as The comments (5) (18) slang. graduate wild-goose students in English were surprising. "Copcan't be slang," said one woman, "because it's been replaced by fuzz and pig." "I say reckon all the time, but I know it's slang-not that there's anything wrong with slang." One man claimed there were plenty of colloquialisms on the questionnaire, but no slang at all. Freshmen tended to underline many unexpected things, including contractions. The confusion is probably nationwide. A senior classics major at NYU gave as an example of slang "the use of presentlyto mean currentlyeven though it's never meant that." At a slightly more pragmatic level, another NYU student said in 1973, "Well, there's good English, and slang is everything else." One of the cliches of the subject is that anyone can recognize slang, but no one can define it. The reverse may be closer to the truth. It was our awareness of the kinds of discrepancies noted above that led us to wonder whether slang is identifiable at all and whether the term can be useful for the linguist. It is obviously useful for the nonspecialist who employs it to name that which he thinks is not good formal English. is to have such a This is the way Flexner has used the term; but, if SLANG vague meaning, linguists might be better off discarding it altogether. Yet we feel that the label can indeed be used in a restricted sense and must be retained if we are adequately to describe a certain kind of lexical item.

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IS SLANG A WORDFOR LINGUISTS?

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The full but usually disappointing body of literature on slang includes three or four notably acute treatments of the nature of slang. The earliest points the way. It appears in chapter 11 of George Eliot's Middlemarch, first published in 1871. As Rosamond and her mother discuss the young men of Middlemarch, Rosamond insists that she has no intention of marrying any of them: "So it seems, my love, [says her mother] for you have as good as refused the pick of them; and if there's better to be had, I'm sure there's no girl better deserves it." "Excuse me, mamma-I wish you would not say, 'the pick of them.'... it is rather a vulgar expression." "Very likely, my dear; I never was a good speaker. What should I say?" "The best of them." "Why that seems just as plain and common. If I had had time to think, I should have said, 'the most superior young men.' But with your education you must know." "What must Rosy know, mother?" said Mr Fred, who had slid in unobserved.... "Whether it's right to say 'superior young men,' ' said Mrs Vincy, ringing the bell. "Oh, there are so many superior teas and sugars now. Superior is getting to be shopkeepers' slang." "Are you beginning to dislike slang then?" said Rosamond, with mild gravity. "Only the wrong sort. All choice of words is slang. It marks a class." "There is correct English: that is not slang." "I beg your pardon: correct English is the slang of prigs who write history and essays. And the strongest slang of all is the slang of poets." "You will say anything, Fred, to gain your point." "Well, tell me whether it is slang or poetry to call an ox a leg-plaiter." "Of course you can call it poetry if you like." "Aha, Miss Rosy, you don't know Homer from slang. I shall invent a new game; I shall write bits of slang and poetry on slips, and give them to you to separate." [pp. 73-74] If we assume that Mr. Fred's perceptions are shared by astute persons, it is clear that while we all share an assumption that there is a lexical category of slang, we differ widely in our assumptions about what items belong in that category. Must we be content to say that slang exists only in the mind of the hearer? Unless we can devise an objective method for identifying slang as a real verbal class, we must allow that the editors of Webster's Third had the last word when they lamented the lack of an objective test for it. But Henry Bradley's article in the eleventh edition of the Encyclopedia Britannica suggests that a reasonably objective test is indeed possible. Without formulating such a test, Bradley (1911, p. 207) recognizes that the speaker's intention is important in identifying slang

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and also that slang is "neither a part of the ordinary language, nor an attempt to supply its deficiencies." He further distinguishes slang from those words "which are proscribed from the intercourse of reputable society because they express too plainly ideas that are deemed indelicate, or because they are brutally insulting" (p. 208). Although we feel Bradhis ley may be mistaken in his exclusion of such words from SLANG, 65 discussion of the written has to be general yet subject, years ago, on. improved Speaker intent is crucial in dealing with slang, partly because it seems to lie at the heart of the warnings by English teachers who penalize their students for using slang. Milton Millhauser (1952, p. 309) gives an unusually honest presentation of this rationale in "The Case against Slang," which maintains that we should tell our students: "Slang is a kind of speech that belittles what it conveys. It was developed to express a few widely prevalent attitudes and therefore lacks precision and variety. You should avoid it because it is inadequate to critical thinking and because it imposes a cynical or flippant tone on your serious ideas." There is some truth in that statement, but a corrective and insightful comment on some of the real reasons for such pedagogic antipathy to slang is this passage from James Sledd's essay "On Not Teaching English Usage" (1965, p. 699): When a teacherwarnshis studentsagainstslang, he re-affirmshis allegianceto the social order that created him. Typically,slang is a para-code, a system of substitutesfor statusfulexpressionswhich are used by people who lack conventional status and do not conduct the important affairs of established communities.Slang flourishesin the semanticareas of sex, drinking,narcotics,racing, athletics, popular music, and other crime-a "liberal" language of things done as ends in themselvesby gentlemen who are not gentlemen and dislike gentility.Genteel pedagogues must naturallyoppose it, preciselybecause slang servesthe outs as a weaponagainstthe ins. To use slang is to deny to the allegiance existing order, eitherjokingly or in earnest, by refusing even the words which representconventionand signal status;and those who are paid to preserve the status quo are prompted to repress slang as they are prompted to repress any other symbol of potentialrevolution. Sledd has put his finger on the most crucial feature of slang: it is used deliberately, in jest or in earnest, to flout a conventional social or semantic norm. Since norms differ, some lexemes will vary in status, temporally or socially. "Today's slang, tomorrow's standard English" runs the must be cliche, and vice versa. Once this feature is understood, SLANG The confusion of the two is long-standing (it distinguished from JARGON. appears in Eliot's passage quoted above, in the comment on superior)and typifies such discussions of slang as Kenyon's "Cultural Levels and

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IS SLANG A WORD FOR LINGUISTS?

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Functional Varieties of English" (1948), which includes three senses of the word SLANG. Kenyon first claims that the label implies a cultural level: "Among cultural levels may be included, on the lower levels, illiterate speech, narrowly local dialect, ungrammatical writing, excessive and unskillful slang, slovenly and careless vocabulary" (p. 31). Later he confuses slang and popular catch-phrases, then slang and jargon: "The third level... is a cultural one: 'the latest slang,' workmen's 'technical slang and colloquialisms which other persons cannot comprehend."' Part of Kenyon's statement is borrowed from Arthur G. Kennedy's earlier CurrentEnglish (1935, pp. 15-17). A technical term that is used solely to designate-regardless of its etymology or the social status of those who use the term-is jargon, not slang. Slang characterizes a referent; jargon and standard English only indicate it. Even more important: if the speaker belongs to a low-status group, a term that is merely indicative for him may still be perceived as slang by someone of higher conventional status. Such misinterpretations are probably common. Considered in the light of what has already been said, the description of slang in the AmericanHeritage Dictionary (1969, p. xlvi) is especially noteworthy: The labelSlangindicatesa style of language ratherthan a level of formalityor cultivation.The distinguishingfeature of slang as understood in the Dictionary is the intention-however often unsuccessful-to produce rhetoricaleffect, such as incongruity, irreverence, or exaggeration.... A word that is strictly denotative... is not slang. Slang alwayshas strong connotationsin addition to its denotation.... Its connotationis intentionally,often aggressively,informal. True slang must be distinguished from the lay concept of slang as a grab bag of odd usages. The layman applies the term imprecisely to a large body of lexemes including true slang, jargon, regionalisms, and colloquialisms, which are vaguely perceived as slang by such groups as college students. Using the word in this broad sense leads inevitably to confusion. Rather than continue to use the term in that way, serious linguists should abandon it entirely, for such use can lead only to misunderstanding. to name a There is, however, an indispensible use for the term SLANG of lexemes that are distinct from standard body English, jargon, and all other kinds of informal uses such as regionalisms and colloquialisms and which are identifiable primarily by the intent (or the perceived intent) of the speaker or writer to break with established linguistic convention. In order to understand WHAT slang is, we might also consider WHOuses others react to users of slang because of what As Sledd intimated, slang. they tell about themselves and their degree of social responsibility.

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There have been some previous attempts to tell students how to decide whether a given word is slang, by specifying criteria for the class. These attempts, however, are not precisely formulated, as this example (Meyers 1974, p. 370) illustrates: "Is there some corresponding term that is unquestionably in general use? Would the term's use by a faculty member or public official sound strained, foolish, or condescending? Does the mere use of the term help you to identify the speaker as a member of a particular group? The word is probably slang if the answer to all these is yes." We have devised a preliminary attempt at a more precise set of features with the hope that others will clarify or dispute our method. We consider that an expression should be regarded as true slang if it meets at least two of the following criteria. 1. Its presence will markedly lower, at least for the moment, the dignity of formal or serious speech or writing. This does not mean that the term has actually been discovered in such contexts. It does mean, however, that an individual who has some familiarity with the expression will not expect to find it in the midst of a serious discourse in otherwise standard English except for one special rhetorical effect: to signal that the speaker or writer is deliberately being undignified or intimate with his audience. If there seems to be no reason to expect this effect, the expression will appear to a sensitive audience as a glaring misuse of register (or, as we prefer to call it, situational dialect). There are words in the following artificial examples which, given the tone of the complete utterance, are highly incongruous: The Federalgovernmentspends nearlyone hundred billionbucksannually for defense. FewwouldquestionWhitman's grooviestpoets. positionas one of America's was their not dissent alwaysnoisy or dramatic,many Americans Though felt the Presidentwas a jerk for continuing the war. 2. Its use implies the user's special familiarity either with the referent or with that less statusful or less responsible class of people who have such special familiarity and use the term. This "special familiarity" usually implies disdain for what is conventionally accepted or esteemed, or an overfamiliarity with what the dominant society finds unseemly or unacceptable. We generally learn neutral terms first, disdainful or "in" terms later. Even if by chance we learn one of the latter sort first, we soon discover that the referent has another name that is more appropriate for formal use. These examples should again be self-evident: College students in the 1960s blew more grass than ever before. Patton had said the same thing back when he was a chicken colonel.

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IS SLANG A WORDFOR LINGUISTS? Today was a bummer. Joe Valachihad decided to sing.

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3. It is a tabooed term in ordinary discourse with persons of higher social status or greater responsibility. On occasion, of course, normal taboos do not apply, but once again we are speaking of the norm of verbal behavior. At the present time this category includes all of our nonlatinate sexual and scatological terms with the exception of nursery euphemisms. In other eras and in other cultures the sexual terms may be much less tabooed than, for example, profane reference to the Deity. Because the deliberate use of taboo language in the presence of someone of higher social standing is a form of linguistic defiance, such terms are functionally similar to those that fit the first criterion.2 They usually fit the second criterion as well. Though the name has been changed, the first example is a real quotation from a college classroom. The offending student was ejected: ProfessorSmith, would you repeat those last three fuckers? I'd like thisjob, sir, because the one I have now is shit. Bullshit,your honor. 4. It is used in place of the well-known conventional synonym, especially in order (a) to protect the user from the discomfort caused by the conventional item or (b) to protect the user from the discomfort or annoyance of further elaboration. Ordinary euphemisms protect the audience as well as the user, but items in this category are employed solely to protect the speaker or writer, sometimes at the expense of the listener or reader. These expressions are used deliberately but their quasi-euphemistic function is not always at a conscious level. Examples: "Whatshould we do with the prisoners, Lieutenant?" "Waste'em." His uncle croaked. How was the movie?Super! Oh, baby, I really dig you. The examples given for the four criteria can be categorized as follows, each meeting at least two criteria and thus qualifying as slang: buck(1, 2); groovy (1, 2, 4b); jerk (1, 2, 4b); blow grass (1, 2); chickencolonel (1, 2); bummer(1, 2, 4b); sing (1, 2);fuckers (1, 2, 3); shit (1, 2, 3, possibly 4b); bullshit(1, 2, 3, possibly 4b); waste (1, 2, 4a); croak(1, 4a); super (1, 4b); dig (1, 2, 4a). Baby is a borderline case; several dictionaries call it slang, but it seems to fit with certainty only criterion 1. Some readers may object that we have used a form of specious reasoning: convinced that slang exists, we have devised ad hoc attributes for it.

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To such critics we would reply that, as native speakers of English (from both sides of the Mason-Dixon line as well as the Mississippi), our recognition of the existence of a special kind of informal lexeme has been basic to our linguistic behavior for as long as we have been competent speakers. There has been general agreement that "slang" exists in some form or other (the broad lay sense of the term), but those special lexemes we have been discussing have not been systematically separated. What makes them special? In short, their undeniable lack of dignity and their deliberate, widespread use within a social group (or many social groups) to defy social or linguistic convention. All four of the criteria we have suggested for identifying slang reflect some aspect of this rebellion or deliberate lack of dignity. Although we are not yet ready to claim that criterion 1 must be one of the two criteria met by all slang, it is difficult to conceive of an expression that fits numbers 2 and 3, 2 and 4, or 3 and 4 without also fitting the first criterion. Conversely, ordinary dialect, colloquialisms, jargon, and standard English may fit any one of the criteria or none of them but never two or more. When something fits at least two of the criteria, a linguistically sensitive audience will react to it in a certain way. This reaction, which cannot be measured, is the ultimate identifying characteristic of true slang.
NOTES

1. This is a modified version of a paper presented 29 December 1975 at the American Dialect Society meeting in San Francisco.The authors wish to acknowledge the help of CharlesHargis, MichaelJohnson, and Peyton Todd of the Universityof Tennessee; they provided useful questions and commentary during the paper'sgestation. 2. It may be that taboo terms form a group which is logically akin to, yet separatefrom, true slang, since many taboo terms are the only ones availableto nonacademicspeakers.A taboo term is not necessarilysexual:niggeris the obvious example.
REFERENCES

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IS SLANG A WORD FOR LINGUISTS?

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A REPORT FROM THE DEPARTMENT OF NEWSPEAK "'Because of all the changes in American society, we are losing our intuitive ability to parent,' claims an anthropologist who helps run a parent study program. 'The people we service have no sense of parenting because they weren't parented themselves' " (New YorkTimes, 16 Sep. 1975, p. 84, ad for Newsweekmagazine). And anthropologists are losing their intuitive ability to language. Perhaps they weren't teachered properly. Robert Christian, chief negotiator for the Board of Education in New York City, observed (WCBS radio, 8 Sep. 1975): "We are faced with the need for tremendous layoffs, excessing of teachers." It all fits. M.C.

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