Slang in the English Language

Glossary of Grammatical and Rhetorical Terms

workers around the globe - slang
Poet Carl Sandburg described slang as "a language that rolls up its sleeves, spits on its hands, and goes to work.". (Si Huynh/Getty Images)

Slang is an informal nonstandard variety of speech characterized by newly coined and rapidly changing words and phrases. In his book Slang: The People's Poetry (OUP, 2009), Michael Adams argues that "slang is not merely a lexical phenomenon, a type of word, but a linguistic practice rooted in social needs and behaviors, mostly the complementary needs to fit in and to stand out."

The Characteristics of Slang

  •  "The most significant characteristic of slang overlaps with a defining characteristic of jargon: slang is a marker of in-group solidarity, and so it is a correlate of human groups with shared experiences, such as being children at a certain school or of a certain age, or being a member of a certain socially definable group, such as hookers, junkies, jazz musicians, or professional criminals. (Keith Allan and Kate Burridge, Forbidden Words. Cambridge University Press, 2006)

The Language of Outsiders

  •  "Slang serves the outs as a weapon against the ins. To use slang is to deny allegiance to the existing order, either jokingly or in earnest, by refusing even the words which represent conventions and 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 potential revolution." (James Sledd, "On Not Teaching English Usage." The English Journal, November 1965)
  •  "The downtrodden are the great creators of slang. . . . Slang is . . . a pile of fossilized jokes and puns and ironies, tinselly gems dulled eventually by overmuch handling, but gleaming still when held up to the light. " (Anthony Burgess, A Mouthful of Air, 1992)

Standing Out and Fitting In

  •  "It is not clear to what extent the slang impulse to enliven speech, the impulse to stand out, mingles with the slang impulse toward social intimacy, the impulse to fit in. At times they seem like oil and water, but at others the social and poetic motivations emulsify into one linguistic practice. . . .
  •  "All of us, young and old, Black and white, urban and suburban have slang, and, with your eyes closed, we can tell Black guys chillaxin' with their buddies from young soccer moms dishing out about the latest issue of Jane*. We share more slang than separates us, but what separates us tells us and others where we fit in, or perhaps, where we hope to fit in, and where we don't. . . . As a social marker, though, slang works: you know that you're among the old, tired, gray, and hopeless, rather than hip, vivid, playful, and rebellious, if only in spirit, when you hear no slang. Slang is a tell even in its absence." (Michael Adams, Slang: The People's Poetry. Oxford University Press, 2009)
  •  "Your mother reads and reads and reads, she wants English, as much as she can get her hands on . . .. I'd come late Friday afternoon, it used to be that I would go home with a magazine or two and maybe a paper, but she wanted more, more slang, more figures of speech, the bee's knees, the cats pajamas, horse of a different color, dog-tired, she wanted to talk like she was born here, like she never came from anywhere else . . .." (Jonathan Safran Foer, Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close. Houghton Mifflin, 2005)

Modern Slang in London

  •  "I love modern slang. It's as colorful, clever, and disguised from outsiders as slang ever was and is supposed to be. Take bare, for example, one of a number of slang terms recently banned by a London school. It means 'a lot of,' as in 'there's bare people here,' and is the classic concealing reversal of the accepted meaning that you also find in wicked, bad and cool. Victorian criminals did essentially the same with back slang, reversing words so that boy became yob and so on.
  •  "The other banned words are equally interesting. Extra, for example, mischievously stresses the superfluous in its conventional definition, as in 'reading the whole book is extra, innit?' And that much-disapproved innit? is in fact the n'est-ce pas? English has needed since the Normans forgot to bring it with them.
  •  "And who would not admire rinsed for something worn out or overused--chirpsing for flirting, bennin for doubled-up with laughter, or wi-five for an electronically delivered high-five? My bad, being new, sounds more sincere than old, tired, I'm sorry (Sos never quite cut it).
  •  "Mouse potato for those who spend too much time on PCs is as striking as salmon and aisle salmon for people who will insist on going against the flow in crowds or supermarket aisles. Manstanding is what husbands and partners typically do while their wives or partners are actually getting on with the shopping. Excellent." (Charles Nevin, "The Joy of Slang." BBC News, October 25, 2013)

Old Slang: Grub, Mob, Knock Off, and Clear as Mud

  •  "When we refer . . . to food as 'grub,' it is perhaps hard to realize that the word goes back to Oliver Cromwell's time; from early 18th century come 'mob,' and also 'knock off,' to finish; and from early 19th century, the sarcastic use of 'clear as mud.'" (Paul Beale, editor of Partridge's Concise Dictionary of Slang and Unconventional English. Routledge, 1991)

The Life Span of Slang Words

  •  "With the exception of cool, which retains its effectiveness after well over half a century, slang words--groovy, phat, radical, smokin'--have a very brief life span in which they can be used to express sincere enthusiasm. Then they revert to irony or, at best, expressions of a sort of mild sardonic approval. (Ben Yagoda, When You Catch an Adjective, Kill It. Broadway Books, 2007)
  •  "The latest slang term for defecation, however, is dropping the kids off at the pool, which offers hope for a new generation of euphemistic suburbanites." (William Safire, "Kiduage." The New York Times, 2004)


  •  "The expression slanguage has been in the English language for well over a hundred years and has an entry in reputable dictionaries like the Macquarie and the Oxford. One of its first written appearances was as early as 1879, and since that time it has been in regular use--'The "slanguage" of a sporting reporter is a fearful and wonderful thing,' to give just one early example. The word slang has given rise to quite a number of wonderful blended or compounded words, such as slanguage, and many of them have been in the language a very long time." (Kate Burridge, Gift of the Gob: Morsels of English Language History. HarperCollins Australia, 2011)

Can O' Beans on Sloppy Slang

  •  "Well,' said Can o' Beans, a bit hesitantly, 'imprecise speech is one of the major causes of mental illness in human beings.' . . . 
  •  "The inability to correctly perceive reality is often responsible for humans' insane behavior. And every time they substitute an all-purpose, sloppy slang word for the words that would accurately describe an emotion or a situation, it lowers their reality orientations, pushes them farther from shore, out onto the foggy waters of alienation and confusion. . . ."
  •  "Slang possesses an economy, an immediacy that's attractive, all right, but it devalues experience by standardizing and fuzzing it. It hangs between humanity and the real world like a . . . a veil. Slang just makes people more stupid, that's all, and stupidity eventually makes them crazy. I'd hate to ever see that kind of craziness rub off onto objects." (Tom Robbins, Skinny Legs and All. Bantam, 1990)

The Lighter Side of American Slang

  • "I know only two words of American slang: 'swell' and 'lousy.' I think 'swell' is lousy, but 'lousy' is swell." (J.B. Priestley)

* Jane was a magazine designed to appeal to young women. It ceased publication in 2007.

Pronunciation: slang

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Your Citation
Nordquist, Richard. "Slang in the English Language." ThoughtCo, Apr. 5, 2023, Nordquist, Richard. (2023, April 5). Slang in the English Language. Retrieved from Nordquist, Richard. "Slang in the English Language." ThoughtCo. (accessed May 30, 2023).