Language Uncensored: Slang and Its Place In Culture

Aran Parillo/Flickr

Aran Parillo/Flickr

Although it is often over-looked as an informal practice of the young and the uneducated, slang is an integral part of the evolution of language.

Traditionally considered vulgar and only to be used by lower class individuals, slang has been around seemingly since language’s earliest beginnings. Because these words are born via spoken rather than written language, it is often very difficult to trace their origins.

Many words’ etymologies are traced to their use in plays, which are considered the most accurate representation available of the popular languages used centuries ago. Unsurprisingly, the demographic most deeply associated with slang is the youth.

Even within a single lifetime, words come and go at a much faster rate than many may notice. Today, instead of plays, experts turn to popular music as sources of cutting-edge slang. Although it seems like new words pop up constantly, there are always common descriptive trends that these words tend to follow, including (but certainly not limited to) the opposite sex, sexual acts, insults, money, and greetings, according to Academia.

Gone, But Not Forgotten

Plenty of slang that gained instant popularity at the time of its use has since disappeared. Trends in language often work in the same way all trends do: some stick around and flourish into new norms, while some do not. These words and phrases come into existence because they mark a significant cultural change in their time.

There are countless examples of slang terms that could have been at the height of fashion in the 1920s but would earn some odd looks when used in conversation today. In the early 20th century, for example, someone might tell you to “23-skidoo,” meaning they would like you to leave.

Telling someone that today would likely be met with confusion. Other slang terms have carried enough weight throughout history that they remain easily understood in the modern world, although they are not necessarily still in popular use.

An American in the 1950s could call his friend a “square” for refusing to go out on a Saturday night; while that word’s definition is more or less common knowledge, using the same term colloquially today would certainly strike many as odd or antiquated.

History Repeats Itself

Words and colloquialisms are often recycled throughout history. Sometimes the meanings change and other times they remain the same. For example, the word “hot” when used in contemporary, American English to describe a person today, generally means “attractive.” However, in the context of early 20th century America, it more regularly meant that something was stolen (i.e. “a hot car”).

Other words like “hammered”, “cool”, “jazz”, and “swag” date back as far as centuries ago, but we still use them now. The word, “hammered,” meaning “heavily intoxicated or inebriated” has been used in English fairly consistently from the 1950s.

Canadian pop artist Justin Bieber prominently refers to “swag” in his music, expressing a cheeky and perhaps more-than-slightly arrogant display of confidence. The origin word, “swagger,” was originally used by Shakespeare as early as the late 16th century and at that time meant “to strut in a defiant or insolent manner”, according to Online Etymology Dictionary.

Immersion: the Best Slang-Training

It can be nearly impossible to truly understand a language without being fully immersed in it. Language is all about context. Even with the historical knowledge available, it is still difficult to imagine that saying “I’ll be a monkey’s uncle” would be a normal thing to do.

In the 1930s, such a proclamation was in quite common use, according to Just English. The same thing applies to colloquial language of different cultures.

A slang term has a close relationship to the culture and time in which it is used. In the early 1900s, American slang was created mostly in gangster culture. Today, culture of popular media has become the main source of our new words. No matter what new experiences and ideas our culture brings in the future, a new generation will find the words to describe them in their own fashion.

Are you “hot” on English slang? 23-skidoo to our Contact page and to see how you can learn more, in order to interact with English speakers more effectively.