What is Slang?
Slang can be described as informal, nonstandard words or phrases (lexical innovations) which tend to originate in subcultures within a society. Slang often suggests that the person utilizing the words or phrases is familiar with the hearer's group or subgroup-it can be considered a distinguishing factor of in-group identity. Microsoft Encarta states: "slang expressions often embody attitudes and values of group members." In order for an expression to become slang, it must be widely accepted and adopted by members of the subculture or group. Slang has no societal boundaries or limitations as it can exist in all cultures and classes of society as well as in all languages.
Slang expressions are created in basically the same way as standard speech. As stated in Microsoft Encarta, "expressions may take form as metaphors, similes, and other figures of speech." In addition, it is noted that the words used as slang may be new coinages, existing words may acquire new meanings, narrow meanings of words may become generalized, words may be abbreviated, etc. However, in order for the expression to survive, it must be widely adopted by the group who uses it. Slang is a way in which languages change and are renewed.
British slang is English language slang used in Great Britain. While some slang words and phrases are used throughout all of Britain (e.g. knackered, meaning "exhausted"), others are restricted to smaller regions. London has its own varieties of slang, one of the most well-known of which is Cockney rhyming slang.
Varieties of British slang
1. Rhyming slang
Rhyming slang, chiefly associated with Cockney#Cockney speech spoken in the East End of London, replaces a word with a phrase which rhymes with the word, for example, plates of meat for "feet", or twist and twirl for "girl". Often only the first word is used, so plates and twist by themselves become the colloquialisms for "feet" and "girl".
2. Back slang
Back slang is simply the practice of using words spelled in reverse, e.g. yob for "boy" or ecilop for "police".
Polari is a variety of slang used by gay men and lesbians in Britain and the United Kingdom, which has a history going back at least a hundred years.
History of Slang
Slang was the main reason for the development of prescriptive language in an attempt to slow down the rate of change in both spoken and written language. Latin and French were the only two languages that maintained the use of prescriptive language in the 14th century. It was not until the early 15th century that scholars began pushing for a standard English language.
During the Middle Ages, certain writers such as Chaucer, William Caxton, and William of Malmesbury represented the regional differences in pronunciations and dialects. The different dialects and the different pronunciations represented the first meaning for the term “slang.”
However, our present-day meaning for slang did not begin forming until the 16th or 17th century. The English Criminal Cant developed in the 16th century. The English Criminal Cant was a new kind of speech used by criminals and cheats, meaning it developed mostly in saloons and gambling houses. The English Criminal Cant was at first believed to be foreign, meaning scholars thought that it had either originated in Romania or had a relationship to French. The English Criminal Cant was slow developing. In fact, out of the four million people who spoke English, only about ten thousand spoke the English Criminal Cant. By the end of the 16th century this new style of speaking was considered to be a language “without reason or order” (Thorne 23). During the 18th century schoolmasters taught pupils to believe that the English Criminal Cant (which by this time had developed into slang) was not the correct usage of English and slang was considered to be taboo.
Because most people are individuals who desire uniqueness, it stands to reason that slang has been in existence for as long as language has been in existence. Even so, the question of why slang develops within a language has been hotly debated. Most agree that the question is still unanswered, or perhaps it has many answers. Regardless, there is no doubt that we can better explain slang's existence by analyzing how and why it exists.
Why People Use Slang?
According to the British lexicographer, Eric Partridge (1894-1979), people use slang for any of at least 15 reasons:
In sheer high spirits, by the young in heart as well as by the young in years; 'just for the fun of the thing'; in playfulness or waggishness.
As an exercise either in wit and ingenuity or in humour. (The motive behind this is usually self-display or snobbishness, emulation or responsiveness, delight in virtuosity).
To be 'different', to be novel.
To be picturesque (either positively or - as in the wish to avoid insipidity - negatively).
To be unmistakeably arresting, even startling.
To escape from clichйs, or to be brief and concise. (Actuated by impatience with existing terms.)
To enrich the language. (This deliberateness is rare save among the well-educated, Cockneys forming the most notable exception; it is literary rather than spontaneous.)
To lend an air of solidity, concreteness, to the abstract; of earthiness to the idealistic; of immediacy and appositeness to the remote. (In the cultured the effort is usually premeditated, while in the uncultured it is almost always unconscious when it is not rather subconscious.)
To lesson the sting of, or on the other hand to give additional point to, a refusal, a rejection, a recantation;
To reduce, perhaps also to disperse, the solemnity, the pomposity, the excessive seriousness of a conversation (or of a piece of writing);
To soften the tragedy, to lighten or to 'prettify' the inevitability of death or madness, or to mask the ugliness or the pity of profound turpitude (e.g. treachery, ingratitude); and/or thus to enable the speaker or his auditor or both to endure, to 'carry on'.
To speak or write down to an inferior, or to amuse a superior public; or merely to be on a colloquial level with either one's audience or one's subject matter.
For ease of social intercourse. (Not to be confused or merged with the preceding.)
To induce either friendliness or intimacy of a deep or a durable kind. (Same remark.)
To show that one belongs to a certain school, trade, or profession, artistic or intellectual set, or social class; in brief, to be 'in the swim' or to establish contact.
Hence, to show or prove that someone is not 'in the swim'.
To be secret - not understood by those around one. (Children, students, lovers, members of political secret societies, and criminals in or out of prison, innocent persons in prison, are the chief exponents.)