Synopsis: Slang is often thought of as a lower-class way of speaking, although we use it all the time and it does make our language more colorful and vibrant. But how does it come into being? We talk to a linguist and to an author about why slang and jargon are part of our speech, who brings them into our language and why some slang falls out of favor – but should come back.
Host: Marty Peterson. Guests: Robert Leonard, Professor of Linguistics, Director the Graduate Program in Forensic Linguistics and of the Institute for Forensic Linguistics, Threat Assessment and Strategic Analysis, Hofstra University; Lesley M. M. Blume, author of Let’s Bring Back: The lost language edition.
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Slang, Jargon and Colorful Expressions
Marty Peterson: We’ve all heard words that become so popular that just about everyone is saying them; they’re in movies, on TV, and in marketing campaigns. Then, one day – poof! Another word takes their place in our conversations, and the once-popular expression becomes, well, “old hat.” Popular culture is a slippery thing; lubricated, in part, by the slang and jargon that we use every day. But why do we use it? And who decides that one word is “in” and another “out”? Robert Leonard says that to find the answer, all you have to do is watch the movie Mean Girls. Leonard is a Professor of Linguistics at Hofstra University. He’s also Director of the Graduate Program in Forensic Linguistics and the Director of the Institute for Forensic Linguistics, Threat Assessment and Strategic Analysis at Hofstra.
Robert Leonard: Mean Girls probably has all the sociological information anybody would ever need to know about high school. There are these three girls who are mean and they’re the super popular kids, so everybody wants to be like them, at least in some way. They are afraid of them, but they also want to imitate them. Even among the three [girls], of course, there all these power struggles. In the middle of some conversation, the number two girl says something is so “fetch,” like dogs fetching a bone… that word. And the number one girl turns to the number two girl and says, ‘Fetch? What does fetch mean?’ And she says ‘Oh, it’s a slang term. It means really cool!’ and the number one girl says, ‘No it doesn’t and stop using it.’ This is a really good emblem of how people use slang to show that they are in a certain group.
Peterson: Many people think slang is lazy, but Leonard says it’s anything but. In fact, it’s constantly evolving, and the “in” words and phrases can change quickly. He found out from his young daughter that in a matter of weeks, an expression can morph into different forms once it becomes the common lingo.
Leonard: She was observing that the inner core of super popular girls, three or four girls, was saying when something was obvious, “duh.” The peripheral girl started saying “duh” exactly like that. Meanwhile, as the wave spread from the inner core to the outer circle, the inside two of them started to say, “uh duh.” “Duh” was now not cool, but “uh duh,” was very cool, but it took time for the people on the outside to try to imitate the ones on the inside. Then they went away for a week of Easter break or something, came back and everybody starts saying “uh duh.” But the two core girls started saying, “obvi.” This is all in the course of three weeks. It’s like cops have the color of the day so they can identify each other. Insider groups keep changing the keys to the kingdom in the code word.
Peterson: That explains how many of the “cool” words come to be, but power and belonging aren’t the only reasons for slang. Leonard says that humans love word play, and slang is an outlet for our creativity. For example, one expression that was popular at Leonard’s university for a while was “tile work.”
Leonard: “Tile work” meant what happens when somebody drinks too much; they wind up on the floor as tile work. The students would joke that they would look for Joe and say “Where’s Joe? Oh, he’s tile work.” This is irreverent and a lot of wordplay. But also notice that it encapsulates a concept that could be useful to people who go and do that. One of the great things about novel phrases is that they encapsulate concepts. I’m thinking of the buzz words that we get in business and innovation. It encapsulates anew (no pun) the thrust of what people are really into in business. So innovation becomes the buzzword for a whole class of things.
Peterson: It’s not just what you say, but how you say it that makes a word acceptable. Leonard says that when you use a slang word or expression, it must be informal.
Leonard: For example, “What are you going to do today? Oh, I’m just going to be chillin’ at home,” has to be pronounced, “chillin’. If you say, ‘I’m going to be chilling at home,’ that’s not slang, and people who use that slang term will laugh at you.
Peterson: Sometimes jargon creeps into our everyday language. Terms such as “bottom line,” “perp walk” and “on the lam” are used outside their very specialized occupations to spice up a conversation – but there’s a danger there, too.
Leonard: These are useful terms [yet] everybody does not know what they mean. “Bottom line” used to mean something rather different in business. It had to do with contracts. When moved into the general population we all know what that means, but it doesn’t necessarily mean on a contract. People like to sound like cool people; they like to sound like cool cops. I remember a [radio] interviewer in New York who kept using the term “on the job.” A caller had called in and he seemed pretty knowledgeable about police work, so this [radio host] showing off how much he knew. He’d say, “Are you on the job?” And the caller had no idea what he was talking about. He said, ‘No, I’m not calling from work.’ But “on the job” means that you’re a cop in New York, or a cop’s beat at least. So it can backfire, too.
Peterson: Some people might ask why we have to make up new words these days when we have plenty of old expressions to draw from. One of these people is Lesley Blume, author of Let’s Bring Back: The Lost Language Edition. She’s a word lover, and thinks there’s a lot of colorful slang that can be revived.
Lesley Blume: There are a few that I have entered into my own vocabulary because I just think that they’re so totally delightful. I say ‘horse feathers’ all the time instead of ‘nonsense.’ There are so many really wonderful words that I’ve found and they really sound like what they mean. For instance, we have “flumadiddle” or “gibble gabble” or “hornswaggle” or “twaddle” or “trillibub.” These are all old guard synonyms for ‘nonsense.’ I love the word ‘nonsense,’ but these are really, really fun to say. That whole category was really fun for me.
Peterson: Other words she found fascinating were the swear words and insults, and nobody did it better than The Bard.
Blume: I include a whole roster of Shakespearian insults. There’s “bastardly bolting hutch,” “fowl and pestilent congregation of vapors;” that’s used to describe one person. “Muddy modeled” — it’s wonderful. Another great favorite of mine — “Filthy worsted stocking knave.” There are quite a few very spirited ways to swear and to insult just from that source alone. History’s other more colorful orators have provided other examples of really quite splendid words as well.
Peterson: Jargon is nothing new, and Blume found a treasure trove of it on the high seas and 20th century music clubs.
Blume: A lot of the ones that I really enjoyed tended to come from maritime occupations. For instance, an old sea faring term for a sailor is “jack nasty face,” which I thought was just kind of hilarious and totally bizarre. We have “chops” instead of mouths — that kind of saying. “Cat “ — a man who plays jazz; “hepcat,” “hotcha,” “hotplate,” “licks,” “klinckers,” is a bad note, which I love. “A gas” is something that’s really amazing or moving, an “axe” is an instrument of any variety. Some professions really do lend themselves to highly descriptive vocabulary.
Peterson: Speaking of jazz words and phrases, there’s one that has never fallen out of fashion, and that’s the word “cool.” Blume says that words come and go the same way clothing is in, then out – it serves us during a point in time, and then something else comes along to take its place. But “cool” is one of those words that has staying power.
Blume: It’s surprising to me how many words have staying power — words and phrases. When I was researching the book one of the things I tried to do is include words that were either so delightfully old fashioned that they couldn’t be omitted, like the phrase “the bees knees.” People still use it a little bit; it’s not entirely out of fashion. It’s too illustrative not to include or words that were genuinely lost. One thing that I came across was how many words and phrases we’ve been saying for generations and generations. So you have “cool.” And then for instance “getting out of the wrong side of the bed.” That’s been around forever. There was a version of that back in Roman times. It’s pretty incredible. Why certain phrases have staying power while others don’t is kind of a mystery.
Peterson: On the opposite end of that spectrum are words she wishes would make an exit. For example, “like” as a speaking crutch. That’s been around since the valley girl phenomenon in the 1970s. Another word is a bit newer.
Blume: Some of the words today that are totally ubiquitous that irritate me and that I wish would go away is the word “curate” instead of edit. “It’s a curated library,” “it’s a curated collection of clothes,” “a tightly curated book,” that kind of thing. That’s one of the words when somebody is doing a period drama about 2008 to 2013, they would use the word “curate” and it would date us.
Peterson: It’s true that a lot of slang is here, then gone. However, all it takes is a movie or book that’s set in the past to bring those words back.
Leonard: Movies, oh my gosh. They revolutionized that. MTV — when it was at its height — instantly everybody knew what the latest slang was. I remember maybe 15 years ago, some rappers were re-using words that Humphrey Bogart gangster movie slang like “gats” for guns and things like that. They thought that these things were so great that they resurrected them and then everybody was saying them.
Peterson: These days everyone is texting and emailing, using abbreviations instead of the words themselves. Are we destined for a world of “o-m-g” and “l-o-l” instead of the colorful words and phrases we’ve enjoyed in the past?
Leonard: People make too much of the different technological advances because, when push comes to shove, nothing takes the place of face-to-face communication, which is where human language started. There’s a lot of communication by text and supposedly it’s a whole different language. I was asked once on the stand, “Isn’t it a whole different language,” I said, “Of course not,” and they said, “Well, of course it is.” I said, “Chinese and English are two whole different languages. It doesn’t take you one day to learn Chinese. But it’ll take you less than one day to learn how to text with all those abbreviations. They’re just stand-ins for language.” But real communication still has to happen with speech.
Peterson: If you miss the old sayings and slang and want to spice up your own speech with a few expressions that might make your friends do a double-take, pick up Lesley Blume’s book, Let’s Bring Back: The Lost Language Edition. To learn more about forensic linguist Robert Leonard, you can put his name in the search box at Hofstra.edu. For information about all of our guests, you can visit our site at viewpoints online.net. You can find archives of past programs there and on iTunes and Stitcher. Our show is written and produced by Pat Reuter. Our production directors are Sean Waldron, Reed Pence and Nick Hofstra. I’m Marty Peterson.