The Beauty of Slang

The human need to categorize is especially evident in linguistics. So it comes as no surprise that the grouping of types of speaking and writing into levels of acceptability went hand in hand with the nineteenth century standardization of English grammar and spelling (see “Language’s Eight Levels” below). The Oxford English Dictionary (OED) defined one of the levels – slang – as “Language of a highly colloquial type, considered below the level of standard educated speech, and consisting either of new words or of current words employed in some special sense.”

Though the prim-and-proper once frowned on slang, linguists, lexicographers, and their ilk rated it as  Level 3 in acceptability, which ain’t bad (ain’t fell near the bottom of the barrel, in Level 7). After all, slang evolved into the abbreviator, animator, colorist, and jokester of English long before Chaucer sharpened his quill, and over time thousands upon thousands of scraps of slang became standard speech. And happily so. Watch how substituting the former slang words bus, movie, thriller, and brainwashed with the terms they supplanted makes this sentence stiff as a board: “I took the autobus downtown and saw the moving picture The Manchurian Candidate, a suspense drama in which mental manipulation figures large.”

Truth be told, the lines between slang and standard speech (indeed, between words at all levels) have blurred as changes in our language accelerate at warp speed. Besides bus and the other words cited above, baseball, blizzard, hijack,  jeans, mob, phone, and supermarket were classed as slang – as was teenager, once it took off in the 1940s.

Could it be that the ongoing IT Revolution will corral most words into one big family? Quite possibly. It isn’t unrealistic to surmise that in the next century, legions of linguists and academics will see one word choice as acceptable as any other.

Language’s Eight Levels (?)

The traditional usage levels of the English language remained in place until the twilight of the twentieth century, and they still flicker in some quarters. What are these eight levels? Read the following delineation of each, taken verbatim from the “Slang” entry on page 610 of the book Success With Words, published by Reader’s Digest in 1983.

Slang is but one of several usage levels into which scholars, dictionary makers, and the general public divide the language. These levels are, in descending order or acceptability, 1) standard or formal; 2) informal; 3) slang;  4) cant (the technical vocabulary or shoptalk of any group); 5) jargon (the informal vocabulary of any group); 6) argot (the combined cant and jargon of criminals); 7) nonstandard or substandard (words like ain’t and irregardless); 8) taboo or vulgar (terms taking the name of God in vain or referring too bluntly to sex, body waste, or the parts of the body having to do with them).

What does it say, one wonders, that the language of criminals rated its own level? (Today, argot is simply another word for jargon.) Probably that in the first decades of new millennium, innumerable everyday customs and habits – and, yes, ways of speaking and writing –  may go the way of dinosaurs sooner rather than later.

2 Responses to The Beauty of Slang

  • Erik Kowal says:

    As a species, we humans are natural manufacturers of concepts and symbols, and also categorizers of every type of entity. Therefore it is not at all surprising to encounter the hierarchy of word classifications that you have reproduced from Reader’s Digest.

    However, we need to recognize the limitations of all systems of classification. Except, perhaps, in mathematics, they are inherently arbitrary — the boundaries between most categories are fluid, and are open to at least some degree of interpretation. You hint at these limitations in your discussion of the Reader’s Digest‘s ‘eight levels’, but I think you could have gone further.

    First, a general question: how should we decide what criteria we are going to use when defining the cut-off points between adjacent categories?

    For instance, what are the objective criteria we should apply to distinguish between a rise, a hill and a mountain? Degree of slope? Rate of change of slope? Height above surrounding terrain? Height above sea level? Extent of plant cover? Dissimilarity from surrounding topography?

    Or a twig, a stick, a branch and a trunk? Diameter? Length? Flexibility? Resistance to snapping? Structural function? Physiological function? Organization of tissues? If birds could speak, a nest-building bird would doubtless classify the ‘stick’ variants differently to us; an ocean-dwelling bird would not need to classify them at all — nor would it be able to.

    The fundamental difficulty is that whatever criteria we apply, they are necessarily arbitrary.

    In the case of Reader’s Digest‘s eight levels of words, besides the type of complication I have mentioned above, the criteria are also coloured by the social assumptions of whoever devised the classification scheme. RD’s classification system is based not only on contextual appropriateness, but to a significant degree on an implicit hierarchy of social class or social stratification.

    For instance, how else can one interpret the separate categorization of ‘argot’ as differing in its essence from ‘cant’ or ‘jargon’? Its chief purpose appears to be to mark out criminals as being a particularly reprehensible or despicable set of people. And so they may justifiably be described, but it would be disingenuous to claim that the intention which underlies the categorization of their particular vocabulary has a linguistic rather than a socially stigmatizing purpose.

    Systems of classification have their legitimate applications — of course they do. They are essential for organizing our knowledge concerning every aspect of life and the natural world. But we must take care to remember that they are still only a means to an end, not an end in themselves, and that their mere existence does not inherently legitimize them.

    We must be particularly careful when we apply such systems to entities that are as fluid in form, as constant in all aspects of their evolution, and as tied to perceptions of social prestige as words are. And when they confuse rather than enlighten, or obstruct rather than facilitate, or are applied in oppressive ways, we must be ready to either update them, discard them, or make explicit our understanding of their limitations and applicability — and then to apply them appropriately, or else not at all.

    • Fred says:

      Erik:

      My aim in this post was to just how outdated the classifying of English usage into levels has become, and I didn’t mean to legitimize it (hence the question mark in the head). Accordingly, I agree with virtually all of the things you have to say.

      At the same time, I may have inadvertently pinned the blame on Reader’s Digest for coming up with the eight language levels taken from Success With Words. The Slang entry in said book runs for more than five pages, and in fact is pro-slang: The first sentence reads, “American slang is one of the success stories of the English language.”

      The text does indeed enumerate and describe the eight levels, but without any suggestion that RD editors or writers were the source; as stated in my post, the levels are attributed to “scholars, dictionary makers, and the general public.” Moreover, a nearby paragraph in Success With Words ignores the idea that argot is the “combined cant and jargon of criminals,” stating instead that “Cant, jargon, and argot are in-group terms used by workers, hobbyists, or others with a common occupation, interest, or concern.”

      With my self-censure or self-defense out of the way (take your pick), I thank you very much for your thorough and thoughtful commentary. I welcome critiques and opinions from all comers – all of it beneficial food for thought.

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