Modern America, 1914-present


By Winona Bullard, Shirley Johnson, Jerkeshea Morris, Kelly Fox, Cassie Howell 
Students, University of North Carolina at Pembroke 
What is Slang? by Shirley Johnson
As discussed in Microsoft Encarta 97 Encyclopedia, 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. 


What Slang is NOT! by Shirley Johnson and Kelly Fox 

  • Slang is not "whatever is new or popular in the way of language" (Historical Dictionary of American Slang).
  • DialectCohesive, chiefly regional and socioeconomic varieties of a language (Historical Dictionary of American Slang)
  • Catch Phrases: Cultural phrases which derive their meaning from a cultural reference with which the speaker and listener must both be familiar. (Crystal 178)
      Who loves ya, baby? (Kojak) 
      Hasta la vista, baby. (Terminator)
      Beam me up, Scotty. (Star Trek
  • Jargon:  (1) the technical language of a special field; (2) the obscure use of specialized language. (Crystal 174)
  • Slogans:  "A forceful, catchy, mind-grabbing utterance which will rally people to buy something or behave in a certain way."  (Crystal 180)

      Make love, not war. 
      fingerlickin' good! 
      A sprinkle a day helps keep odors away!
  • Graffiti:  "...any spontaneous or unauthorized writing or drawing on walls, vehicles, and other public places.  It is typically obscene or political in character, but a great deal of humor and wisdom can also be found." (Crystal 181)

  •        Examples:  Lethargy rulezzzzzzzzzzz 
                            Kilroy Woz Here 
                            Lisa loves Michael 
  • Argot or Cant:  "Special vocabulary used by a secretive social group." (Crystal 448)
    • ExamplePig Latin 
  • Register:  "In stylistics, a socially defined variety of language, such as scientific or legal English." (Crystal 457)
  • Colloquialism:  "n. an expression used in ordinary conversation, but not regarded as slang" (Webster's Encyclopedia of Dictionaries 77); "simply informal English" (Historical Dictionary of American Slang)
  • Solecism:  "n. breach of grammar; a breach of etiquette" (Webster's Encyclopedia of Dictionaries 355)
    • Example:  "He don't know better."

Some Thoughts on Slang by Kelly Fox 

    Slang is the poetry of everyday life. 
         -S. I. Hayakawa, Language in Action, 1941 

    Slang, n. The grunt of the human hog (Pignoramus intolerabilis) with an audible memory. 
         -Ambrose Bierce, The Devil's Dictionary, 1911 

    I shall invent a new game; I shall write bits of slang and poetry on slips and give them to you separate
         -George Eliot, Middlemarch, 1871 

    Slang is "language which takes off its coat, spits on its hands -- and goes to work." 
         -Carl Sandburg (as quoted in Crystal 182) 

    Slang is humanity's first play toy. 
         -John Algeo, University of Georgia professor 

    Slang, at its worst, it is stupidly coarse and provocative.  At its best, it makes standard English seem pallid. 
         -J. E. Lighter, chief editor of Random House Historical Dictionary of  
          American Slang


History of Slang by Winona Bullard 

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. 

However, slang was beginning to be presented in popular plays.  The first appearance of the slang was in a play by Richard Brome’s and later appeared in poems and songs by CoplandBy the 1700’s the cultural differences in America had begun to influence the English-speaking population, and slang began to expand. 

Almost all of the slang words during this time were anatomical and well known all through Britain and in America due to the British colonists.   Furthermore, certain events happened in the 18th century that helped the development of slang such as, Westward expansion, the Civil War, and the abolitionist movement .  By this time scholars such as Walt Whitman,  W. D. Whitney, and Brander Matthews all considered slang to be anything that sounded new, and that was not in the “glossaries of British dialects” (Thorne 26).  Walt Whitman consider slang to be the life of the language.  Whitman wrote “that slang was a wholesome.....of common humanity to escape the form bald literalism, and express itself illimitably” (Thorne 26). 

This was a turning point for slang it was starting to escape the harsh criticism of being associated with criminals or foreigners.  It was not until the early 1920’s that slang had gained the interest of popular writers.  It was during the post-World War I  era that society gained new attitudes about slang.  There was now a demand for entertainment, mass media, and slangy fiction. 

Today  modern American slang has been shaped and reshaped by the different cultures and the emergence of technology, which has left our society with varieties of slang from extremes like Street/Drug Slang to African-American Slang. 


Why People Use Slang by Kelly Fox 

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. 

Foreign words are a common resource for the development of slang, as are regional variations of standard words.  David Crystal, author of The Cambridge Encyclopedia of the English Language, calls the introduction of foreign words into a language "borrowings."  Likewise, slang may incorporate "elements of the jargons of special-interest groups (e.g., professional, sport, regional, criminal, and drug subcultures)."  The Historical Dictionary of American Slang says that "Slang is lexical innovation within a particular cultural context."  Sometimes these foreign words and regional variations become part of the standard language. 

The Historical Dictionary of American Slang points out that many groups "use slang largely because they lack political power."  It is simply a safe and effective way that people rebel against the establishment.  Often, however, it appears that slang is ever present and exists even in complacent times.  It is created by individuals and perpetuated based upon its usefulness and applicability. 

The Columbia Encyclopedia notes that slang is often "well developed in the speaking vocabularies of cultured, sophisticated, linguistically rich languages."  Whereas slang was once considered as the lowest form of communication, many now consider slang to be an intelligent and insightful variation to the blandness of the standard language.  Gerald Parshall, in a 1994 article for U.S. News & World Report, describes this as "proletarian poetry."  The Oxford English Dictionary points out that George Eliot's character in Middlemarch, written in 1871, says that "Correct English is the slang of prigs who write history and essays."  For some, it is enough that Shakespeare often used slang. 

Others, however, condemn the use of slang, believing that it undermines the standard language and reflects poorly upon its users.  Parshall notes that Ambrose Bierce, in his dictionary, called slang "the grunt of the human hog."  Even The Oxford English Dictionary's 1989 edition defines slang as "the special vocabulary used by any set of persons of a low or disreputable character; language of a low and vulgar type."  In fact, both Crystal and The Historical Dictionary of American Slang point out that Samuel Johnson and Jonathan Swift produced the very first dictionaries partly out of great concern for the corruption of the standard English language. 

Whatever the reason(s), slang is here to stay, and its longevity demands attention and explication.  Below is an excerpt from David Crystal's book.  Crystal cites examlpes from Eric Partridge's  Slang, Today and Yesterday to illustrate the many uses of slang.  Partridge, according to The Historical Dictionary of American Slang, is "perhaps the century's best-known collector of unconventional English."  Of Partridge's "fifteen important impulses behind the use of slang," Crystal notes that he considers numbers 13 and 14 to be the most significant: 

    "According to the British lexicographer, Eric Partridge (1894-1979), people use slang for any of at least 15 reasons: 

    1.  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. 

    2. 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). 

    3. To be 'different', to be novel. 

    4.  To be picturesque (either positively or - as in the wish to avoid insipidity - negatively). 

    5. To be unmistakeably arresting, even startling. 

    6. To escape from clichés, or to be brief and concise.  (Actuated by impatience with existing terms.) 

    7.  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.) 

    8.  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.) 

    9a.  To lesson the sting of, or on the other hand to give additional point to, a refusal, a rejection, a recantation; 

    9b.  To reduce, perhaps also to disperse, the solemnity, the pomposity, the excessive seriousness of a conversation (or of a piece of writing); 

    9c.  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'. 

    10.  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. 

    11.  For ease of social intercourse.  (Not to be confused or merged with the preceding.) 

    12.  To induce either friendliness or intimacy of a deep or a durable kind.  (Same remark.) 

    13.  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. 

    14.  Hence, to show or prove that someone is not 'in the swim'. 

    15.  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.) 

    (From Slang:  Today and Yesterday, 1933, Ch. 2.)"

A UNC-P Campus Survey by Jerkeshea Morris 

College students have enriched daily speech to the fullest! 

Below is a survey of the slang used by college students on the campus of the University of  North Carolina at Pembroke. College slang is widely used from north to south to east to west. Different colleges in different areas use different terms, and we set out to find what terms are used on this campus. According to Judi Sanders, college slang is so widely used because it is fun, it is humorous, and at times we use these words to confuse those who won't understand their meaning.  One hundred students were surveyed.  They were residents, commuters, old, young, athletes, SGA members, BSU members, CAB members, sororities, fraternities, drinkers, and smokers. I have found that age and the activities they are involved in contribute to the type of speech that is used. The older generations only recognized words such as "dude" or other words their teenagers used a couple of years ago. Athletes, sororities, fraternities, SGA, BSU, and CAB members wrote in terms that had a meaning for their specific groups. Residents all recognized the same terms and commuters used terms that were known in their home community. 

What's up?
My bad
Trip/trippin/ trip out 
Da bomb 
Player hater 
What the deal 
Bout' it bout' it
For real though
Kick it 
Age:   __________                            Sex:  M or F 

Classification:   Freshman  Sophomore  Junior  Senior 


  •  Most commonly used slang term:
   What's up? (a way to greet a person or ask about them) 
  • Least used slang term:
     mack (a term used to describe a male with plenty of girlfriends) 
  • Term written in the most:
     I'm mad at that! (a term used to describe disappointment or excitement) 


Examples of Slang by Cassie Howell 

Slang:  Originally meant abuse 

Have a Cow:  This is normally used as part of a sentence.  For example: "Don't have a cow." Or "My mom’s going to have a cow."  There are some variations, for instance, "have a bird." 

Cool:  This popular expression is used to describe something that is very good. 
  Ex:  “That band is cool!” 

Cat’s Pajamas:  Used in the 20’s, this expression is very similar to "cool." 
            Other slang term that have similar meanings are: "radical," "groovy," 
             "da-bomb," and "neat-o." 

Chill:  This can mean to calm down, for example, “Chill out, Dude.” It also can have an "-in" ending added to mean to relax, as in “We’re just chillin at my house.” 

Dude:  This is can be used to refer to any person whether they are known by the speaker or not.  Ex.  “That dude is stealing my car.”  Or “Dude, I’m glad you finally called.” 

Peace:  Used as a greeting during the late 60’s and early 70’s. 

Stinks:  When used as a slang term, this means "is bad."  For example:  “This exam stinks.” 

Trollin:  Used to describe a car or cars traveling slower than the flow of traffic.  Example:  "This car is really trollin." 

Mr. Charley: a white man 

The Man:  the law 

Uncle Tom:  a meek black person 

23-skiddoo:  used in the 1920s 

booze:  alcohol 

buzz off:  go away 

john, head, can, loo:  toilet 

schnozz:  nose 

grub, slop, garbage, gas:  food 

tart:  upstart young woman or prostitute 

makin' whoopee (Walter Winchell - 1929):  making love 



  • Eric Partridge is a British lexicographer who wrote in the 1930s and 1940s extensively about slang; he is perhaps the best-known collector of unconventional English in the 20th century.
  • Captain Francis Grose compiled the influential Classical Dictionary of the Vulgar Tongue (1785)
  • Walt Whitman wrote "Slang in America" (1885), praising the use of slang
  • Stuart Flexner compiled Dictionary of American Slang (1960), which estimated that half the entries could be traced to cultural sub-groups
  • The editors of Variety, a Broadway-based trade paper, cultivated a reputation for slang.


Bibliography and Links 

Crystal, David.  The Cambridge Encyclopedia of the English Language
Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1995. 

This scholarly source provides a limited amount of information regarding slang.  It touches upon the definition and uses of slang, as well as why we use slang.  It is a helpful source in studying such aspects of the English language as the history of the language, English vocabulary, English grammar, and uses of English.  It also contains a helpful glossary of terminology and reference listing.  

Lighter, Jonathan E., ed.  Historical Dictionary of American Slang.  New York: Random House, Inc., 1994. 

In addition to being a helpful source by listing and defining slang terms, this scholarly source provides a useful introduction that covers such topics as the definition of slang, the actual origins of the term "slang," and a discussion of some other dictionaries of slang.  

"Slang."  Microsoft ® Encarta ® 97 Encyclopedia.  CD-ROM.  Microsoft Corporation, 1993-1996. 

This CD-ROM encyclopedia provides helpful, quick access to specific topics such as the origins of slang, its uses, and position in the language.  Other topics related to slang, such as jargon, cant, and argot, are referenced and linked to provide additional information and understanding.  

Thorne, Tony.  The Dictionary of Contemporary Slang.  New York: Pantheon Books, 1990. 

This scholarly source is by far the most helpful and informative of any reviewed.  The introduction to this dictionary provides an in-depth look at slang, covering such topics as the definition of slang, features of slang, slang in its cultural environment, the emergence of slang in the United States, influences on slang, and motives for using slang.  This source provides a history of slang and references to as far back as Chaucer's Canterbury Tales of 1387-1400.  It also provides a helpful guide to the dictionary, pronunciation key, and useful bibliography.  

Allee, Ph.D., John Gage.  Webster's Encyclopedia of Dictionaries. New York:  Ottenheimer Publishers, Inc., 1978. 

This is an encyclopedia which our group used in order to gather information from 20 years ago in order to compare it to current information.  We do  not recommend using an older version of a dictionary other than for research purposes. 

Parshall, Gerald. U.S. News & World Report, 06/27/94, v116:n25. p61(5), 

Slanguage Home Page 

A unique Web site devoted to compiling slang words and phrases of various U.S. cities, this is a very interesting site with lots of up-to-date information about current slang. 

Tony's World - Website of Southern Slang 

This small Web site, where the webmaster has published what he considers to be southern slang and asks for contributions from visitors, is fun and interesting to view. 

Word Play:  Sites That Feature Fun With Words 

An extensive website which includes many interesting sites relating to words and language, this source is great for researchers or just for fun! 

The Word Detective:  Answers Questions About Words and Language 

This is the online version of The Word Detective, a newspaper column answering readers' questions about words and language.  The Word Detective is written by Evan Morris and appears in finer newspapers in the U.S., Mexico, and Japan. 

World Wide Words 

WORLD WIDE WORDS is Michael Quinion's website that explores the international English language from a British viewpoint. There are more than 600 pages available, with more added each week. He discusses new terms, displays weird words, gets behind expressions in the news, helps you with tricky points, and answers questions. Join the mailing list for weekly updates 


What is Slang?

What Slang is NOT!

Some Thoughts on Slang

History of Slang

Why People Use Slang

A UNC-P Campus Survey

Examples of Slang


Bibliography and Links