One thing I’ve always found patently unfair about the language that fascinates me is that somehow slang got lumped in with profanity when it comes to the unwelcome companions in verbal expression. Yes, I think it was those pedantic rhetoricians who were the first to pair the two as offenders of eloquence just as the first exasperated parent once decided that tired most certainly should follow sick when ranting at a teen for his perpetually filthy bedroom.
And while constant profanity really isn’t something that enhances the language, there is a time and a place for that form of expression, as Mark Twain ardently believed. It was Twain who famously once said, “There ought to be a room in every house to swear. It’s dangerous to repress an emotion like that.”
However, today’s open epistle, folks, isn’t about the cursing that some use more as a means of self-entertainment than as any sort of a cathartic release of emotions of which Mr. Twain spoke. It’s about that other expression often paired with profanity, slang, a mode of expression as unique as any manner of dress or hairstyle to an era or a nationality.
Call it jargon, idiom, coinage, argot or vernacular, there’s no question that slang is an indispensable component of the language.
As far as what has the most slang terms for a conventional word, I can think of none that have more than the word “money.” Through the years, when people talk about one of our favorite topics, as far as who has it and who doesn’t, and who deserves it, and more often, who doesn’t, it’s been called dough, bread, scratch, smackers, Benjamins, ducats, folding stuff, greenbacks, cabbage, cheddar, lettuce, loot, moola and bones among other expressions.
I think what makes slang so unique is that the same word, depending upon the context in which it’s used, can take on different meanings. For instance, for some, if someone’s “my dawg,” he or she is my good friend. However, if someone “dawgs” you, you’re being denigrated in some fashion. Or, in another context, if someone “dawgs” their food down, well, they’ve eaten it far too impulsively.
For those in my generation, those whose childhood covered the late 1950s and early ‘60s, when we saw something we liked, whatever it was, was “sharp.” If it was even better than sharp, as in my classmates’ Tom Wehinger’s red Mustang or Jeff Glorioso’s burgundy GTO, well, they were “cherry.” And, speaking of cars, my — was I ever thankful for a brief period — dad got a Pontiac Bonneville as the family second car after I’d gotten my license, the first car I could impress whoever was nearby when I “punched it,” and “peeled out” and “burned rubber.” The car it replaced, a 1949 DeSoto, could barely get up the slight incline on Nixon Avenue once we made the turn off Latham.
Of course, often, the time we spent in our cars in the 1960s was spent “cruising” North Street, which, of course, meant driving slowly just to be seen through Spykers and the KingBurger Drive-Ins. My pals and I spoke of sports and cars and, of course, “making out,” and while we had some firsthand knowledge of the first two, we were pretty clueless about the last.
I think the slang that has endured over time is what interests me the most. While Sonny and Cher sang, “I got you Babe” in 1965, here it is in 2015 and good-looking people are still “babes.” And, of course, although what was “cool” in the ’60s may have changed as time passed, the slang term is still used the same way today.
Of course, part of the legitimization of slang in, this the most technological of all ages, is the proliferation of online urban and slang dictionaries. Check out http://onlineslangdictionary.com, and you’ll find 24,000 entries. Go to http://anglotopia.net, and you’ll find a list of the 100 most beautiful British slang expressions. There, you’ll find had we lost that little Revolutionary dustup, I’d probably be calling someone I thought was an idiot a “tosser” and would be “gobsmacked” (amazed) if people didn’t know what I meant when I said it!
And, there you have it, friends, my homage to slang. The language just wouldn’t be the same without it. Here’s to the slang of today and especially to the slang of my youth, back when all we 60ish folks were “letting it all hang out.”
John Grindrod is a regular columnist for The Lima News and Our Generation’s Magazine, a freelance writer and editor and the author of two books. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.