“Gretchen, stop trying to make fetch happen! It’s not going to happen!”
— Regina George, Mean Girls
“Slang,” as the Bard once said, “is some wicked sick shit.”
There’s a chance those weren’t Shakespeare’s words exactly, but he has been credited with creating a whole bunch of weird words. While it plays to our romanticism of him as a literary genius, it’s unlikely that he just sat around all day ruminating on words for things we now take for granted. Instead, our friend Common Usage is most likely to blame (or praise). And that’s the best way of understanding slang, too.
Slang words exist in a nice halfway house between being understood (as in, not gibberish) and being reputable (as in, a word your grandparents or the Oxford English Dictionary might use). As long as a piece of slang can comfortably chillax* within this space, it’s got the right starting point. But there are plenty of other words that aren’t slang.
The study of language is by definition pedantic, and so it’s worth noting that slang isn’t to be confused with euphemisms, colloquialisms or jargon. These three have their own specific purposes, and although they sometimes share characteristics with slang, they also do their own thang*.
Jargon is the easiest to spot. It has the cliquey* nature of slang, but with greater formality and less fluidity, and therefore less chance to be adopted by demographics outside the original.
Euphemisms have all the colour of slang, but less of the practicality. They’re coy words substituted in for unpleasant or embarrassing realities – compared to slang, which sometimes brashly confronts taboo topics.
Colloquialisms are broader than slang, and typically specific to geographical locations. Often forming just a part of informal speech, colloquialisms can be quite confusing to outsiders, such as in America, where they call pizza ‘pie’.
Knowing all of the above now, you must have a good understanding of what slang is. Nope*. Turns out it’s more complex than that.
While the criminal underground isn’t known for its contribution to language, it’s a good example of the genesis of slang terms. In the underground, slang words are developed so that speakers can talk about things like drugs, felonies and weapons without the risk of being understood by others who aren’t a part of their culture. As stated by social media scientist Dan Zarrella, “subcultures often create terms to describe things that mainstream society does not have words for, or does not have words conveying specific enough meanings for.”
Another subculture, and only slightly less criminal, is teenagers. While risking sounding like an old fart*, the exponential growth of teenagers and technology seems to contribute to the development of new slang words every day. A study conducted on students at the University of Botswana found that, in contrast to conlangs, slang deliberately aims to lower “the dignity of formal or serious speech or writing” – if only temporarily.
More important than any subversion however, is that slang, especially for teenagers, can quickly and easily identify what subgroup the speaker belongs (or wants to belong) to – showing whether they’re hip* or whether they’re hella fatass lamer newfag*.
It’s also worth noting that most slang words aren’t completely new creations. More commonly they are repurposings, where old words are given new meanings. And there are many different ways to do this, as Zarrella points out in the following list:
- Changing the class of a word, like using an adjective in place of an adverb
- Metaphor: using imagery to designate something
- Metonymy: designation of something by one of its parts
- Polysemy and synonymy: playing on the multiple meanings of words
- Derivation or resuffixation of existing words with popular suffixes
- Truncation: either of the ending of a word or the beginning
- Abbreviation (although I’d personally question if these are true slang)
- Loan words from other languages
Source: ‘How and Why Slang Spreads’, Dan Zarrella
There are plenty of logical, scientific and bland reasons behind why we use slang, but the one illuminated by G. K. Chesterton is the most appealing – that is, slang is beautiful. He uses one example of “breaking the ice”, and says:
If this were expanded into a sonnet, we should have before us a dark and sublime picture of an ocean of everlasting ice, the sombre and baffling mirror of the Northern nature, over which men walked and danced and skated easily, but under which the living waters roared and toiled fathoms below.
So, with all the ways to make slang happen, and all the options and subgroups available, why did Gretchen’s ‘fetch’ fail? Forensic linguist Allan Metcalf, whose job title alone would make it worth going back to university for, has developed a method to predict the success of invented words. Just like a linguist, he’s made the five factors needed for this success into the snappy acronym FUDGE: including the ‘Frequency’ of how often the new word is used, its ‘Unobtrusiveness’, the ‘Diversity’ of both users and meanings, the word’s ability to ‘Generate’ new meanings and the ‘Endurance’ of the concept behind the word.
Slate gives ‘fetch’ a score on this metric of two out of five, but Gretchen shouldn’t feel too bad: she’s in good company, with plenty of Shakespeare’s own words failing to catch on, as well as a whole book of words that failed to be adopted, made up by a futurist named Faith Popcorn.
Slang can fail in a different sense too – that is, when it becomes accepted by mainstream culture. The very act strips a word of its ‘slang’ status. While it might seem that the ubiquity of a word is a mark of its success, we know that slang isn’t just about popularity, but rather ownership and group dynamics. If the core group that invented a word no longer uses it, then it’s no longer true slang. And as a broader demographic of people adopt the new terminology without being aware of its roots, the term loses its sharpness of meaning.
There’s no slowing language down though. The Oxford English Dictionary, considered by many as the last word in words, has admitted it can’t even keep up, with the next edition not expected to be completed until 2034.
While some may whinge* about this relentless evolution of language, others are thirsty* to make their own inventions popular. This is all hampered by the general public, who are desperately playing catch-up with any new slang that will help improve their street swag*. The true marker of their success will be a long time coming, however, as only time – and an entry into the Oxford English Dictionary – will show whether a slang word has made it into the English Language, and after then, it may as well be dead.
* A word that remains or used to be a form of slang.
Rafael S. W. is a graduate of creative writing and one of the founding members of Dead Poets’ Fight Club. He has been published in Voiceworks, Going Down Swinging and Dot Dot Dash. He also competes in poetry slams and giant-sized chess games.