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shameless pleading

Slang

Filching food from the Trustees’ Luncheon probably didn’t help.

Dear Word Detective:  I notice you frequently feature slang in your columns, but what is the etymology of the word “slang” itself?  Is it a blending of “language” (or perhaps “langue”) and the “‘s” from the preceding possessive noun?  Or am I just being fanciful? — Steve Giannelli, Athens, OH.

Hi there, Athens, Ohio, which is generally considered to be the Athens of Ohio.  Hey, it  beats being the Akron of Ohio.  Just kidding.  Athens is a lovely town, and bears the twin distinctions of being home to Ohio University and, not entirely coincidentally, the only place where I have actually been ordered to leave town by the local police.  Something about  “aggravated mopery and inciting to skepticism,” as I recall.  But that was many years ago, and I shan’t hold it against your fair city.

It’s true that I often write about the roots of slang, primarily because slang terms tend to be both more fun and more mysterious in origin than “standard” English words and phrases.  My readers also tend to ask about slang terms more often, which is not surprising since one of the characteristics of slang is that it tends to be the distinctive vocabulary of an “in” group (even if that group is quite large, such as teenagers) and designed to be unintelligible to those not in the group (such as adults).

Oddly enough, linguists have been arguing for more than a century about precisely how to define “slang.”  In a 1978 article in the journal American Speech, linguists Bethany Dumas and Jonathan Lighter suggested four criteria, meeting any two of which would qualify a term as “slang”:  (1) use of the term lowers “the dignity of formal or serious speech or writing,” (2) its use implies familiarity with the thing itself or a with group familiar with the thing (e.g., calling motorcycles “choppers”), (3) its use would be forbidden or avoided in conversation with persons of greater social status (e.g., you wouldn’t say “groovy” when your boss asks how lunch with a client went), and (4) it replaces a conventional synonym that the user wishes to avoid for various reasons (e.g., saying a relative “croaked” rather than “died”).

Given that slang has proven so hard to define, it’s not surprising that the origins of the word “slang” itself, which first appeared in the mid-18th century, have proven equally elusive.  Your theory tying “slang” to the “lang” in “language” is actually one of the two most commonly proposed explanations of “slang.”  The possessive “s” in such phrases as “thieves’ language” or “gypsies’ language” could indeed have been blended into “slang.”

The other leading theory of “slang” traces it to Scandinavian roots, in particular the Old Norse “slyngva,” meaning “to sling,” found in the Norwegian “slengenamn” (“nickname”) and “slengja kjeften,” meaning “to verbally abuse” (literally “to sling the jaw”).  Personally, I find this the more plausible of the two theories, but the Oxford English Dictionary and other reputable etymological sources don’t find either theory convincing and still label “slang” as “origin unknown.”

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