How and Why Slang Spreads


Slang is not easy to define exactly, but in an article written by David M. Hummon in 1994 for The Journal of Higher Education a workable definition is presented:

an oral, highly expressive language not accepted as ‘good, formal usage’.

Whereas euphemisms seek to obfuscate and soften unpleasant realities, slang is often used as a shocking way to confront those otherwise taboo topics.

Typically slang begins as a sort of encrypted “in speak” for subcultures, the criminal underground is an oft-used example of this. Many drug nicknames are used so that members of the subculture can talk without being understood by people outside of their group.

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. The term “baby mama” is an example of this. Based on Jamaican culture, this word implies the mother of someone’s child who is no longer tied to the father of that child. A great discussion of this slang can be found here:

Sometimes a slang term pops into the cultural sphere that is so useful it crawls under the brainskin, no matter the historical stigma implied.

Another function of this “in speak” is that slang helps members of subcultures identify each other quickly and easily, and beyond mere cultural group affiliation a wealth of more granular information about the speaker is conveyed including age, gender, demographics and geography. Members of sub-cultures that have acquired and use group-specific slang gain a sense of belonging and assimilation to the group.

Often much can be learned about the attitudes, beliefs and values of a group by studying its slang. The 1993 book The City in Slang: New York Life and Popular Speech does exactly that and it observes commonalities in New York City slang like:

Few if any slang names denote schools, churches, hospitals and other insitutions in the same neighborhood that were seen as supportive rather than exploitative. Slang sometimes serves a pejorative function in social discourse and may be interpreted as a kind of social criticism by the poor and down-and-out.

Most slang words and phrases are not true neologism, they are not completely new and unique words (though that does happen on occasion). They are more commonly neosemanticisms, that is old words given new meanings. There are a variety of ways slang is created in this fashion, including:

  • 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
  • Loan Words from other languages

Slang typically starts in subcultures with very specific meanings, but sometimes it will expand beyond that group and gain mainstream acceptance. This is very often the case when the word or phrase is especially useful, like when a word fills a semantic gap (like baby-mama).

If a subculture’s structure is “tight” or does not experience much interaction with other cultures or the mainstream its specialized slang typically does not spread beyond the group. Early organized crime is an example of this, due to the highly controlled nature of these groups, much if its lexicon never saw mainstream diffusion. Once media (books, radio, movies and television) began to explore the criminal underground the slang started to spread. Cockney rhyming slang is another useful example, those cultures that had contact with the originating sub-culture had a tendency to assimilate it:

Rhyming slang has spread to many English-speaking countries, especially those that had strong maritime links with the UK in the 19th century, notably Australia, Ireland and Canada/USA.

The process of diffusion also creates evolutionary pressures on slangs much like other language attributes. As slang diffuses through culture, it often starts to loose some sharpness of meaning, and when it does new slang is needed and generally created by the subgroup that started the slang in the first place. “Baby-mama” is an example of this as much mainstream usage of the term does not imply the disconnectedness of the parents that the original meaning of the phrase did.

This selection and renewal process also happens because as it becomes accepted in the mainstream, slang looses its encryption and social-identification features. As soon as the “squares” start saying “groovy” the slang is meaningless and useless and the cycle begins again anew.

Individuals encounter and retain slang in the same way as other language, mostly through repetitive and contextual learning. We know from memory and learning research that”

If learners encounter unknown words ten times in context, sizeable learning gains may occur. However, to develop full knowledge of a word more than ten repetitions may be needed.

It is also interesting to note that while most languages commonly have mostly vertical transmission patterns (from parent to child) slang spreads faster and more virulently though horizontal transmission (peer to peer). This is due to the sub-cultural and intra-generational nature of slang as opposed to the mainstream immersion of early childhood language education.

Have you ever tried to start your own slang? How did it go?

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