By Michael Adams
Slang is good for you
Some people say that it isn’t. They think it’s vulgar, sloppy, repetitive. They think it’s casual speech out of place in semi-formal discourse, Chuck Taylors with a jacket and tie. They think it betrays an unbecoming emptiness of mind. At the same time — and, need I mention, inconsistently — they point out that we already have plenty of words, and slang is redundant, misplaced creativity. “Use the words you’ve got,” they say, “not the words you want.” No one cares to hear about how dissatisfied you are with the language you’re given. That’s what they say.
They are mostly people who have trouble with people who have trouble with authority, especially authority over language. These nattering nabobs of normativity are brim full with rectitude. They think they are doing you and the rest of the world a favor with helpful advice about how we — by which, it’s important to note, they mean you — ought to talk. When I hear them on the radio, I stick my fingers in my ears, close my eyes — I don’t know why, I can’t see them anyway — and say, “La la la la la la la la …,” but I don’t do this in face-to-face linguistic confrontations, because it’s impolite. Whatever, no matter how often or loudly the nabobs complain, you have a right to slang.
Keeping it on the d.l.
You want your gang of friends to be distinct from all of the other gangs. You and yours swagger, they strut. You wear high-tops and hold high standards, their tops and morals are low. You have your linguistic style, they have theirs. So, within your gang, when someone accipurpodentally twists the forms of words, or takes hairpin conversational turns that keep meaning on the down low, everyone else in the group gets it. But no one outside the group does, and it isn’t really any of their business, anyway. There are norms after all, but they are the norms of behavior, including verbal behavior, that constitute your group’s identity, not the normativity of nabobs hell bent on obliterating your identity, normativity that’s just uniformity wearing a not particularly effective disguise.
BTW, here’s some advice for people who don’t like slang. You don’t need to listen: stop eavesdropping on it. It’s like television or radio; change the channel. You don’t have to understand every conversation, far less approve it. We each have our space in the world, and I don’t mean a house with a garden and fence, but language space, the freedom to express ourselves on our own terms, when it matters to us, accumulating and distributing cultural capital without spending a dime. So, if I’m full on slanging with my mates, don’t mack my flow. If social networks matter to you, if you and your friends are hip to one another, if you think friendship depends on private language, then slang is good for you.
Language with attitude
The language nabobs have their rectitude, but you have your attitude, and there’s no point in having one unless you can express it. You don’t have to express it everywhere and every hour, but you can count on slang to help establish your style, even — or especially — if your style happens to be raunchy or profane. You can have different styles at different times with different people. You don’t have to be raunchy at the office, and you don’t have to talk like you’re in a meeting when you’re with friends. With your friends, your language can be NSFW. And, by the way, you can be proud of your human resources-approved language. It takes some time, takes some practice to speak it fluently, even if — or just because — it sometimes betrays an unbecoming emptiness of mind. But at least some of the time, you want to be fly, and that’s where slang comes in.
There is a painting/drawing/print by Henri Fantin-Latour I can’t locate on the Web, but I saw it in a museum somewhere decades ago. A sober gentleman in black — pretty much the whole thing was black and white, which makes me think it’s a print — is backstage at the Folies Bergère admiring his favorite dancer, who shows a bit of leg — the leg is up, too, her foot is on something, the knee bent — throws her head back, and lifts a glass of red wine, the only thing in the print that isn’t black or white. The gentleman is stiff with his rectitude, and he’s missing the point of slumming. Slang is that splash of color in the wine glass, defiantly racy among the black and white of everyday language. It’s slightly intoxicated language — and her leg has something to do with slang, too. On occasion, you need language with attitude, and then slang is good for you.
Read my mind
Slang keeps your mind nimble. Speaking or listening to rhyming slang is like doing the crossword puzzle in The Sunday Times, London or New York. A group of researchers in the UK measured the brain activity of human subjects while those subjects read Shakespeare’s play Coriolanus. They discovered that when Shakespeare used words in odd ways, for instance, when he put a word typically recognized as a noun to use as a verb — “He godded me,” for instance — the subjects’ brains were suddenly very active. Apparently, the activity was positive: it wasn’t as if the brains were confused, exactly, but rather as if they had been awakened from linguistic boredom. Language used casually that nonetheless takes you by surprise — slang — is good for your brain. Even if you were bored reading Coriolanus, it’s a good bet that your brain thoroughly enjoyed it.
Here’s what confuses me: the very people who most need the mental exercise of slang are those who most resist it — older people, people who are stuck in their ways, people who don’t like surprises, people who live their lives as far away from the Edge as possible, the nattering nabobs aforementioned, or any combination of these. They complain about other people’s slang, but instead, they should be thanking us all for keeping them on their toes. They like us to think that they have their feet firmly on the ground, that they are too stable and statusful to bear our slang, let alone use their own. They are a bit boring, really, but they’re also rather lazy, aren’t they? They don’t want to do the brain-work slang requires; they want it easy, they want it predictable. But whether they like it or not, slang is good for them.
And another thing
Maybe “La la la la la la la …” understates my frustration with the antagonists of slang. I mean, honestly, as the arithmetically challenged Jack Walsh says in Midnight Run — ironic, isn’t it, that he’s taken an accountant into custody — “Here come two words for you: shut the f**k up.” I’m not sure which two words he has in mind, but they’re not “the up.”
Ah, the therapeutic expletive. It’s forceful, but not without a touch of whimsy, and cheaper than a shrink. It’s the French inhale of English. “Just because it kills you doesn’t mean it isn’t sexy,” said the praying mantis. Slang, on the other hand, is good for you.
Michael P. Adams is Associate Professor of English and Director of Undergraduate Studies in the Department of English Language and Literature at Indiana University. He currently edits quarterly journal American Speech and is President Elect of the Dictionary Society of North America. His published work includes Slayer Slang: A Buffy the Vampire Slayer Lexicon, From Elvish to Klingon, and Slang: The People’s Poetry which is available in paperback as of October 2012. Read his previous blog posts: “The invented languages of clockwork apples and oranges” and “The Oxford English Dictionary: my favourite book ever“