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The origin of the word “slang” is known!

Caution is a virtue, but, like every other virtue, it can be practiced with excessive zeal and become a vice (like parsimony turning into stinginess). The negative extreme of caution is cowardice. Although in dealing with historical linguistics, one should beware of jumping to conclusions, sometimes explorers succeed in revealing the truth, and then the time comes for accepting it.

Slang, an overlay on standard language, has always existed, but the English word slang, as we know it, is recent: the earliest citations in the OED go back to the second half of the eighteenth century. That the very name of slang may emerge as a slang word need not surprise us (the origin of argot and cant provides a good parallel), and this makes its source even harder to discover, for slang tends to be born in places like Offal Court and disguise its shabby pedigree. Only a hundred years ago, slang was castigated as something unseemly and vulgar, but the war declared on it had as little chance of success as the war waged against John Barleycorn. However, today my subject is not the history of mores or usage but etymology.

This is Offal Court. Not only Mark Twain's Tom Canty and his sisters but tons of slang were born there.
This is Offal Court. Not only Mark Twain’s Tom Canty and his sisters but tons of slang were born there.

Rather many people have tried to discover the origin of slang, and in 1898 the puzzle was all but solved. The relevant note by John Sampson appeared in a local periodical called Chester Courant and later reprinted in The Cheshire Sheaf. I would probably never have discovered it, even though I did screen dozens of local magazines for my database, if John M. Dodgson had not referred to it in his tiny 1968 article in Notes and Queries. Dodgson did not pay much attention to the word slang, for his topic was Cheshire place name elements, but, when I read Sampson’s explanation, I realized that the mystery was no more. All I had to do was to add a few finishing touches.

Cheshire is famous not only for its cat and cheese.
Cheshire is famous not only for its cat and cheese.

In my 2008 dictionary, I devoted an entry to slang and gave my predecessor (actually, two of them: see below) full credit for their discovery. On several websites I now find mentions of the etymology ascribed to me (though I am not its discoverer), but they are brief and noncommittal. At this rate of going, we’ll never make progress. Inspired by the belief that the explanation I defend is not just one of many to be considered but the true one, I decided to return to the question that no longer interests me but may interest some other people. And I’d like to ask: “Why are people so cautious? Why do they hedge instead of celebrating a small victory?” Perhaps because sitting on the fence (or on the hedge, or wherever) is safe, while defending an opinion that has not yet become common property is risky. I would not have fought with such vigor for my own conclusion, but it is not mine, and I feel obliged to break a lance for those who can no longer do so themselves.

In Murray’s OED, in addition to slang having the sense today known to everybody, we find slang “a narrow strip of land,” alternating with sling, slanget, slanket, slinget, and slinket, all of them meaning “a long narrow strip of land.” We should use a more precise definition of slang, namely “a narrow piece of land running up between other and larger divisions of ground.” It is the idea of delimiting a certain territory that should not escape us, especially because Slang is a common field name in northern England. The regional verb slanger means “linger, go slowly.” That verb is of Scandinavian origin. Its cognates are Norwegian slenge “hang loose, sling, sway, dangle” (gå og slenge “to loaf”), Danish slænge “to throw, sling; wave one’s arms, etc.,” and Swedish slänga. Their common denominator seems to be “to move freely in any direction.” German Schlange “snake” confirms that idea, for snakes writhe.

Of special interest is the form slanget, cited above. To any unprejudiced observer it looks like a noun of some Scandinavian language with the postposed definite article (slang-et), the slang. Danish slænget and Norwegian slenget mean “gang, band,” that is, “a group of strollers.” Old Icelandic slangi “tramp” and slangr “going astray” (said about sheep) are close enough. It is not uncommon to associate the place designated for a certain group and those who live there with that group’s language. John Fielding and the early writers who knew the noun slang used the phrase slang patter, as though that patter were a kind of talk belonging to some territory. One of Tony Lumpkin’s companions (in Goldsmith’s She Stoops to Conquer), a horse doctor, has the name Jack Slang. Much to our regret, he does not appear in the play, but he was probably a jack of all trades and a tramp. Tony was not evil but disreputable.

James Platt (who was unaware of Sampson’s ideas) offered the following reconstruction: from slang “a piece of delimited territory” to “the territory used by tramps for their wandering,” “their camping ground,” and finally to “the language used there.” If we tried to add a classificatory label to that slang, it would end up with words like “turf” and “policeman’s beat.” (As regards the sense development, think of how turf “grass” came to mean “horse race,” that is, an activity happening on the grass.) Quite possibly, speakers of northern English heard the phrase slanget (or slænget) “out on the slang” and replaced the preposition. Those who travelled “on the slang” (hawkers, hucksters) were themselves called “slang” (compare Icelandic slangi “tramp” and Norwegian slenget ~ Danish slænget “gang,” cited above). Traveling actors too were “on the slang.”

A salesman out on the slang.
A salesman out on the slang.

“Slangs” were competitive, the way gangs’ territories always are, with different groups of strolling actors, itinerant mendicants, “badgers,” and thieves fighting for the spheres of influence. Hence slang “hawker’s license, a permit that guaranteed the person’s right to sell within a given “precinct” (or slang!), and slang “humbug,” which is a predictable development of peddlers’ activities, for mountebanks cannot be trusted. Both senses appear in the OED. Hawkers use a special vocabulary and a special intonation when advertising their wares (think of modern auctioneers), and many disparaging, derisive names characterize their speech; charlatan and quack are among them.

Such then is the history of the noun slang. It is a dialectal word that reached London from the north and for a long time retained the traces of its low origin. The route was from “territory; turf” to “those who advertise and sell their wares on such a territory,” to “the patter used in advertising the wares,” and to “vulgar language” (later to “any colorful, informal way of expression”). Few English words of disputable origin have been explained so convincingly, and it grieves me to see that some dictionaries still try to derive slang from Norwegian regional slengja “fling, cast” or the phrase slengja kjeften “make insulting allusions” (literarally “sling the jaw”), or from the old past tense of sling (that is, from the same grade of ablaut as the past tense of sling), or from language with s– appended to it (even if the amazing similarity between slang and language helped slang stay in Standard English, for many people must have thought of some hybrid like s-language). All those hypotheses lack foundation. The origin of slang is known, and the discovery made long ago should not be mentioned politely or condescendingly among a few others that stimulated the research but now belong to the museum of etymology.

Image credits: (1) “The Prince and the pauper 02-028” by Merrill, Frank Thayer Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons (2) “Cheshire Cheese” by Y6y6y6, Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons (3) “Arthur Rackham Cheshire Cat” by Arthur Rackham, Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons (4) “An old itinerant salesman offering the repair of defect umbrellas” by J.T. Smith, CC BY 4.0 via Wikimedia Commons Featured image: Texting, mobile by Dean Moriarty, Public Domain via Pixabay.

Recent Comments

  1. Robin Hamilton

    “Slang, an overlay on standard language, has always existed” — with respect, not so. Not even true of cant (out of which English slang emerges).

    The various European argots don’t emerge before about the middle of the fourteenth century, and cant (sometimes called “pedlar’s french”, in the wake of Robert Copland and later, Thomas Harman, linking Palsgrave’s 1530 gloss of the French term “jargon” to outlier speech) only appears in England about the beginning of the sixteenth century.

    Cant (or English Argot) is obviously different from slang (a weasel word, that “obviously”!), the latter first recorded as a term in the relevant sense in the mid-eighteenth century.

    I’m tempted by your derivation, but not entirely convinced, since when the term “slang” first appears, it seems to be part of (specifically) urban criminal argot rather than outlier speech generally. Thus, so to speak, your linking of slang to vagabonds is less than secure.

    More, and more fully referenced, I hope, when I’ve had time to brood on your impressive and comprehensive exposition.

  2. Robin Hamilton

    Further to my previous post:

    The word “slang”, found in a variety of senses, both as noun and verb, emerges at a particular point in time as a prominent element of London criminal argot, with the first extant recorded example appearing early in the eighteenth century. (Many of these early examples of the use of the word are not yet included in the OED.)

    The connotation common to all the early uses of the term is some variety of deception (usually in the context of robbery or cheating), while “slang” as “deceiving/non-standard/group speech” appears relatively late (1764) in the evolution of the sequence. The appearance of “slang-patter” (1758) in a use attributed to the by-then long dead Jonathan Wild provides a hint that it may originally have been current in the milieu he dominated.

    The earliest currently recorded example of a term in this semantic field occurs c. 1735, and there is a relatively wide range of examples in a variety of usages between then and 1747.

    This rather calls into question an etymology based on a physical track, path, or strip of land.

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