In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Slang

  • Introduction
  • Slang and Profanity

Linguistics Slang
Michael Adams
  • LAST REVIEWED: 23 June 2023
  • LAST MODIFIED: 23 June 2023
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199772810-0305


Since 1774, the word slang has referred to a type of informal speech not quite distinct from cant, an earlier term for cryptolects (secret languages) employed by rogues, vagabonds, and thieves in early modern England. The word slang thus suggests a broadening of users, contexts, and ultimately the term’s meaning, though after a century and more of argument, we have not yet arrived at a satisfactory definition or agreement about the slang concept. Indeed, since the rise of sociolinguistics, which tends to see language continua rather than categories, legitimacy of the slang concept has been challenged and dismissed by many linguists. Nevertheless, speakers of English and many other languages recognize a register that they call slang, and it thus deserves attention, if not as a linguistic, at least as a cultural phenomenon—one hopes that, if it is a linguistic thing, linguists can arrive at a plausible theory of slang. In the meantime, slang has some theory behind it, a long history, can be described in terms of various populations and places, and is well documented over the centuries in dictionaries of various types. Slang develops in subcultures and is thus an essential object of study, a way to understand the subcultures in which all people live and their relationship to “mainstream” culture. Study of the relationship between subcultural language and “mainstream” language is also important, including, of course, standard varieties, which some have argued serve not only as points of departure for slang, but as the very thing from which slang dissents, both linguistically and ideologically. Other sorts of niche vocabularies sometimes parallel and sometimes overlap with slang, including jargon—the vocabularies of vocations and avocations—ethnic and racial slurs, and, arguably, profanity, although much of what we have called “profanity” over the ages is now slang in use, often hyperexpressive slang, itself a development in the history and structure of slang. This bibliography avoids slurs—as an altogether different type of language pragmatically—and jargon—because the function of jargon is often different from that of slang, besides which there is little recent scholarly attention paid to it—but it does include a brief section on profanity, which, while relevant here, nonetheless probably deserves its own bibliography.

Slang Dictionaries

As vocabulary—or, more precisely, a bundle of vocabularies—slang naturally invites dictionary treatment. Historical and quasi-historical dictionaries of various scales, especially, gather evidence of meaning and use much more efficiently and accessibly than any other means. Later, scholarly, dictionaries cannot include all items registered in earlier, less scientific works, so serious study of slang requires mastery of earlier dictionaries, as well as those justly prominent and more widely available dictionaries of our own time. Because much slang is relatively ephemeral, the only way to catch sight of it is in the rearview mirror of a dictionary entry. Sociological fieldwork supplements dictionaries but lack historical dimension, and while corpora can also be useful in studying slang, they overlook most slang items, which occur in both text and speech relatively infrequently. Thus, dictionaries of slang remain both a starting point for slang research and a necessary adjunct to the study of subcultural language conducted by other methods and to other ends.

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