Slang: The People's Poetry

Slang: The People's Poetry

Slang: The People's Poetry

Slang: The People's Poetry


Slang, writes Michael Adams, is poetry on the down low, and sometimes lowdown poetry on the down low, but rarely, if ever, merely lowdown. It is the poetry of everyday speech, the people's poetry, and it deserves attention as language playing on the cusp of art.

In Slang: The People's Poetry, Adams covers this perennially interesting subject in a serious but highly engaging way, illuminating the fundamental question "What is Slang" and defending slang--and all forms of nonstandard English--as integral parts of the American language. Why is an expression like "bed head" lost in a lexical limbo, found neither in slang nor standard dictionaries? Why are snow-boarding terms such as "fakie," "goofy foot," "ollie" and "nollie" not considered slang? As he addresses these and other lexical curiosities, Adams reveals that slang is used in part to define groups, distinguishing those who are "down with it" from those who are "out of it." Slang is also a rebellion against the mainstream. It often irritates those who color within the lines--indeed, slang is meant to irritate, sometimes even to shock. But slang is also inventive language, both fun to make and fun to use. Rather than complain about slang as "bad" language, Adams urges us to celebrate slang's playful resistance to the commonplace and to see it as the expression of an innate human capacity, not only for language, but for poetry.


Reviewing my previous book, Slayer Slang: A “Buffy the Vampire Slayer” Lexicon (2003), in the Journal of English Linguistics (March 2005), Susan Tamasi wrote, “As a linguist, I have one criticism…. I never found an actual definition of the word slang, even though other linguistic terms were defined and slang was often compared to other categories, such as ‘jargon’ and ‘standard American English.’” I thought I knew enough about slang to write that book, concerned as it was with those aspects of slang especially well illustrated in Buffy the Vampire Slayer and the Buffyverse. After all, even if there’s lots of slang in the universe of language, the Buffyverse is a relatively small verse and more easily navigated.

Or so I thought. I soon learned that slang was both more interesting and more complex than I had realized, and that an adequate understanding of it would demand investigation far beyond the boundaries of slayer slang. Is slang merely a swath of English vocabulary, best understood in contrast with other types of words and phrases? Or is it the currency with which we negotiate our social identities? Or is it, quite impressively really, a more or less impromptu verbal art—poetry, one might say, if one were given to speaking slang, on the fly? Is slang something we (Homo sapiens, speakers of languages around the world) invented as a result of social interaction, or is it a type of language we can’t escape, part of our biological as well as our social heritage?

Of course, if you’re desperate for one, every general dictionary of English includes a definition of slang, and they are all informative, even if they aren’t . . .

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