slang, vernacular vocabulary not generally acceptable in formal usage. It is notable for its liveliness, humor, emphasis, brevity, novelty, and exaggeration. Most slang is faddish and ephemeral, but some words are retained for long periods and eventually become part of the standard language (e.g., phony, blizzard, movie). On the scale used to indicate a word's status in the language, slang ranks third behind standard and colloquial (or informal) and before cant. Slang often conveys an acerbic, even offensive, no-nonsense attitude and lends itself to poking fun at pretentiousness. Frequently grotesque and fantastic, it is usually spoken with intent to produce a startling or original effect. It is especially well developed in the speaking vocabularies of cultured, sophisticated, linguistically rich languages. The first dictionary of English slang is said to be Thomas Harman's A Caveat or Warening for Commen Cursetors, published in 1567.

Characteristically individual, slang often incorporates elements of the jargons of special-interest groups (e.g., professional, sport, regional, criminal, drug, and sexual subcultures). Slang words often come from foreign languages or are of a regional nature. Slang is very old, and the reasons for its development have been much investigated. The following is a small sample of American slang descriptive of a broad range of subjects: of madness—loony, nuts, psycho; of crime—heist, gat, hit, heat, grifter; of women—babe, chick, squeeze, skirt; of men—dude, hombre, hunk; of drunkenness—sloshed, plastered, stewed, looped, trashed, smashed; of drugs—horse, high, stoned, tripping; of caressing—neck, fool around, make out; of states of mind—uptight, wired, mellow, laid back; the verb to go—scram, split, scoot, tip; miscellaneous phrases—you push his buttons,get it together,chill, she does her number, he does his thing, what's her story, I'm not into that.


See H. L. Mencken, The American Language (3 vol., 1936–48); P. Farb, Word Play (1973); J. Green, The Dictionary of Contemporary Slang (1985) and Green's Dictionary of Slang (3 vol., 2011); R. Chapman, Thesaurus of American Slang (1989); E. Partridge, A Dictionary of Slang and Unconventional English (1990); J. E. Lighter, ed., Random House Historical Dictionary of American Slang (A–G, 1994, H–O, 1997); Bodleian Library, ed., The First English Dictionary of Slang, 1699 (2010); J. Coleman, The Life of Slang (2012).

The Columbia Encyclopedia, 6th ed. Copyright© 2014, The Columbia University Press.

Slang: Selected full-text books and articles

Slang: The People's Poetry
Michael Adams.
Oxford University Press, 2009
Shorter Slang Dictionary
Rosalind Fergusson.
Routledge, 1994
Shorter Dictionary of Catch Phrases: From the Work of Eric Partridge and Paul Beale
Eric Partridge; Paul Beale; Rosalind Fergusson.
Routledge, 1994
A Dictionary of Catch Phrases: British and American, from the Sixteenth Century to the Present Day
Eric Partridge; Paul Beale.
Routledge, 1993
African American English: A Linguistic Introduction
Lisa J. Green.
Cambridge University Press, 2002
Librarian’s tip: "Slang: Adding Words to the Lexicon" begins on p. 27
Unkind Words: Ethnic Labeling from Redskin to WASP
Irving Lewis Allen.
Bergin & Garvey, 1990
Librarian’s tip: Chap. 1 "Ethnic Slurs in Historical American Slang"
Sexual Slang and Gender
Gordon, Michael.
Women and Language, Vol. 16, No. 2, Fall 1993
Peer-reviewed publications on Questia are publications containing articles which were subject to evaluation for accuracy and substance by professional peers of the article's author(s).
Queerly Phrased: Language, Gender, and Sexuality
Anna Livia; Kira Hall.
Oxford University Press, 1997
Librarian’s tip: Chap. 18 "Homophobic Slang as Coercive Discourse among College Students"
Much Ado about "Sweet Bugger All": Getting to the Bottom of a Puzzle in British Folk Speech. (Research Article)
Dundes, Alan.
Folklore, Vol. 113, No. 1, April 2002
Peer-reviewed publications on Questia are publications containing articles which were subject to evaluation for accuracy and substance by professional peers of the article's author(s).
Mankind, Nation and Individual from a Linguistic Point of View
Otto Jespersen.
H. Aschehoug, 1925
Librarian’s tip: Chap. VIII "Slang"
Unusual Words and How They Came About
Edwin Radford.
Philosophical Library, 1946
Looking for a topic idea? Use Questia's Topic Generator


An unknown error has occurred. Please click the button below to reload the page. If the problem persists, please try again in a little while.