English Words and Their Background

By George H. McKnight | Go to book overview

CHAPTER IV
SLANG

The preceding chapters have perhaps made sufficiently clear that the words included in Standard English, form only a part of the stock of words available for English speech. The value of the provincial dialects as a source of new and more concrete forms of expression, and the special indebtedness of the American language to forms of speech without the bounds of literary language, have been called to attention. In addition to the dialectal words, the country cousins of the words in literary use, there remains to be considered a set of words whose irregular habits and uncertain associations have served to exclude them from cultivated society. This flourishing set of outlaw terms is customarily grouped promiscuously under the name slang.

In the consideration of this much discussed class of words, much confusion has arisen from the vague way in which the name is applied. It may be doubted if an exact definition of slang is possible. It is important, however, to arrive at an understanding of its nature, and one may well begin with a consideration of the name. The ultimate origin of the name slang is not certainly known; the word is itself probably a slang creation. It makes its first appearance in the eighteenth century, and like its French equivalent, argot, applied earliest to a special vocabulary of the underworld of thieves, a use in which it is hard to distinguish the word slang from the rival words, cant and flash. Somewhat later, at the beginning of the nineteenth century, the name slang came to apply to the special vocabulary of a particular calling or pro-

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