My latest column from the Malaysia Star.
Slang is the language of young people. It is a fast-moving river and although its bends and flows seem the same, they are, they must be, composed of different cascades and crests. We learn the slang of our generation and it is always the slang we know best, but our slang terms are usually new words for old ideas.
Look at the generational ways of saying “goodbye.” In the 1980s, “I’m out of here” became “outta here” which became the interjection “audi,” spelled after the car brand, and, therefore, sometimes rendered as “Audi 5000.” Although it’s a bit old-fashioned, some folks still use it where “so long!” might have been used in the 1940s.
In the 1960s, you might have said, “I’m gonna jet” meaning “I’m going to leave.”
In the 1980s, “to blaze” was another way of saying that you’re leaving. Like “audi” and “jet” you still hear it from time to time. It may never be very popular, though, because its space is blocked. A newer, more common meaning for “to blaze” has arisen: “to smoke marijuana.”
And that’s just as well. One of the key traits of slang—what distinguishes it from standard English, from jargon, and from simple humorous wordplay—is its synonymy.
Slang tends to have many words for the same ideas. A zillion words for sex acts or sex organs, bucketloads of admiring and rude terms for men and women, lots of ways to call people smart and stupid, an endless supply of adjectives meaning bad and good, and an astonishingly large list of terms for drugs and alcohol.
So, of course, slang doesn’t need “to blaze” to say “to leave.” It has, for example, “to bounce” with the same meaning. “Let’s bounce! Mikey’s got a band playing at his house.”
“Roll” is another one. “We’re done here. Let’s roll.” It calls on the American preoccupation with cars, suggests something of a caravan (in the sense of a parade of vehicles, not in the sense of a habitable vehicle used by British pensioners on holiday), and has an air of a police action or the military about it. It suggests a band embarking at once in an organised fashion to a specific destination to do something together.
Slang is alchemistic: it has many curious properties. On one hand, it can sound so extraordinarily old-fashioned or out-of-date that even the most dull-witted person can tell that a term is, as they say, radioactive, meaning that if you use it you will be marked as clueless—out of touch, out of fashion, and not even close to being cool. Slang carries with it invisible “best when used by” dates.
Think of “bling” or “bling bling” meaning “ostentatious jewelry or adornment.” It arose from a hip-hop song in 1999 and became overused in less than a year. It soon appeared in advertisements on the sides of buses. Once ad agencies or newsmagazines have picked up on a slang word, if it is not already uncool they are sure to kill it by overexposure.
Slang thrives from a sense of novelty and a sense of being privileged knowledge. You hardly get that if an airline is selling seats with it.
On the other hand, slang, if it does not catch the ears and eyes of the popular press and the writers of popular television and movies, can endure for generations, with each new younger set feeling that the “best when used by” date has not passed.
I’m thinking, for example, of a term for “drunk”—“tore up” or “torn up.” My colleague Connie Eble at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, collects slang from her students every semester. “Tore up” appears on her list from autumn 2006, defined as “extremely drunk,” and given with the synonyms “plastered,” “smashed,” “trashed,” and “wasted.”
Yet, that term was already in use in the 1950s.
“Bomb,” as in “to fail an examination,” is also on the 2006 list, yet dates to the early 1960s. “To bone someone” meaning to have sex with them, which dates to at least as early as the 1970s, is also on the minds of young people in 2006.
I wonder if those students know they’re using slang that is older than they are?