Stories in Slang

Slang — we know it, we’ve heard of it, and some of us use it. But where did slang originate? Don’t you want to know the story behind it? Then read on!

Published: 08th September 2014 06:00 AM  |   Last Updated: 08th September 2014 04:32 AM   |  A+A-


Your parents and teachers have probably told you not to use slang — and for the most part, they are right. Slang is a trendy, telegraphed way of saying things and it’s only understood by people from the same age group or sub-culture. If you want to talk to a wider audience, basic English works better. And you should probably learn English the correct way before you start playing around with it.

Slang-1.jpgHow is slang different from jargon or colloquialism? Well, jargon is the ‘shop talk’ of specific professions – like musicians talking about ‘riffs’ and ‘licks’, or terms like ‘bit’ and ‘byte’ which started as specialised jargon among computer professionals. Colloquialism is a kind of shorthanded way of saying things — like the well-known Texan ‘y’all’ to address more than one person. For just one person, our very own ‘da’ and ‘yaar’ work well. But colloquialism, while not usually meant to be used in written language, is mostly acceptable in society. Slang on the other hand is considered to be subversive, rude and even a little dangerous. But words can move from slang into mainstream language over time. A great example for this is ‘bogus’, which was 19th century American slang for the machinery used by criminals who made fake money!

Books.jpgSo there is a possibility that today’s slang may be tomorrow’s ‘pukka’ English! When you write or talk to people, it is important to be aware of the different ‘registers’ in language and speak to each person in an appropriate idiom. For example, you can’t call your teacher ‘ray’ or ‘da’. Again, a lot of Indian children call adults ‘uncle’ or ‘aunty’, but you cannot call your boss ‘uncle’ when you start working.

Slang-2.jpgGetting back to the fascinating world of slang, one reason I think it is good to at least study slang is that it shows how creative we can be in the ways we use language. Let’s take a look at Cockney rhyming slang. Cockneys are the working class inhabitants of the East End of London. Rhyming slang was invented partly as a game and partly as a way to confuse outsiders and conceal what the speakers were talking about. It may have been useful for criminals to talk to each other in code, and this association with dubious elements has always tainted slang in the public eye (and ear).

The slang itself is delightfully inventive. A simple example is the use of ‘loaf’ to mean ‘head’, because ‘head’ rhymes with ‘bread’, and bread comes in loaves. Use your loaf and you’ll figure it out! In a more straightforward example, ‘apples and pears’ is used to refer to ‘stairs’. Some of these slang terms depend on the peculiar pronunciations of the Cockneys, like ‘Max Miller’ for ‘pillow’, which only makes sense in an accent that pronounces ‘pillow’ like ‘pillar’. The more you study rhyming slang, the more you’ll find hidden references that tell you a lot about the time and place this slang was crea-ted in.

One form of slang that has had a lasting impact is jive talk or jazz slang. A combination of African-American slang, college slang and criminal slang from the 1940s, it was commonly used among jazz musicians and fans in the 1940s. A lot of jive slang is unfortunately related to the use of narcotic drugs, but some of these terms have taken on a larger meaning, like ‘high’ which originally referred to a drug-induced state of euphoria but can today mean the feeling you get from any pleasurable activity, like a runner’s high. The term ‘chops’ referred to the skill of a musician, and is still used in this context to denote any professional’s skill level.

There is so much slang at play in the streets of our own Indian cities. In Bangalore, to ‘put blade’ is to try and persuade somebody to do something, usually dishonest. In Chennai, ‘sight’ means a pretty girl, and you have young men asking each other if they have seen any good ‘sights’ lately.

I am sure you know of some slang that you and your friends use, or are not allowed to use! Do learn more about slang and all the fascinating stories behind it — but be sure to know when and where to use it. Also,  always be ready with the ‘proper’ high register for any slang term. That way, you won’t just be an expert at one kind of English, but at many of them.


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