A brief history of slang

At Gymglish we love historical facts, both alternative and actual fact facts. You may recall our article on the history of the word “fuck” – Google Analytics showed us that you at least read the headline, there’s no use in denying it. 

In this article, which someone might embarrassingly call “lit”, we “spill the tea” on the origins of slang. Read on! 

Where does “slang” come from?

Ok, we know it’s not a great way to start an article, but the origins of the term “slang” as we know it today are uncertain – at least that’s what most linguists have found. However, some lexicographers (such as Walter William Skeat) claim that the word “slang” is of Scandinavian origin deriving either from the Icelandic slyngva “(to sling”) or from the Norwegian verb slengja (“to sling the jaw”) which means “to use abusive language”.

The term “slang” was first recognized by lexicographer Francis Grose in 1785. He defined it as “cant” or “vulgar” language. Interestingly enough, slang actually appeared before it was labeled as such, under the name of Thieves’ Cant. This secret cryptic language – now fallen into disuse – was created in 1600 England by thieves, tramps, criminals and vagabonds as a way of excluding or confusing a particular group of people, namely the authorities.

For decades, the word “slang” referred to the vocabulary of “low” or “disreputable” people. By the early nineteenth century, it was no longer exclusively associated with such groups, but continued to be applied to usages below the level of standard educated speech.

Slang is often short-lived: what’s new and exciting for one generation is soon old-fashioned for the next. Some former slang words have even been accepted into the standard language, therefore losing part of their eccentricity. Such is the case for the 1930 slang word “swell” or the word “gnarly”, a former Australian surfer slang term used to describe dangerous waves.

As for Internet slang, it originated some 20 years ago with the purpose of saving time and keystrokes by using acronyms and abbreviations. It has since spread to many areas of oral and written language, and is very much embedded in modern speech. 

Slang, jargon, argot: what’s the difference?

There is a fine line between all three of these terms, and each has its own peculiarities.

Argot is the French equivalent of British/American “slang” and can be traced back to the 15th century. Formerly limited to beggars and thieves in medieval France, French argot words are often used by the “lower” classes and belong to an informal style. Just like “slang”, argot has the purpose of secrecy that would prevent eavesdroppers from understanding the meaning of the conversation.

For instance, it is common for French people to use the term bagnole to refer to “a car” or the word pieu for “bed”.

But while “slang” is formed out of the intent to broadly communicate and used in informal situations,jargon” refers to terminology which is specifically defined in relation to a particular activity, group or profession. It is therefore less about communicating to a broader audience and more about conveying as much content as possible in the same amount of verbal space. 

In the medical field for instance, it is common to hear the term “stat”, used as a directive to medical personnel during an emergency situation. The word comes from the Latin statim, which means “instantly” or “immediately”. 

You’ll also most likely hear the terms “bull” (or “bullish”) and “bear” (or “bearish”) among stock-market traders. While “bull” refers to somebody who buys securities or commodities hoping value will increase, “bear” helps describe someone who is looking to sell their investment as they expect prices to decline.

So there you have it – slang has been creeping into our language for the past 500 or so years, and is far from having said its last words.

In our next article, we take a look at 5 reasons why learning (and understanding) slang is important in your language-learning process.

In the meantime, try our online English language course Gymglish for free for 7 days and receive a complete level assessment.

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