The Linguistics of Slang

When Elisha Coles issued his English Dictionary in 1676, he explained the inclusion of a number of slang words and expressions by saying

"Tis no Disparagement to understand the Canting Terms. it may chance to save your Throat from being cut, or (at least) your Pocket from being pick‘d. Elisha Coles, 1676

This advice, however, must remain highly doubtful. Slang is in-group language, and one of its functions is to prevent members of other groups from understanding what is being said. Slang acts as a signal of membership and as a signal of ethnicity. The use of slang presupposes an intimate relationship between the partners in communication; it suggests, as Flexner put it (1972:278) "that the speaker and the listener enjoy a special fraternity", and it makes it possible for the outsider to identify speakers and listeners as part of a special in-group. But using slang is not enough to show that you are one of the gang. Slang expressions are but one aspect of the culture shared by a certain social group. In oder "to save their throat(s) from being cut or (their) pocket(s) from being picked," Elisha Coles' friends would have had to have a broader knowledge of that culture, in the situation envisaged by Coles especially of body language and dress. If he did not observe these further co-occurrence restrictions applying to the code, a person following the advice given by Coles would easily get caught in the slings of slang, and rather than save himself, bring final peril upon himself.

But slang is a tricky business even in its own linguistic terms. Whoever comes from the outside and wants to get access to a social group that has developed its own slang, must also learn about the production and structure of slang. Although slang is difficult to define, some of its characteristics can be listed.

Every person who has to do with adolescents knows that the informal language used by the young may differ from that used by adults. Peer group pressure forces adolescents into acquiring rapid competence in the lingo of their streets and schoolyards. Reaction to school doctrine helps to establish juvenile speech as an alternative to acadamic Standard English, the language of the schoolbooks. EFL students are eager to pick up what comes to them as the latest juvenile slang through the channels of rock and pop music, of songs, books, cartoons, and films. Examples from my 1980 California files incude:

We booked on past the Impala, and it was a total face or You may think you can hang with me, but you're late

The point about this kind of slang is that the words used to not sound or look unfamiliar; indeed, book, face, hang, late have entries in standard dictionaries. Nevertheless, the meanings of the examples are not clear without further comment. Obviously, the dictionary meanings do not fit the slang use of the words. In California juvenile speech, book meant "drive a car expertly", face "success", hang with "copy from" and late "mistaken".

Since 1980 juvenile slang has changed, and new items have been added, others have been deleted from the list, yet others may have acquired new meanings. Here are the current hit items:

College Slang The top 20 slang terms, winter-spring,1997 crash, v. to rest or sleep all that, adj. great, the best; conceited grub, v., n. to eat; food dude,n.,interj. person; greeting; indication of surpise hottie,n. attractive person bad, adj.,n. good; fault What‘s up? gr. Hi jack up, v., adj. to mess up; mean, cruel hoochie, n. sexually promiscuous person, sexy woman homey, n. friend, pal dis, v. to tease, harass; ignore cool, adj. calm; acceptable; exciting phat, adj., n. good; attractive; large;high; respected person stoked, adj. excited; happy; bewildered kick it, v. to relax; to pay attention trip/in‘(out), n., adj., v. something unusual; to overreact; to disagree; to rage; not making sense; overwhelmed chill, v. to relax, calm down dope, adj. awesome,cool,hip,attractive da bomb awesome, great

College Slang. www.intranet.csupomona. edu /~jasanders/slang

Another example is the jargon used by the owners of CB (citizen's band) radios in the USA. One of the appealing things about CB is that whoever can learn the language can be part of the in-group. They can even remain anonymous if they so desire, which probably serves to give beginners needed confidence. Someone wanting to be a CB'er must learn not only the vocabulary, but also the accent. It's a special brand of cowboy twang and Southern drawl. Because its chief users are truckers who travel coast-to-coast, it sounds almost the same nationwide. It is a tough world and novices are disdainfully referred to as rubberbanders and wierdies. It was in 1958 that the Federal Communications Commission set aside a group of high-frequency radio channels for use by non-professionals, but it wasn't until the mid 1970's that CB radios experienced a real surge in popularity. This was when the double nickels (=55) miles-per-hour speed limit went into effect and truckers sought a way to shake the trees for porky bears (=keep a lookout for police). This preoccupation with police is reflected in the CB vocabulary. CB'ers have almost three times as many words for law enforcement officers as Eskimos have for snow. (Porter, Bibb. 1976. CB Bible. New York: Dolphin):

police terms Names taken from the coloring of police clothes or the coloring of police cars:blue boy, blue jeans, man-in-the-blue, salt and pepper, black and white, blue and white; A female police officer:girlie bear, honey bear, lady bear, mama bear, sugar bear,smokey beaver; A city policeman or rural police: citty kitty, country Joe, country mounty, little bear, local yokel; state police:boogey man, boy scouts, state bears, whatevers;barnies, bear, bearded bubby, big brother, bull, Dudley, do-right, Peter Rabbit; An unmarked or hidden police car: brown-paper bag, night crawler, pink panther, slick top, sneaky snake; A radar unit: shotgun, electric teeth, gunrunner, Kojak with a Kodak, smoke screen A police helicopter: bear in the air, eye in the sky, spy in the sky, tattle tale

CB Bible, 1976: Terms for "police‘

While these examples could be used to demonstrate the productive force of metonymy - production by means of association - I want to use them to point out one of the central charactertistics of slang: hypersynonymity. There are more than a hundred words for "police" in the CB Bible. And this is by no means a unique case. The American Thesaurus of Slang (Berrey and van den Bork, 1976) lists 450 glosses for "thing"; and those for "money", "drink", "be drunk", "kinds of drugs", "be drugged", "to die", "to make love", etc. have high numbers of entries, too.

CB'ers have found new expressions for an already established concept; such expressions that make them appear to be saying one thing while they are really communicating something very different to insiders.

Much of the slang that comes to us via the channels of rock and pop music is equally euphemistic. In the 1960's new songs were purposely written to have double messages and to capitalize on the forbidden excitement of singing about something dangerous. These songs had one meaning for the uninitiated, but quite another meaning for drug users or people knowledgable about drug language. Up from the sky, e.g. suggested the meaning of being "spaced out". Purple Haze was thought of as a song about drugs not only because of the lyrics, but also because it was written by Jimi Hendrix, the "King of Acid"who died of an overdose. The song Spoonful reminds listeners of how hard drugs are measured. The initials for Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds are LSD. A mild LSD tablet was called a strawberry double-dome. The song White Rabbit may have made some people think of Alice in Wonderland, but others of the pills that make people feel as if they were larger or smaller.

Here are some example to illustrate hypersynonymity in drug slang:

heroin: antifreeze, aries, aunt hazel, ballot, big bag, big h, big harry, glacines, golden girl opiuum: Ah-pen-yen, auntie, auntie Emma, big o, god‘s medecine, goma, gondola crack: apple jacks, B.J.s, Baby T,Bad, Ball; Baseball, beautiful boulders, beemers

There are over 1,500 terms referring to specific drug types or drug activities listed by the Drugs&Crime Data Center, who are trying to get hold of all these terms so as to make them known to those people who have to deal with drug users today:

"The ability to understand current drug-related street terms is an invaluable tool for law enforcement, public health and other criminal justice professionals who work with the public." (DCDC, 1997)

Rather quickly I want to mention two other groups that more recently have their own slang:

Rock climbing slang e.g. pumping plastic climbing on an indoor wall rock rash abrasion wounds to slime slip from a hold UXB (=Unexploded bomb) loose rock

Dunn, Jerry. 1995. Idiom Savant: Slang as it is slung.

Trackside Slang deck to play music loud enough for others to hear Yo Boy a wannabe kinko a fake nigger cuz boy silk cool (7/97)

The colorful metaphors of slang, Raven McDavid says in the Encyclopedia Britannica, are generally directed at respectability, and it is this succint, sometimes witty, frequently social criticism that gives slang its characteristic flavor. How the imagery develops incongruity bordering on social satire is well illustrated in some of the slang names college students give to their classes. Students at the Universitry of Vermont devised a whole set of rhyming names to substitute for the more formal descriptions, as shown in the following examples (from Eschholz, Paul A. and A.F. Rosa, "Course Names in College Slang," American Speech, 1970, 1-2:87):

Priests and Beasts Introduction to the Study of Western Religion Slums and Bums Urban Local Government Cuts and Guts Principles of Biology Weeds and Seeds Introduction to Plant Biology Choke and Croak First Aid and Safety Education Socks and Jocks General Physical Education Stones and Bones Anthropology: World Pre-History Flicks and Tricks Development of the Motion Picture Trains and Planes Transportation and Public Utilities

As in so many of the examples mentioned before, the slanginess of the expressions is due to the incongruity of the imagery, conveyed by the lively connotation of one or several novel terms to an established concept. Again metonymy, metaphor, irony and rhyme are part of the productive process.

There is one system of artificial slang whose function is even more obviously to hide the meaning of the words that are being uttered: back slang. While the CB'ers speak about bears when they have the police in mind, and drug users of beautiful boulders when they want toindicate crack, members of the London underworld, and, as C.S. Upton (1974: Language Butchered: back-slang in the Birmingham ore and Language, 2(1): 31-35) tells us, even a few merchants and tradespeople, will call them slop. This is not another word substituting for police, but a simple distortion of that word itself. Just read it backwards! Back slang basically relies on an inversion of the word to be disguised. It should be noted that the inversion is orthographic rather than phonological. Let us use, as our examples, the numbers half to twelve, which are als follows:

half flatch one eno two owt three ert four rouf five evif six exis seven nevis eight tee-aitch nine enin ten net eleven nevelin twelve gen Upton, C.S., 1974: 31-34

The word, mentally at least, is usually written backwards, values being ascribed to the letters involved which may bear little relationship to those applying in the original word. Extra syllables may be added to cope with difficult consonants, as in exis for "six" or genals "slang". Letters not present in the original word may be inserted, to facilitate pronunciation or create assonance, as in flatch for "half" or nevelin for "eleven". Sometimes, as in rouf, for "four", inversion of the letters is incomplete again, usually to make pronunciation of the word easier. In face of almost unsurmountable difficulties such as the need to disguise "eight", backslang becomes no more than a code, in this case using two of the letters of the word to give teeaitch. Gen, for "twelve" (or in the pre-decimal monetary system: one shilling) is more difficult to explain. Hotten, in the Dictionary of Modern Slang (252, 259) suggest that it might be a contraction of generalise, which is taken to be an imperfect inversion of "shilling". Alternatively, Partridge, in A Dictionary of Slang and Unconventional English, 1949: 320, suggests that the word may be an abbreviation of French argent, then gent, a well-known slang word for "silver". A third possibility would link gen more closely with proper back-slang formations, ascribing its origin to an inversion of the last two letters of "shilling", gn.

What have we learnt about slang so far? We are clear about its sociolectal character. We can correlate slang expressions with certain social groups and/or certain situations. The sociolinguistic definition of slang is not a problem. We also know that when speaking about slang we have in mind vocabulary items above all. Slang words are synonyms, but synonyms that are not familiar to all the speakers of English or do not convey the same meaning to all of them. But how exactly these synonyms are produced we don't know: Sure, we can talk about semantic change, metaphorical language, metonymy, idioms and fixed expressions, about rhyme, about clippings and acronyms. but then our discussion is not limited to slang expressions, but includes words on various stylistic levels of language, non-standard and standard, colloquial and formal. The question, then, is whether there is something that is peculiar to slang expressions alone, something that can be isolated, described in clear-cut terms and contrasted with the non-slang language.

Here we turn to linguistics. What does English linguistics have to say about the production and stucture of English slang?

We know that modern linguistics is interested in investigating not only the so-called standard language but also forms that deviate from the standard language. And so we might expect to find a satisfactory answer to our question in the relevant publications. But up to the 19th century, it was mainly the standard written language which was studied. Slang and other so-called sub-standard varieties were neglected. It is only today that we do have many and large volumes containing the slang items inventories of the recent past from Britain, the United States, Canada and Australia. On the internet, a good number of web pages are devoted to the recording of slang expressions. The production of slang, however, is a topic linguists have not particularly liked to discuss. In Chomskyan linguistics slang was relegated from the study of linguistics because it was said to belong to the realm of performance rather than competence. Competence-based theories posit an ideal speaker-hearer in a homogeneous speech community. Such an approach immediately factors out slang, which serves the interests of specialized groups. However, the ability to produce and understand slang is part of every speaker's competence, not just of the competence of those who happen to belong to a special group. For the productive processes at work in slang are the same ones that are at work in language in general, one would think. A speaker who cannot handle the strategies of slang, cannot handle his or her language. As Fillmore said (1979:63ff.), in the semantic theory of twenty years ago the ideal speaker-hearer was also an innocent speaker-hearer. Fillmore describes the discourse of such innocents as slow, boring, and pedantic. For an innocent speaker-hearer has several important limitations, which Fillmore enumerates: (1) The innocent does not know lexical idioms, that is, lexical forms whose meanings could not be determined by somebody who knew merely their morphological structure and the meanings of their constituent morphemes. (2) The innocent language user does not know phrasal idioms. If you were to go up to it and say, your goose is cooked!, it would feel worried if it had a pet goose, grateful if it had just brought a goose carcass home for dinner, or puzzled if it had no goose at all. But it would lack the idiomatic interpretation that native speakers are able to give to the expression. (3) The innocent language user does not know lexical collocations that are not based on necessary meaning relations. (4) It lacks the ability to judge the appropriateness of fixed expressions to specify types of situations. (5) It possesses no construal principles for metaphorical language use. (6) It lacks any interpretive mechanisms for indirect communication, that is, for meaning one thing while saying another.

In his article Fillmore intended to point out that much semantic theory has failed to explain much of language, most, actually, of what makes language interesting and the playful instrument it is. Slang, surely, is not innocent language; it is neither slow, nor boring, nor pedantic; and this is precisely because it is made up of lexical and phrasal idioms, of lexical collocations, of metaphors, situational formulas, and indirect communication. It seems to me that linguists should feel challenged by the elusive concept of slang and work towards a comprehensive description of the characteristics of slang. If they confine themselves to examining only the more settled and established vocabulary of English - the so-called standard - they eliminate at the outset sponaneity and shortlived change. In doing so, they run the risk of failing to recognize some of our most crucial and elementary linguistic abilities.

In the remaining part of my lecture I intend to make a step in that direction and try to take slang out of a few of the slings in which it is set. If slang is language slung around, as Partridge says, then, maybe, the task for us is to desling it. It seems to me that this will be easier in the realms of phonology and morphology than in that of semantics.

While the semantic description of slang does not yield many interesting results, a description in phonological and morphological terms does. For in looking for phonological and morphological peculiarities one discovers that there are features that seem to belong to slang exclusively. These features make it possible for me to speak of core slang items. It has been noted repeatedly that some slang expressions are gradually accepted into the standard language. This was the case, e.g., with mob, trip, bet, donkey, shabby, chap, bore, cab and kidnap. All these words Conie Eble (1979, LACUS 7:270) argues that slang is motivated by - factors of culture, such as TV shows, pop music, games, sport - factors of sense, such as generalization and specialization of meaning, synechdoche, which is naming the whole by the part, as in clothes being called threads, or TV the tube, or the part by the whole, metonymy, which makes reference by association, as in beer being called a brew, or a chill, or a ha-ha; by metaphor; by irony, as in midnight supply meaning "pilfering, stealing". - factors of form, such as clipping, acronymy, rhyming, and mock dialect pronunciations.

Examples for all this we have seen in the slang illustrations given by me in the first part of the lecture. The motivation is easy to see, but difficult to explain. What is there in our linguistic ability that enables a speaker to create a form like five-finger discount and the hearer to readily guess its meaning? which, of course, is "steal"! For twenty years now no adequate semantic theory has been put forward that could answer that question. The productive processes at work in slang cannot be adequately explained, the slang material is left at the stage of description.were once condemned as slang, but now are part of the standard vocabulary. Other items, however, have not become part of the standard vocabulary although they may have been around long enough. Booze is a good example: The word has been attested since the Middle Ages, but it is still considered slang. Booze, I want to suggest, is a true slang word, a word also that shares some of the phonological characteristics I am going to discuss now. I would suggest further that it is such core slang items, which are phonologically and/ or morphologically peculiar, that tend to remain outside the standard vocabulary while others - say, clippings or acronyms, words whose slang use is due to semantic specialization or generalization, to elevation or degradation, and to unexpected metaphors - may be taken up into the standard language more easily. Phonologically, core slang items are set off from more formal speech by abnormal sound sequences, by frequent sound alternations, consonantal as well as vocalic, by conspicuous over-representation of certain phonemes, and, above all, by sound repetition of a frequency which approaches and sometimes exceeds that found in poetry and song. An example of abnormal sound-sequence in American slang is the verb shlurp, "to drink noisily or sloppily", an intensive by-form of the verb slurp. The sound sequence /Sl-/ occurs in no other English verb. And among nouns it is only found in such German loanwords as Schloss or the Yiddish Schlemiel. Another example is the noun oomph, "vivacity, energy or sexual magnetism". Not only is the intial /u/ abnormal here (before two consonants initially), but so is the sequence of /mf/.

The commonest type of vocalic alternation in American slang is that which occurs grammatically in such English verb paradigms as sing-sang-sung. It is the vowel change called "Ablaut" or gradation. Examples are gidget~gadget "samall device" and gazinkus~gazunkus "contrivance", and ,of course, the word slang itself, if seen as derived from sling.

If anything, however, consonantal apophony (=sound alternation) is even more common in American slang than vowel alternation. The reason for this may simply be the phonetic fact that English vocalic contrasts are confined to two types - high vs. low, and front vs. back - whereas consonantal contrasts are of various kinds. Dimensionally, to be sure, vowels and consonants are equally biaxial, and their sound contrasts can be minimally described in terms of degrees of horizontal and vertical movement on a phonic plane. But in English, as in most other languages, the vertical dimension is categorially divisible into far more consonantal than vocalic types. Thus while English vowels can be vertically contrasted at only three distinctive levels (high, mid, and low), consonants may be opposed in an almost indefinitely fine-graded manner (as occlusive vs. continuant, obstruant vs. sonorant, oral vs. nasal, fricative vs. smooth).

Examples of voice alternation in American slang (voiceless-voiced): kookapoo = kookaboo "lunatic" (labial) tizzy "disorientation"- dizzy "disoriented" (apical) cheez! = jeez! "Jesus" (frontal) kange = ganje "Negro" (dorsal)

Alternation according to manner: oral - nasal: gab=gam "chatter" continuant - obstruant: gad! = golly! "God" vibrant - lateral: belch = burp "to eruct"

Alternation according to position: labial - frontal: zip = zilch "nothing" labial - velar: rumpus = ruckus "uproar" labial - dorsal: fooey = hooey "nonsense"

Overrepresentation of certain sounds There are a few cases of consonant alternations whose frequency is so high as to require special comment. Foremost among these is the mutual convertibility of the voiced frontal affricate /j-/ and the voiced spiral fricative /z-/ as in jig = zig "Negro" jit "semen" - zit "pus" jillion = zillion "a huge number" jag = zag "a drunken spree"

Roger Wescott (1976: The Phonology and Morphology of American English Slang. LACUS 3:100-119),to whom I owe these examples, guesses that /j-/ and /z-/ tend to be equated in slang because originally - in Old English - they could not occur initially and, phonemically, in any position. The fact that in the Middle Ages they occurred in foreign words - jealous/zealous - may then have marked them as special sounds, appropriate to special language like slang.

Among phonemes, in any case, /z/ has taken on a special marked status as particularly representative of slang, since its frequency in slang is out of all proportion to its frequency in formal speech. Examples from American slang: zig "Negro zap "to strike" zuch "informer" whiz "genius" jazz "hot music" fuzz "police" zorch "very good" razz "heckle" fizzle "failure" snazzy "fascinating"

The same is true of /uw/. Examples: ook "seducer" ooch "to move over o na sofa" oof = ookus "money" oodlum "darling" oolydrooly "puppy-love" oochimagoochy "carnival performer" blooey "going to pieces" hooey "nonsense"

Examples of /z/ and /uw/ in sequence are: zool "attractive specimen" mazoo=mazzola=mazzoma "money" bazooka "comic trombone" gazoony "naive homosexual" booze "liquor" floozy "prostitute" foozle "blunder" gazoozle "to cheat" lollapalooza "extraordinary specimen"

Sound Repetition The most striking kind of sound repetition is probably palindromy, the occurrence of forms so structured that their phonemic sequence does not alter when reversed. The simplest kind of a palindrome is the reversible word, such as tit "nipple". The commonest, however, is the reverisble morpheme such as the base of zazzy "sexy". And the most arresting is the word that contains two reversible morphemes, such as lalligagging "idle".

Sound repetition is also illustrated in the many reduplicatves with which slang is crowded. Reduplicatives involve partial or total repetition of a single morpheme or word. Examples would be tom tom, ding-dong, and higgledy-piggledy. Such reduplicatives are characteristic of slang. Samuel Johnson in his 1755 Dictionary of the English Language took special note of such "low", "vile cant" as the aforesaid higgledy-piggledy or twittle-twattle. They were, he claimed, "too gross and vulgar for the delicate". But such formations were not new then. Hotchpotch goes back at least to 1292, hurly-burly to 1530, and higgledy-piggledy to 1598. Three different types of reduplicatives can be distinguished: - identical reduplication - ablaut reduplication - rhyme reduplication

Examples of identical or simple repetition are beep beep, goody-goody, or din-din, etc.

Ablaut reduplication has already been referred to: gidget-gadget, gazinkus-gazunkus. In English it most commonly inolves a vowel shift from /i/ to /ae/ as in shilly-shally or zig-zag, though other possibilities exist: e.g. see-saw, hee haw.

The third type of reduplication is based upon a change of consonants rather than vowels and such reduplicatives usually rhyme. Examples include hocus-pocus and mumbo jumbo. And we should again mention the examples from college slang, the names for the courses. Nils Thuns (1963) and Alan Dundes (1974) found out - by careful statistical observation - that strange laws seem to apply in this category. They found that /h/ is the most popular initial consonant in rhyme reduplicatives. Flexner already had noted that /w/ is the most common inital consonant in the second portion of the reduplicatives. Dundes then showed that, although /h/ is the most common initial consonant in rhyme reduplicatives, it rarely occurs as the intial consonant of the second member of a reduplicative pair. And that /w/, which is the most common initial element in second members of reduplicatives, rarely occurs in those instances where the intial consonant of the first member is an /h/. We may add that it may well be that the various patterns identified by these folklorists are based upon a number of underlying phonological distinctions. For example, it may be that stops and continuants are contrasted. Thus, if the first member of a reduplicative begins with a stop, the second member is likely to begin with a continuant (e.g. Turkey-Lurkey) Similarly, if the first member begins with a continuant, the second will begin with a stop (e.g. lovey-dovey). Another possible principle at work is a definite movement from back to front (referring to the point of articulation), e.g. Henny-Penny. For those cases in which the first member begins with an /h/ Thuns has worked out statistics that suggest that in the majority of cases, the second member will again begin with a stop:

/h/ : /p/ hanky-panky, hoi polloi, hocus pocus, hokey pokey, hodgepodge /h/ : /b/ hurly-burly, hubble bubble, hustle bustle, hell's bells, hillybilly /h/ : /d/ humdrum, heyday, hoodoo /h/ : /t/ hoity-toity, hotsy-totsy

The discussion of redupliactives has led us from phonology to morphology.

What one first observes with regard to core slang morphology are the violations of the normal rules of word formation in standard speech. These violations may be related to use of affixes that are rare or absent in standard English; of affixes which are novel or functionally fossilized in standard English; and morphological structures that are rather difficult to determine.

Among the novel affixes let's mention the prefixes pe-. ke-, ge-, -he-, je- as in zazzle "sex appeal" - pizzazz "zest" thob "to be credulous" - kathob "vague object" - kazoo "resonator" zook "prostitute" - gazook "tramp" wallop "to hit hard" - chewallop "bang" moke "dull fellow" - jamoke "noisy party" tootsie - patootsie "beauty"

The use of novel affixes, however, may be less productive than that of old affixes that have become fossilized in standard speech. Slang here has a de-fossilization effect. Examples:

suffix -um as in jizzum = jizz "semen" in wampum "money"

A novel suffix that is diagnostic of slang is -o, which has a generally intensive force with strongly derogatory undertones. It is common is expletives like whammo! "bang" vocatives, like Danno "Daniel" stage names, like Groucho, for Julius Marx adjectives, like stinko "drunken, macho stump-words like ammo "ammunition" More recently -o has become a virtual morphemic fad in pseudo-Hispanicisms like floppo "failure dyno primo Other suffixes -erty flibberty-gibbet "scatter-brain" -ledy tiddledy-winks (a cup and disk game) higgledy-piggeledy

Infixes ebe and epe as in hullabaloo lollapalooza

eme, me, em, e as in thing-uma-jig "object" "whatever2 rig-ma-role "complication" thing-um-bob "object" flumm-a-diddle "nonsense"

Roger Wescott mentions a striking example of defossizliation : Liquid and nasal infixes appear both right before the nucleus and right after the nucleus of a word; their function seems to be vaguely intensive. Examples: bleep = beep "high pitched sound" scrooch = scooch "to sidle (on a sofa)" chunk = chuck "to toss" purp = pup "young dog"

These prefixes, suffixes and infixes are not listed as productive in present-day English word formation; but they are surely productive in slang!

Along the lines sketched here it might be possible to list a few principles for slang morphology and slang phonology. Nevertheless, some slang words still remain puzzling: Let's consider the word lollapalooza. The word exhibits palindromy, in loll diagnostic sounds, in -ooz- diagnostic affix pa- But what gives the word its most conspicuous lexical abnormality is the fact that its immediate grammatical constituents are unclear: loll-apa-looza lolla-palooza loll-a-pa-loo-za loll-a-pa-looz-a

One last point: Not only is slang characterized by a high degree of synonymality, but - at least if core slang items are considered - also by hyperpolymorphy, i.e. the occurrence of a plurality of alternants for most forms. This profusion of forms is equally evident among bound and free morphemes. As examples I might again adduce the examples of reduplicatives: ablaut reduplicatives, and rhyme reduplicatives. Here we might have a quick look at cockney rhyming slang:

Cockney English Adam And Eve Believe Almond Rocks Socks Apple and Pears Stairs Artful Dodger Lodger Ball of Chalk Walk Band of Hope Soap Bird & Lime Time Boat Race Face Brixton Riot Diet Brown Bread Dead Bubble and Squeak Greek Cock & Hen Ten Cream Crackered Knackered Currant Bun Sun Daisy Roots Boots Dancing Fleas Keys Dig the Grave Shave Dog and Bone Phone Drum and Fife Knife Duchess of Fife Wife Elephant's Trunk Drunk Fork and Knife Wife Forsyte Saga Lager Ginger Beer Queer God Forbid Kid Twist and Twirl Girl Weeping Willow Pillow Gold Watch Scotch Kane and Able Table Lemon and Lime Crime Ocean Pearl Girl One Time Looker Hooker Ones & Twos Shoes Oxford Scholar Dollar Paraffin Lamp Tramp Pat and Mick Sick Porky Pies Lies Rhythm and Blues Shoes Schindler's List Pissed Skin And Blister Sister Strange'n'Weird Beard Trouble and Strife Wife Tumble down the sink Drink Whistle and Flute Suit Simon J. Foote (, 1997

An example involving bases only is biff = boff = bop "to hit". An example involving suffixes only is geezle = geezer = geezo "old man". And an example involving both bases and affixes is dibbus = diddie = dingle "thing"

A phonologicalLy special case of hyperpolymorphy is provided by rhyme-tags or echo compounds which usually have denotatively meaningless components that arrange themselves in consonantal apophonic series. Examples were adduced under the heading of rhyme reduplicatives already

labial cheezy-peezy "Jesus" ugly - bugly "repulsive" holy - moly "Moses" palsy - walsy "excessively friendly"

Some cases of polymorphy involve the pyramiding of syllables. An example is the series of related slang-expressions for a stage-play that has scored a dramatic box-office success: smash -smasher - smasheroo - smasheroony - smasheroonio

The slings of slang do not only await the people who want to get access to a social group that has its own slang, but also the linguist whose task it is to describe and explain the production, form and function of slang. Dumas & Lighter wondered whether slang is a word for linguists (1978, 1-2: 17). Although the phenomenon has frequently been discussed, the term SLANG has rarely been defined in a way that is useful to linguists. Annoyance and frustration await anyone who searches the professional literature for a definition or even a conception of SLANG that can stand up to scrutiny. Instead one finds impressionism, much of it of a dismaying kind. Dumas, Bethany K. and J. Lighter, "Is Slang a Word for Linguists?", American Speech, 1978, 1-2: 5

I hope that I have nevertheless been successful to show you something about the linguistics of slang, and, by concentrating on core slang items, I have managed to avoid impressionism. Most of all, I hope that in my presentation I have been able to avoid annoyance and frustration. Maybe you will even agree with me now that slang is not simply bad language, but language alive, inventive and playful. Or as Denis Baron said: