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The Evolution of Slang

Slang refers to words or phrases that are being used in daily conversation. Slang has no formal definition; rather, its definition comes from its usage.

Unlike colloquialism or jargon, slang does not reflect a single subculture or apply to a certain field. Words and phrases that are considered slang rely heavily on popularity and are used informally.

British Slang

British Slang

In British English, slang developed mostly from writers, most notably Shakespeare. In fact, a lot of slang terms first used in Shakespeare’s works are still being used to this day.

Break the ice                                                      –             ease the tension
Come what may                                               –             whatever happens
Forever and a day                                            –             a very long time
Come full circle                                                 –             return where you started
Wear one’s heart on their sleeve             –             be emotional

However, not all British slang comes from Shakespeare.

Loo – (n.) bathroom; a euphemistic use of the French term “le lieu” which means “the place.”

Hoover – (v.) to vacuum; Hoover was a popular brand of vacuum in Britain.

Tory – (n.) derogatory term for a member of the Conservative party; from Irish “toraidhe” which means outlaw, or robber.

Bobby – (n.) a policeman; from Sir Robert “Bobby” Peel, who oversaw the creation of London’s first police force.

There are also basic English words that have a different connotation in British English.

Flat         –             apartment
Sweet   –             a piece of candy
Bonnet                 –             the front part of a car

American Slang

american slang

American English slang often reflects the culture of the generation it comes from. Here are some American slang words which originated in recent decades.

1950s – boo-boo: injury/mistake; hot: sexy/attractive; garbage: nonsense
Notable events: civil rights movement, “mass culture,” television boom

1960s – crib/pad: the place where you live; spacey: odd/eccentric; vibes: feelings; chill:  slow down/take it easy
Notable events: American counterculture—defined as anarchistic and rebellious

1970s – bogus: unfair; gross: disgusting; zip: nothing; no-brainer: easy
Notable events: Vietnam war, hippie culture

1980s – meltdown: total collapse; wannabe: a person who wants to be something; wicked: excellent/cool
Notable events: rise of pop music

1990s – bling: glitter; po-po: police; loot: money
Notable events: “grunge” culture, rise of hip-hop

2000s – cougar: an older woman dating a younger man; holla: call on the phone
Notable events: rise of the internet age, World Trade Center bombing

2010s – on fleek: on point, perfect; YOLO: You Only Live Once
Notable events: “mobile” age

Australian Slang

Unlike other English slang, Australian slang has a pretty consistent pattern. Aussies (Australians) have a penchant for shortening words and adding either -ie, -y, or –o at the end. Here are some examples.

Arvo      –             Afternoon
Mozzie –             Mosquito
Facey    –             Facebook
Barbie   –             Barbecue
Sickie     –             Sick day
G’day    –             Good day
Brekkie                 –             Breakfast
Oz           –             Australia

Australian English vocabulary is also a lot more similar to British than American, so other terms overlap. Examples are bonnet (hood), bum (butt), and thongs (flip-flops).

Interesting Slang Terms and Origins

Of course, there is slang that is not exclusively used by Brits, Americans, or Aussies. Here are some examples of those terms.

Bob’s Your Uncle – that’s it; job done

This term has British origin but has made its way around the globe. In the late 1800s, British Prime Minister Robert Salisbury was succeeded by his nephew Arthur. This caused some scandal and suspicion. Basically, it is implied that Arthur had no problem in being prime minister because of his uncle Bob. The term “Bob’s your uncle” is a slight reference to nepotism.

Kicked the bucket – passed away

In medieval times, a man who was to be executed is made to stand on an upturned bucket, which is then kicked, leaving him to hang. This is one of the stories of this term. Another is that in butchery, before a pig is slaughtered, it is made to hang from a piece of timber called a bucket beam. In the throes of death, it is assumed that the pig’s feet would bang on this; therefore, “kicking the bucket” would be the last thing the pig ever does.

Slut – an immoral woman

In Victorian English, slut’s wool referred to piles of dust on the floor. Originally, the term meant a woman who couldn’t keep her room tidy—therefore, a dirty woman. It is unclear when the term was applied to a woman’s promiscuity.

Why Use Slang?

Admittedly, slang seems useless. It essentially is meaningless and has no real-world application. While some argue that slang has the potential to disrupt formal language, it’s still important as it reflects culture and subculture.

Slang evolves continuously, making it a good marker of certain points in history. Slang can also be used to be able to relate to people of different origins. As shown above, slang varies differently across the globe despite the fact that they are all rooted in one language.

Moreover, slang adds color to language. Slang can be used to better interact with people who belong to different age groups, social classes, cultures, etc. Slang customizes language and further helps people to forge deeper connections with one another.




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