The New Project: Slang

Dictionary Person has been maintaining radio silence for almost a week now, but your wait for new posts is just about over.  We’re setting out a new course, and for the next while we’ll be exploring slang, or non-standard English.

Eric Partridge, he of A Dictionary of Slang1 fame, defined slang as standing in a hierarchy thus:

Cant;
slang;
vulgarisms (in both senses);
colloquialisms;
Standard English, with its three ascending varieties –

Familiar English;
ordinary Standard English;
literary English.

Cant, more generally known as “the language of the underworld”, is the special vocabulary — rather it is a set of interconnected vocabularies — of criminals and tramps and beggars, of their hangers-on and associates, and of racketeers.

Slang may be replenished, indeed it is often replenished, by recruits from the underworld, but usually it stands self-dependent and self-sufficient, until it dies of inanition or weariness or a change in fashion or, on the other hand, so strongly survives that it is adopted and becomes a colloquialism and is subject to the conditions affecting and governing colloquialisms.

Colloquialisms stand midway between slang and Standard English;  they are felt to be more respectable, more permanent than slang, but less respectable, less dignified than Standard English.  They are called colloquialisms because they are general and fitting enough in conversation but hardly fitting in serious writings, speeches, sermons.  They are used by a larger proportion of the population than is slang.2

There’s something awfully formal about this sorting; it smells like the attic.  But for now let’s give Partridge a try and see how how his distinctions will take us.

Whether we can hold ourselves to such parameters is as unclear to us as it might be to you.  Keep an eye on this effort as we proceed.  You watch us, we’ll keep a weather eye on Partridge, and humpily, lumpily, like a team in a three-legged race, we’ll see how it goes.

1A Dictionary of Slang and Unconventional English…, various editions from 1937 to 1970; posthumous editions 1984 and 2006.
2From “Slang and Standard English”, in Here, There and Everywhere: Essays upon Language (1950).   First published in The Persian Quarterly, 1944.)

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