The Weekly Ringer

The University of Mary Washington Student Newspaper

Slang does not detriment the quality of English

4 min read

ncorporating slang into your vocabulary does not indicate "sloppy English." | Volodymyr Hryshchenko / Unsplash


Staff Writer

Around campus, you hear many slang terms that would have been completely unknown a year ago, but they are now recognized and frequently used by many students. Terms like “cap” or “lit” are newer terms that have been integrated into our lexicon, while “omg,” “bro” and “sis” have been staples of our slang speech for years. 

The regular development and introduction of new slang words into our vocabulary is not ruining English or making us inarticulate. Rather, this is a part of the process in our language’s evolution. 

We often hear the older generations lament that young adults are sloppy, imprecise and profane speakers of English. According to psychologist Alison Gopnik, some worry that they might even damage the language through the continued use of certain language habits, for example the overuse of filler words such as “like” and “um.” However, what words mean and how we use them fluctuate all the time.

“In linguistics, we define slang as ‘a set of rapidly changing lexical items that are often associated with youth and casual social contexts,’” said associate professor Janie Lee in the Linguistics Department. “Every generation has had their slang as a way to express ingroup identity.”

Slang, as a linguistic practice, is rooted in social needs and behaviors. The usage of slang within a group setting can make people feel a sense of community or belonging, hence the formation of “in-groups.” In-groups, as defined by the Searle Center for Advancing Learning & Teaching, are groups usually defined by some physical, social or mental characteristics. In order to be a part of these “in-groups,” not only does an individual need to possess one of these traits, but they must be able to share the common vernacular of the group. The way each group speaks may convey a different message. According to linguist Penelope Ekert, “[this] vernacular English can signal coolness, toughness or attitude.” 

Slang acts as a social identity marker. Individuals who say the right things are automatically accepted, while others who use outdated terms run the risk of being marked as uncool. 

“I think slang is a necessary part of our language,” said Eli Keith, a junior English major. “It’s how we relate to each other … using slang in everyday conversations has become normal to me.” 

Often, words and expressions shift in and out of popular use gradually, without much notice. Research done by Rachel Rosenberg, for example, shows the way “yeah” and “yes” have made way for “yessssss” and “yaaaaas.” Or how “As if!” becomes “I can’t even.”

“I’ve noticed that slang changes pretty quickly,” said junior historic preservation major Nina Sacco. “Different words become popular at different times, so it’s pretty obvious that you are out of touch if you use outdated slang.” 

Paul Fallon, an assistant professor in UMW’s Linguistics Department, suggests that it is not uncommon for terms to suddenly decline in popularity.

“We lose interest in a word, or it becomes outdated, passé,” Fallon said. “For example, YOLO. Its popularity skyrocketed in maybe 2009 and lasted a good decade, but that’s a term I have hardly heard in the last year or two.” 

Oftentimes, young adults are ultimately held responsible or blamed for the changing linguistic standards. In an interview, actress Emma Thompson condemned slang and filler words as “sloppy language,” saying that “young people make themselves sound stupid by speaking slang.”

In her publication, The Life of Slang, Julie Coleman pointed out that “there has always been tension between slang and standard English between the older and younger generations.”

Fallon noted this tension as well.

“While it is true slang more often originates with people younger than young adults,” said Fallon, “younger generations have been blamed for language change for millennia. While age is important to consider, there are other important factors involved in propelling slang and vernacular.” 

While age does play a role in our vernacular, the language we tend to use and the changes we see over time has more to do with one’s personality, presentation of self and social standing rather than with age. 

Furthermore, the tendency for older adults to criticize younger generations for how language changes can actually be viewed as their own way of establishing their identity or staking a space in a social group.

Lexicographer Kory Stamper points out that much of today’s slang has older and more venerable roots than most people realize. Stamper wrote, “Take swag.’ Swag refers to a sense of confidence and style. Swag sounds newer, but the informal use goes way back. It’s generally taken to be a shortened form of the verb ‘swagger,’ which was used to denote a certain insolent cockiness by William Shakespeare, O.G.”

Linguistic changes can’t be stopped in any sort of deliberate way. It is time to understand that culture doesn’t just trump language rules, it creates them, then destroys them and creates new ones again.

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