The Key to Slang
Copyeditors are taught to delete slang. It’s too informal, ignorant, or ungrammatical, we’re told, for the formalness of writing. It should be relegated to informal conversation with close friends and family.
As a result, we tend to dismiss slang altogether. We miss out on what it might add to a manuscript and how it can sometimes become acceptable Standard English, storming the language tower.
The Life of Slang
Julie Coleman, professor of English language at the University of Leicester and author of several books about dictionaries, teaches us a lot about slang in her latest book, The Life of Slang, from Oxford University Press.
Coleman defines slang, which is harder to do than you might think, and traces its history from possibly its first recordings to today. Along the way, she discusses why we invent slang, what conditions need to be present for slang to be created, how slang can survive, and how it has changed in the digital age.
The book is loaded with examples. We can read about slang that died out before we had a chance to use it, such as sockdolager, leather-lay, and catawampus. It’s a shame we missed out on those terms.
There are words that have made the leap into Standard English, including gremlin, human resources, geek, and fabulous. Human resources as military slang was a surprise to me; I would have guessed it originated in corporate American jargon instead of landing there.
And there are some slang terms of our own day, like spaz, rock, google, and hashtag. The last one was the American Dialect Society’s 2012 Word of the Year.
What is slang? Many believe it to be:
- Vulgar terms
- Colloquial language taken to an extreme
- Terms beneath Standard English
- Ungrammatical language
None of these are true of slang in general, but any of them can be true of individual words identified as slang. Writes Coleman:
It isn’t bad to use slang, but it isn’t good to use it either. What’s key is whether you use it well—in an appropriate context and in a way that achieves the result you want.
Therein lies the key for copyeditors.
If we learn to understand what slang is, how it’s created, and why it’s used, we can better judge when slang might or might not be useful in a given manuscript. We can make case-by-case decisions or publication-wide rules, depending on our projects, clients, and employers. Either way, we’re making intelligent decisions rather than applying uniformed opinions.
An academic book that is easy to read, The Life of Slang can teach copyeditors what we need to know about these words.