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Editor's Corner: Slang, Dang and Hang Me

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Vincent Valentine, MD
Links Editor-in-Chief
University of Texas Medical Branch
Galveston, TX, USA

Jonathan Lighter, one of the leading authorities on American slang and editor of the Random House Historical Dictionary of American Slang, defines slang from Chapter Six of 2001's Cambridge History of the English Language. He writes, "slang denotes an informal, nonstandard, nontechnical vocabulary composed chiefly of novel-sounding synonyms (and near synonyms) for standard words and phrases; it is often associated with youthful, raffish, or undignified persons and groups; and it conveys often striking connotations of impertinence or irreverence, especially for established attitudes and values within the prevailing culture." Lighter further points out that "slang aims to be intentionally undignified, startling and amusing." Think about when something "slips your mind" or when you "lose your train of thought." Is it a "senior moment?" or a "brain fart?" The latter one challenges the standard, thus it is slang.

Slang comes from our younger and rebellious population. Perhaps it's just part of being adolescent with a desire to be linguistically revolutionary outside the mainstream or against the establishment. How about a clever way to be critical of something we may be uncomfortable with such as, change. Or a new concept or novel idea that was not originally our own. Slang needs to be novel, new or fresh and as such is typically ephemeral because it is revolutionary, unconventional and challenging.

In his book, Slang: The People's Poetry, Michael Adams points out the association of slang with poetry, dating back to Ralph Waldo Emerson who celebrated slang as the poetry of language in action and that slang is our play with words, sort of a linguistic mischief with social and political statements as we poke fun. Slang is about the everyday; it's not technical nanotechnology, immunology, fast-paced genomics, the internet or literary theory or linguistics, although all of these have their own jargon. Michael Adams adds to Lighter's definition about the 'insiderness' of slang or the shared 'outsiderness', by stating, "slang meets our complementary needs to fit in and to stand out." He also emphasizes that slang is "a necessary aspect of our linguistic well-being"; it's not aberrant, deviant, or thoughtless, and it's certainly not "unmeaning." It is thoughtful and meaningful.

About over the same life span of the ISHLT, the ephemeral nature of some slang terms has morphed over time to "near-standard" acceptance. The word "bad" meaning good and "bummer" for an unpleasant experience are a couple examples. The word "cool" began nearly a century ago meaning sophisticated or up-to-date and lately meaning excellent. Our university students have many different ways to say good and cool as well as words they've turned around from being bad to good as a playful example of slang. Other words for good include: bad, sick, wicked, killer, outrageous and now gnarly. There are also other meanings of good in general: sweet, candy, righteous including other words that have been elevated in intensity over time: awesome, choice, tight and rad. All of these slang examples are synonyms for good.

With the San Diego meeting upon us we might find our younger members beginning conversations with one another in some slangy manner with terms like: "Yo," "What up?" "Sup?"; "What's happening?" "What it is?" Many of us "old farts" might ask, "How are you?" will anyone ask, "How do you do?" or "What's going on?" or a simple and easy "Hi" or "Hello." Then to end conversations we might hear, "Later," originating from "check you later" or "catch you later"; or "ciao," "gotta go," "gotta bounce," and "I'm out."

The playfulness of slang comes from creating new words or changing their meanings. With rhyme, cockney rhyming and literary alliteration the "boob tube" emerged defining our television or telly (Australian slang), meaning the idiot box. What about the terms "trouble and strife"—wife, "bacon and eggs"—legs, "apples and pears"—stairs, Adam and Eve—believe, "bread and honey"—money (note over time this has been shortened to bread also meaning money), Oxford scholar—dollar, and ducks and geese—police. Other rhyming slang terms are: bedhead, brain drain, fat cat, nit wit, no show, lovey dovey, tighty whities, chill pill, float your boat and balls to the wall.

Trying to understand slang or feel slangy could certainly make one feel queasy. You might recall "throw up" down under "in Australia" is "chunder." In medicine there is emesis, in formal English there is vomit, and from our rebellious college students or colleagues we have many informal and slangy alternatives: barf, ralph, puke, spew, hurl, blow chunks, up-chuck, deliver street pizza, drive the porcelain bus, pray to the porcelain gods, talk to ralph on the big white telephone, lose your lunch, blow chow and toss your cookies.

With so many words or terms for vomit, there are many more words or terms for a "collegial" cause of puking, that is none other than being drunk. The formal words are intoxicated and inebriated. The more slangy words or terms include: smashed, trashed, wasted, sloshed, loaded, soused, sauced, plastered, pissed, plowed, hammered, tanked, snockered, bombed, blitzed, boozed, blotto, blackout, fried, stewed, stoned, sloppy, juiced, lit, pickled, tight, muddled, faded, loose, crunk, zooted, shwasted, hammed, at ham city, three sheets to the wind, tied one on, under the table, and I refer you to Benjamin Franklin's published 200 terms for drunk in the Pennsylvania Gazette in 1737 with just these few for example: addled, bowz'd, cracked, wamble crop'd, he's in his cups, he's loaded his cart, he had a kick in the guts, he's loose in the hilts, he has swallow'd a tavern token, and he's got his top gallant sails out. I believe it's time to be a bit abstemious.

I could on and on with this, but I refer you to the internet to pursue and peruse the use of slang in our everyday language and in the ISHLT. Finally, be sure to look up the Grammy Award winner for Best Country and Western Song from half a century ago in 1964 by American country music artist Roger Miller with his song "Dang Me."

To those of you who missed an extraordinary Oscars, I give you a taste with extraordinary songs, first by an extraordinary Irish group (U2) about an extraordinary man, Nelson Mandela, and freedom (Ordinary Love). The other songs that touch hearts and stir souls are about inspiration by Bette Midler (Wind Beneath My Wings), about destiny by Idina Menzel (Let it Go), and of course with the Academy's tribute to the 75th Anniversary of Judy Garland and the Wizard of Oz where the dreams you dare to dream really come true as we expand our minds (Somewhere Over the Rainbow).

Disclosure Statement: The author has no conflicts of interest to disclose.

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