László Cseresnyési

An essay on slang

This essay is concerned with providing a definition of slang. The narrow notion of slang adopted here is based on the assumption that in order to provide a plausible definition of slang, we have to delimit the meaning of the term with respect to other concepts belonging to the same terminological field, such as style, register, jargon, etc. Instead of trying to ascertain “the true meaning” of slang, we should rather ask whether we need such a term in our linguistic nomenclature. Traditionally, linguists tend to draw a distinction between varieties according to users vs. varieties according to use, i.e. regional or sociolinguistic variation vs. stylistic variation. User varieties, also known as sociolects and jargons, belong to particular groups within the speech community, while stylistic choices belong to the context of situation. I believe that the term “slang” is to be interpreted as a stylistic or use-related term (i.e. not as a sociolinguistic or user-related term), i.e. not as a kind of “group language”. In most situations, speakers have a rather limited set of primary (default) choices available. However, speakers may choose to abandon the obvious choices, and make use of some more or less semantically opaque secondary choices. Slang expressions are defined as playful substitutes (secondary choices). One kind of playful substitution may be peculiar to a particular group language, while another may be used by virtually any member of the speech community. The psychology of using slang is comparable to artistic pleasure or to solving riddles. Resolving a seeming contradiction, recognizing how an unusual element fits into a certain context is a cathartic experience. This, however, does not necessarily imply that a new expression is coined or some new usage is created on the spur of the moment. While the distinction between sociolinguistic variation (group languages, jargons, etc.) vs. stylistic variation (slang, euphemism, etc.) remains theoretically crucial, it is important to emphasize that these two types of variation are interrelated.