It’s use and meaning
Few linguists have endeavored to clearly define what constitutes slang. Attempting to remedy this, Bethany K. Dumas and Jonathan Lighter argue that an expression should be considered “true slang” if it meets at least two of the following criteria.
It lowers, if temporarily, “the dignity of formal or serious speech or writing”; in other words, it is likely to be considered in those contexts a “glaring misuse of register.” Its use implies that the user is familiar with whatever is referred to, or with a group of people who are familiar with it and use the term. “It’s a taboo term in ordinary discourse with people of a higher social status or greater responsibility. ” It replaces “a well-known conventional synonym”. This is done primarily to avoid discomfort caused by the conventional synonym or discomfort or annoyance caused by having to elaborate further.
Michael Adams remarks that “[slang] is liminal language… it is often impossible to tell, even in context, which interests and motives it serves… Slang is on the edge.”And while efforts like Adams’ open slang up for discussion, introductory definitions like his and Partridge’s “Slang To-Day and Yesterday” offer “little more than a sketch” of what slang is. Slang dictionaries, collecting thousands of slang entries, offer a broad, empirical window into the motivating forces behind slang.
While many forms of language may be considered “sub-standard”, slang remains distinct from colloquial and jargon terms because of its specific social contexts. While considered inappropriate in formal writing, colloquial terms are typically considered acceptable in speech across a wide range of contexts, while slang tends to be considered unacceptable in many contexts. Jargon refers to language used by personnel in a particular field, or language used to represent specific terms within a field to those with a particular interest. Although jargon and slang can both be used to exclude non–group members from the conversation, the intention of jargon is to optimize conversation using terms that imply technical understanding.
On the other hand, slang tends to emphasize social and contextual understanding. The expression “down size” is an example of jargon, while the adjective “gnarly” is an example of slang. “Down size” originated from 1990’s era corporate jargon, as a euphemistic way to talk about layoffs. “Gnarly”, by contrast, originates from off-roaders, talking about the most treacherous area of a mountain, which likely would have gnarls of some kind, but was extended by this same group to mean any kind of intense or particularly daring act.
While colloquialisms and jargon may seem like slang because they reference a particular group, they do not fit the same definition, because they do not represent a particular effort to replace standard language. Colloquialisms are considered more standard than slang, and jargon is often created to talk about aspects of a particular field that are not accounted for in the standard lexicon.
It is often difficult to differentiate slang from colloquialisms and even more standard language, because slang generally becomes accepted into the standard lexicon over time. Words such as “spurious” and “strenuous” were once slang, though they are now accepted as standard, even high register words.
The literature on slang even discusses mainstream acknowledgment of a slang term as changing its status as true slang, because it has been accepted by the media and is thus no longer the special insider speech of a particular group. Nevertheless, a general test for whether a word is a slang word or not is whether it would be acceptable in an academic or legal setting, as both are arenas in which standard language is considered necessary and/or whether the term has been entered in the Oxford English Dictionary, which some scholars claim changes its status as slang.