KNOXVILLE, Tenn. — Slang talk may get a ”bad rap”
from grammarians, but the average American’s vocabulary has
2,000 slang words, a dictionary editor at the University of Tennessee-Knoxville said.
Jonathan Lighter, a UT-Knoxville faculty associate, is editor of the Random House ”Dictionary of American Slang.” The first of three volumes will be published next year in the same format as the ”Oxford English Dictionary.”
Lighter has so far documented 50,000 slang words and definitions from 7,000 sources from A to L. He defines slang as ”unorthodox, non-technical, non-academic vocabulary composed chiefly of synonyms and near-synonyms for regular English language.”
When the word ”slang” first was used in 1740, it described uneducated conversation, Lighter said. A century ago dictionary makers were openly hostile to slang. The prominent poet and surgeon Oliver Wendell Holmes Sr. called the use of slang a sign of mental atrophy, Lighter said.
Now newspaper feature writers and the public are fascinated by stories of the latest slang words and their origins, he said.
Lighter has a list of slang words he encountered over two seven-day periods in conversations, periodicals and on television. The list of about 200 words shows how widely slang is used, he said.
”Once slang catches on in a subculture population, it persists,” he said. An example is the word ”snafu,” a World War II military acronym meaning ”situation normal, all fouled up.”
American records of slang go back to colonial times, but examples are sparse because there were few literate people among the one million settlers at the time of the revolution, Lighter said.
The earliest Americanism, borrowed from the Algonquin Indians in New England, is ”netop” and its usage as a synonym for crony or pal lasted 250 years, he said.
Examples of 18th century slang in Britain, some still familiar, are: bones (dice), to sham Abram (to malinger), to bamboozle (trick), killdevil (strong rum), porker (a pig), hubby (husband), grub (food), filly (woman), mug (a face), spunk (spirit) and Yankee (American), Lighter said.
The first slang lexicographer was Benjamin Franklin, who in 1722, under the name Silence Dogood, included slang related to getting drunk in an essay on temperance for the New England Courant, Lighter said.
The language that has given the most slang to English is Yiddish, largely from the writings of S.J. Perelman in the 1930s-50s, he said.
Most slang terms are related to sexuality (score), mental abilities (goofy), and intoxication (plastered). Areas of life that have produced the most slang are jazz (to dig – to like or look at), the military (go ballistic – to lose one’s temper), rap music (B-boy – a breakdancer), sports journalism (to go downtown – a homerun), entertainment (boffo – very exciting or successful), and college (dweeb – nerd), he said.