Slang: the most esoteric and quintessentially human form of language?


Why do we talk slang? Is it like an inside joke, which makes us feel more connected with others in the know? Is it useful for covert communication, to hide wrong or bad stuff from prying ears? Are slang words and expressions the equivalent of linguistic toys, injecting some fun and humor into our normally drab verbal discourse? Can it fulfill a need for verbal economy, providing one word or phrase to capture a paragraph’s worth of meaning and suggestion?  Can slang be a proverbial ice-breaker, offering a sense of informality or even affection to an otherwise frosty exchange?

The answer is yes: any one of these factors can come into play when slang is on the linguistic menu, and some of these factors are at the heart of a particular slang’s very existence. Slang in its many forms can represent the most nuanced, potentially ambiguous, socially delicate and subtle of human utterances, depending as much as it does on the social context and culture in which it lives and thrives.

A fascinating article in The Guardian last year asked the question: Is slang the last frontier for artificial intelligence? “Eric Brown, the IBM researcher charged with training Watson, the supercomputer that famously beat human all-comers in the US quiz show Jeopardy in 2011, has provided an interesting insight into just how hard it is to crack the ever-elusive nut of artificial intelligence (AI). Speaking to Fortune magazine, Brown said that Watson can readily absorb information far beyond the capacity of any human, but where it struggles is understanding our subtlety of language, particularly the human predilection for slang. … Humans are ‘superb’ at switching rapidly between rules of engagement,’ he adds. ‘We live in a mass soup of cultures, rules and contexts. Words such as ‘wicked’ and ‘decent’ now take on different meanings to different people. In some ways, to ask a computer to know how to use a word correctly in various contexts is the ultimate challenge.”

But what exactly defines slang? In an article published in American Speech in 1978, Bethany K. Dumas and Jonathan Lighter discussed the fact that the term slang has rarely been defined in a way that’s useful for linguists. They argue that a word or expression can be considered 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.

What’s the difference between slang and jargon? Jargon describes a specific set of words used by certain groups or subcultures defined by anything from age (e.g. the jargon of a given generation) to specific areas of industry or interest (e.g. marketing jargon). Then there are cants and argots, which are both types of slang. Argots are secret languages used by various groups — e.g. schoolfriends, outlaws, colleagues — to prevent outsiders from understanding their conversations. Argot can also be used more loosely to name the informal specialized vocabulary of a particular group, in which sense it’s moreorless synonymous with jargon. A cant is a jargon or argot often used to exclude or mislead people outside the group – thieves’ cant probably being the most well-known of its kind. A cryptolect is an arcane form of argot or cant.

Here’s a look at some of the more common or enduring bodies of slang, and who speaks them, how they originated, and what purpose they served (and in some cases still serve).

Back slang is an English coded language in which the written word is spoken phonemically backwards. It is thought to have originated in Victorian England, being used mainly by market sellers, such as butchers and greengrocers, to have private conversations behind their customers’ backs and to pass off lower-quality goods to less observant customers. Some back slang has entered standard English: e.g. the word yob was originally back slang for boy.


CBF or CB (Citizens Band) Radio slang is the distinctive “anti-language” that developed among users of Citizens Band (CB) Radio, especially truck drivers in the U.S. during the 1970s and early ’80s. CB Radio and its distinctive language started in the U.S. but was then exported to other countries including Mexico, Germany and Canada. CB slang developed alongside its own use of ten-codes, or ten signals, code words that were used to represent common phrases in voice communication, particularly by law enforcement.The codes, developed in 1937 and expanded in 1974 by the Association of Public-Safety Communications Officials-International (APCO), allow for brevity and standardization of message traffic. They have historically been used by law enforcement officers in North America, but because of a lack of standardization the U.S. federal government recommended in 2006 that they be discontinued in favor of everyday language.


Carny or carnie is a slang term used in North America for  employees — especially those who run a “joint” (booth), “grab joint” (food stand), game, or ride at a carnival, boardwalk or amusement park — and it also names the language they use.


Gayle, or Gail, is an English and Afrikaans-based argot or cant slang used primarily by English and Afrikaans-speaking gay men in urban communities of South Africa, and is similar in some respects to Polari in the UK (see below), from which it borrows some lexical items. The equivalent language used by gay South African men who speak Bantu languages is called IsiNgqumo, and is based on a Nguni lexicon.


Lavender linguistics is a term used by linguists, and advanced by William Leap, to describe the study of language as it is used by gaylesbianbisexualtransgender, and queer (LGBTQ) speakers. It “encompasses] a wide range of everyday language practices” in LGBTQ communities. The term derives from the longtime association of the color lavender with gay and lesbian communities. The related terms lavender language and simply gay and lesbian language also refer to the language used by LGBTQ speakers. “Language,” in this context, may refer to any aspect of spoken or written linguistic practices, including speech patterns and pronunciation, use of certain vocabulary, and, in a few cases, an elaborate alternative lexicon such as Polari (see below).


Pig Latin is a constructed language game where words in English are altered according to a simple set of rules. Pig Latin takes the first consonant (or consonant cluster) of a word, moves it to the end of the word and adds an ay as a suffix. For example, pig yields igpay, banana yields ananabay, and trash yields ashtray. In the Northeastern U.S. many people only move the first letter and not the first syllable, so trash yields rashtay. The objective is to conceal the meaning of the words from others not familiar with the rules. The reference to Latin is a deliberate misnomer, as it is simply a form of jargon, used only for its English connotations as a strange and foreign-sounding language.


Rhyming slang or Cockney rhyming slang is a form of phrase construction especially prevalent in dialectal English from the East End of London. The construction involves replacing a common word with a rhyming phrase of two or three words and then, in almost all cases, omitting the secondary rhyming word (which is thereafter implied), in a process called hemiteleia, making the origin and meaning of the phrase elusive to listeners not in the know. See Glossophilia’s earlier post on Cockney rhyming slang.


Polari (or ParlareParlaryPalarePalariePalari, from the Italian parlare, “to talk”) is a form of cant slang used in Britain by actors, circus and fairground showmen, merchant navy sailors, criminals, prostitutes, and the gay subculture. There is some debate about its origins, but it can be traced back to at least the 19th and possibly the 16th century. It has a longstanding connection with Punch and Judy street puppet performers who traditionally used Polari to converse with each other.



Shelta is a language spoken by Irish Travellers, particularly in Ireland but also in parts of Great Britain. It is widely known as the Cant, to its native speakers in Ireland as Gammon, and to linguists as Shelta. It was often used as a cryptolect to exclude outsiders from comprehending conversations between Travellers, although this aspect is often over-emphasized.The exact number of native speakers is hard to determine due to sociolinguistic issues, but Ethnologue puts the number of speakers in Ireland at 6,000, and 86,000 worldwide. Linguistically, Shelta is seen today as a mixed language that stems from a community of travelling people in Ireland that was originally predominantly Irish-speaking. The community later went through a period of widespread bilingualism that resulted in a language based heavily on Hiberno-English with heavy influences from Irish.



Thieves’ cant or Rogues’ cant, also known as peddler’s French,was a secret language that was used by thieves, beggars and hustlers of various kinds in Great Britain and to a lesser extent in other English-speaking countries. The classic, very colorful argot is now mostly obsolete, and is largely relegated to the realm of literature and fantasy role-playing. However, individual terms continue to be used in the criminal subcultures of both Britain and the U.S.


(Most slang summaries courtesy of Wikipedia and edited.)

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