'I was hamstered and now I'm c**ted.' If you want to teach
effectively, best brush up on your slang, says Tony Thorne.
As a nation, it seems, we British are passing through a particularly foul-mouthed phase.
A phrasebook for visitors to the United Kingdom just published by Lonely Planet asserts that without recourse to the so-called "F-word", many of us would be "virtually dumbstruck".
The Lonely Planet guide also informs foreign tourists that drinking to excess is one of Britain's chief preoccupations and proves it by listing 65 synonyms for "drunk" - "cabbaged", "mortalled" and "palatic" among them.
While those who teach in UK higher education might not recognise such a frivolous take on our social reality, university students may find it more familiar.
A recent survey of student spending habits revealed that alcohol was indeed the single largest expense for most undergraduates. Meanwhile, at King's College, London, a research project looking into student language confirms the Lonely Planet thesis: of nearly 2,000 new slang expressions, by far the biggest category - including all the above-mentioned terms plus such variants as "mullered", "bladdered" and "hamstered" - is made up of words denoting "intoxication by drink or drugs".
Students now rank among the most eloquent users of slang, displaying a high tolerance of words that their teachers might still consider taboo. Among King's College students the F-word is considered rather crass, the C-word is inoffensively traded by both sexes, and that little Austin Powers word, shag, is universal.
In fact, when usage is analysed more closely it becomes clear that the four-letter words are mostly used metaphorically, not literally, so that c**ted means exhausted and **** is a term of endearment.
The origins of this alternative vocabulary have also changed. Where once the majority of terms came from the argot of the armed forces and the public schools, the criminal classes and the police, today it is Caribbean patois and homegrown black British street slang that dominate in halls of residence. White and Asian adolescents are as likely as blacks to refer to their room as their "crib" and to their clique as their "massive".
Outside the higher education sector, public tolerance of slang is at an all-time high, with articles in the quality press routinely employing terms such as "wimp",
"rip-off" and "hype".
Given all this, it is surprising that UK academics continue to shun the study of slang. In the US, France and Spain and increasingly in the Far East and Latin America, slang, both in the local language and from English-speaking areas, is a respectable subject for study, yet in the UK any serious analysis has been left to commercial dictionary-makers.
But any disapproval of slang can only be from a social point of view: from a linguist's perspective there is nothing "substandard" about it at all. Slang uses exactly the same creative devices as poetry - metaphor, metonymy, rhyme, alliteration, etc - as well as playing with cultural allusions (in homegrown rhyming slang, "Tonys" or "Tony Blairs" are flares). The way slang works within peer groups and subcultures to construct and cement identities is an important subject for sociolinguistics, and the fact that it is processed as ready-made "chunks" of language, words and catchphrases should be of interest to lexicologists,semanticists and specialists in language acquisition.
The King's College database of current student slang has been organised along the lines of a similar tally collected at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill over the past 20 years. The London data will eventually be published as a dictionary of "youthspeak", but in the meantime they provide insights into the things that matter to the modern student.
Those essentials of everyday life, food (snacking is "grazing", feasting is "caning") and clothes ("kegs" are trousers) rank only 12th and 13th respectively in the top 15 slang categories.
In number two position, after drink and drugs, come terms of approval: "fit", "dope", "mint" and "wick" are recent favourites.
Next in importance are words related to romance, sex and associated body-parts ("on the sniff", "trouting" and "sharking" all describe hunting for a partner, while "lumbering" and "copping off" mean that a pick-up has been achieved).
Academic fears that the use of slang will have a polluting effect on academic discourse are unfounded. Most tertiary-level students are adept at "code-switching" and using the right style of communication for the right situation. They will know to use "denigrating" in an essay, for example, and "dissing" to their mates.
However, a passive knowledge of slang must now be essential for any academic who hopes to understand the student way of life.
Tony Thorne is director of the
language centre at King's College London. His Dictionary of
Contemporary Slang is published by Bloomsbury later this year.
Should academics shun slang?
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