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Why do we use slang?

Why do we use slang? Good Question
Why do we use slang? Good Question 03:02

MINNEAPOLIS -- The English language is ever-evolving, thanks to new words or older ones getting new meanings. That informal type of speaking starts to become natural.

So why do we use slang? And is a word no longer slang if it enters the dictionary? Good Question.

If anyone knows the latest trendy terms, it's the younger generation traversing the University of Minnesota campus.

"'Slay' is another one that's like super popular on TikTok," said one student.

"I used to say a lot, something's like 'cheugy.' Like it's overrated," said Kianna, a freshman.

"Now everyone's saying, 'Oh he's got 'rizz'," said student Atlee. "Rizz" is pulled from the word "charisma" and means someone is good a flirting or attracting people. "Nobody would ever say that about me," Atlee joked.

While young adults are hip enough to know new slang before older generations, rarely do people know how or when the words came to be.

"More often than not, words that are slang end up becoming just part of the regular vernacular," said Emily Brewster, a senior editor at Merriam Webster, well known for its dictionary.

Why do we use slang? "We use slang as a way to have a special form of communication with a subset of people," Brewster said. "By using words that are only understood by the small group of people, there's an intimacy that can develop."

Slang forms in several ways:

  • Clipping: shorten a word, such as turning fabulous in to "fab."
  • Blending: combining words, like brothers and romance into "bromance."
  • Coinage: giving a word a new meaning, like saying "kicks" instead of shoes. It can also mean creating a new word.

"A 16-year-old on a Vine video came up with the word "fleek" "on fleek" to describe her perfectly groomed eyebrows. Who knows why that's what she came up with, but it spread so quickly because people just, somehow they really identified with this term," said Brewster.

"It just makes sense in your head," freshman Salem said, of new slang terms. "When someone says it and you hear it, you're just like, 'Yeah, I'm gonna start doing that.'"

How does slang spread?  "These days it spreads incredibly easily," said Brewster. "It used to be something that you would have to actually be in personal contact with someone in order to pick up slang vocabulary

The internet, specifically social media, allows new slang to spread much faster it used to. Before that, it was music and other creative arts that introduced people to slang.

If a word officially makes it into the dictionary, is it no longer slang? "I guess if it makes it into the dictionary, it just means people are using it a lot," said one student. That answer was spot on. Brewster said slang words make it into the dictionary using the same criteria as other categories of words. Researchers at Merriam Webster search for how often the word is being used, especially in print. Slang might take longer than other words to get recognized by the dictionary, but that's changing.

Brewster said in the 1950s, it would take a slang word 30+ years to be recognized by the dictionary. Now, it can be within 10 years.

"That window has really just been shrinking and it's really because that amount of informal language that we are seeing is just increasing dramatically," said Brewster, noting much of that informal writing is occurring online and at a fast pace.

Why do some slang words stand the test of the time while others go out of style? Brewster said it's hard to predict which words will stick. Some might last so long they aren't even considered slang anymore. "Mad" was initially a slang word for angry more than 100 years ago. "It still has a kind of hint of it, of informality. Like angry is a word that's better suited for formal writing, but mad means angry," she said. "There are some words that are really remarkably good at hanging on to their informality. Like the word 'cool' has been around actually since the mid-18th century."

Slang words can also follow trends similar to fashion, falling out of style for one generation then being used again years alter. "I think it just works on a cyclical timeline," said one student. "Sometimes I might say 'groovy.' I might just throw it in there because I resonate with some imagery from the 70's," added another student.

As for the history of slang, Brewster said it likely goes back as far as any other language.

Some of the first English dictionaries ever printed were for slang. One from the 1600s was called "Thieves' Cant." It explained code words used by British criminals.

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