The life of slang

The life of slang. By Julie Coleman. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2012. Pp. 352. ISBN 9780199571994. $27.95 (Hb).

Reviewed by Kanavillil Rajagopalan, State University at Campinas

This book is a meticulously undertaken study of slang, written in a superbly jovial spirit. It takes a balanced view of this phenomenon, which is pervasive in every language, focusing on English. In its purview is, in the author’s words, ‘slang used throughout the English-speaking world, from the earliest record to the latest tweet’ (ix).

The book is presented in twelve chapters. Each of these chapters is rounded off with a useful closing paragraph titled ‘Conclusions’, in which the principal arguments marshaled in the chapter are recapped. The book includes, in addition, a section containing relevant explanatory notes, a fairly comprehensive bibliography, a word index, and an index of topics and proper nouns.

The book starts with an opening chapter titled ‘What is slang?’ wherein Julie Coleman guides the reader through the welter of confusing, often conflicting, claims about what slang is in order to arrive at a working definition. An interesting tactic employed by C is to use the metaphor of a frog to work through different parts of a frog’s life cycle as a means to talk about slang. Accordingly, Chs. 2 through 5 take the headings ‘Spawning’, ‘Development’, ‘Survival and metamorphosis’, and ‘The spread of slang’.

Ch. 6 is titled ‘Prigs, culls, and blosses: Cant and flash language’. This chapter gives the reader an overview of the development of slang over the years, noting that the word slang itself was first used in the second half of the eighteenth century in the sense of ‘the special vocabulary used by any set of persons of a low or disreputable character; language of a low and vulgar type’ (118).

Ch. 7 discusses slang up to the twentieth century, but the emphasis is on British slang. The scope is broadened in Ch. 8, where the gaze is turned to the other side of the Atlantic, and the growth of slang in the United States is examined. In Ch. 9, the discussion pans out to how English slang found its way to remote places around the world. The final two chapters deal with the contemporary themes of media, entertainment, and the digital age, and how they impact the development and diffusion of slang.

The book ends on a thoughtful note, warning that some of the metaphors characteristically used to discuss slang (including the frog metaphor used by C herself in the book) may mislead people to think that slang is a concrete noun, whereas it actually is an abstract noun. C adds, ‘[e]ven as an abstract noun, it’s problematic’ (306), in that it may give rise to the wrong impression that it is a quality inherent to a word or group of words. C’s own solution to the problem is to offer a new metaphor of slang as an attitude.