Women talk more than men. No one would dispute that. Their standardized verbal scores are higher than their math scores, they are more likely to major in English, and the realms of publishing and editing have become heavily tilted towards women. But when it comes to creative use of language, men need not take a back seat to women. In fact, when it comes to slang, they are definitely in the driver’s seat.
As defined in the unabridged Webster’s Universal Dictionary of the English Language in 1936, slang is “the cant expressions used by vagabonds, beggars and thieves.” In this definition “cant” does not mean hypocritical or deceptive language but the specialized terminology of a particular subculture. Of course, vagabonds, beggars, and thieves were overwhelmingly male in 1936 and still are today.
Now let’s flash forward a few decades and check out the Dictionary of American Slang, compiled and edited by Harold Wentworth and Stuart Berg Flexner in 1967:
Most American slang is created and used by males. Many types of slang words – including the taboo and strongly derogatory ones, those referring to sex, women work, money, whiskey, politics, transportation, sports, and the like – refer primarily to male endeavor and interest. The majority of entries in this dictionary could be labeled “primarily masculine use.”
According to Flexner and Wentworth, slang emanates from the following sub-groups:
Hobos and tramps
Baseball players and fans
High-school students and general teenagers
Financial district employees
Jazz musicians and fans
Navy and Merchant Marine
Most of these groups are heavily if not exclusively male; others (show-business workers, teenagers, high school students, college students, immigrants) are roughly half male, which does not necessarily mean that women have contributed to the slang of these groups in proportion to their numbers, though they may communicate with slang created by the men in their sub-group.
Today it would be difficult to find a linguist who would declare the superiority of men when it comes to creating slang (or anything else). But women have never been major contributors. In fact, in days of old, they were often against it. As D.W. Maurer states in the Encyclopedia Britannica entry on slang:
Many women who aspired to gentility and refinement banished it [slang] from the home. It flourished underground, however, in such male sanctuaries as lodges, poolrooms, barbershops, and saloons.
Mrs. Grundy may disapprove of slang, but she does have a soft spot in her heart for poetry. Yet all those figures of speech (e.g., metaphor, metonymy, synecdoche) you learned about in your high school English class are as essential to slang as they are to poetry. Speaking of English class, let’s see what some renowned writers had to say about slang.
In “A Defence of Slang,” British writer G.K. Chesterton said: The one stream of poetry which is continually flowing is slang.
All slang is metaphor, and all metaphor is poetry. If we paused for a moment to examine the cheapest cant phrases that pass our lips every day, we should find that they were as rich and suggestive as so many sonnets.
On this side of the pond, however, we have always had a much more relaxed attitude towards language. Take Walt Whitman, the bard of democracy. In “Slang in America,” he wrote:
[Slang is] an attempt of common humanity to escape from bald literalism, and express itself illimitably, which in highest walks produced poets and poems, and doubtless in pre-historic times gave the start to, and perfected, the whole immense tangle of the old mythologies.
Many of the oldest and solidest words we use, were originally generated from the daring and license of slang. In the processes of word-formation, myriads die, but here and there the attempt attracts super meanings, becomes valuable and indispensable, and lives forever.
Then the wit – the rich flashes of humor and genius and poetry – darting out often from a gang of laborers, railroad-men, miners, drivers or boatmen!” [Note that those occupations were and still are overwhelmingly male.]
Since we’re talking 19th Century American authors, let’s not forget Samuel Clemens, whose pen name, Mark Twain, was a slang term (two fathoms deep, ergo navigable) from the subculture of steamboat men.
In the first half of the 20th Century, the hard-boiled school of fiction not only utilized slang, it introduced it to genteel readers who otherwise might not have encountered it. In fact, it is impossible to imagine the fiction of Raymond Chandler, Dashiell Hammett, and James M. Cain devoid of slang. Initially confined to the pulp fiction ghetto, slang eventually worked its way into respectable literature and elevated authors who used it to good effect.
In 1962, British writer Anthony Burgess, who was also a linguist, invented a number of slang terms for his novel, A Clockwork Orange. In fact, there were so many neologisms he had to include a glossary as an appendix. Aside from the book and movie, none, to my knowledge, achieved wider currency.
This points out the unpredictability of slang. You can make up all the slang terms you want and put them out there verbally, in print, or on the internet, but that doesn’t mean they will catch on. As clever as a term may be, it cannot be utilized in conversation until it goes viral. On the other hand, once a term goes dormant, it is equally difficult to employ.
Reading through a slang dictionary raises a number of questions about dormant slang. Some colorful turns of phrase have vanished while others remain. New slang tends to crowd out old slang, but there are other forces at work. For example, we rarely hear horse manure referred to as road apples or alley apples these days. Of course, we no longer rely on horses for transportation, so the waning popularity of those terms is understandable.
A telephone is no longer called an ameche, probably because The Story of Alexander Graham Bell, a biopic with Don Ameche in the title role, came out in 1939, and pop culture references typically have short shelf lives.
The employees drawing you an IPA at your local taproom may never have heard the term beer-jerkers, but in the 1930s, that’s what they were called. Given the increased popularity of craft beer, perhaps this one will make a comeback.
Despite the ravages of inflation, pennies are still in circulation, but no one refers to them as “brown Abes” any more. On the other hand, we can refer to our paper currency as “dead presidents”…at least until we become a totally cashless society, then we’ll have to come up with something else.
If we do get a slang term for digital money, it won’t come from some nabob at the Department of the Treasury or a Federal Reserve bank. Slang is not a top-down phenomenon. It comes bubbling up from below. Professionals, such as doctors, lawyers, and engineers all use jargon, but rarely come up with slang terms that pass into society at large.
Typically, slang originates in subgroups that have relatively little clout in society at large. For example, a lot of slang comes from young people, who may be numerous but have relatively little in the way of wealth or assets.
Young people treasure their slang, much as they do their fashions and pop music, not because of its intrinsic value, but because it is theirs. The ongoing quest for new slang inevitably squeezes out most of the slang of older generations. Consequently, yesterday’s hepcats are L7 today. (If you aren’t familiar with L7, it is a slang term for square; it derives from the fact that if you jam the two characters together the result approximates a square; L7 could also be communicated via hand signals much like a gang sign.)
As is the case with conventional language, slang often serves a purpose above and beyond the surface message it conveys. A slang word is almost like a password. It separates friend from foe, just as it separates one generation from another. You’re either in the tribe or you’re not in the tribe. While slang may eventually achieve widespread currency, it starts out as exclusive terminology. According to Michael Adams in Slang: The People’s Poetry:
Slang is not merely a lexical phenomenon, a type of word, but a linguistic practice rooted in social needs and behaviors, mostly the complementary needs to fit in and to stand out.
The need to simultaneously fit in and stand out could almost be a definition of male bonding. You want to be part of that hunting band but you don’t want to be just another brick in the wall. You want to be accepted as an individual. After all, you can’t stand out from the group if you don’t belong to the group.
Given that slang originates in anti-establishment subgroups, it is hardly surprising that MGTOWs and MRAs rely on a number of slang terms, such as cucks, white knights, manginas, the cock carousel, and emotional tampon. Slang may become acceptable but it usually starts out as politically incorrect and subversive.
Feminism, on the other hand, has spawned plenty of terminology (e.g., benevolent sexism, internalized misogyny, toxic masculinity) but it tends to be prosaic. Feminism is an ideology, and ideologues are not noted for their sense of humor. Also, wit is a trait only rarely associated with women, though they do excel at making catty remarks (think Joan Rivers).
Slang, like wit, cannot be mandated. Like water, it springs forth in some places but not others, and seeks its own level. It may remain like a pond within a subculture or it may be channeled into mainstream discourse. The language police may patrol the media but they cannot control the flow of language. Words have a life of their own. They are born and they die. A chosen few are immortal.
In the beginning was the word. As it was in the beginning is now and ever shall be. Slang without end, amen.