Words From The Streets – Interview with Tony Thorne

November 4, 2012 5:20 pm

Slang is created with the use of informal words and expressions, which are not expected to be part of a standard dialect or language. It’s used in different contexts, including SMS messaging, social networking sites, and spoken communication.

Has slang changed in London since the early part of the 20th century?

Tony Thorne, a linguist, and slang specialist at King’s College London, and author of ‘The Latest Youth Slang’ says, “some slang words (called ‘vogue terms’) depend on their newness for effect, so go out of date very quickly, but some slang (the word ‘punk’ lasted from the 17th to 20th century) stays in the language for a long time. I don’t think the concept of slang will be forgotten, even if the words themselves change”. However, these dialectical words cannot find space when one is talking to people of high importance, like emissaries and ambassadors from other countries; hence arises the need for a good translating service, like law translation, which can help mitigate the use of slang significantly so you could articulate perspicuously.

Street slang has become part of our culture, but have you ever wondered where it came from? Well, it might surprise you to know, that street slang first emerged in the 16th century, in London’s Docks, when soldiers and seamen used it to communicate. But the language wasn’t popularised until the 18th century, when pick-pocketers used it to communicate with each other secretly.

By the 19th century, market traders took on cockney rhyming slang, introducing words like ‘bread and honey’ (meaning money) or chewy toffee (meaning coffee).

A slang term which has changed its meaning is “bimbo”. Today, it’s used to describe an attractive blonde woman, who’s not so smart. However, in the 1920s, bimbo actually meant tough guy.

Here’s a term which comes from the 1930s, ‘Honey cooler’.  No, it doesn’t mean keeping a jar of honey cool in the fridge it actually meant a kiss.

Similarly, if someone said “look at you, all ginned up,” you might consider it as an insult. Labelling you as an alcoholic, in the 1940s, the meaning of this term was dressed up.

Fast forward to the 1950s with ‘cloud 9’, a term meaning ecstatic; this is a common expression, “I’m on cloud 9”. It’s a term, which is sometimes still used today.

The 1960s was a ‘bummed out era, when many people used this expression to let others know when they’re depressed. “I’m so bummed out man! Wish life wasn’t so difficult”. The 1970s was full of bunny girls, no, not the playboy kind. Back than, ‘bunny’ meant a beautiful girl. “She’s such a bunny!”

The 1980s, the era when the slang term ‘bangin’ didn’t just come out of nowhere, and invade our vocabulary. It was a term that was often used by working class teens, which meant amazing and cool. Today, this term still holds the same meaning; “That club was bangin!”

British hip-hop wasn’t mainstream until the 1980s, when London Pose, Derek B, Rodney P, and the Demon Boyz, hit the studio. They were four of the most influential artists of British hip-hop. They all had one thing in common; all of them were born and bred in London. Each one of them paved the way for UK rappers in the mainstream today.

Whitney Folks, 24 years old and working in the media industry says,

“Hip-hop music and TV have influenced slang greatly. I personally think it’s American music and television that has the influence, from the way the talk and use their western slang, its new and interesting for everyone who hears so we use it in our language”.

Alongside these 80s legends, was Tim Westwood, now a BBC radio DJ. Westwood bought UK hip-hop to the mainstream, by hosting a show called Night Network in the late 80s. With Night Network, he pointed out early hip-hop culture in London, and broadcasted up and coming UK rappers.

Seona Scott, a freelance journalist says:

“A lot of the media effects how we speak like, with hip-hop they use certain words to describe money, the word ‘skriller’ or ‘squart’ used to describe money, and now I’m hearing a lot of young people say, “awww I need to get my skriller, I need to get my squart”. So it does kind of, have an influence”.

Artists like Miss Dynamite, N-Dubz, and Dizzie Rascal have since followed in the footsteps of these rappers, who bought UK hip-hop to life all those years ago. In the song, ‘Miss Dy-na-mi-tee,’ she says,

“Use 2 spend my time blazin’ (smoking weed) lazin’ days away.”

And Dizzie Rascal in his song, ‘Where’s The G’s’ says,

“All I see is bare poop on TV.”

In many ways, this article has proven that US/UK hip-hop is responsible for the development of slang. For example, artists like Snoop Dogg, who made terms like ‘Fo’ shizzle mah neezle’ (for sure, my homie!) popular in the US.

Rebecca Morris, a Media teacher at a Sixth Form College says,

“I think they have an influence – although this is an American influence, and lots of teenagers are very influenced by all things American.”

She believes hip-hop and R&B music is where slang is most heard, and teenage fans will try their best to emulate what they hear.

Fast-forward to today, and some of the same terms are still used, like ‘blazin’ and bare’. However, language changes everyday. New terms emerge from every corner, and what’s cool today, may not be cool tomorrow.

“We are much more tolerant of different identities, different ways of behaving today…We also tend nowadays to look for new fads, fashions to celebrate, so the media, for example, happily features new language rather than trying to avoid, criticise or censor it” says Tony Thorne.

Language has a tendency to change, this transformation most likely occurs, when there’s a lack of equality due to the geographical separation and social obstacles. London has a deep and complicated relationship with slang. Different dialects dominate particular areas of London. For example, cockney rhyming slang is associated with East London, in the same way you probably associate street and urban slang with the north side.

London is a big cosmopolitan city, its population is made up of people from all over the world. Putting this into consideration, language is more likely to change, and make an impact on individuals.

“Slang is very creative, it uses all the techniques of poetry, so there’s nothing essentially wrong with it…Slang has its place in our culture and our language, just like ‘posh’ language, legal language”

Do you think hip-hop music and TV influence slang?

“Yes, but they don’t usually create slang, just spread it from the street or the club where it originated to other potential users in other places. They also help to give it glamour and seeming importance,” says Thorne.

According to The Guardian in 2010, over 200 schools in England, failed to meet the GCSE target. Only 35% of students, were able to achieve five GCSEs at A*-C grade including English. Could slang be responsible for this outcome? Back in 2010, studies in Canada prove students who spend time on social networking sites, like Facebook/Twitter fail their English exams. Almost 35% of students, at Waterloo University in Canada, fail to achieve the minimum requirements.

Seona is indecisive when asked; do you think slang ruins the English language? – Will it ever be forgotten?

“Yes and no, for ruining the English language because, a lot of people are becoming lazy, especially when it comes to texting, and some people do the short format” she says.

An English teacher at St Marylebone School in Westminster, Jonathan Goldstein says “…I’ve got no problems with slang at all…certainly in spoken language.” He continues, by emphasising the essentiality, of children knowing how to use formal and written English. They speak slang among themselves all the time, they speak slang to me from time to time.”

The characteristics of people, who use slang, are best described as an individual, who likes to follow trends, and also at the same time be a trendsetter.

Teens and young adults are often associated with using slang. It’s defined, as a secret code, a way for people to communicate spontaneously with little anxiety, that someone uninvited is eavesdropping.

If a term is frequently used, ‘rinsed out’ and spread to a larger community, it’s no longer considered to be slang.

Whitney Folks uses slang regularly, however, she does restrict herself to using it, especially when it comes to her line of profession as a Media Assistant.

“When I see adults use slang, I do find it quite weird…if an un-cool person uses slang or adults who are meant to talk properly, uses slang it’s kind of sad. It’s like they are trying to be cool” says Whitney.

The 24-year-old goes onto say, people who aren’t meant to use slang, look as if they’re trying too hard; which never looks too good.

25-year-old Seona Scott, uses slang regularly; however, she makes it clear, that she only uses slang with her friends. “it’s just you know…it’s ours” she says. Seona returns back to formal English when she’s around her parents, and others.

“When I hear my parents, say one or two slang words it makes me laugh, but then its like, they kind of understand where I’m coming from…It’s just a bit cringey” says Seona.

What’s next for slang?

“Almost impossible to predict, recently the big trend in the UK is for ethnic terms (first black, then Asian) to mix in with English slang to produce ‘multiethnic youth vernacular’ – some say it’s a new dialect which may influence or oust standard English in coming years” says Tony Thorne.

What’s the moral of this story? Well, to put it in a few words, be prepared for change, you can be hit with a new slang term at anytime, or even a completely new type of slang, which explains why it’s so creative and different.

OK, now its time to wrap up this slang extravaganza. Here are five slang terms of 2012:

  • Swag (style/flavor/cool) still a UK / US favorite and staying strong for this year “I have Swag for days.”
  •  ‘Dench’ – Awesome/cool “That’s Dench man!”
  • ‘Yolo’ – self-explanatory and abbreviated as “You Only Live Once!”
  • ‘Leggoo’ – Leave “Nothing left to do here, leggoo!
  • ‘Gassed’ Excited “I’m so gassed about tomorrow!”
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