Commentary by Curtis Honeycutt
Let’s face it — the trajectory of our language is trending slangular (a word I’m confident I just invented). With the proliferation and pervasiveness of internet culture, slang is everywhere. You know this is true when your grandma comments that your new shoes are “on fleek.” What is slang, and how should we properly utilize it in our communication?
It’s time to load up our slangshots to attempt to define slang. Slang is informal language spoken by a specific group of people. These words and phrases incubate among particular groups, whether they be teenagers, minority groups or certain geographical regions. Slang starts conversationally, whether or not it ever translates into written language. Using slang is a way for individuals to communicate with their own set of words that help them to identify as part of a group.
Slang isn’t jargon. Jargon is language that applies to a particular professional group. For instance, you’ll hear tons of medical jargon in a TV hospital drama: “The patient has a localized, sub-therapeutic, idiopathic, epidermal pathogen that needs to be stabilized, stat!” To be honest, I have no idea what any of that means; however, since these seemingly foreign terms are specific to the medical community, they count as jargon, not slang.
Let’s walk through an incomplete recent history of slang with examples. In the ‘20s, if you called your sandwich the “bee’s knees” or “cat’s pajamas”, you’d be saying that it was a particularly good sandwich. In the 1950s, if you had a shiner (black eye), you might want to cover it up with a pair of shades (sunglasses). In the 1960s, you’d be bummed out (depressed) if a choice babe (pretty girl) rejected your advances. If you’re still telling people to “talk to the hand”, the 1990s called from their gigantic cellphone; they want their slang term for a scornful rejection of what someone has said back.
Use slang in informal situations: In conversations, at parties, online and when communicating with people with whom you already have a well-developed rapport. Don’t use slang on your resume, in a job interview, in a Nobel prize acceptance speech, or in any kind of formal writing — which includes business emails.
Although I’m a fan of slang, you need to exercise caution when using it, especially in writing. A misplaced use of “off the chain” in the wrong context will not only lose you style points, but it could also hurt your chances of getting ahead at work.