Looking Glass Language

a word bird reflects on life & language

Wordy Wednesday: slang (check out the Gizoogle gangsta slang)

A dog's portion

A dog’s portion

The word ‘slang’ first showed up in English in the middle of the 18th century, when it was defined as ‘low and vulgar words used only by people of disreputable character’. The vulgar words it describes have doubtless been around since the advent of language itself. Slang is often vivid and evocative, and can offer a tantalising glimpse into the mores and lifestyles of long-dead societies. And some of it, particularly a few of the examples of 18th Century slang I’ve shown below, I’d love to resurrect.

In the 1700s, if someone offered you a dog’s portion, the best you could hope for was a lick and a smell, whereas with a bog orange you’d at least be getting food, even if it was only a potato… Those who got very drunk (as they might well do on such meagre rations) might be berated for being drunk as Davy’s sow, and if they then vomited, were likely to be ridiculed for casting up their accounts.

A bog orange

A bog orange

If a friend suggested you hang an arse and cast an eye over an apple dumpling shop, you’d unfortunately be no nearer getting fed than you would with a dog’s portion: the suggestion would instead be for you to hold back and admire a woman’s ample bosom. And if, instead of doing so, you called him bacon-fed or a beef-head he’d probably give you a thump, because you clearly considered him either fat and greasy, or an idiot.

An erection was known as a horn or the horn, for obvious reasons, and any man having the horn (James Joyce used the term in Ulysses) was called horny, a slang word which still denotes somebody lecherous or sexually excited, though, despite its penile genesis, it is now used for both men and women.

(Many of the above definitions came from the highly entertaining Dictionary of Old Slang, which is well worth a gander…) 

Thanks to the advent of the ‘talkies’, American slang from the 1930s and ’40s gained currency around the world, with movie goers everywhere recognising that if you had a beef with someone, you disagreed with them, if you’d been on a bender and were beat, you’d drunk too much and were exhausted. A girl who was a dish sure was good looking, and if she was dynamite, she was excellent. If a black & white turned up, it meant the police were on the scene, but if someone had bought the farm, they were dead, in which case the police would still want the dope – the information / the low-down on what had happened, though if you loitered about and wasted their time, they might well call you a goof-off.

Slang from the 1980s like gnarly, rad and choice for cool or awesome or bogus as an expression of disbelief, or to show that something was wrong, and from the 1990s, such as yadda, yadda, yadda (from Seinfeld, helping to cut a long story short), tight for great, and boo ya! as an end exclamation to show that something had been done well, now seem almost as archaic as that of the ’30s and ’40s.

(Even families can have their own slang, often with obscure origins. In my family of four girls, you were said to be ‘googie’ when you were having your period: this apparently had something to do with a red-haired English actress called Googie Withers, who was popular in the 50s, although I don’t think any of us would have known her if we’d seen her…)

Television has propagated lots of slang, including Bart Simpson’s Eat my shorts!

And I’ve just come across this Google parody:

http://www.gizoogle.net/index.php to translate into gangsta slang, innit.


Fo’ all y’all biatches who wanna find shiznit…

Today’s dictionaries no longer cast judgement on the users of slang when defining the word:


Pronunciation: /slaŋ/


[mass noun]

  • a type of language consisting of words and phrases that are regarded as very informal, are more common in speech than writing, and are typically restricted to a particular context or group of people.

But that’s not to say that people don’t judge you for the slang you use: slang remains a key identifier of belonging for social or interest groups. Snowboarders, for instance, have their own unique slang, such as barge, meaning go all out to perform a trick (‘Dude, you just gotta barge that jump,’) biff, meaning to wipe out or fail, and Arctic cougar, an older woman who hits on young guys on the slopes or in the ski lodge. The same is true of sailing, rugby and other sports, as well as gangs and professions.

Despite the dictionary’s refusal to censure the users of slang, a story that hit the press yesterday reminds us that certain types of slang are as likely to see you branded as being of ‘disreputable character’ today as they might have been in the 1700s. The Harris Academy in Upper Norwood has banned certain informal, non-standard words and expressions (slang):

  • Coz
  • Ain’t
  • Like
  • Bare
  • Extra
  • Innit
  • You woz
  • We woz

They’ve also censored those who begin sentences with Basically, or end sentences with yeah.

It’s a brave experiment, which is winning the Academy widespread press coverage, and has provoked a lively debate on Twitter and other social media platforms. The Academy believes that the habit of using slang leads to laziness and breeds in its pupils an inability to communicate. And it probably also feels that they are restricting their options in life by stereotyping themselves through the use of this particular type of slang. However, a blanket ban on such slang seems draconian: a better focus might be on helping pupils understand and use register appropriately (register is the variety of a language or a level of usage, as determined by degree of formality and choice of vocabulary, pronunciation and syntax, according to the communicative purpose, social context and standing of the user). In the wider world, such a ban would deprive us of the enriching spoken word verse of contemporary urban poets such as Kate Tempest, who uses slang (just as I imagine Shakespeare did in his day) as part of a vital, inventive language, that has led to her being the first person under 40 to win the Ted Hughes award for innovation in poetry.

Performance poet

Performance poet


You can read the BBC’s article on the ‘slang ban’ here.

http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-england-london-24522809The ban on slang

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2 thoughts on “Wordy Wednesday: slang (check out the Gizoogle gangsta slang)

  1. Wouldn’t have known Googie Withers? Really, Chris! Even I remember the ‘Lockets’ property at St Austell where we holidayed as a family pre-1978. I was busy spilling nail varnish remover over the orange nylon carpet when the ‘Within These Walls’ tv prison drama was being watched avidly by the Bird clan. There was a certain incident involving Googie and shit and walls. (Sorry about that. Not leaving much to the imagination there.)

    No idea how one of you sisters got from that series to using her as a menses euphemism. But the term certainly stuck and has been shared over the decades (though the sharing has not always been appreciated).

    1. The state of being googie.

    PS. I adore Kate Tempest. We need more bright, outrageous women like her. Fantastic.

  2. Pingback: Writing Advice: Tips From Writer-to-Writer – What are Your Soft Spots? | snapping twig

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