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Dictionary of Contemporary Slang

13.14 Mб







A & C Black London


First published in Great Britain 1990

Paperback published 1991

Second edition published 1997

Paperback published 1999

Third edition published 2005

This paperback edition published 2007

A & C Black Publishers Ltd

38 Soho Square, London W1D 3HB

© Tony Thorne 1990, 1997, 2005, 2007

All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced, stored in a retrieval system, or transmitted in any form or by any means without the permission of the publishers.

A CIP record for this book is available from the British Library

ISBN-10 0 7136 7529 2

ISBN-13 978 0 7136 7592 0 eISBN-13: 978-1-4081-0220-6

Text production and proofreading

Heather Bateman, Emma Harris, Katy McAdam, Rebecca McKee

This book is produced using paper that is made from wood grown in managed, sustainable forests. It is natural, renewable and recyclable. The logging and manufacturing processes conform to the environmental regulations of the country of origin.

Text typeset by A & C Black Publishers

Printed in Spain by GraphyCems


Slang and Society

Slang derives much of its power from the fact that it is clandestine, forbidden or generally disapproved of. So what happens once it is accepted, even in some cases embraced and promoted by ‘mainstream’ society? Not long ago the Oxford English Dictionary characterised slang as ‘low and disreputable’; in the late 1970s the pioneering sociolinguist Michael Halliday used the phrase ‘anti-language’ in his study of the speech of criminals and marginals. For him, theirs was an interestingly ‘pathological’ form of language. The first description now sounds quaintly outmoded, while the second could be applied to street gangs – today’s posses, massives or sets – and their secret codes. Both, however, involve value judgements which are essentially social and not linguistic. Attitudes to the use of language have changed profoundly over the last three decades, and the perceived boundaries between ‘standard’ and ‘unorthodox’ are becoming increasingly ‘fuzzy’.

Today, tabloid newspapers in the UK such as the Sun, the Star and the Sport regularly use slang in headlines and articles, while the quality press use slang sparingly – usually for special effect – but the assumption remains that readers have a working knowledge of common slang terms.

There has been surprisingly little criticism of the use of slang (as opposed to the ‘swear-words’ and supposed grammatical errors which constantly irritate British readers and listeners). In the last five years I have only come across one instance, reported in local and national newspapers, of a south London secondary school head publicly warning pupils of the dangers of using slang in their conversation. The school in question has pupils from many ethnic and linguistic groups – which may give a clue as to why young people might opt for slang as a medium of communication and not just an embellishment. Perhaps they have come to see slang as their own common language, in which they are fluent, and which may therefore take precedence over the other varieties in their repertoires (Hindi, Gujarati, Punjabi, Creole, ‘Cockney’, ‘textbook English’ etc.). The use of slang forms part of what linguists call code-switching or style-shifting – the mixing of and moving between different languages, dialects or codes. This might be done for ease


of communication, for clarification, to show solidarity or – a reason sometimes overlooked by analysts – just for fun.

In the US, on the other hand, slang and so-called ‘vernacular’ use is still highly controversial. This stems in part from the contest between conservatism and ‘multiculturalism’ or ‘liberalism’, which in the late 1990s focused on the stalled attempt to establish so-called ‘ebonics’, or black spoken English, as a linguistic variety with official status. Recently, some North American academic linguists and their students have joined with parents, teachers and adult professionals to lament the corrupting and destabilising effect of slang on young peoples’ ability to manage in formal settings such as examinations or job interviews. Their fears can’t simply be dismissed, but they seem to be based on a very rigid notion of language’s potential. The key to effective communication is what language teachers term ‘appropriacy’; knowing what kind of English to use in a particular situation, rather than clinging to rigid ideas of what is universally right and proper.

In my experience, most slang users are not inarticulate dupes but quite the opposite: they are very adept at playing with appropriacy, skilfully manipulating ironically formal, mocktechnical and standard styles of speech as well as slang. If prompted they can often provide insights into their own language quite as impressive as those hazarded by professional linguists or sociologists. For this reason, for the first time in the Dictionary of Contemporary Slang I have sometimes included, in their own words, users’ definitions of terms and comments on their usage as well as the direct quotations – ‘citations’ – contributed by them and featured in previous editions.

Slang versus ‘Proper English’

Slang is language deliberately selected for its striking informality and is consciously used in preference to ‘proper’ speech (or, more rarely, writing). It usually originates in small social groups. For these groups, it is a private code that embodies their particular values and behaviour and reinforces their exclusivity. Slang expressions may escape the originating group and become more widely used, and although slang draws much of its effect from its novelty, some terms (booze, punk, cool) may stay in the language for many years.


This may seem a longwinded definition of a language variety that most people think they recognise, but the neater descriptions to be found in collections of quotations, such as G.K. Chesterton’s ‘all slang is metaphor’ (much is but not all) or Ambrose Bierce’s ironic ‘the grunt of the human hog…’ don’t really succeed in nailing the phenomenon. (Definitions by academic linguists, apart from Halliday’s, are entirely absent.) Slang has also been referred to as ‘the poetry of everyday life’ or ‘of the common man’. Although it does make use of poetry’s rhetorical tricks (and more devices besides), poetry is allusive while slang is anything but, depending for its power on either complete, shared understanding (by insiders) or complete bafflement (on the part of outsiders).

Ask users of slang for a definition and they might come up with: ‘jargon, used playfully to prevent outsiders from intercepting the actual meaning’; ‘the ever-evolving bastardisation of the written and spoken language as a result of social and cultural idolization [sic] of uneducated, unintelligable [sic] celebrities’ and ‘cool words, words that match the style’ (all of these are from the Urban Dictionary website). One teenager I interviewed defined it simply as ‘our language’.

More specifically, slang terms have certain recognisable functions. Firstly, like any new coinage, a slang word may fill a gap in the existing lexicon. For example, there is no single verb in standard English that defines the cancelling of a romantic tryst or social arrangement, so British adolescents have adopted the words ding or dingo. To jump and hug someone from behind is rendered much more succinct in US campus speech as glomp.

Secondly, a slang expression may be substituted for an existing term – what linguists refer to as ‘relexicalisation’ – smams or chebs for breasts, blamming for exciting and chuffie for chewing gum are recent British examples. More than one motive may be in play here: renaming something makes it yours, and makes it funnier (Ethiopia!) or ruder (cunted). Using cultural allusions (Mr Byrite) demonstrates worldliness; rhyming slang (Claire Rayners) is not simply a useful mechanism, or a disguise, but may conceivably show solidarity with an older tradition.

Slang users tend to invent many more synonyms or near-synonyms than might be thought strictly necessary: for example, criminals may have a dozen different nicknames (gat, cronz, iron, chrome) for their guns, or for informers (canary, grass, snout, stoolie); drinkers can


choose from hundreds of competing descriptions of a state of intoxication (hammered, hamstered, langered, mullered). This phenomenon is technically described as ‘overlexicalisation’, and it happens because the words in question have an emblematic force over and above their primary meanings. Macho would-be seducers or studs require a range of usually disparaging or patronising terms for their sexual conquests and more than one pet-name for their manly attributes; drug users pride themselves on being able to distinguish the nuances in different states of euphoria or intoxication; cliques and gangs enjoy inventing a host of pejorative nicknames for dissing those they see as outsiders. The most significant groupings of terms in the new dictionary continue to be in the same ‘semantic fields’ as before: the categories of drunkenness and druggedness, of terms of approval and enthusiasm, of insults and pejorative nicknames and of expressions relating to sex and partnership.

The New Dictionary

Thousands of new expressions have entered the language since the turn of the century and dozens, perhaps hundreds, more are added to the common vocabulary every week. The lexicographer has to try to identify novelties as they arise and to track the changes in the way existing words are being used. This dictionary has been regularly updated since its first publication in 1990 – but this, the first edition in the new millennium, has seen a wholesale revision of all entries and the addition of about 2,000 new terms.

One of the most painful procedures for the compiler is to decide which expressions must be deleted in order to make room for new material. Contrary to popular belief, very few slang items fall completely out of use. What happens is that certain words – sorted is an example – are assimilated into everyday colloquial usage, while others are abandoned by their original users as being outmoded or no longer exclusive enough, but are adopted by ‘outsiders’. For example, a modish term of appreciation like phat, only known to a hip minority in the early 1990s, may now be heard in the primary school playground. Some words – the adjective groovy is one such – are recycled. Trendy in the 1960s, then sounding hopelessly outdated by the late 1970s, it was revived ironically in the later 1980s, before finally being used by some members of the new generation in more or less its original sense.


(Groovy is an interesting example in that, like lucre/luka and ducats/duckets, it seems to have been picked up by some youngsters who were unaware of its origins or ‘correct’ form, hearing it as crovey.) Seemingly archaic words may be rediscovered, as in the case of duffer, although there is always the chance that this is a coincidental coinage.

After much hesitation, therefore, the deletions were made on a fairly subjective basis. Genuine archaisms like love-in-a-punt (a comic description until the 1950s of weak beer: the joke is that it’s ‘fucking near water’), or the lump, designating a long-obsolete system of employment, were doomed, however picturesque or evocative. Terms which were always in very limited circulation, such as puggled (meaning tipsy or drunk) or pipe, in the sense of stare at, would have to go, as did others that were both dated and obvious, like the nicknames jelly (for the explosive gelignite) or milko (a milkman). Some, like smidgin or channel-surfing, are deemed to have become common colloquialisms.

The new expressions have all been collected since 2000 from a cross-section of the slang-using communities in what has come to be known as the anglosphere.

In a work of this size it isn’t possible to include the entire vocabulary of every local subculture, so when a range of terms has been uncovered, we have included only those which have intrinsic interest (i.e. they are witty, inventive, particularly unusual linguistically – Listerine is all three), seem especially characteristic of a community (chuddies, filmi) or appear likely to cross over into wider use (munter, hottie). There are more British terms (although ‘British’ is nowadays shorthand for a multilingual mix) than North American, Australasian etc. since the bulk of the collecting was carried out in the UK. None of these criteria are in any way ‘scientific’, so the lexicographer is still the final judge.

One thing that has not changed since the first publication of this dictionary is the relative lack of interest shown by UK academics in this type of language, relative to their counterparts in the US, Europe and elsewhere. On the other hand, students in higher education and schoolchildren have increasingly chosen to study, analyse and research a variety of speech in which they have a special stake, while, judging by reference book sales and letters to newspapers and magazines (and to myself), the general public is

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