Many of the words and phrases, perhaps most, that we address in these pages are slang. But what is slang and where does the word come from? Neither question has an easy answer. There is considerable variation in what people consider to be slang and no one is quite sure where the word comes from.

Perhaps the best definition of slang is in the Historical Dictionary of American Slang, which glosses it as:

an informal, nonstandard, nontechnical vocabulary composed chiefly of novel-sounding synonyms for standard words and phrases.

This seems fairly clear, but when you get to individual cases it can be difficult to classify a word as slang or not.

As to where the word comes from, no one knows. The first appearance of the word is in William Toldervy’s 1756 The History of Two Orphans:

Thomas Throw had been upon the town, knew the slang well.

The earliest uses of slang are in the sense of a cant or argot of the criminal or disreputable classes. This particular citation may not actually refer to language, but to habits and customs. Two years later there is an unambiguous sense of slang as language, albeit in an adjectival use. From the 1758 Jonathan Wild’s Advice to his Successor, quoted in John Hotten’s 1759 A Dictionary of Modern Slang, Cant, and Vulgar Words:

The master who teaches them should be a man well versed in the cant language, commonly called the slang patter.

By the beginning of the 19th century, slang was being used to mean the specialized vocabulary and style of speech of a group or profession. From the 1801 supplement to the Encyclopedia Britannica:

A studied harangue, filled with that sentimental slang of philanthropy, which costs so little, promises so much, and has now corrupted all the languages of Europe.

Any group’s language could fall into this definition of slang. George Eliot’s 1872 Middlemarch uses it to mean literary style and language:

Correct English is the slang of prigs who write history and essays. And the strongest slang of all is the slang of poets.

Also by the beginning of the 19th century, the modern sense, of colloquial speech, had arisen. From an 1818 quotation by John Keble:

Two of the best [students] come to me as a peculiar grinder (I must have a little slang).

From quotes such as these, we have a good sense of the development of the word slang, but still no clue as to where it ultimately comes from.

(Sources: Oxford English Dictionary, 2nd Edition; Historical Dictionary of American Slang)

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