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Professor Julie Coleman

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The Origins Of 7 Popular Slang Words

Posted: 05/22/2012 4:04 pm

Slang is a subject guaranteed to divide opinion. Some people celebrate its raw democratic creativity and revel in its irrelevance and political incorrectness. Others consider it a sign of vulgarity to use slang at all and argue that it lowers morals and indicates a limited vocabulary and low intelligence. I don't agree with either. For me, slang is at the social interface of language. Slang words aren't linguistically different from other words, except that they keep on moving. It is my considered opinion that slang is a bag of snakes.

Words slither easily from slang into colloquial language, jargon and dialect and back again the other way. And they change in meaning and use too. All the time. It would be bad enough if this was sequential, but it's all going on at the same time, so that what I use as slang might sound dialectal to you, and your colloquialism might sound slangy to me. What seems like a novel witticism to me might sound stupidly clichéd. When it leaves your mouth, a word might mean one thing; when it reaches my ear, it might mean something else entirely.

Some potential misunderstandings occur between the generations, but they're also possible across national lines. A British person who's pissed is drunk, not angry (that's pissed off). When an Australian describes someone as arsey, they mean "lucky," but in Britain it means "uncooperative, difficult." Cozzie means "swimming costume" in Australia, "police officer" in Britain. Fanny and fag mean "butt" and "male homosexual" in the U.S., "female genitals" and "cigarette" in the UK. Plenty of opportunity for miscommunication there!

Introducing seven slang words and phrases and their curious journey...

Julie Coleman is the author of Life of Slang [Oxford University Press, $27.95].

Geek
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Geek "an expert in computers or science" (1984) is an obvious extension of "an unsociable and over-diligent student" (1957). The earlier meaning was usually entirely negative, but the later one can be neutral or even positive. Both originated in the US, as did the meaning "a carnival performer (especially one who bites the heads off live animals)" (1919), but the carnival performer isn't the origin of geek.

Geek was first used in northern British dialects to mean "a fool" (1876), like the related terms gawk (1837) and gowk (a1605). Gowk "a cuckoo" (c1325) was introduced to Britain by Viking invaders. This makes "cuckoo" an appropriate response to being called a geek - 100% guaranteed to improve your social status.
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