The history of American slang words is very interesting. Slang words are kind of like jargon; they are used in certain groups and understood by the group members. Let’s look at some examples of slang words and see how they came about.
Language constantly evolves and the meanings of words in it change. Slang refers to words or phrases that begin to be used in a widespread way. This way, our language renews itself and changes with the times. Slang words show the attitudes of the group or sub-culture that uses them. Slang can appear as a brand new word, a new meaning for an existing word, an abbreviation for a word, or a word that becomes more generalized than its former, narrow meaning.
It may help to go over what is not considered slang. It is not dialect, colloquialism, or catch phrases, where both parties are familiar with the references, like “Beam me up, Scotty” from Star Trek. It is not jargon, which is limited to a certain field, or slogans used in advertising. Graffiti is not slang, nor is any special language used in a secret group.
The history of American slang words starts around the 17th century. By the 18th century, the differences between America and other English speaking countries prompted the evolution of slang. For a time, any words not used in Britain were considered slang. Originally considered to be the language of foreigners and criminals, slang began to be used by writers in the 1900s. So the history of American slang words started as America started and continues today.
There are many reasons people use slang words and expressions. It can be used just for fun or as a way to be witty or clever. You can use it to be different or startling. Even if you don’t know it, slang enriches the language. Many use it as a way to be friendly, or to show that they belong to a certain group or profession. Some engage in slang usage to be secretive, like those in secret societies, children, students, or prisoners.
Slang is a way of using descriptive or figurative language. It sometimes is irreverent and humorous. Slang expressions describe activities or objects. There is a high number of slang terms associated with the activity or object if it is prevalent. In 1901, G. K. Chesterton wrote “All slang is metaphor, and all metaphor is poetry,” in Defence of Slang.
The best way to learn the meaning and origin of slang words is to look at a dictionary of slang words. The dictionary will tell you what a slang word means and when it started being used. For example, “bad” has been used to mean “good” since 1897, and “dude” which means a “guy”, first appeared in the 1870s. One slang dictionary’s website is: http://www.alphadictionary.com/slang. You can also browse certain years to which slang words appeared during that time. Here are five common slang words and expressions from each decade: