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 slang examples and see how they came about.
The slang of the United States has diverse origins, and it's impossible to identify the origin of it all. By definition, slang is informal and unofficial: there's rarely a stenographer around to record when a word first gets used in a new way. That said, there are a few consistent cultural themes that have shaped America's favorite old slang words.
American history is defined by an ongoing process of ethnic and social minorities assimilating into mainstream culture.Meanwhile, ethnic and social majorities appropriate things, slang included, from those minorities.
White Americans have been helping themselves to bits and pieces of African American culture for years. More recently, mainstream America has raided gay culture, particularly the slang of queer people of color, for new vocabulary. If you've found yourself saying "snatched," "slay," or "drag her" lately, give up a "yas, queen" for your local drag artist.
Not all slang comes from the gradual processes of assimilation and appropriation, however. Some words and phrases are so powerful they simply appear in the language in response to the events that created them.
Losing one's temper became "going nuclear" or "having a meltdown" with the advent of atomic power.
A series of shootings in the 1980s, all committed by a particular class of civil servants, added another synonym: "going postal."
Likewise, "moonshot," "spacey," and "far out" all owe their origins to the space race.
A subset of historical slang is artistic slang, when slang words enter English from fiction.
Ironically, "ironic" is frequently misused to describe situations that do not describe irony. True irony is a situation or turn of phrase that juxtaposes opposites, or produces a result that is the opposite of what would be expected. Rain on your wedding day, for instance, is not ironic. Rain on your wedding day if you're a meteorologist? That's ironic.
Pure irony occurs throughout American slang. Americans love to reverse the meaning of words when using them as slang. We've been doing it for a surprisingly long time: "bad" meaning "good," a staple of 1980s standup comedy, has been a thing since at least 1897. Indeed, many words follow the same pattern of "negative definition, positive connotation": dope, radical, sick, and wicked are some notable examples.
We've already written on several eras of slang. What follows is a sampling of our work and a link to those slang word lists.
Here's a sample of what you'll find in our article on 1950s slang.
boo-boo: mistake or injury
cooler: jail, detention
hood: juvenile delinquent
hot mama: sexy or attractive girl
neck: hug or kiss
Here's a snapshot of what sort of slang you might have heard, and used, in the 1960s. For more, check out our piece on slang in the 1960s.
chill: take it easy
crib: where you live
far out: amazing
spacey: odd, eccentric
Interested in the 1970s? Here's a taste of the slang. For more, check out our article on 1970s slang words.
no brainer: easy
Plenty of '80s slang is still in common usage. You may recognize a few of the following from your own vocabulary. To keep adding to it, take a look at our article on 1980s slang.
bounce: to leave, to depart
psyche: as an exclamation, "not really!" or "I fooled you!"
rad: fun, exciting
word: "I agree," or, as a question, "Really?"
We don't have a dedicated '90s slang article yet, but we do have a few bits of 1990s slang for you to enjoy.
as if: no way
bangin': awesome, exciting
bling: glitter, wealth
senior moment: memory loss
Slang from the 2000s is as recent as we can get. You're likely to recognize a few of these from daily life.
cougar: older woman dating younger man
holla: call on the phone
peeps: friends, people
ride or die: a friend or partner who's with you no matter what
Language constantly evolves and the meanings of words in it change, including slang words.
Slang is defined as informal language with widespread usage. This way, our language renews itself and changes with the times. Slang words show the attitudes of the group or subculture 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.
That said, like slang itself, the definition of what is and isn't slang is constantly evolving. In the case of American slang in particular, to the first English-speaking settlers of America, any word not used in Britain was -- by definition -- slang. Over time, those words became a part of the common language.
As G.K. Chesterton wrote in 1901, "All slang is metaphor, and all metaphor is poetry." Slang, including American slang, is descriptive, figurative and frankly beautiful despite, or perhaps because of, its messy and unofficial state. Read more from Chesterton on his quote page, or read more about slang in our 30 examples of slang words.