(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 1)

Most readers of Slang: The People’s Poetry will be surprised to learn how little they know about the informal and playful language they use every day, and they will be delighted to be educated by such a teacher as the author, Michael Adams. Drawing on dozens of sources, from slang dictionaries and works by linguists to television shows and schoolyard chatter, Adams describes exactly what slang is and how it is used. Though the material is quite technical in places, the author’s humor and his unblushing, close examination of the sort of language most of his readers do not encounter in their professional lives, make this an educational and entertaining read.

Adams begins, as any good teacher does, with definitions, separating slang from related kinds of language such as argot and jargon. In his preface and first chapter, Adams introduces what has apparently been a long-standing controversy among linguists and attempts to resolve it: First, he describes the leaders among the earlier books about slang, most notably Eric Partridge’s Slang: To-day and Yesterday (1933), which attempted to cover broad questions of definition and purpose, as well as more recent works addressing subsets of slang use, including the “wise and elegant” Slang and Sociability: In-Group Language Among College Students (1996) by Connie Eble and The Slang of Sin (1998) by Tom Dalzell.

In nodding to earlier work, Adams presents the scholarly debate as a conversation among geeky friends and his own approach as respectful, not confrontational. He says of his colleagues’ books, “All of these works are excellent in ways I can’t match, and I couldn’t have written this book if they hadn’t been written first.” One would already expect that the people who study slang professionally are not cutthroat competitors, but this reassurance, by an author who also wrote Slayer Slang: A “Buffy the Vampire Slayer” Lexicon (2003), helps nonspecialist readers settle in for an analysis that will be both serious and fun.

To summarize briefly Adams’s full and fascinating explanation: Slang terms form a lexicon that is “casual, vivid, racy, irreverent, and playful,” but these qualities alone are not enough to separate slang from jargon or argot. Jargon, Adams explains at some length, is the language of workfor example, the shorthand phrases that servers and kitchen staff in a restaurant use to communicate with one another over the heads, as it were, of their customersor the language of specialists in any field. Its primary purpose is not to include or exclude people from a group, but to facilitate workto continue the example, to get the meals delivered and the tables cleaned efficiently. Argot also facilitates the discussion of work. However, unlike jargon, argot is intentionally secret language, perhaps used by a group of criminals, and its chief purpose is to enable people to talk privately about their worksay, transporting stolen goodseven in public.

Slang, Adams explains, contrasts with jargon and argot in that it serves a purpose that is more social than functional. There are many ways to say hello to an approaching friend, and all of them will do the basic work of greeting. Using slang (for example, “hey,” “what’s up?,” “what up?,” or “yo”) serves the social purpose of establishing or claiming membership in a group. Chapter 2, “Fitting In: Social Dynamics of Slang,” shows how slang helps speakers sort themselves into groups according to race, class, age group, and so on. Specifically, though, “Slang is about fitting in to groups marked against the mainstream,” which is why teenagers continually invent new slang to bewilder and lock out their parents and African Americans come up with new slang when the old slang is appropriated by white Americans.

Like fashions in clothing, slang helps people achieve the seemingly contradictory tasks of establishing their individuality while establishing group identity. Additionally, Adams writes, “In the end, all slang is social critique.” In a section titled “Boyz in the Hood Speak Slang, Soccer Moms Don’t,” Adams picks up the idea that slang is generally considered inferior or suspect, a sign of laziness or lack of intelligence (which is why students are discouraged from using slang in their school...

(The entire section is 1778 words.)


(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 1)

Library Journal 134, no. 13 (August 1, 2009): 80.

Scotland on Sunday, June 7, 2009, p. 15.