Is Slang as Swell as It Used to Be? Yas!

Often, we are treated to slang in the past as something exotic that flowered, for example, among flappers in the 1920s. It can seem as if slang is something that happens when the culture sparks up for some reason, or as a way of expressing some urgently oppositional identity, such as among teenagers. But slang is also just eternal — dirty pup, doc, syndicating. It’s just that traditionally, while norms of written language have been more formal, slang hasn’t been written down much for posterity. We encounter slang of the past today in shards, from the occasional attempt to compile a dictionary of it, or a quick article about it, although often only capturing what is heard in its place and time.

The elusiveness of how so many people actually expressed themselves in the past is much of why I cherish the informalization of public language in our times. Before the countercultural revolution of the 1960s, public language in America was largely business-casual, in feel at least, with informal speech largely restricted to unrecorded settings. The airing of teenage slang, say, or Black slang, was considered an interesting but trivial departure from the norm, worthy of a snicker after which we would settle back into the “real” English, the hallowed standard variety.

But this ignored so much variety, development and even wit, ever roiling amid people living lives beyond the printed page. With the vernacularization of public language since then, and with how social media allows so many more people to express themselves in the public square, we can be sure that the way we use language now will be resonantly available to people in the future. English in its totality is, in this way, better documented than it once was.

“I can’t even!” — the deftness of the use of “even” in that expression alone makes it worth the ticket. If you doubt it, try explaining to someone new to the language how “even” in this one conveys what you mean. Even what? Think also of the current skeptical intonation of “But is it though?” where on the “is it though” the melody jumps up about a musical fifth. If people had been saying that in the 1860s, we’d never know, because even if someone had deigned to put it in print (they almost certainly wouldn’t have), we couldn’t have heard their voices.

More: Black internet slang and rap lyrics include “yeen,” short for “you don’t even.” “Yeen know” is a dismissive “you don’t even know,” with a finger-wagging flavor. “Yeen” may pass away, but posterity will know of it because it will live online.

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