Slang Signals

From a review of the new book “The Life of Slang”:

“The arguments in favor of slang [are] about slang itself: it is vibrant, creative, and so on,” she writes. “These qualities might be attributed to slang-creators. The arguments against [are] largely about slang-users: they’re unintelligent and have limited vocabularies. And that’s one of the reasons why I find it hard to take sides in this argument: slang words often are witty and appealing, but not all slang-users are. On the other hand, slang-users might be perfectly charming were it not for their irritating repetition of tired slang words. …

What really sets slang apart from Standard English is the way it functions in social contexts: communicating meaning is often a secondary function for slang; it’s really for communicating attitudes and cementing relationships.”

Slang “creates in-groups and out-groups and acts as an emblem of belonging.” To Coleman, “the importance of slang in creating and maintaining a sense of group or personal identity” is paramount, and all the evidence supports her. Groups that have developed slang as a way of cementing their identity include the military, especially in the lower ranks. …

In sum, according to Coleman, “slang is an attitude (insolence, for example, coolness, disdain, admiration, or a desire for conformity) expressed in words.” … “Slang was once considered a sign of poor breeding or poor taste,” Coleman writes, “but now it indicates that the speaker is fun-loving, youthful, and in touch with the latest trends.” (more)

I suppose this helps explains why I’m not into slang. I want to talk to the widest possible audience, and to focus on timeless issues and insights, as opposed to the latest fashionable topics. I can see why people want to signal loyalty to their groups, especially in the military, but I have little confidence that this is good for the world as a whole.

While I have fun talking the way I do, that isn’t really what people mean by “fun-loving, youthful” – they mean more that if you were young you’d be sending the right signals about your being a good person for others to have fun with. You’d be a good person for the typical young person to have as a friend, associate, or lover. And that, I’m not.

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  • kevinsdick

    Or it could be that some fraction of humans are wired to make up new words when the existing ones don’t seem to be a perfect fit.  And of course, it’s the people with the most different experience from SE speakers, the young and the poor, who feel the most dissonance between SE vocabulary and what they wish to express.

    So the difference in group identity is what creates the need for new language, not the other way round. The direction of causation matters.

    In this case, you’re refusing to engage in slang would counterproductive.  You would fail to understand and engage those who supply the variability that may guide the future.

  • Katja Grace

    Whatever vocabulary you use signals that you are part of some group, or are some kind of person. And I think to some extent most people choose their words with that intention. Which is not to say that anyone consciously calculates the effect of their word choice, but that it would feel weird to say things in certain ways the same as it would feel weird to dress inappropriately for the kind of person you are. So I’m not convinced that slang is unusual in this regard. Is it unusual in having a particularly strong signaling aspect?

    • Someone from the other side

      Also I don’t buy that slang is necessarily low status – plenty of high status industries have their very own jargon that is in many ways not too different from slang… Unless of course you argue that the difference between jargon and slang is precisely the assocated status…

      • Michael Wengler

        I think calling it “jargon” indicates a positive status bias and calling it “slang” indicates a negative status bias.  I think you are right that jargon and slang are essentially the same thing.  

      • Miley Cyrax

        Perhaps the mechanism by which jargon and slang are “designed” to operate may be the distinction.

        What we call jargon works by excluding outsiders while what we call slang works by building familiarity and comfort with insiders.

        It may be a trivial distinction, but it’s what comes to mind immediately.

      •  I seem to recall Robin consistently using the term “ems.” I don’t think that that piece of jargon would be understood by most people, especially considering the large number of other English usage of “ems” and “em.”

        So how precisely does that differ from slang?

      • Bobby

         Yes.  “Em” and “Ems” I tried wikipedia and couldn’t figure out which one.  Tried “em scenario” on google, not luck.  I’d say that’s slang/jargon.

    • Robin Hanson

      Slang is unusual in how many people it excludes from understanding. Technical vocabulary is more excusable when there aren’t simple ordinary ways to say the same thing. Usually when we signal via how we say things we don’t stop lots of people from understanding what we are saying.

      • lemmycaution

         slang isn’t very hard to figure out. Look it up:

        There are inhibitions against the playful use of language, especially when you get older.  There are no such inhibitions against jargon, since jargon is not playful but serious. 

  • david3368

    The claim of wanting to reach the widest audience is not consistent with your use of “near” and “far” on the blog without at least links to older posts explaining the hypotheses, nor with your tendency to use a certain tone on topics you are actually tentative about.

    • Michael Wengler

      Given the subject matter, I think Robin’s posts reflect wanting to communicate quite widely.  Certainly much more widely than I or most of his other commenters.  The simple fact that he blogs as opposed to finding some more insular way to communicate is some strong evidence.  

    • lemmycaution

       Good point. Robin uses a lot of idiosyncratic jargon.

  • M Cyrax

    lol oh my God, can you believe Robin said that? He is, like, suuuuuch a loser.

    • IVV

      I used to be a slang hater like Robin… until I took an arrow to the knee.

      (Don’t forget the power of internet memes in signaling ingroup status.)

  •  Perhaps, once it was enjoyable to use slang and attract the company of “young” people. At present, that is no longer worthwhile.

    Better to attract a flock of pigeons.

  • Floccina

    Much technical and Professional insider language seems to exist to hide rather than to illuminate.  Slang is the same, people may laugh at you if you do not understand their slang.  

  • Douglas Scheinberg

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  • You sometimes use odd abbreviations which some might call slang, e.g. “tech” or “ems” – I recommend against using them.