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A Chat With Grant Barrett

Date:Apr 22, 2007
Time:6 pm Pacific (GMT -7)
Topic:Slang -- Degradation or reinvigoration of the language?
Duration:One hour

(Chat transcript below)

Grant Barrett is a lexicographer and editor of The Official Dictionary of Unofficial English. He is cohost of the language-related radio show A Way With Words. He also serves as vice president for communications and technology for the American Dialect Society. Formerly, he was a a lexicographer for Oxford University Press in New York City, for which he served as project editor of the Historical Dictionary of American Slang and edited the Oxford Dictionary of American Political Slang (2004). On occasion, he contributes to the journal American Speech and writes for newspapers such as the Washington Post and The New York Times.

Transcript of the chat

Anu Garg
Welcome to the 23nd online chat at Wordsmith.Org!

Today we are chatting with lexicographer and author Grant Barrett. His most recent book is The Official Dictionary of Unofficial English. He is a co-host of the radio show A Way With Words. He is joining us from Brooklyn, New York.

Welcome, Grant Barrett!

Grant Barrett
Thanks, Anu. Welcome everybody. Lurkers, too.

Anu Garg
The topic of the chat is: Slang -- Degradation or reinvigoration of the language?

Anu Garg
Grant, I have been reading your Official Dictionary of Unofficial English and I wonder why is it that some words graduate from being slang to "respected" member of the language while others stay as slang forever.

Grant Barrett
Whoa! Heavy load at the start of the job, eh? Alright. I think I can carry this piano. Let's first just accept that there are few universals when it comes to the transformations of language. Expressions/terms/words that last share a few key characteristics, though. Utility, for one. Memorability, for another.

Anu Garg
As a note to the participants: this is an un-moderated chat. So feel free to send your questions or comments any time.

Grant Barrett
So slang that is adopted into "Standard English" (I use the scare quotes to indicate that the term is flexibly defined, depending upon your expert), shares the same traits.

Grant Barrett
!!!first post!1!!!! (kidding!)

Grant Barrett
I like to use the word "cool" as an example of slang, however, that despite being widespread, still is regarded as "informal" by most mainstream American dictionaries. Despite its long history, it has yet to acquire a full patina of acceptability.

Barbara - San Francisco
Gosh, is it just me here? It's going to be a lonely chat. Or should I say, is it just I here?

Grant Barrett
No! There are many of us, Barbara. Click on the "rooms" tab then click back on "users" and your user list should refresh.

Cheryl
Are there people in the US who try to preserve "standard English" the way they do in France?

Grant Barrett
Sure. The same people who try to empty oceans with teaspoons.

Cheryl
Heh.

Louise Siddall - San Diego
Seems to me it's always the old grandmothers (like me) who are trying to hold back the tide and preserve the "standards."

Dave Wilton - Emeryville CA
Does "cool" lack acceptability, or is it just used in certain informal registers?

Grant Barrett
But "Standard English" needs some definition, doesn't it? Especially as we're juxtapositioning it against slang in this chat.

Cheryl
I'm a grad student and I've heard a lot of professors using "cool" in an almost sarcastic way.

Grant Barrett
Right--just in some informal registers. The Queen and the Pope would probably never use it in a speech (although the President might).

Dave Wilton - Emeryville CA
If the Queen or the Pope used any word, it would immediately cease to be slang. No hipster in his or her right mind would ever use it again.

Grant Barrett
I don't think you'd hear Dan Rather use it, though a local newscaster might when they do the skiing squirrel segment at the end of the 11 p.m. news.

Once they heard about it! Takes a long time for the word to get out about the existence, acceptability, or unacceptability of language.

Louise Siddall - San Diego
Are you going to define "Standard English," Grant?

Grant Barrett
Standard American English, a quick gloss: that language that, when spoken to a general audience, has a good chance of being understood, causing little affront, and causing little content as to its form ...causing little discontent as to its form... ..about its form... (i kin taip gud)

Barbara - San Francisco
What is the difference in saying "cool" now vs saying "good"? It is just an expression in daily speech to indicate the positive. But I wouldn't use it in a business document or presentation unless I was trying to get people to loosen up a little.

Grant Barrett
Barbara--cool still has many subtleties that I don't think good can go all the way to expressing, although it is interesting to see that there are uses of "good" that have, in my opinion dropped into the slang register.

msdop-Baltimore
So when do we know that a slang word is no longer slang? (I came late so forgive me if this has been addressed.)

Grant Barrett
Msdop: It's up to the individual speaker to determine when an expression is no longer slang. Very confusing. There are all sorts of invisible cues and contexts that one must be aware of.

Grant Barrett
One that causes much comment among my British colleagues is the American tendency to respond to questions like "Do you want any more chicken?" with something like, "Naw, I'm good." Meaning that one is all set, or as the Brits would have it, "sorted." Sort of.

themilum -Remlap Alabama
Hello Grant Barrett, would not all new additions of slang originate for the purpose of social function?

Grant Barrett
Well, Themilum, isn't all language a product of social function? It can hardly exist in a vacuum.

Dave Wilton - Emeryville CA
To rephrase Tehmilum, isn't all slang used as a marker for membership in some social group, a shibboleth of sorts?

Grant Barrett
I feel like a lawyer every time I say that, but that would go to intent of the speaker, wouldn't it? But yes, I think we can say that a lot of slang is about representing oneself as a member of a group.

themilum -Remlap Alabama
Granted, but some words are created for a semantical function as well ...to better transfer meaning.

Grant Barrett
Of course.

Dave Wilton - Emeryville CA
Professional jargon serves that semantic function, but it's not (necessarily) slang.

Grant Barrett
Also, see my site at doubletongued.org and, Dave, who is pressing me closely, has the fantastic wordorigins.org, too.

Jargon is almost never slang, in my opinion.

msdop-Baltimore
So if you're speaking to the DAR, you don't say "this is cool"; but if you're speaking to a high school assembly, it might be perfectly okay to use the term.

Grant Barrett
I take a very strict definition of jargon.

Msdop: Maybe. You've got to know your audience, but it's better if you're a member of the group you're speaking to.

One word: Imus.

msdop-Baltimore
Imus! good point!

Louise Siddall - San Diego
That's cool, Grant!

Grant Barrett
I'm happy the semantic function is brought up, because it's so often overlooked in casual discussions of slang.

themilum -Remlap Alabama
But all of "slang" serves to reinforce the in-group. No?

msdop-Baltimore
Is profanity slang or is it in a different category?

Grant Barrett
There is an underlying assumption that slang is expendable, but slang lexicographers will tell you that much slang fills a previously unfilled lexical gap. Most profanity is slang, according to my definition.

msdop-Baltimore
So, again, it's definitely important to know your audience!

themilum -Remlap Alabama
What ain't slang?

Maryann Gorman-PA
Perhaps you're typing in the answer to this, but what is an example of a previously unfilled lexical gap?

Grant Barrett
Slang is best defined in Jon Lighter's and Bethany Dumas' _American Speech_ article "Is Slang a Word for Linguists?" Bryan Garner summarizes their definition this way:
1. It is markedly lower in dignity than Standard English.
2. It typically surfaces first in the language of people with low status or with a low level of responsibility.
3. It is more or less taboo in the discourse of those with high status or a high degree of responsibility.
4. it displaces a conventional term to protect the user either from discomfort caused by the conventional term or from the annoyance of fully elaborated expression.

That fourth one is arguable: it means that much slang has a Standard English synonym.

Grant Barrett
Maryann: Well, for one, there are lots of varieties of the sex act that are only given names, to my knowledge, in slang.

themilum -Remlap Alabama
Name all of them.

Grant Barrett
Ha ha! Wait, let me ask my wife...

msdop-Baltimore
:))

Grant Barrett
There is one we can talk about politely. "Burner."

Grant Barrett
Who's got a def?

msdop-Baltimore
I've never heard it!

Grant Barrett
(And no searching my site!)

Cheryl
I don't know it.

Anu Garg
Give us a hint as to the domain.

Grant Barrett
There are two: Police and telephony.

msdop-Baltimore
I'm stumped.

Grant Barrett
Actually, three. Credit cards, too. But they all can be generalized.

Dave Wilton - Emeryville CA
Oh, I thought it was a sex term. It's a disposable cell phone.

Grant Barrett
"Burner" is slang for:

Maryann Gorman-PA
It's the inclusion of the police that has me stumped. Are we still talking sex?

Grant Barrett
Right! But not just a disposable cell phone. Originally, it was a cell phone that had been illegally cloned and was used to make expensive calls.

Dave Wilton - Emeryville CA
Police: extra gun that can be planted on a suspect?

Grant Barrett
Right, Dave. Also called a "throw-down."

msdop-Baltimore
Thanks, everyone, I must run.

Grant Barrett
Thanks for coming!

Dave Wilton - Emeryville CA
I've watched too many episodes of "The Wire".

Grant Barrett
And same with a credit card: a credit card that has been cloned and abused criminally.

In all three cases, we have a general sense of something that is a) criminal and b) disposable. It's very much slang--yet there's no Standard English shorthand for the idea of "a criminal and disposable thing."

Maryann Gorman-PA
Grant, do you know the origin of burner in the police usage? Like how did that word come to mean that particular thing?

Grant Barrett
No, I don't know.

Dave Wilton - Emeryville CA
I supposed it is from the idea that it is "burned up" once used

Grant Barrett
I suspect it's something to do with burning = betraying a witness. Though the phone sense, I think, was about burning new information into the phone's memory.

Grant Barrett
EEPROM? Not sure what kind of memory it was. I'm thinking of the analog, brick-like cell phones, that you could clone easily.

Anu Garg
It also burns a hole in the victim's pocket.

Grant Barrett
Heh heh.

Grant Barrett
Dave's on the other track. Anyway. Where were we?

Louise Siddall - San Diego
Burner isn't a term that has spread to the masses of youth. They are the people who look for slang terms to confound their elders and add spice to their conversations.

Grant Barrett
Maybe, Louise. I don't know about "look for slang terms to confound," though.

Barbara - San Francisco
Use slang to be deliberately ambiguous?

Dave Wilton - Emeryville CA
All groups develop terms to mark their members and add spice to conversations, not just youth.

Anu Garg
Are there some examples of lexicographers' slang?

Grant Barrett
Lexicographers don't have slang, really, just jargon. It's as boring as sandpaper.

Grant Barrett
The idea of slang as a "cant" or "pig Latin" used to consciously and willfully deceive outsiders has been pretty well debunked.

Susan - Blue Lake
How do you treat profanity in your dictionaries?

Grant Barrett
It may indeed confound, but that's a byproduct of the slang-speakers' tight in-group membership, not its primary goal.

themilum -Remlap Alabama
Say Grant Barrett, can you give an example of where a slang tern defined an abstraction not before verbalized in the English Language?

Grant Barrett
I treat profanity academically and without giggling. Folks really need at least one place they can go for a helpful explanation and definition.

themilum -Remlap Alabama
And not as boring as sandpaper.

Grant Barrett
Oh, you want naughty? Don't tempt me. : ) Here's one from the military: "bullet sponge." I did an entry for that last year.

Defined it as "a person, especially a soldier, who takes the brunt of weapons fire." Now, why is that slang? Does it mean something different from "cannon fodder"?

Maryann Gorman-PA
Isn't cannon fodder slang too?

Grant Barrett
It is.

Maryann Gorman-PA
They sound the same to me, the bullet sponge and cannon fodder.

Grant Barrett
Ah, I see: "never before verbalized." Well. That's the question, isn't it: how can you prove something was never before verbalized? You can't. You might say, "never before included in a mainstream American English dictionary."

Dave Wilton - Emeryville CA
Cannon fodder is imposed on the soldiers (always plural) by higher command--deliberately sacrificed; it is something done to them. Bullet sponge is individual and just an unfortunate occurrence.

themilum -Remlap Alabama
No. I wanted a word not a phrase that slang language fit better than any word of accepted speech.

Grant Barrett
A word isn't an especially privileged part of English that is somehow better, more pure, or more real than a phrase.

Anu Garg
Except in Scrabble. (-:

Grant Barrett
Bingo!

themilum -Remlap Alabama
Good point, even in Scrabble.

Grant Barrett
Themilum: The thing about most new words, including slang, is that they are shorthands for already extant ideas. They come about because of the need for a shortcut. That's the utility I was mentioning before.

themilum -Remlap Alabama
Have you ever aided and abetted the creation of a slang term...if so what?

Grant Barrett
Probably. I don't usually bother.

Anu Garg
Carl Sandburg once said, "Slang is the language which takes off its coat, spits on its hands -- and goes to work." Your comments?

Grant Barrett
John Updike once wrote that slang is a protest against the King's English. There are two conflicting ideas about slang in those quotes. Sandburg supposes that there's a delicacy or interfering rotundness about Standard English that prevents its users from communicating clearly.

themilum -Remlap Alabama
Smile.

Grant Barrett
Updike supposes that the need to sling slang comes about because of stubbornness and an insistence on differentiating from the mainstream.

themilum -Remlap Alabama
Updike needs to listen to Sandburg.

Maryann Gorman-PA
So, Grant, is slang a degradation or reinvigoration of language? I bet I know where you come down on this, but is there a valid school of thought that considers slang a degradation?

Grant Barrett
I suppose it is both, Maryann.

Grant Barrett
That'll seem like a cop-out, I bet. But wait. Look, degradation is, in some ways, about reducing the level of discourse, which slang almost always does. But! That degradation is not permanent. Slang is declawed, domesticated, and before you know it is lounging by the fire lapping up cream.

themilum -Remlap Alabama
Smile.

Grant Barrett
So some slang is on a path to becoming normal. It *rises* up the levels of discourse.

Louise Siddall - San Diego
Someplace between, it comes as refreshing as a cucumber salad on a summer day.

Grant Barrett
The reinvigoration is just plain true, though. It's hardly even arguable. :)

Grant Barrett
I write that because new slang is just one part of all the new language that changed English.

Maryann Gorman-PA
I suppose slang on its own cannot degrade. It would be its prevalence in media that would degrade or invigorate the media form or the culture at large, ja?

Grant Barrett
The thing about media is that they're not typical users of English. They have a different register. Or registers. When it comes to slang, one of the registers is an affect.

You know those articles: The first paragraph uses a bunch of slang words strung together in a sentence. The second one translates it all into regular English. And the whole point of the article is, "Gee! Words are swell!"

Grant Barrett
Who in real life talks like that?

Dave Wilton - Emeryville CA
I would say that slang can degrade socially, but not linguistically. Slang isn't "destroying" the language in any measurable sense. Although it may make a particular conversation unacceptable in certain social circles.

Grant Barrett
Good point, Dave. I should note that my overall stance on English is: it's not changing as fast as you think. Really, it's quite slow and ponderous. Those changes you notice, if you mark them down, are rather small and will take decades to amount to much. If anything.

Lyan Porto - São Paulo
I live in Brazil and here, the language we speak everyday is not at all the correct form.

Grant Barrett
Why not, Lyan? What is correct Brazilian Portuguese?

Lyan Porto - São Paulo
Not only because of slang, but also because of shortening of words and simply saying things we're used to, instead of what's right.

Grant Barrett
But do you understand what is said, Lyan?

Lyan Porto - São Paulo
Yes, we all do, that's the point.

themilum -Remlap Alabama
But! Would you argue that words of slang don't convey the subtleties of established words and therefor dilute meaning?

Dave Wilton - Emeryville CA
themilum: depends on the word. Some slang terms are clearer or have very subtle connotations that are absent in standard terms.

Grant Barrett
I ask, because as Salman Rushdie has written, some of what we talk about when we talk about the problems with the world boil down to "behalfism." We talk about problems on behalf of others, whereas we, ourselves, may not have the problem at all. In this case, no problem with communication.

Lyan Porto - São Paulo
If you pick up a Portuguese grammar you will learn this language, but if you go out on the streets, the correct form makes no sense.

Grant Barrett
So, Lyan, I would maintain that the everyday mode of speech IS right.

Grant Barrett
Well, then there's a problem in the schools. There's a reason all instruction isn't given in Latin anymore. : )

Themilum: Slang is only as accurate as its utterer. As is all language.

Lyan Porto - São Paulo
The language we see in grammars sound old and stupid. It is almost impossible to say a complete sentence without saying something that differs from the grammars.

Grant Barrett
Sounds like a market opportunity. "Lyan Porto's Real Brazilian Portuguese: Speak like a Brazilian!"

Lyan Porto - São Paulo
Good idea! lol

Grant Barrett
I envision books, cassettes, radio shows, the works. : )

Who else? Some of you lurkers?

Lyan Porto - São Paulo
I didn't expect this to be so silent

Grant Barrett
Lots of thinkers. They don't talk much. : )

themilum
And by accurate, you, me, we, mean as close as language conveys reality.

Lyan Porto - São Paulo
I expected not to get any attention, but as it turns out, I'm one of the only people talking here.

Grant Barrett
Conveys the speaker's reality, yes.
No, there were others before. Chats are as much a chance to observe as they are to participate. Plus, I think a couple of folks are Brits who are used to waiting turns.

Betty Maryland
Perhaps it's late in some areas of world and some are tired? :)

Lyan Porto - São Paulo
Anyway, slang has been transforming every language, and if it hadn't been for slang, there wouldn't be Portuguese at all.

Anu Garg
Any interesting Portuguese slang?

Grant Barrett
Lyan, do you know the term "Belindia"?

Lyan Porto - São Paulo
Nope.

Grant Barrett
I have a cite that says some Brazilians call Brazil that because it's rich like Belgium and poor like India.

Grant Barrett
What about "pipoqueiro"?

Lyan Porto - São Paulo
Hahahaha! How come? What's that? (I know the word, just want to know what you mean.)

Grant Barrett
Isn't it a party-crasher or freeloader?

Lyan Porto - São Paulo
Hahahaha, yes, exactly. The funny thing is, the word itself means "popcorn maker", which, in fact, makes little sense when compared to what the slang means.

It's funny to see how Brazilian Portuguese was affected by slang and Portuguese from Portugal didn't

Anu Garg
Are some languages more formal than others? Are some languages more prone to slang?

Grant Barrett
Good question. I don't think I can answer that without a lot of waffling. Certainly, we don't have anything like the vouvoyer of the French.

Lyan Porto - São Paulo
What's that?

Grant Barrett
But you can be just as formal in English without it. It's a formal way of addressing someone who is your senior or who is higher in authority.

Anu Garg
Opposite of tutoyer.

Lyan Porto - São Paulo
Got it. In Portuguese, there is the formal form "tu" for "you", but no one uses that everyday (or ever). People usually say "você" which came from "vossa mercê" which was even more formal in its original form.

Anu Garg
Before we wrap this session, is there a slang word or two that are your favorite?

Grant Barrett
That's like picking a favorite star! Well, I'd like to thank everyone for coming today, and thanks for the emails you've been sending all week. My site is http://www.doubletongued.org and you all are welcome any time. You can also catch me on the radio at http://kpbs.org/words/ .

Dave Wilton - Emeryville CA
Thanks, Grant.

Maryann Gorman-PA
Thanks so much.

Lyan Porto - São Paulo
Thanks a lot, Grant.

themilum
Wait, Grant! One question: Are committee designed words that try to direct opinions, slang? Like, for example,

Lyan Porto - São Paulo
It was my first chat here and it was a great experience, thank a lot, everyone.

Grant Barrett
We call those "factitious" words. And we are very suspicious of them. (that was to Themilum)

themilum
Like climate change for global warming?

Grant Barrett
Both are accurate, are they not?

Cheryl
Or "pro-life".

Susan - Blue Lake
Thanks for answering my question a while ago. I worked on a dictionary of Karuk and caught some flak for including profanity.

Grant Barrett
No, you have to include the profanity. When people ask me how to judge a dictionary, I say:

themilum
Smile, thank you, Grant Barrett, I enjoyed your thoughts.

Grant Barrett
Make sure it has the words "computer" and "Internet." Make sure it has the word "greenback." And make sure it has the S-word and F-word.

Anu Garg
Thank you, Grant Barrett, for being here today. For more on slang, please visit his Web site doubletongued.org where you can sign up to receive a daily dose of slang.

Grant Barrett
Thank you, Anu. You rock.

Anu Garg
Thanks to all for being a part of the chat.

Barbara - San Francisco
Thank you.

Anu Garg
Our next Wordsmith Chat guest will be Julie Barlow, co-author of "The Story of French" and "Sixty Million Frenchmen Can't Be Wrong". The topic of the chat will be "Is French still relevant?"

This event will take place on May 8, 2007, 6 pm Pacific (GMT -7) at wordsmith.org/chat/french.html. See you there!

Susan - Blue Lake
Thanks so much!

Grant Barrett
TTFN.

Barbara - San Francisco
Ditto.

Grant Barrett's picture

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