Jonathon Green on Slang II.

A few years ago I posted an interview with the great slangographer Jonathon Green; now here, via BBC News (thanks, Paul!), is a list of “slang words and expressions that encapsulate the age in which they were coined.” They include booze (goes back at least to 1532!), dis (goes back to 1906!), groovy (it “began life meaning conservative (‘stuck in a groove’)”), dosh (which “started life around 1850″ and probably comes from “doss, a sleep, bed or lodging house, itself rooted in Latin’s dorsus, the back, on which one rests”), and many others; here’s one that was new to me (unsurprisingly, as I am neither young nor a Londoner):

Nang, meaning first-rate, is an example of slang’s current cutting edge, Multi-ethnic London English (MLE). This mix of Jamaican patois, American hip-hop, Cockney classics and the coinages of youthful Londoners has added much to slang’s vocabulary. Nang, imported from the Caribbean where it means ostentation or style and rooted in Mende nyanga, showing off, is one of the better-known examples.

I love slang, and I love explication of it by people who know what they’re talking about.

Comments

  1. I graduated high school a few years ago and “Nang” was by then already outdated, at least in West/North-West London–

    MLE is still fascinating though–once I was back from university I realised that I didn’t understand half of the slang the younger generation were using–it evolved at such speed

  2. Funny note–I had a few mates who were Polish at university–they were studying Mathematics and Operational Research and their English was quite basic as they didn’t really have to write any essays or do anything which involved a deeper understanding of English. I’d usually speak to them in an extremely standard register of British English and they commented how easy it was for them to understand things I’d say. One evening we all decided to get a few drinks in the student common room and somehow it ended up as a party of sorts with people from the building, mostly undergrad students, partaking in the alcohol-fuelled fun. One of the Polish girls started talking to a British-Lebanese guy who was also studying Mathematics. Long story short, I started talking to him and I immediately recognised his accent as being from West London. It turns out he was from the same area as me. We spoke for a while and after about ten minutes or so the Polish girl said, “I don’t understand what you two are saying”–it was at this point that I realised we’d reverted to the MLE of our secondary school days. It can be quite opaque for people outside of London and even for older adults from London.

  3. I suspect that the oldest slang word that is still slang is bones ‘dice’. The OED1 gives the following quotations:

    c1386 Chaucer Pardoner’s Tale 328 This fruyt cometh of the bicched bones two, fforsweryng, Ire, falsnesse, Homycide [So 2 MSS.; 2 read bicche, 1 becched, Wr. bicchid].

    a1529 J. Skelton Poet. Wks. (1843) I. 52 On the borde he whyrled a payre of bones.

    a1625 J. Fletcher Rule a Wife (1640) i. 9 Thou wan’st my mony too, with a pair of base bones.

    1735 Swift Full & True Acct. Execution W. Wood in Wks. IV. 246 Gamester. I’ll make his Bones rattle.

    1822 Scott Fortunes of Nigel II. i. 24 If thine ears have heard the clatter of the devil’s bones.

    1848 Thackeray Vanity Fair lxvii. 617 No, no, Becky..We must have the bones in.

    And it is listed in m-w.com, AHD5, and ODO.

  4. I feel like the OED should definitely have “Roll dem bones” from Porgy and Bess as a citation.

  5. Too late for the OED1; perhaps it’ll get into the OED3. (The OED2 only added new words and new senses; it did not update quotations for existing senses.)

  6. John Cowan: Point taken about bones. However in my dictionary I do note that booze, then spelt bouse, is first cited in the OED c.1325 (although this may refer to the vessel rather than the alcohol within). If it isn’t the first slang word, then it remains a contender. A through scouring of the MED is yet another of those tasks on my to-do list

  7. Stefan Holm says:

    Far from wishing to spoil the party I can’t help wonder: how do you discriminate ’slang’ from ’not slang’? Or, rephrased, when does an original slang word change into being a ‘decent’ one? Or re-rephrased, how many of our inherited basic words weren’t slang in days gone by?

    I’m thinking of bones for dice. Weren’t dice in Chaucer’s time mainly made of bones? Wasn’t it just by chance that dice survived while bones was (were? sorry for being a non-native) sent off the ‘cultivated’ track?

    If so, what differs this from the words in Germanic or Slavic for bear? We don’t use the reconstructed PIE root, given in Greek as arktos or in Latin as ursus but something supposed to mean ‘the brown one’ (German Bär, Swedish björn) or ‘honey eater’ (Russian medved – cf. ‘mead’). So, with the addition of the suffix in masculine genitive plural -ev the contemporary Russian prime minister carries the surname: ‘of the honey eaters’.

    Although I’ve mentioned it earlier: the perfectly normal Swedish word for ‘girl’ (or even ‘woman’) today is tjej. Just some 50 years ago this word (borrowed from Romani) was considered not only as slang but as the worst of insults (‘bitch’, ‘slut’ or the like).

    An example in the opposite direction is the modern Swedish verb supa, meaning ‘drink heavily’. The origin is the introduction of distilled products into the royal Swedish court in the 16th century, where it was consumed as a soup, (Sw. soppa) under the pretext that it was a medical cure, ie. with a spoon from a soup-plate. Non-slang has thus become slang.

    To define the oldest slang word can’t be just a peace of cake.

  8. Stefan Holm says:

    ‘Peace of cake’! Although I,m aware of your tolerance towards us barbarians, I apologize. (Why did you ever surrender to the Normans? And why did you ever allowed the Great Vowel Shift to take place?) :-)

  9. Do you distinguish between slang and colloquialisms? If so, how do you know that some word in Middle English was slang? I am not sure about bones for dice, but booze nowdays is clearly not slang if we make the distinction.

  10. David Marjanović says:

    An example in the opposite direction is the modern Swedish verb supa, meaning ‘drink heavily’. The origin is the introduction of distilled products into the royal Swedish court in the 16th century, where it was consumed as a soup, (Sw. soppa) under the pretext that it was a medical cure, ie. with a spoon from a soup-plate. Non-slang has thus become slang.

    Given German saufen “drink heavily”, “booze (v.)”, I don’t think there’s anything to this story.

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