By Earl Hunsinger
Educators have been fighting it for centuries. You may personally have mixed feelings about it; or perhaps your feelings are not mixed at all. Whatever your reaction to slang, as a concept it seems that slang is here to stay. As Henry David Thoreau said a hundred years ago, "It is too late to be studying Hebrew; it is more important to understand even the slang of today."
Of course, not all slang is created equal. Some slang, perhaps most slang, is almost literally here today and gone tomorrow. Other words have been used for centuries. The use of some slang words has become so widespread they end up in the dictionary. For example, try looking up the word "cool." While still officially listed as a slang word, it has gained a measure of acceptance. Of course, most slang is not in a regular dictionary. So, what do you do? The answer is obvious; you use the internet to find a slang dictionary.
Even when considering just the English language, there are many different kinds of slang, both historic and more modern. One of the most interesting is Cockney rhyming slang. Traditionally, a Cockney is someone born close enough to London's St Mary-le-Bow Church to hear its bells. However, the term is often applied to people from other areas that have the distinctive "Cockney" accent or heritage. According to the website for the Woodlands Junior School of Kent, rhyming slang dates back to the first part of the 19th century. In 1824, Sir Robert Peel organized the first police force to be stationed at Bow Street. Because of his first name, this force was sometimes referred to as bobbies, a slang term that became more widespread in later years. The locals of that time supposedly invented rhyming slang to conceal the real meaning of their conversations from the police and their nonces (informers). Thus "Adam and Eve" was used for "believe," "apples and stairs" was used for "stairs," "bottle and stopper" was used for "copper," and so on. At times the rhyming word itself is left out, such as saying "butcher's" instead of "butcher's hook" for "look."
Far from being dead, Cockney rhyming slang is still being used today, and is still developing. One of the best dictionaries for it can be found at the website Cockney Rhyming Slang.
At the same time that Cockney Rhyming slang was being developed in London, people in the United States were developing their own slang. The US Civil War site "Ruggles' Rag" contains a dictionary of this 19th century slang. Many of the words found here have now become accepted parts of the English language.
The Urban Dictionary contains more modern slang, and allows users to provide their own definitions of the words. Slangsite also contains the latest slang, including webspeak (slang used on the internet). For more modern British slang, Peevish Web Design of Manchester, England, developed and hosts an online Dictionary of Slang that specializes in the slang and colloquialisms of the UK. Of course, numerous other slang dictionaries also exist, both online and in hard copy.
Should you use slang? Some slang can be considered vulgar; it is meant to shock or offend. That has often been the origin of slang. Most professionals would argue that even using slang that is not offensive in itself can potentially label a person, justifiably or not, as unintelligent, uneducated, or in some other way basically inferior. Still, slang seems to be here to stay. If you use it, you (hopefully) know what it means. If not, the online resources mentioned above may provide some insight.