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Word Nerd: In context, slang ain’t so bad

Harris Academy, a girls’ high school in South London, wasn’t impressed by the manner its students were rendering the language of Shakespeare. To wit, last October it banned the use of slang by students throughout most of the institution.

School principal Chris Everitt introduced this list of eight forbidden words and phrases: “coz,” “innit,” “ain’t,” “extra,” “like,” “bare,” “you woz,” and “we woz.” Students were instructed not to use “basically” to start a sentence and “yeah” to end one. In case you aren’t hip to the slang sense of some of these words, be advised that “innit” is shorthand for “isn’t it,” “extra,” means “over the top” and “bare” means “lots of.”

A school spokeswoman defended the initiative, saying it was among many ways they were preparing students to express themselves appropriately. “In addition to giving students the teaching they need to thrive academically, we want them to develop the soft skills they will need to compete for jobs and university places,” she said.

Perhaps the school was responding to a feeling of many in British society that adolescents are massacring the beloved mother tongue. Days before the school enacted its policy, Daily Mail journalist Nick Harding bemoaned his daughter’s use of “multicultural youth English.” He questioned why his daughter and thousands of other children were committing these linguistic atrocities. Atrocities that were, he wrote, “heavy with Jamaican and Afro-Caribbean influences.”
Similarly, in 2012, actor Emma Thompson excoriated the “sloppy” language of students. When visiting a school she told pupils to avoid slang words such as “like” and “innit.” She told them, “It makes you sound stupid and you’re not stupid.”

In the main, Harris Academy’s stance drew praise from commentators. For example, Labour Member of Parliament David Lammy wrote in the Daily Mail, “Speaking slang is fine in a social
setting… but a school should be a professional, educational environment, and if part of that means banning slang then that’s fine by me.”

After The Guardian covered this story, readers’ responses largely supported the school’s slang ban. Readers saw it as a way of preparing adolescents for adulthood and believed it would better equip young people to compete for jobs.

Not everyone, however, was equally sanguine. Will Coldwell wrote in The Guardian that the
arguments against slang “fail miserably to explain why the use of slang is a bad thing in itself, beyond the fact that it’s not the language used by its critics: the language of power. If someone is likely to struggle to progress through society if they
occasionally slip an unnecessary ‘like’ or ‘innit’ into their conversation then we should see that as evidence of how shallow the values we judge each other by really are.”

While the intent of the school is good, it is unnecessary as long as the school teaches the importance of context; it would appear that many students are aware of this criterion. For example, a sixteen-year-old student at Harris Academy told a Guardian reporter, “ I know how to talk properly in a formal situation, so it will not really affect the way I speak formally but the way I speak when I am with my peers.”

Furthermore, the notion that speaking slang is nonsense is itself nonsensical. In The Language Instinct, cognitive scientist Steven Pinker wrote, “Some people worry that slang will somehow ‘corrupt’ the language. We should be so lucky.”

“When given a glimpse into these lexicons, no true language lover can fail to be dazzled by the brilliant wordplay and wit,” he continued. “When the more passé terms get cast off and handed down to the mainstream, they often fill expressive gaps in the language beautifully.”

In any case, it’s problematic to pin down what qualifies as slang. In The State of the Language, journalist Phillip Howard asserted, “One man’s slang is another man’s colloquialism is another man’s vernacular is another man’s everyday speech.” Many everyday words such as coax, chap, trip (in the voyage sense), kidnap, mob, and talent were once considered to be coarse slang usages. When we look back at the opposition to some of these words by distinguished commentators, we can only laugh at the vituperation displayed. For example, “mob” is a shortened version of mobile vulgus, the inconstant common folk. Writer Jonathan Swift stated, “I have done my utmost for some years past to stop the progress of ‘mobb,’ but have been plainly borne down by numbers and betrayed by those who have promised to assist me.” The pet peeve of poet Samuel Coleridge was the word “talented.” He described it as “a vile and barbarous vocable,” because originally a talent referred to the weight of a valuable coin.”

How ironic that today the word is more than likely to be applied to the poet himself.

All this being said, I still would not advise a trial lawyer to address a judge with, “Wassup blood?” Remember, context is king.

Howard’s latest book is How Happy Became Homosexual and other mysterious semantic shifts.

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