Slang and lexical language change - an ad hoc corpus analysis

Term Paper, 2007

47 Pages, Grade: 2,7



1. Introduction

2. The choice of slang dictionaries
2.1 The choice of words and expressions

3. The choice of newspapers

4. Results

5. Quantitative Analysis
5.1. Slang and colloquialisms in internet
editions of mainstream newspapers
5.2 Slang and productivity

6. Qualitative analyis
6.1 Sex, drugs and Rock 'n' Roll
6.2 Semantic change of slang

7. Conclusion

8. Bibliography

9. Appendix
9.1 Results from : Slang Today and Yesterday
9.2 Results from : A Dictionary of Slang
and Unconventional English, 4th Edition
9.3 Results from : A Dictionary of Slang and
Unconventional English, 8th Edition:
9.4 Results from : The New Patridge Dictionary
of Slang and Unconventional English, 1st Edition:

1. Introduction

The study of slang and unconventional English has so far been rather of popular than academic interest, yet there are several publications mostly in the form of dictionaries which deal with slang in an academic way[1]. Yet slang proves to be a source of new vocabulary and often reflects social and cultural changes[2] and the study of slang or unconventional English may reveal the ways in which a language is going to develop in the future because slang is of very high productivity and presents “the most powerful of all the stimulants that keep language alive and growing”[3].

In order to show how slang and colloquial language affects a standard language, I thought that a synchronic comparison of the lexicon of a language through corpora may prove to be of high value, which is why I have taken this approach. In this small-scale scientific research paper I will compare a random choice of lexical items from different editions of dictionaries of British and American slang with a corpus compiled by myself making use of plublicly available Internet resources.

The corpus I have compiled was a random choice of news articles from all areas (Politics, Science, Sports...) from the on-line editions of the British newspapers “The Guardian”, “The Sun” and “The Observer” and of the American newspapers “USA Today” and “The New York Times”. A random choice of material is supposed to be of high value in so far as it does not lead to a concentration on certain aspects of speech and is more “readily achievable”[4].

By examining whether slang expressions have made their way into the standard language of mainstream English language newspapers I will be able to show in how far slang makes its way into the two most important standard dialects of English, thus showing how innovative slang proves to be and in how far slang is incorporated into the standard language. I hope to be able to show that it is quite common that lexical items or expressions that used to be regarded as slang or “bad English” can make their way into a standard dialect and become socially accepted and that they are not “saboteurs of value” and imperile English as a medium of conversation[5]. Thus slang or what can often be called the language of the lower classes (it may even be argued that slang is a derogative of expressions that do not fit the middle class pattern of speech) has often been subjected to criticism by those who see the language as “[...] a medium of exchange whose values must be kept fixed, as far as possible, like those of any other reliable currency” in order to prevent language change through the “[...] low, iliterate and unthinking mob”[6].

This statement of a university professor from 1951 fits into a long line of slang criticism and general criticism of language change that can be traced back to the year 1665, but had probably already started earlier[7]. Common to all this criticism is the image of decay that is ascribed to present day English and the idealization of the language of the past, which is subject to shifts as we move forward in time and “past” is redefined[8]. As a consequence the present generation always ascribed higher value to the language of the previous generation as we may see in Bailey's list of quotations by famous authors who proclaim that the language of their predecessors were “the wells of English undefiled” and showed “easy elegance, vigour and grandeur” leading to a kind of language nostalgia and a preservation of masculine heterosexual dominance, regarding English of women, homosexuals and the lower class as inferior[9]. In how far they were proven to be wrong can be accounted through the observations I have made concerning the incorporation of what was regarded to be slang or colloquial language at one time into the standard language of newspapers of today. In how far this method is sound and scientifically correct may be seen in Bauer 2002, where a similar method was applied in order to create an ad hoc public corpus[10].

Yet due to the restrictions and difficulties of corpus based studies, I have also used the data gathered from the dictionaries in order to carry out further lexical analyses, based on the information provided by the dictionaries. Thus I have come up with a combination of a small scale ad hoc corpus study and a small scale lexical study based on the information provided by dictionaries in order to to be able discuss the use of slang and colloquial English on a broader basis, than I would have been able to do if I had only relied on my concordance results. In the lexical study based on the data provided by the dictionaries I will have a look at the most common usage spheres of slang and try to categorize them and I will further trace the growth of entries and the origin of slang, thereby being able to tell which culture (British or American) is more productive in terms of forming new slang expressions and what relevance can be attributed to the different spheres of slang.

2. The choice of slang dictionaries

In order to gain a an overview over slang and language change of a time span I have relied on dictionaries from four different points in time, one from 1961, one from 1972, one from 1984 and one from 2006. For once this gives me the opportunity to trace back semantic changes in slang vocabularies as well as the approximate growth of the number of slang expressions that are acknowledged by dictionary makers. Of course I account that the growth in number of entries is not entirely due to a growing use of slang, but rather due to more refined methods of research and an overall growth of the human knowledge base. Because of that I will not draw any further conclusions from the growing number of entries but rather take the chance to trace back semantic change of slang vocabularies, the productivity of different English speaking societies and the general impact of slang on mainstream English.

The enormous difficulties in observing synchronic language change also apply to slang research which is why I will also not further inquire into the productivity of time spans – even though this would be a very interesting field of inquiry – yet too time consuming for this paper. Instead I will solely trace the growth by looking at the number of entries that were added between the different editions of the dictionaries.

2.1 The choice of words and expressions

I have made a random choice of words and expressions taking words from slang dictionaries which begin with the randomly chosen letter “F...” in my first inquiry and “FA...” in all the following ones. Due to the limited capacity of this paper I had to make these clear cut restrictions in the hope that slang expressions are equally distributed among the initial letters of the alphabet. Further restrictions to the choice of words were only applied by using wildcards in cases where several expressions with the same prefix could be summed up and showed no results, so that a more differentiated analysis would not be needed. Yet I have included the entire paradigm in the list in order to give a better account of the origin and sphere of usage of slang vocabulary, which will enable me to carry out a further analysis. No other qualitative filtering was done on the choice of vocabulary items.

3. The choice of newspapers

Newspapers may be regarded as cultural artefacts of a society[11]. They construct an audience, which may be regarded as a means to “manipulate an audience into taking a role or a stance, that they may not otherwise have taken”[12]. Language serves as a means of communicating this close relationship to a newspaper's readership and the choice of language may also reflect attitudes of a newspaper towards certain groups within a society. Especially in on-line editions of newspapers “language is above all tailored to the audience, and the new configurations of audiences together with interactivity are leading to new styles of language”[13]. Newspapers may also reveal cultural differences, which become evident in a comparison of British and American newspapers[14]. Whether these cultural differences lead to different levels of usage of slang or colloquial vocabulary may be revealed in my analysis.

The mass media do not only use different forms of language to appeal to different readerships, but they may also be called “the single most important, or at least one of the most important, instruments of language change”[15]. Thus the choice of slang or colloquial vocabulary used in mass media may be a very reliable sign for the significance of the expressions taken up, both in terms of acceptability and in terms of spread – or they may reveal the role of the newspaper in making slang and colloquial language acceptable.

In order to gain an overview not only over the frequency of slang or former slang impressions in British newspapers, I have also included two mainstream American newspapers, making available a corpus of five different newspapers, which appeal to different social classes and whose readership comes from different cultural and economic backgrounds, even though all newspapers except for The Sun rather appeal to the middle classes. The corpus contains a total of 550 web pages that were randomly copied from the newspapers' Internet sites and cover anything from sports to politics, as well as travel and world news. Of course these newspapers may be regarded as on-line resources, which at times becomes obvious, especially in the quantitative analysis of lexical items, showing results that might differ if we were looking at printed material; Yet the same writers (and thus the same speakers) are responsible for the on-line articles and the articles actually printed in the newspapers. I would further suppose that many newspaper readers nowadays solely rely on the on-line editions of newspapers and that newspapers such as the New York Times or The Guardian pay the same careful attention to their on-line editions, as far as language is concerned, as they do to their printed counterparts as only the entering of the on-line news market will enable the tabloid press to “continue for a specific readership” and to secure their “robust market position[16]. For some newspapers such as the Financial Times, the on-line editions have presented one of the biggest growth markets and become more important than the printed version[17] and other newspapers even present more and more extensive coverage of news on their web-pages than they do in print[18]. They thus exhibit the same properties of a standard language we would expect from a printed newspaper. Yet as Conboy has found out in his studies concerning the British press's lexicon slang and colloquial language of populist categories is quite often part of newspaper's common vocabulary[19].

The Sun was originally included as a measure of comparison and contrast to the other newspapers, but it surprisingly turned out that The Sun, at least as far as the slang and colloquial language examined in this study is concerned, did not differ much from the standard newspapers in the overall results except for the use of the vulgarism “fart” in one article, which is common for a newspaper that is well known for its “post-class vulgarianism”[20]. The relatively low overall results of The Sun may be due to the relative shortness of their articles in comparison to the other newspapers[21]. Even though the average printed edition of The Sun has more than twice as many pages as the average edition of The Guardian, which is also reflected in the size of their on-line editions, the news content (28%) is by far outweighed by the amount of advertisements[22] - and the same applies to its on-line counterpart.

Even though according to Sinclair newspapers may be regarded as “just one variety of English – of one group of related varieties – and not a reliable sample of the language”[23], they do show all the characteristics of a widely accepted standard dialect and reveal information about just this high standard dialect I am going to examine in this paper. According to Conboy British newspapers even show a higher degree of continuity in language hinting at a rather conservative choice of words[24]. Yet newspapers may also be willing to pick up vernacular in order to mimic a voice of “popular, carnival disrespect and irreverent jesting and flippancy”[25].

Sinclair's criticism the use of newspapers as a basis for a corpus based study in that respect should thus be limited to a general purpose use corpus which should not only rely on newspapers and be a mixture of spoken and written (both literary and non-literary) language. Further the corpus should contain millions of words in order to gain reliable results[26]. Of course my corpus does not at all reach that size but it has about the size of 550,000 words, which I would consider sufficient for the tendentious results I would like to achieve.

4. Results

In order to gain a better overview of my concordance results, I have summed them up in a table. The first table shows all the results of words beginning with an “F...” from the list of American slang expressions taken from the book Slang today and yesterday[27] (See Appendix 9.1) . Many of the expressions may appear to be regular expressions such as “to fade”, but with different semantic qualities. In these cases a cleansing of the results had been undertaken, often leading to no finds. Wildcards were added to the stem in order to include all inflected and conjugated forms of expressions and in order to include all kinds of compounds. This table shows those expressions of American origin that were considered slang in the year 1961, when the book was revised for the last time (see table 1 in Appendix 9.1).

The results of the rather short list of slang American slang expressions included in the book Slang Today and Yesterday just give a general overview of the tendency of major newspapers to pick up just some of the most common and accepted slang and colloquial expressions. Generally these expressions of American origin are equally distributed between English and American newspapers and can thus be considered as part of the standard English vocabulary of both dialects. All slang expressions that could only be found in British newspapers were to be found in the vocabulary of The Sun and may thus not have appeared in other newspapers due to their more careful choice of words in correspondence to their more educated readership. In other cases pure coincidence can not be ruled out, due to the restrictions applied to the size of the corpus and due to the different topics addressed in the newspapers. It is obvious that the word “fag” in order to refer to a gay man can only appear if an article involving such an issue is also among those listed in the corpus – and that may be pure coincidence. This reveals one of the weaknesses of the size of my corpus and of corpus based studies in general, yet I was able to show that slang is incorporated into the standard language across dialectal borders.

In the following chapters I will continue my empirical work with the use of A Dictionary of Slang and Unconventional English by Eric Partridge in its 4th Edition (1972), its 8th edition (1984) and The New Partridge Dictionary of Slang and Unconventional Edition in its first edition (2006). Thereby I will trace the lexical items that were added between 1972, 1984 and 2006 and try to find out to what degree and from what origin (sphere) which word is finally used in which newspapers, hoping to be able to show that those expressions considered to be slang or colloquial at the time have made their way into the standard language across dialectal borders. I will concentrate on the results from these three dictionaries in the next steps of this study, because the list of vocabulary was much more complete and not solely reliant on American slang in contrast to the results from Slang today and Yesterday.

As before, words that show results in the concordancer are in bold, but I will also mark changes using “+” in the second table and a double “++” in the third table – basically for practical reasons and for being able to sort the vocabulary more easily. Because of the number of words I have now concentrated on those words beginning with “FA...”., which does of course present an extreme restriction on the choice of words to be examined, yet was a necessary step to be taken in order to maintain the framework of a seminar paper. And in spite of the restrictions applied a large number of results from the concordancer could be given and a detailed qualitative analysis of the origin and growth of slang vocabulary could be given and may show general tendencies that could probably be proven in a larger study.

5. Quantitative Analysis

5.1. Slang and colloquialisms in Internet editions of mainstream newspapers

In order to gain a better overview I have summed up the results that can be found in the Appendix in the table below, which shows all lexical slang items that could actually be found in the analyzed newspaper articles. Many of these expressions show a high frequency and an almost equal distribution between British and American newspapers and we may thus come to the conclusion that these lexical items are no longer slang but must have become standard English or at least colloquial.

Table 5 :

illustration not visible in this excerpt

Of course the nowadays very common expressions such as “FAQ” “fair”, “fan”, “fail”, “fantastic”, which already make up 90 % of my findings in the corpus, can clearly no longer count as slang or colloquialisms, but they once had – and to many who are not familiar with computers and the internet “FAQ” may prove to be mysterious slang expression still. The almost equal distribution of these terms between British and American newspapers show that they are no longer specific to one dialect, even though “FAQ” and “Fantastic” have their roots in one of the two dialects. This hints at the fact that the “intercommunication between the UK and the U.S. and between each of those countries and the rest of the English speaking world has been so extensive [...], that an international form of English has arisen”[28]. This may be due to the lingua franca qualities of English that have led to a high degree of standardization of the English language through “a uniform an consistent norm of writing that is widely accepted by its speakers”[29] and the development of “one variety of a language becoming widely accepted through the speech community as a supradialectal norm”[30] exhibiting all the qualities we would expect to find in newspapers: “formal registers [...] characterized by careful pronunciation, conventional grammar and standard vocabulary”[31]. The on-line editions of those newspapers thus show what has already been proclaimed by media studies : “The Death of Distance [sic]”[32].

The over-distribution of FAQ in USA Today may of course be misleading as it reveals that on-line editions of newspapers are not comparable to real newspapers, yet this shows how common “FAQ” is among on-line resources. All of these most widely used former slang expressions come from “spheres” that are not at all questionable. So do the next five most frequent expressions, which also have either a rather general meaning or one restricted to the world of homosexuals or TV. Except for “fart” which is only published in The Sun, a newspaper not known for its most careful choice of language, all slang or colloquial expressions are from spheres that are neither common vocabulary of sex nor of crime or drugs and thus of a non-middle class background. Interestingly The Sun does not have higher overall results of slang and colloquial English than the other newspapers relativizing the claim that The Sun is dependent on vernacular and colloquial language for its commercial success[33], but the results I have come up with as far as The Sun is concerned may also be pure coincidence due to the restricted choice of words.

The incorporation of 2,5 % of the examined slang vocabulary reveals the general tendency of pragmatic shifts which changes the acceptability of words and is another important motor for lexical language change[34]. Probably the percentage would be even higher if we had a larger corpus, which reveals one of the main problems of corpus based studies: That all seemingly numerical exact findings of corpus analysis do not reflect more than what the corpora are made up of[35].

Yet what this table also shows is that on the basis of the data supplied we can not say that the United States have an obviously more dominant role as a producer of slang to be used in newspapers and thus that the globalization of the English language is synonymous with Americanization of the same[36]. Apart from this the results do so far not support the claim of Tolmach-Lakoff, who talks of a loss of civility, meaning a loss of decency in the use of language, especially among those who are talking or writing in public[37]. Yet again this may be due to the limited choice of words – and actually the word “shit” produced 17 findings (equally distributed between The Observer and The Guardian just like “ass” which produced another 8 findings in my corpus (USA Today and The Guardian).

5.2. Slang and Productivity

The table below sorts the results according to the country of origin. The information on the origin of words was taken over by the dictionaries that also served as a source of information for the following tables. Wherever reliable information on the source of slang was available an account of the productivity of different English speaking societies could be given. As we might have suspected the USA are responsible for most of the slang vocabulary that has been examined. They are closely followed by Great Britain and the two together are the originators of 86 % of all slang in this study. Yet when we look at the relevance factors the historic dominance of Great Britain still prevails, being almost 4 times as productive as the USA when we take the population (= the number of speakers) into account. I think that these results show a general tendency, even though data is very restricted and possibly even filtered in so far as slang dictionaries (even though authorative) cannot give an account of all slang or colloquial language, especially because of the rapid change and the low grade of textuality :


[1] Algeo, p. 58

[2] Leith, p. 61

[3] Claiborne, p. 247

[4] Sinclair, p. 19

[5] Bailey, p. 237

[6] cf. Bailey, p. 238

[7] Bailey, p. 239-244

[8] Bailey, p. 245

[9] Bailey, p. 245-266

[10] Bauer, p. 98-99

[11] Reah, p. 54

[12] Reah, p. 54

[13] Lewis, p. 99

[14] Reah, p. 55

[15] Snoddy, p. 18

[16] Conboy, p. 46

[17] Snoddy, p. 20

[18] Lewis, p. 98

[19] Conboy, p. 47

[20] Conboy, p. 45

[21] This is a rough estimate and was not proven in a quantitative analysis.

[22] Reah, p. 3

[23] Sinclair, p. 18

[24] Conboy, p. 45

[25] Conboy, p. 46

[26] Sinclair, p. 19

[27] Partridge 1961

[28] Algeo, p. 61

[29] Meierkord (1), p. 3

[30] Meierkord (1), p. 3

[31] Meierkord (2), p. 22

[32] Snoddy, p. 18

[33] Conboy, p. 46

[34] Algeo, p. 70

[35] Bauer, p. 103

[36] Cameron, p. 34

[37] Tolmach-Lakoff, pp. 37

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Slang and lexical language change - an ad hoc corpus analysis
University of Wuppertal
18th and 19th century English
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Slang, English
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Timm Gehrmann (Author), 2007, Slang and lexical language change - an ad hoc corpus analysis, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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