Special Colloquial Vocabulary


Иностранные языки, филология и лингвистика

The first thing that strikes the scholar is the fact that no other European language has singled out a special layer of vocabulary and named it slang though all of them distinguish such groups of words as jargon cant and the like. Webster's Third New International Dictionary gives the following meanings of the term: Slang [origin unknown] 1: language peculiar to a particular group: as a: the special and often secret vocabulary used by class as thieves beggars; b: the jargon used by or associated with a particular trade profession or...



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Основы теории изучаемого языка                                                                         Стилистика английского языка

                                                                Лекция 5

                                                                                                 Special Colloquial Vocabulary

Lecture 5

Special Colloquial Vocabulary


There is hardly any other term that is as ambiguous and obscure as the term slang. Slang seems to mean everything that is below the standard of usage of present-day English.

Much has been said and written about it. This is probably due to the uncertainty of the concept itself. No one has yet given a more or less satisfactory definition of the term. Nor has it been specified by any linguist who deals with the problem of the English vocabulary.

The first thing that strikes the scholar is the fact that no other European language has singled out a special layer of vocabulary and named it slang, though all of them distinguish such groups of words as jargon, cant, and the like. Why was it necessary to invent a special term for something that has not been clearly defined as jargon or cant have? Is this phenomenon specifically English? Has slang any special features which no other group within the non-literary vocabulary can lay claim to? The distinctions between slang and other groups of unconventional English, though perhaps subtle and sometimes difficult to grasp, should nevertheless be subjected to a more detailed linguistic specification.

Webster's "Third New International Dictionary" gives the following meanings of the term:

Slang [origin unknown] 1: language peculiar to a particular group: as a: the special and often secret vocabulary used by class (as thieves, beggars); b: the jargon used by or associated with a particular trade, profession, or field of activity; 2: a non-standard vocabulary coin-posed of words and senses characterized primarily by connotations of extreme informality, limited to a particular region and composed typically of coinages or arbitrarily changed words, clipped or shortened forms, extravagant, forced or facetious figures of speech, or verbal novelties usu. experiencing quick popularity and relatively rapid decline into disuse.

The "New Oxford English Dictionary" defines slang as follows:

"a) the special vocabulary used by any set of persons of a low or disreputable character; language of a low and vulgar type. (Now merged in c. /cant/)', b) the cant or jargon of a certain class or period; c) language of a highly colloquial type considered as below the level of standard educated speech, and consisting either of new words or of current words employed in some special sense."

However, what is the difference between jargon and slang, or cant and slang in this case?

The main point of slang is that it is used to escape the dull familiarity of standard words, to suggest an escape from the established routine of everyday life. When slang is used, our life seems a little fresher and a little more personal. Also, as at all levels of speech, slang is sometimes used for the pure joy of making sounds, or even for a need to attract attention by making noise. The sheer newness and informality of certain slang words produce pleasure.

That’s why let admit the slang as a part of the vocabulary consisting of commonly understood and widely used words and expressions of humorous or derogatory character – intentional substitutes for neutral or elevated words and expressions. The words which are called slang are very often either mispronounced or distorted in some way phonetically, morphologically or lexically.


to do a flit— 'to quit one's flat or lodgings at night without paying the rent or board'


the cat's pyjamas—'the correct thing



In the non-literary vocabulary of the English language there is a group of words that are called jargonisms. Jargon is a recognized term for a group of words that exists in almost every language and whose aim is to preserve secrecy within one or another social group. Jargonisms are generally old words with entirely new meanings imposed on them. The traditional meaning of the words is immaterial, only the new, improvised meaning is of importance. Most of the Jargonisms of any language, and of the English language too, are absolutely incomprehensible to those outside the social group which has invented them. They may be defined as a code within a code, that is special meanings of words that are imposed on the recognized code—the dictionary meaning of the words.

Thus the word grease means 'money'; loaf means 'head'; a tiger hunter is 'a gambler'; a lexer is 'a student preparing for a law course'.

Jargonisms are social in character. They are not regional. In Britain and in the US almost any social group of people has its own jargon. The following jargons are well known in the English language: the jargon of thieves and vagabonds, generally known as cant; the jargon of jazz people; the jargon of the army, known as military slang; the jargon of sportsmen, and many others.

Slang, contrary to jargon, needs no translation. It is not a secret code. It is easily understood by the English-speaking community and is only regarded as something not quite regular. It must also be remembered that both jargon and slang differ from ordinary language mainly in their vocabularies. The structure of the sentences and the morphology of the language remain practically unchanged. But such is the power of words, which are the basic and most conspicuous element in the language, that we begin unwittingly to speak of a separate language.

Jargonisms do not always remain the possession of a given social group. Some of them migrate into other social strata and sometimes become recognized in the literary language of the nation.

There is a common jargon and there are also special professional jargons. Common Jargonisms have gradually lost their special quality, which is to promote secrecy and keep outsiders in the dark. In fact, there are no outsiders where common jargon is concerned. It belongs to all social groups and is therefore easily understood by everybody. That is why it is so difficult to draw a hard and fast line between slang and jargon. When a jargonism becomes common, it has passed on to a higher step on the ladder of word groups and becomes slang or colloquial.

Here are some examples of jargon:

Piou-Piou—'a French soldier, a private in the infantry'. According to Eric Partridge this word has already passed from military jargon to ordinary colloquial speech.

Humrnen—'a false arrest* (American)

Dar—(from damned average raiser)—'a persevering and assiduous student'. (University jargon)

Matlo(w)—'a sailor' (from the French word 'matelof)

Man and wife—'a knife' (rhyming slang)

Manany—'a sailor who is always putting off a job or work' (nautical jargon) (from the Spanish word 'mamma'—tomorrow')

Jargonisms, like slang and other groups of the non-literary layer, do not always remain on the outskirts of the literary language. Many words have overcome the resistance of the language lawgivers and purists and entered the standard vocabulary. Thus the words kid, fun, queer, bluff, fib, humbug, formerly slang words or Jargonisms, are now considered common colloquial. They may be said to be dejargonized.


Professionalisms, as the term itself signifies, are the words used in a definite trade, profession or calling by people connected by common interests both at work and at home. They commonly designate some working process or implement of labour. Professionalisms are correlated to terms. Terms, as has already been indicated, are coined to nominate new concepts that appear in the process of, and as a result of, technical progress and the development of science.

Professional words name anew already-existing concepts, tools or instruments, and have the typical properties of a special code. The main feature of a professionalism is its technicality. Professionalisms are special words in the non-literary layer of the English vocabulary, whereas terms are a specialized group belonging to the literary layer of words. Terms, if they are connected with a field or branch of science or technique well-known to ordinary people, are easily decoded and enter the neutral stratum of the vocabulary. Professionalisms generally remain in circulation within a definite community, as they are linked to a common occupation and common social interests. The semantic structure of the term is usually transparent and is therefore easily understood. The semantic structure of a professionalism is often dimmed by the image on which the meaning of the professionalism is based, particularly when the features of the object in question reflect the process of the work, metaphorically or metonymically. Like terms, professionalisms do not allow any polysemy, they are monosemantic.

Here are some professionalisms used in different trades: tin-fish (submarine); block-buster (a bomb especially designed to destroy blocks of big buildings); piper (a specialist who decorates pastry with the use of a cream-pipe); a midder case (a midwifery case).

Professionalisms should not be mixed up with jargonisms. Like slang words, professionalisms do not aim at secrecy. They fulfill a socially useful function in communication, facilitating a quick and adequate grasp of the message.

Professionalisms are used in emotive prose to depict the natural speech of a character. The skilful use of a professional word will show not only the vocation of a character, but also his education, breeding, environment and sometimes even his psychology. That is why, perhaps, a literary device known as speech-characterization is so abundantly used in emotive prose. The use of professionalisms forms the most conspicuous element of this literary device.

Dialectal words

This group of words is obviously opposed to the other groups of the non-literary English vocabulary and therefore its stylistic, functions can be more or less clearly defined. Dialectal words are those which in the process of integration of the English national language remained beyond its literary boundaries, and their use is generally confined to a definite locality. We exclude here what are called social dialects or even the still looser application of the term as in expressions like poetical dialect or styles as dialects.

There is sometimes a difficulty in distinguishing dialectal words from colloquial words. Some dialectal words have become so familiar in good colloquial or standard colloquial English that they are universally accepted as recognized units of the standard colloquial English. To these words belong lass, meaning 'a girl or a beloved girl’ and the corresponding lad, 'a boy or a young man’, daft from the Scottish and the northern dialect, meaning 'of unsound mind, silly’; fash also Scottish, with the meaning of 'trouble, cares'. Still they have not lost their dialectal associations and therefore are used in literary English with the above-mentioned stylistic function of characterization.

Of quite a different nature are dialectal words which are easily recognized as corruptions of standard English words, although etymologically they may have sprung from the peculiarities of certain dialects. The following words may serve as examples: hinny from honey; tittle apparently from sister, being a childish corruption of the word; cutty meaning a 'testy or naughty girl or woman’.

Most of the examples so far quoted come from the Scottish and the northern dialects. This is explained by the fact that Scotland has struggled to retain the peculiarities of her language. Therefore many of the words fixed in dictionaries as dialectal are of Scottish origin.

Among other dialects used for stylistic purposes in literature is the southern dialect (in particular that of Somersetshire). This dialect has a phonetic peculiarity that distinguishes it from other dialects, viz. initial [s] and [f] are voiced, and are written in the direct speech of characters as [z] and V, for example: 'volk’ (folk), 'vound’ (found), 'zee’ (see), 'zinking’ (sinking).

Dialectal words are only to be found in the style of emotive prose, very rarely in other styles. And even here their use is confined to the function of characterizing personalities through their speech.

Vulgar words or vulgarisms

vulgarisms are:

1) expletives and swear words which are of an abusive character, like 'damn', 'bloody', ‘hell', 'goddam' and, as some dictionaries state, used now as general exclamations;

2) obscene words. These are known as four-letter words the use of which is banned in any form of intercourse as being indecent.

Vulgarisms are often used in conversation out of habit, without any thought of what they mean, or in'imitation of those who use them in order not to seem old-fashioned or prudish. Unfortunately in modern fiction these words have gained legitimacy. The most vulgar of them are now to be found even in good novels. This lifting of the taboo has given rise to the almost unrestrained employment of words which soil the literary language. However, they will never acquire the status of standard English vocabulary and will always remain on the outskirts.

The function of expletives is almost the same as that of interjections, that is to express strong emotions, mainly annoyance, anger, vexation and the like. They are not to be found in any functional style of language except emotive prose, and here only in the direct speech of the characters.

The language of the underworld is rich in coarse words and expressions. But not every expression which may be considered coarse should be regarded as a vulgarism. Coarseness of expression may result from improper grammar, non-standard pronunciation, from the misuse of certain literary words and expressions, from a deliberate distortion of words. These are improprieties of speech but not vulgarisms. Needless to say the label coarse is very frequently used merely to designate an expression which lacks refinement. But vulgarisms, besides being coarse properly, are also rude and emotionally strongly charged and, like any manifestation of excess of feelings, are not very discernible as to their logical meaning.

Colloquial coinages (words and meanings)

Colloquial coinages (nonce-words), unlike those of a literary-bookish character, are spontaneous and elusive. This proceeds from the very nature of the colloquial words as such. Not all of the colloquial nonce-words are fixed in dictionaries or even in writing and therefore most of them disappear from the language leaving no trace in it whatsoever.

Unlike literary-bookish coinages, nonce-words of a colloquial nature are not usually built by means of affixes but are based on certain semantic changes in words that are almost imperceptible to the linguistic observer until the word finds its way into print.

It is only a careful stylistic analysis of the utterance as a whole that will reveal a new shade of meaning inserted into the semantic structure of a given word or word-combination.

The example where a writer makes use of a newly invented colloquial expression, evidently strongly appreciating its meaning, may be noticed in "In Chancery", where Galsworthy uses to be the limit in the sense of 'to be unbearable' and comments on it:

"Watching for a moment of weakness she wrenched it free; then placing the dining-table between them, said between her teeth: You are the limit, Monty." (Undoubtedly the inception of this phrase—so is English formed under the stress of circumstance.)

New expressions accepted by men-of-letters and commented on in one way or another are not literary coinages but colloquial ones. New literary coinages will always bear the brand of individual creation and will therefore have more or less precise semantic boundaries. The meaning of literary coinages can easily be grasped by the reader because of the use of the productive means of word-building, and also from the context, of course.

This is not the case with colloquial nonce-words. The meaning of these new creations creeps into well-known words imperceptibly. One hardly notices the process leading to the appearance of a new meaning. Therefore colloquial nonce-formations are actually not new words but new meanings of existing words.



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