The Poetry of Slang

Michael Adams's new book explains how slang helps us fit in and stand out. Slang has long been one of those "I know it when I see it, but...

Michael Adams's new book explains how slang helps us fit in and stand out.

Slang has long been one of those "I know it when I see it, but hell if I can define it" things, like pornography or the Yeti.But the collective understanding of slang took a giant leap forward in the form of Michael Adams's new book Slang: The People's Poetry-an exhaustive, invigorating look at what slang is and isn't. Anyone who enjoys the playfulness of informal language should love this book, which describes slang as the type of poetry you don't need an MFA or childhood trauma to appreciate.(Full disclosure: In the book, Adams mentions some work I did about words from The Simpsons. Does this mean, as the kids say, I am "in the tank" for Adams? Probably so, or you can take it as a sign that the community of word writers is a small one, and you probably could fit us all in a small tank-just feed us eight times a day and give us an OED online subscription, and we'll be fine).Anyway, I would say this is a wide-ranging look at the phenomenon of slang, but wide-ranging is far too clichéd a word to apply to such a creative book, so let's think of it as weird-ranging, or wild-ranging.Interested in Cockney rhyming slang? Check. How about neologisms like co-y, an intriguing case of prefix plus suffix, meaning codependent-y, with no root at all? Check. Maybe you like sexual slang like helm of the bobsled (A sexual position I'd discuss further if not for my editor's enhanced Taser techniques). Perhaps you're a slang scholar with a more grammatical bent, and you find sentences like "Pathetic much?" and "Tuna much?" intriguing. Double check. Nearly every corner of the slang world is covered, including college slang, African-American slang, television-propelled slang (Adams is also the author of Slayer Slang: A Buffy the Vampire Slayer Lexicon), and not-quite-slang like restaurant jargon. The introduction of these under-the-radar terms and subjects alone would make this a top-shelf bathroom book.But Slang isn't a dictionary, and these examples merely build Adams's case for slang as a type of gymnastic social poetry. Repeatedly, he insists on the social nature of slang, saying "… slang is not merely a lexical phenomenon, a type of word, but a linguistic practice rooted in social needs and behaviors, mostly the complementary needs to fit in and to stand out." And the way we stand out is through "the aesthetic exercise of linguistic ingenuity"-in other words, poetry.Poetry?Truthfully, when I think about poetry, I get a little nauseous, and I'm sure there are many poetry mavens who feel that way about slang. But by discussing metaphor, rhyme, syllabics, infixing (that's how you put ma in education and goddamn in absogoddamnlutely), and other literary aspects of slang, Adams demonstrates the poetics of slang and actually makes me feel better about poetry in the process, which I didn't think was possible.Along the way, Adams adds to his case for slang as poetry by discussing previous definitions of slang, including one by Jonathan Lighter, editor of the impressive Historical Dictionary of American Slang. Lighter said, "The aim and chief function of slang is to lower and disavow the dignity of discourse." In an email interview, Adams dismantled this idea that slang necessarily takes language for an evening in the sewer:"Slang challenges conventions about how polite we should be or need to be or want to be. So it's not just that slang lowers dignity, but that dignity is under criticism in slang-an important distinction to make. … There is a lot of playful, colorful, forced, facetious, rebellious, casual language-slang, in other words-that isn't low and that represents our desire to escape, even transcend, familiar speech. To the extent that everyday speech is boring, slang is meant to elevate discourse, not lower it." So even fairly gross slang-like diamond turd cutter, a vivid term for a tight butt-can be seen as elevating the low rather than lowering the overall lingo. And it's anything but boring, which I applaud.In his final chapter, Adams suggests that non-boringness is good for the brain as well as the soul, mentioning how unusual word uses in Shakespeare have been correlated with increased brain activity-so the novelty of slang might have a similar effect, keeping us on our neurological toes. As a collector and admirer of slangy expressions like catastrophic book tape failure and baked in stupidity sauce (both of which Adams agreed "would trigger extra brain activity in anyone who reads or hears them"), I welcome the thought that innovative language might be the lexical equivalent of a bowl of Wheaties.It should also be mentioned that, unlike so many academics, Adams (an English professor at Indiana University) knows how to write. His style is personal, humorous, and a real pleasure to read. His writing appeals to the inner linguist and the inner Beavis or Butthead in us all. If you think that's easy, you try it. Ranging from absoshmuckinglutely to zebraey, this is a book that all slang scholars will have to reckon with from now till the sun blows up. The rest of us should just enjoy it.