History of the English Langauge


All over the world, thousands of English slang words and expressions are used and dictionaries of all kinds of slang are published.  The first slang dictionary was published in 1698 and consisted largely of criminal slang.

Slang is very inventive and is often funny and colorful. Slang can have several meanings: the expressions and words used by a group of people to show that they belong to a particular group; language that is not used in official situations because it can be too impolite or too new; any new words or new meanings of old words that are used in everyday conversations.

            Here are a few examples of slang words with their meanings.

American Slang                                          

Awesome        very good       

Check it out!  look at it to find out if it’s ok                                                

Get real!         accept reality

No way!          absolutely not

Australian Slang

Daggy             untidy

Rack off!         go away

Ripper             very good

Sunnies           sunglasses

Irish Slang                           

Banjxed          broken

Cat                  no good, awful

Flah                an attractive person

Langers          drunk             

South African Slang

Howzit            hello, nice to see you

Jol                   party, a good time

Lekker            nice, good

Oke                 man, guy
People using slang get bored with it and create new words to keep puzzling outsiders, so slang can change quite quickly. Yet some slang lasts longer. For example, bum has been used as an impolite word for bottom [part of the body] since the fourteenth century. Some slang belonging to a group can become part of general slang. For example, in the twentieth century the word wimp meaning weak person moved from American teenage slang into general slang.  Slang can eventually become part of Standard English. For example, while row, meaning disturbance in the eighteenth century was used as slang,  it now is an acceptable word. Other slang words change meaning over time. For example, in American English previous meant arriving too soon in the 1900s, in the 1920s it meant tight referring to clothes, and now it can mean a bit rude. In Australian slang, swag first meant things stolen by a thief and later came to mean things carried by a traveling person.

Rhyming slang used by the Cockneys of East London is very colorful and inventive. Here, part of the slang expression rhymes with a Standard English word. For example, bread and honey means money, plates of meat means feet. One may hear, I need some bread which means I need some money. Rhyming slang can also rhyme with names of places and people. For example, Britney Spears means beers. Rhyming slang is common in Australia and America.

Slang’s inventive role in language means that new words are always appearing and disappearing. Only the small groups that created them use some slang words, others have become part of national or international slang,  and others may cross over into everyday spoken language. Thus, slang is an important source of new words in Standard English.

Reference: Viney, Brigit (1993)  History of the English Language, Oxford Book Worms Fact Files  New York, NY: Oxford University Press New York

Rosemary McShan was an EXCEL supervisor for two years and continues to be involved with the EXCEL program.  She is currently living in California but is planning on moving to her native Australia some time soon.