English slang words have, for many years, been considered to lay beyond the purview of older, adult speakers, and instead be mainly utilized by younger generations. In fact, a common stereotypical complaint of older generations is often how young people are destroying the English language with their “slangy” innovations, and that slang should not be acceptable, and thus not be present, in everyday conversations and interactions. At the same time, there are certain words used by both older and younger generations that, while certainly slang, are considered by older generations acceptable to use in ordinary conversation. What, if anything, changes as a generation ages that causes people of that generation to view with dislike certain slang words of new generations, but accept and even use other slang words? Specifically, do older generations of Vermonters view certain types or categories of slang words as being more unacceptable than younger generations of Vermonters, while viewing other categories of slang words at the same levels of acceptability as the younger generations? The purpose of this report is to determine whether or not a difference in acceptability of slang words exists for older Vermont generations, and to argue that, far from being based on whether or not a word is “slangy”, such a difference is based on not the meaning but the connotation of that word.
There has been much literature on the origins and history of usage of slang terms, as well as studies on the usage of slang by different populations. Unfortunately, none of this literature has concerned Vermont populations, but much of what has been published can be utilized when looking at slang usage in different Vermont generations.
In 2004, Robert L. Moore published an article titled “We’re Cool, Mom and Dad are Swell: Basic Slang and Generational Shifts in Value” in the journal American Speech. This article traced the origins, usage, and transformation of the words “swell” and “cool.” The article also looked at the varying definitions of slang, and how all definitions have slang being “informal” and of “low dignity.” Moore contrasts this to what he calls “basic slang”, or a word which “serve(s) a particular affective function, and, in doing so, it manages to remain fresh despite its pervasive use in countless contexts over a period of many years,” (Moore). Moore then goes on to examine the basic slang word “swell”, and describe how the word was phased out and “cool” became the new basic slang word, with each word serving to differentiate generations; that is, “swell” was used after the generational break that saw society move away from Victorian society, and “cool” was used after the generational break in the late 1950s/early 1960s. Moore finishes by readdressing the issue of slang, and how basic slang, such as “swell” and “cool”, which are both informal, pervasive through all of society, and long-running, differ from slang such as “okay” (pervasive, long-running, but not informal to the degree of slang) and “hip” (very informal, long-running, but not pervasive); he mentions that the pervasiveness and informality of basic slang is what gives basic slang power to last many years, but that it can only last until another generational break, when a new generation will adopt a new basic slang word.
In 2002, Robert Wachal published an article in American Speech titled “Taboo or Not Taboo: That is the Question.” This article examines the inclusion of taboo words, or swears, in various dictionaries in relation to the appearance of such words in mainstream culture, using television, radio, movies, newspapers, magazines and a survey of college students as a guideline. Wachal presents an extensive list of taboo terms, as defined by the survey of college students, which includes 40 terms for body parts or functions and 27 for terms for ethnic groups. He began by examining how often the body words are used in various sources of media, and comparing the number of occurrences to how often these body words appear in dictionaries, and, when they do, how often they’re labeled as “slang” or taboo words. He then went on to look at how often the terms for ethnic groups could be found in dictionaries, and how often they were labeled as slang or otherwise taboo. Wachal found that the terms for ethnic groups are much more likely to receive a negative marking from dictionaries, such as “‘colloquial and usually offensive,’ ‘vulgar and derisive,’ ‘derogatory and racially offensive,’ ‘disparaging,’; and ‘taboo and viciously hostile,'” (Wachal). He also found that the ethnic terms were more likely to be in more dictionaries than the body terms, including what he lists as fairly common terms such as “butthead”, “poop”, and “weenie”. Wachal finishes by noting dictionaries are not adapting to the more frequent use of body terms in the media, and he advocates a more thorough job by lexicographers in terms of including such common body terms, even if they are listed as “slang”. This article is important to the purpose of this paper as it clearly shows that slang words can be and frequently are placed in categories that vary in how acceptable they are viewed to be by society.
Finally, in 2001, Thomas C. Cooper published the article “‘Does it Suck’ or ‘Is It for the Birds?’ Native Speaker Judgement of Slang Expressions.” This article examines the acceptability of slang usage by Americans as a way of looking at teaching the nuances of slang to people learning English as a second language. Cooper collected a survey of 64 individuals, in which he listed a number of slang expressions, and asked the respondents to determine whether an expression was slang or not, and also to rate the expressions on a scale of 1 to 3, with 1 meaning an expression was “offensive and not socially acceptable”, 2 meaning the expression was “probably socially inappropriate” and 3 meaning the expression was “not objectionable in any way and can be freely used,” (Cooper). Cooper found that “the more generally acceptable a word or expression is, the less likely it is to be classified as slang,” (Cooper).
Cooper also found that: people aged 21-30 were the most likely to judge slang words as acceptable to use; people currently attending college or having achieved an undergraduate degree were more likely to view slang words as acceptable to use than people who had completed a graduate program, or people who had only completed high school; women and men were statistically equally likely to use slang; certain “trigger words”, such as profanity and racist or sexist terms, would make expressions much more likely to be labeled unacceptable for use; and old fashioned phrases were more likely to be acceptable, but also more likely to be called “slang”. Cooper finishes by noting slang seems to appear more and more frequently in mass media, but people don’t necessarily approve of it, even if they do use limited slang with friends and family. Cooper’s article is particularly relevant to this paper as it identifies the concept of “trigger words” which cause slang to be labeled more unacceptable. One problem with Cooper’s study was that all the respondents were from the South; a number of responses he received talked about how people who used slang weren’t of good upbringing, or that it wasn’t lady-like to speak that way, or that slang was inappropriate in most, if not all, situations, and people who used it sounded uneducated.
To collect data, this paper used a survey similar to the one utilized by Cooper in his article “Does it Suck?” The survey was administered both online and in person to 19 people ranging in age from 14 to 66. Respondents were asked to evaluate a list of slang terms based on just how slangy the word was, and how acceptable they considered the word to be. The word list is as follows: cool; sweet; money; awesome; peace; wicked; dope; sucks; bites; wasted; and trashed. The respondents chose a number from a scale of 1 through 3 for each of the variables (slanginess and acceptability). For the slanginess variable, a 1 meant the word was not very “slangy”, a 2 meant the word was sort of slangy, and a 3 meant the word was extremely or very slangy. For the acceptability scale, a 1 meant the word was acceptable in any situation, a 2 meant the word was acceptable in limited situations, and a 3 meant the word was not at all acceptable, or only acceptable in very limited situations.
The words themselves were chosen specifically to represent certain categories of words. The first category, represented by “cool”, “sweet”, “money”, “awesome”, and “peace”, is meant to encompass words that mean “good” or “great”, and have no negative connotation associated with the word itself. (Of course, negative connotations vary depending on who is considering the word; common sense was used in deciding the categories). The second category was represented by the words “wicked” and “dope”, and was meant to encompass words meaning “great” but having a negative connotation. The third category was represented by the words “sucks” and “bites”, and was meant to encompass words meaning “is very bad” with a negative and sexual connotation. The fourth category was represented by the words “wasted” and “trashed”, and was meant to encompass words meaning “drunk” and with a negative connotation. This was done to determine if there were certain categories judged to be more acceptable than other categories by older generations of Vermonters in relation to younger generations.
The data collected by the above method indicates that there is in fact a difference between the four categories previously identified, in terms of how acceptable older generations of Vermonters find them in relation to younger generations of Vermonters. For the purpose of brevity, a sample of words have been taken from each group and graphed to show this relationship; from the first group are the words “cool”, “sweet” and “awesome”; from the second group, “wicked”; from the third group, “sucks” and “bites”, and from the fourth group, “wasted”.
Data from the first category (“great” words with no negative connotations), represented by “cool”, “sweet”, and “awesome”, shows that there is not much difference between how older generations of Vermonters view the acceptability of the words and how younger generations of Vermonters view the acceptability. In fact, for the words awesome and sweet, older generations tended to view them as slightly more acceptable, as evidenced by the negative slopes of the regression lines, (the lower the score, the more acceptable a word is). For the word cool, the regression line has a slightly positive slope (.00434). For all of these graphs, however, the slope is so tiny that is statistically insignificant, and it is enough to say that the data shows the younger and older generations largely in accordance to how acceptable words are from this category.
Data from the second category (“great” words with a negative connotation), represented by the word “wicked”, shows that once again, there is not much difference between the younger and older generations of Vermonters in terms of how they view the acceptability of the word. The slope of the regression line, while negative, is very small, again indicating accordance.
The data from the third category (“bad”, with a negative and sexual connotation), as represented by the words “bites” and “sucks”, shows that the older generations of Vermonters view the words from this category as being less acceptable than younger generations. The positive slopes of both regression lines are stronger than any of the slopes previously seen. It should be noted that, in general, this category was rated comparatively less acceptable than the other three categories by all generations.
Data from the fourth category, (words meaning drunk with a negative connotation), represented here by the word “wasted”, shows that once again the older generations of Vermonters are largely in accordance with the younger generations of Vermonters in how acceptable the word is. The slope of the regression line, while positive, is extremely small, and it is enough to realize the generations agree on the acceptability of the words in this category.
The results of the survey show that, while both older and younger generations of Vermonters are in accordance with how acceptable words are from the first, second, and fourth categories of slang words represented on the survey, members of older generations tend to view words from the third category as less acceptable than members of younger generations. In considering these results, it is important to note once again the differences of the categories.
The first category included “good” words, and had no negative connotations; all the other categories had negative connotations, regardless of what the slang words meant. The second category included “good” words with negative connotations, and the fourth category “drunk” words with negative connotations. The third category, the only one to show a difference in how the generations viewed the acceptability of the words, had “bad” words with both negative and sexual connotations.
These findings largely reflect the current literature on the subject of slanginess and acceptability. The fact that the first, second, and fourth categories of words showed little or no difference in how older and younger generations viewed the acceptability of most of the words indicated that these words have staying power, and the fact that all the generations knew what the words meant indicates the words are pervasive. This qualifies most of the words from these three categories to be given Moore’s label of “basic slang”.
The fact that the words in the third category have sexual connotations means that they would probably qualify to be included in Wachal’s study of taboo words, even though they weren’t. It is very interesting that the younger generations tend to view these words as more acceptable than the older generations, and the media, which largely targets younger generations over older generations, often includes these words. Whether the fact the media includes such words is caused by their acceptance and use by the younger generations, or whether the younger generations accept and use the words because the media includes them is unknown; it is clear, however, that there is some sort of relationship here that could be researched further.
The results of this paper contradict some of the findings from Cooper’s article in that, aside from words from the third category, both older and younger generations of Vermonters tend to agree on the levels of acceptability of slang words. However, Cooper’s idea of “trigger words” that decrease the acceptability of slang terms is certainly evident, particularly when looking at how, across the generations, Vermonters tended to judge words for “drunk” with negative connotations as being less acceptable than words for “good” with no negative connotations.
Ultimately, this survey suffered from a number of drawbacks. Perhaps the most significant drawback was the small number of respondents; trends would be much clearer with a larger number of respondents. Additionally, the survey suffered from the fact that there were only two respondents over 60, only four respondents between 60 and 30, and 13 respondents under 30. Representation from more members of the older generations would greatly increase the validity of this study.
Members of older generations in Vermont do tend to view certain slang terms as being less acceptable than members of younger generations in Vermont; however, the older generation also agrees with younger generations about how acceptable other slang words are. The main factor that seems to define which words will be viewed by all generations as having the same level of acceptability, and which words will be viewed differently by the generations, is sexual connotation. It is entirely possible that the difference in the generations indicates the creation of a new type of basic slang; “sucks”, and, to an extent, “bites”, are both pervasive and informal. Whether they are long-running, however, will only be told through time, and only with a survey much like this one. Thus, it is important to continue examining how different generations view the acceptability of slang words, not only for linguistic knowledge, but also for signs of generational breaks, and, on a broader scale, societal trends.
Cooper, T. C. (2001). “”Does it Suck?” or “Is It for the Birds?” Native Speaker Judgement of Slang Expressions.” American Speech 76(1): 62-78.
Moore, R. L. (2004). “We’re Cool, Mom and Dad are Swell: Basic Slang and Generational Shifts in Values.” American Speech 79(1): 59-86.
Wachal, R. S. (2002). “Taboo or Not Taboo: That is the Question.” American Speech 77(2): 195-206.
Wolfram, Walt, and Natalie Schilling-Estes. American English. 2nd ed. Malden: Blackwell, 2006. 70-74.