Tuesday, September 14, 2010

Slang: Does it Belong in the Dictionary?



Has a teacher or employer ever criticized you for using slang in your writing? On Twitter and Facebook, I questioned the recent addition of chillax into the Merriam-Webster Dictionary. Chillax? That trendy expression favored by schoolkids and skater boys? Bah! That's slang, I complained. Doesn't belong in a dictionary. Stop the madness. And so on and so forth.

I've climbed off my soapbox and softened my stance a bit after viewing this video, in which an editor at Merriam-Webster makes a great case for why slang is — and must continue to be — included in dictionaries. Every English teacher needs to see this as a reminder to stay humble.

On the other hand, smart students and writers will always consider their audiences. If your teacher has explicitly told you that she does not want to see slang in your essay, then wise up and don't use slang. If you're writing a cover letter to accompany a college or job application, do not use slang. When you're e-mailing or texting your friends, do whatever you want.

From the comments: Akil suggests that dictionaries should wait for a longer period of time before introducing slang words, to be certain the word is still in common usage. What do you think?

4 comments:

  1. I disagree.. I think slang should not be justified/dignified in the dictionary until it passes some threshold of time and usage! Lets have a 10 year freeze on adding slang to credible dictionaries until we are sure its "commonly" used.

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  2. Good point, akil. An observation period sounds like a good compromise. What if chillax falls out of favor in a few years? Would Merriam-Webster remove it from the dictionary?

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  3. It is not the purpose of dictionaries to print words in circulation. It is the purpose of only some of them. It's the proscription vs. prescription issue. That's why Webster's is derided: people often go to a dictionary to find out how something should be done (is "five minutes or less" proper usage?).

    Slang words are never used in high register writing/speaking. That's the point. It's also important to avoid slang and colloquialisms because their meaning varies by locality. Often their origin is vulgar. For example, "jazz" means to &*^ (insert F-bomb). A jazz house is a brothel. It's a four-letter word for a reason. Ladies in the southern U.S. do not speak that word. A "dog and pony show" is a sex act still being performed involving a human female, a dog, and a male pony. I proofread a paper where the student wrote, "He liked to diddle on his fiddle." She meant "doodle" (diddling is a sexual technique).

    It's always dangerous to use a slang term, and it is never appropriate in writing.

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  4. You can online punctuation checker. There is various tips to use and check grammar things.

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