Thursday, October 30, 2008

Welcome to the "Croydon Facelift"

Or to put it more technically "a UK female hairstyle which pulls the hair back tightly from the face, supposedly giving the effect of a facelift; stereotyped as that of working-class young women". And how about prison whites: "expensive trainers favoured by rap stars and their acolytes; the implication is that such shoes are worn by young black men, who are de facto criminals".

These are new entries in Jonathon Green's Chambers Slang Dictionary (a reworking of his Cassell Dictionary of Slang, or "that big yellow swearing dictionary on the shelf" as it's become known in my classroom). The Daily Telegraph offers its views on the dictionary in an article here; it's a decent read, as it goes beyond the usual novelty take on new words and instead has a think about where the words come from and what this tells us about the English Language and its development over the last century, with a shift away from homegrown Cockney slang towards American influences:

But while the themes of slang have stayed much the same, the sources have changed hugely. Until the start of Second World War, slang in this country was basically home-grown. There was cockney rhyming slang, of course, with its cheery costermongers banging endlessly on about their 'apples and pears' and 'plates of meat'. But there were also numerous other secret languages, designed to be understood only by a small group of people. As words and expressions passed into more common usage, so slang evolved in order to retain its exclusivity.

All that changed, though, with the Second World War. 'After D-Day, American slang - principally black American slang - took over,' says Green. 'In the 1960s, middle-class white people used words like "cool" and "groovy" without realising that they were incredibly old black words. Actually, "groovy" started out in the early 20th century as an expression meaning "staid" or "unfashionable" - that is, stuck in a groove. By the 1940s, though, it was being used by jazz musicians to refer to "slipping into a groove" while they were playing.'

But whereas it used to take several years for new words or phrases to move into common usage, now it happens in a few days. 'That's been the biggest change recently. If you look at black rappers and hip-hop, which is undoubtedly the cutting edge of slang at the moment, they're coming up with words that the white middle classes in America and England are immediately trying out for themselves. That's why you get all those floppy-haired public schoolboys making complete idiots of themselves by referring to their girlfriends as "bitches".'

But the Telegraph article takes a bit of a strange sidetrack when it claims that Black British English (and to some extent Asian British English, if there is such a homogeneous thing) has lagged behind its US counterparts. Green seems to suggest that most Black British slang is just imported from the USA via rap music, but I'd argue that we still have a fairly healthy homegrown slang. Yes, it riles me (it vexes me even) to hear British teenagers describing the police as the "feds" (feds being a clipping of the full words of FBI, Federal Bureau of Investigation, an organisation we don't have in the UK): why not stick to coppers, boy dem or the rozzers?

But then trying to impose rules on slang - or arguing with someone about the etymology of a particular slang term ("Listen here, my good man. This homework cannot be "gay", as you suggest, for it is an assignment without sexuality of any kind") - is pointless. Green is to be admired for his love of language and desire to find out more about it. Maybe next time round, we'll see some citations from our own students and your research into some of these words.

And here's a link to a video clip of Jonathon Green talking about his dictionary.

Useful for:

ENA5 - Language Change

ENGA3 - Language Explorations

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