10 slang phrases that perfectly sum up their era

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Austin Powers poster bearing the words "Groovy Baby"Image source, Alamy

Lexicographer Jonathon Green selects the slang words and expressions that encapsulate the age in which they were coined.

I've been collecting slang and and publishing books about it for 30 years. My database contains 125,000 words and phrases and they keep coming.

One thing I've learnt - the more slang changes, to half-inch the well-known phrase, the more slang stays the same.

Politically correct, even polite: I fear not. But humanity at its most human, absolutely.

As examples I offer a selection of terms that display some of slang's nuts and bolts.


Image source, Getty Images

It was there in the first ever glossary of slang, the collection of criminal jargon published c.1532, and it's still going strong. Booze: Alcohol, drink, and as a verb, to drink. It came from Dutch buizen, to drink to excess (and beyond that buise, a large drinking vessel) and the first examples were spelt bouse. Over the centuries it spread its wings. We find the boozer (both pub and person), the booze artist, -gob, -head, -freak, -hound,-hoister, -rooster, -shunter and -stupe, all drunkards. There are the pubs, saloons and bars - the booze barn, -bazaar, -casa, -crib, -joint, -mill, -parlour, -factory, -foundry and -emporium. Across the mahogany (the bar counter) stands the booze clerk, -fencer or -pusher. If we hit the booze too heavily, we get a booze belly, and maybe a trip on the booze bus, Australia's mobile breath-tester.


Image source, Alamy
Image caption,
Run DMC: "Don't try to diss me"

Slang, being subversive to its very core, doesn't have much time for rules but like all language it has to accept one - words are always older than you think. Let's take diss. Meaning - disrespect. Origins - African-American, spread like so much of that slang-filled language via the worldwide success of hip-hop and rap music. Date - ever since the late 1980s. Except, with the exception of the meaning, all that is wrong. Go back, search among the vast number of online databases that are lexicography's gift from the internet. Look, digitally, at the Sunday Times of Perth, Western Australia. Specifically at 10 December 1906 and find: "When a journalistic rival tries to 'dis' you / And to prejudice you in the public's eyes." The next example is 1981. The only question now - what about the examples in between?


I had met slang earlier - you couldn't read writers such as Sapper or PG Wodehouse and fail to note that not all language was restrained to the standard - but I doubt if I really started thinking "slang" till the 60s. Groovy, heavy, bag (of which Papa had a brand new…), uptight (and outasite), thing, cool, dope… such were hippiedom's key words. That they came, unaltered, from an American black vocabulary that was around 30 years old was irrelevant. Ignorance, if not bliss, did not impede our use. Some were laid to rest; others flourish. Dope still means drugs, as well as affirming excellence. Cool marches on, re-minted for every youthful generation. As for groovy, it began life meaning conservative ("stuck in a groove"); now the young use it to mock those who pose as latter-day freaks.


Image source, Alamy
Image caption,
An original hipster...

The original hipster wore Italian suits, listened to Charlie Parker's brand of "cool" jazz, shot up heroin and doubled as what Norman Mailer, in a famous essay of 1957, christened "The White Negro". Mass-marketed, he was the idealised stud of Hugh Hefner's "Playboy philosophy", at his incomparable best the taboo-shattering stand-up Lenny Bruce. Something cooler and blacker than the beatnik, he was a cut above the hippie, which, pre-bells and beads, signified a failed or at best wannabe hipster. He vanished around 1960. Now he's back (and she too) and the Urban Dictionary describes "a subculture of men and women typically in their 20s and 30s that value independent thinking, counter-culture, progressive politics, an appreciation of art and indie-rock, creativity, intelligence, and witty banter". Been there, dare I say, done that too.

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... and two unoriginal ones

Not all there

Slang fails on caring, sharing and compassion but it does a good insult. Modernity lacks the 18th Century's excellent "you are a thief and a murderer: you have killed a baboon and stolen his face" but there is much on offer. Slang, as noted, pooh-poohs political correctness and has no time for euphemism, however justified, and while mental-health professionals might deplore the fact, lists a wide range of terms it defines as "mad". The over-riding image is "not all there". Take your pick from:A couple of chips short of an order, a butty, a happy meal or even a circuit-board, a few bob short of the pound, a few snags short of a barbie, one brick short of a load, one sandwich short of a picnic, one stop short of East Ham (yes, "barking") or two wafers short of a communion.


Image source, PA

With "older than you think" still in mind, there's dosh - money. Like many of slang terms for cash, the inference is "something you need", e.g. the needful, bread, as in "the staff of life" or quid, from the Latin for "what", with "one needs" left unspoken. Dosh, which started life around 1850, may come from a mix of "dollar" and "cash" but the root lies more likely in doss, a sleep, bed or lodging house, itself rooted in Latin's dorsus, the back, on which one rests. Dosh was the money required to get that very basic necessity.


Image source, Alamy

Slang, being what Americans would term a contrary cuss, is never happier than when rendering its topics and terminology inside-out, upside down and generally turning all available arses about-face. Never more so than with those alleged poles of morality, good and bad. It is a vocabulary, after all, in which do good means to make substantial profits from crime and get good to become drunk. And bad? Quite simply, in slang's looking-glass environs, bad means good. Albeit with a special sauce of sexiness and outsider cool.

It all starts with rum. In cant, the language of criminal beggars, rum meant good. The reason is lost, though there may be links to Rome, both as a former imperial capital and in Romeville, cant for London. The image is of the great and powerful city epitomizing something desirable.

"Good" rum offered over 120 compounds. There was rum booze, which was good strong beer, there was a rum diver who was a competent pickpocket and a rum doxy who was a pretty girl. A rum kiddy was a smart young villain and rum nantz the best-quality brandy (from Nantes, whence it was exported). Then, around 1760, it all changes. We meet the rum cove, an odd or eccentric character, the rum phiz, a deformed face (phiz as in physiognomy), and of course the rum 'un, a dubious individual.

"Bad" rum's descendants start emerging in the early 19th Century. There is terrible, nasty, awful, mean and hell. There is also, though today's young might find this surprising, wicked, which turns up in 1842. Then it promptly disappears and does not re-emerge until 1908, often describing food (a "wicked ragout") or drink (a "wicked punch"). One can also shake a wicked foot. Exclamatory wicked! arrives in the 1970s (in the 50s musical Grease, though the "real" fifties offer no examples) and really gets going - stand up, Jamie Oliver - in the 90s.

Much is owed to hip-hop. Ill appeared in 1987, dank and skanky (used elsewhere of drugs and floozies respectively) in 1989 and ghetto in 1996. The new century has added roughneck, beasty and treacherous.

Whole nine yards

Image source, Thinkstock
Image caption,
How long is that in metric?

Why do people read slang dictionaries? Not for the spelling, nor the pronunciation. What they want is the etymologies - the stories behind the words. Usually we can give them, although a surprising number are simply playing with standard English. Thus dog, with its compounds, offers 161 meanings in slang. But sometimes we can't. What, for instance lies behind the phrase the whole nine yards? We know that it comes out of US regional use, and is so far first recorded in 1907. But its origins? Most suggestions involve standards of measurement, from the dimensions of a nun's habit to the capacity of a cement truck and the length of an ammunition clip to that of a hangman's rope. However, few, when checked, actually run to nine yards. It may be no more than the use of nine as a form of mystic number. Your guess, dare I admit, maybe be even better than mine.


Slang may stay the same but the lexis evolves. Standard English laid down such terms as drunk or sexual intercourse centuries ago. Slang, not so much a language (where's the grammar?) but rather a vast compendium of synonyms, has respectively 3,000 and 1,750 terms for each. That the former tend to suggest some form of physical ineptitude and latter, sadly, too often boils down to "man hits woman", does not mean there won't be more. But there are real novelties. Nang, meaning first-rate, is an example of slang's current cutting edge, Multi-ethnic London English (MLE). This mix of Jamaican patois, American hip-hop, Cockney classics and the coinages of youthful Londoners has added much to slang's vocabulary. Nang, imported from the Caribbean where it means ostentation or style and rooted in Mende nyanga, showing off, is one of the better-known examples.


Image source, Getty Images

Slang is ephemeral. So runs the critique. As booze and thousands of other terms make clear, this is far from the rule. But yes, some things don't last. Yolo - you only live once - was the flavour of the month, even year, not that long ago. Today few slang users worthy of their attitude would be heard using it. It is far from alone. In 1840 Charles McKay, in his book Memoirs of Extraordinary Popular Delusions, listed a number of defunct, yet once hugely popular catchphrases. Among them - has your mother sold her mangle? walker! quoz! flare up! and there he goes with his eye out! Each, as Mackay noted, was "the slang par excellence of the Londoners, and afforded them a vast gratification". And now? All gone, not to mention forgotten.

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