Final Word

Zuptas heading for future dictionaries?


I was slanging down the winding road of the internet, looking for members of the language gang with knowledge to peddle about another word, when I discovered some truths about slang.

The word, slang, in modern times describing language used regions, or by particular social groups, as an overlay on standard language, has always existed as phenomenon. But was only first accepted in the family of standard English words by the Oxford English Dictionary during the second half of the eighteenth century.

Slang, as a "special vocabulary of tramps or thieves,” dates back to the mid-18th century and as "jargon of a particular profession" to early 19th century.

The very word itself probably emerged from ‘slang’ roots, which according to most sources make the discovery of its origin nay impossible. The result is that most sources refer to it as “of uncertain origin.”

However, according to one of the most respected authorities on the history of language, Anatoly Liberman, author of  Word Origins...And How We Know Them, it’s origin was discovered in 1898, his original source being an article in the local periodical called Chester Courant and later reprinted in The Cheshire Sheaf.

And, it turns out that, like so many other modern words, slang, has had an interesting journey along the, at times intricate, network of language ‘roads.’

An extract from a Lieberman article on the subject reads:

“In Murray’s OED, in addition to slang having the sense today known to everybody, we find slang “a narrow strip of land,” alternating with sling, slanget, slanket, slinget, and slinket, all of them meaning ‘a long narrow strip of land’;” and

“The regional verb slanger means “linger, go slowly.” That verb is of Scandinavian origin. Its cognates are Norwegian slenge ‘hang loose, sling, sway, dangle’ (gå og slenge, ‘to loaf’), Danish slænge ‘to throw, sling; wave one’s arms, etc’, and Swedish slänga. Their common denominator seems to be ‘to move freely in any direction.’ German schlange ‘snake’ confirms that idea, for snake’s writhe.”

And, to make it even more intricate, another citation reads:

Slangs were competitive, the way gangs’ territories always are, with different groups of strolling actors, itinerant mendicants, ‘badgers’ and thieves fighting for the spheres of influence. Hence slang ‘hawker’s license,’ a permit that guaranteed the person’s right to sell within a given ‘precinct’ (or slang!), and slang ’umbug,’ which is a predictable development of peddlers’ activities …”

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Again, quoting Liberman: “Such then is the history of the noun slang. It is a dialectal word that reached London from the north and for a long time retained the traces of its low origin. The route was from ‘territory; turf’ to ‘those who advertise and sell their wares on such a territory,’ to ‘the patter used in advertising the wares’ and to ‘vulgar language,’ and later to ‘any colorful, informal way of expression’.”

I’m convinced that some interested sociologists, on the back of the history of slang, can build a thesis or two on how historic socio-economic developments give birth to new words and expressions.

Maybe, somewhere in the future, someone will write a column like this one about the word/term zupta.

by Piet Coetzer

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