Over a century of slang lexicography has seen waves of strictness and indulgence
alternating as far as the search for the ultimate definition of slang is concerned.
This can be observed by comparing the introductions and prefaces of slang dictionaries,
which usually provide a working definition of slang, so as to make the compiler’s
criteria of selection explicit. But dictionaries are not only the product of disinterested
linguistic inquiry; as editorial products, they also serve marketing strategies
under the rules of competitiveness among publishing companies.
It is quite likely that definitions of slang are sometimes be influenced by methodological
choices: blurring the boundaries between slang and colloquialisms, for instance,
can justify the editorial need to produce a new edition in which thousands of new
entries are added to an extant, already published, corpus of lemmas. In other words,
the ‘grey area’ in which slang is often described to reside (Ayto 1998; Kipfer 2007;
Spears 2006) could be methodological as much as theoretical, and it could serve
non-scientific purposes – namely, editorial and marketing-bound needs – as well
as scientific ones.
This paper foregrounds the ideological assumptions that have motivated the definitions
of slang formulated by linguists and lexicographers so far. It argues that the ideologies
shaping XX-century slang lexicography have not been discarded yet, whereas a need
is felt for new challenges for the study of slang. The aim of this paper is to shed
light on the reason why language inquiry is still struggling to answer the age-old
question ‘What is slang?’ instead of focusing on its pervasive usage in public discourses
and on its cultural appropriation by the mass media.
Ayto, J. (1998). The Oxford dictionary of slang. Oxford: Oxford University
Kipfer, B. A. (2007). Preface to the fourth edition. In R. L. Chapman,
Dictionary of American slang (4th ed.) (B. A. Kipfer, Ed.) (pp. vii-xii).
New York: Collins.
Spears, R. A. (2006). American slang dictionary. New York: McGraw-Hill.