Slang and New Words: What Makes A Word Sticky?

In an article for Slate entitled That’s So Mysto, Juliet Lapidos considers why it is that some slang words take off and stick around whereas others have a mayfly-like existence and end up in the trash cans of lexical history. Clearly one element is a form of linguistic natural selection, where new words compete against a plethora of others and fight to the death for oral ascendency. Such competition, red in tooth and claw, can best be seen by taking a trip to the ever profane and rarely sacred Urban Dictionary. Scorned by some lexicographers and linguists as being neither a dictionary nor particularly urban (as opposed to urbane, where a single letter makes all the difference), it is a fascinating existential experiment in the crowd-sourcing of meaning. Here, folks not only get the chance to massage their bloated, narcissistic egos by coining what they think are brilliant new words (they rarely are) but also to vote on how “accurate” a definition is. Meaning defined by the masses and not a panel of lexical specialists who meet over Chablis and crepes to decide what is groovy and hip. [1]

slang wordle

Words and Slang

For those who haven’t meandered down the seedy streets of the “UD,” here’s a typical example of a word that’s been coined and, so far as I know, hasn’t even made it to first base – which is typically a Teen Movie:


"beege" at Urban Dictionary

Note that you can vote for whether you like it or not, see other related forms of the word, add you own comments, or even – and I shudder to think how this works – add a video.

What’s fascinating for those of us who love language is that we can see how quickly people apply the rule of both derivational and lexical morphology to these new words. So in the first definition, we have beeges as an example of using the plural form of the noun, and in the second we have the word being used as a verb, to beege, and then “he beeged…,” which makes use of the -ed morpheme to indicate the past. It’s also instructive to see how the past tense inflection is regular and not some funky irregular, such as *boge (/boʊʒ/) offering support for the notion that we do, in fact, have a set of rules stored in our heads that allow us to construct new forms of words that follow patterns.

The chances are that 95% of the words coined in the UD will eventually end up as merely archived words on the website, the etymological equivalent of the German-born geneticist Richard Goldschmidt‘s “hopeful monsters.”

Yet like the coral-encrusted wrecks of forgotten shipwrecks deep below swirling oceans, archaic and antiquated slang words can sometimes be rediscovered. While writing this very article, my background music of choice includes the timeless and most excellent The Nightfly by Steely Dan’s Donald Fagen. Track 5, New Frontier, opens with the lines;

Yes we’re gonna have a wingding,
A summer smoker underground

Does anyone still have wingdings? In the US, back in the 1940’s, people would have whingdings, defined at that time as a wild party of celebration. [2] But earlier than that, in 1929, the journal American Speech defined a wingding as a false fit or spasm, typically thrown by a drug addict in the hope that a doctor would be called and administer a narcotic – which is exactly what the addict wanted! [3]

Clearly the derivational idea of a “wild party” from a “drug-seeking fit” isn’t too hard of a leap to make, hence the 1970’s popular use of the word for drinking binges, typically underage ones.

And the summer smoker? That’s another term for a party, referring primarily to a male get-together where smoking is allowed. It can also refer to a concert where patrons can smoke, and this meaning can be traced back to at least 1887, through to the 1970’s. [4]

This is also an example of where the Urban Dictionary fails to be comprehensive in terms of its treatment of language as a historical phenomenon. The only definition for summer smoker is “someone who only smokes in the summer because the UK smoking ban forces them outside, and it is too cold in the winter.” The chances are that the person who penned this was not familiar with the earlier definitions and what we see here is an example of the same slang word being “recreated” with a totally new meaning.

Predicting New Words

Predicting New Words

So why do some words succeed where others don’t? That’s something marketing executives would love to know! It’s worth checking out a book called Predicting New Words by Allan Metcalf [5], which I managed to buy for the princely sum of 1 cent from Amazon as a “Used – very good” hardback. [6] He introduces a metric called the FUDGE factor, an acronym (or maybe a bacronym) for the following features that determine the long-term success of a word:

Frequency: How much is the word used?

Unobtrusiveness: How low is it flying under the radar? Words that explode on the scene and become mot-du-jours actually disappear faster than those that just seem to seep into the language.

Diversity: How much is it used across populations and situations? In the field of AAC (Augmentative and Alternative Communication) we talk about core words and define them as “words that are used with high frequency across situations and across populations.” A word may be very popular in a specific environment but until it becomes adopted by the general population, it remains jargon, not slang.

Generative: Can you create new forms and meanings? For example, the word blockbuster originally meant a specific type of bomb, but it adopted the current meaning of “something dramatic, immense, and powerful.”

Endurance of Concept: Can the word continue in the absence of other elements? For example, hands up if you know what a cassette is? Do you even have a cassette? Can you play it? The word cassette has become less frequently used since the 1980s, which has matched the decline of the use of cassette players and the rise of digitally-based media distribution.

For each of these features, Metcalf assigns a score from 0 to 3, and on the basis of summation, he gives words a score that indicates the likelihood of longevity. For example, he predicted in 2002 (when the book was released) that ground zero will continue, as will weapons grade, but that she-eo (the female version of CEO) and paradessence (the paradoxical essence of a product) would fail. However, he suggested that NASDAQ would likely fall away but it appears to be still pretty popular.

Well, it’s time for me to go check out is some new dude has friended me on Facebook, see if any of my homies have tweeted some new dish, and work on another awesome blog post.

[1] OK, so that’s a little harsh and stereotypical. It’s probably Bud Light and a burger. And meaning IS a product of crowd-sourcing in that words can only take on a particular referent if a group of speakers agree on it. The word dog only means “to follow someone closely” if everyone agrees to that. It could mean “to throw up after spending too long on a trampoline” if enough folks used it that way long enough.

[2] Oxford English Dictionary.

[3] American Speech, 2, 281/1.

[4] Oxford English Dictionary.

[5] Metcalf, A. (2002). Predicting New Words. Boston: Houghton Mifflin.

[6] Whenever I buy I book, I try to keep the receipt and use it as a bookmark. Why? Because at some point in the future, it acts as a reminder of when I bought it, where I bought it, and even what was going on in my life. As I was looking through Metcalfe’s book, I found a Continental Airline boarding pass for a flight to Denver, Colorado, on 6th January. Unfortunately, the ticker doesn’t give the year! Nevertheless, it reminded me that this was, indeed, one of those “books to read on long plane flights.”


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