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The Origin of the Word Slang Has Been Found

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Let me put this right up front. The headline to this post is slightly misleading, but not dishonest. For the origin of the word slang indeed has been found, just not recently. It has been found for more than 100 years. The occasion for bringing this fact up now, and for the misleading headlinese, is that people still persist in presenting the origin as disputed. Anatoly Liberman, a highly respected etymologist who is in no way averse to hedging when warranted, tries to put the practice to rest in a recent Oxford University Press blog post titled "The Origin of the Word SLANG is Known!" That important exclamation point says not "exciting discovery!" but "Sheesh! Stop acting like it isn't known already!"

As Liberman explains, it goes back to an old use of slang for “a narrow piece of land running up between other and larger divisions of ground.” It's related to Scandinavian terms having to do with free movement and wandering, and the word's "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' (later to 'any colorful, informal way of expression')."

Liberman has made his life's work the thorough investigation of words marked "origin unknown" in etymological dictionaries. Though the explanation of slang laid out above appeared in his 2008 dictionary and is often credited to him, he gives credit to John Sampson, who set it forth in 1898. It was overlooked at the time, and Liberman laments,

"Few English words of disputable origin have been explained so convincingly, and it grieves me to see that some dictionaries still try to derive slang from Norwegian regional slengja 'fling, cast' or the phrase slengja kjeften 'make insulting allusions' (literarally 'sling the jaw'), or from the old past tense of sling (that is, from the same grade of ablaut as the past tense of sling), or from language with s– appended to it (even if the amazing similarity between slang and language helped slang stay in Standard English, for many people must have thought of some hybrid like s-language). All those hypotheses lack foundation. The origin of slang is known, and the discovery made long ago should not be mentioned politely or condescendingly among a few others that stimulated the research but now belong to the museum of etymology."

If you're still not convinced, read the more involved explanation in his blog post or dictionary.

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'Froyo,' 'Troll,' and 'Sriracha' Added to the Merriam-Webster Dictionary
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Looking for the right word to describe the time you spend drinking before heading out to a party, or a faster way to say “frozen yogurt?" Merriam-Webster is here to help. The 189-year-old English vocabulary giant has just added 250 new words and definitions to their online dictionary, including pregame and froyo.

New words come and go quickly, and it’s Merriam-Webster’s job to keep tabs on the terms that have staying power. “As always, the expansion of the dictionary mirrors the expansion of the language, and reaches into all the various cubbies and corners of the lexicon,” they wrote in their announcement.

Froyo is just one of the recent additions to come from the culinary world. Bibimbap, a Korean rice dish; choux pastry, a type of dough; and sriracha, a Thai chili sauce that’s been around for decades but has just recently exploded in the U.S., are now all listed on Merriam-Webster's website.

Of course, the internet was once again a major contributor to this most recent batch of words. Some new terms, like ransomware (“malware that requires the victim to pay a ransom to access encrypted files”) come from the tech world, while words like troll ("to harass, criticize, or antagonize [someone] especially by provocatively disparaging or mocking public statements, postings, or acts”) were born on social media. Then there’s the Internet of Things, a concept that shifts the web off our phones and computers and into our appliances.

Hive mind, dog whistle, and working memory are just a few of the new entries to receive the Merriam-Webster stamp of approval. To learn more about how some words make it into the dictionary while others get left out, check these behind-the-scenes secrets of dictionary editors.

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How New Words Become Mainstream
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If you used the words jeggings, muggle, or binge-watch in a sentence 30 years ago, you would have likely been met with stares of confusion. But today these words are common enough to hold spots in the Oxford English Dictionary. Such lingo is a sign that English, as well as any other modern language, is constantly evolving. But the path a word takes to enter the general lexicon isn’t always a straightforward one.

In the video below, TED-Ed lays out how some new words become part of our everyday speech while others fade into obscurity. Some words used by English speakers are borrowed from other languages, like mosquito (Spanish), avatar (Sanskrit), and prairie (French). Other “new” words are actually old ones that have developed different meanings over time. Nice, for example, used to only mean silly, foolish, or ignorant, and meat was used as blanket term to describe any solid food given to livestock.

The internet alone is responsible for a whole new section of our vocabulary, but even the words most exclusive to the web aren’t always original. For instance, the word meme was first used by Richard Dawkins in his 1976 book The Selfish Gene.

To learn more about the true origins of the words we use on a regular basis, check out the full story from TED-Ed below.

[h/t TED-Ed]

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