Slang for the Ages

1004OPEDTierney-master675EVERYONE knows that slang is informal speech, usually invented by reckless young people, who are ruining proper English. These obnoxious upstart words are vapid and worthless, say the guardians of good usage, and lexicographers like me should be preserving language that has a lineage, well-bred words with wholesome backgrounds, rather than recording the modish vulgarities of street argot.

In fact, much of today’s slang has older and more venerable roots than most people realize.

Take “swag.” As a noun (“Check out my swag, yo / I walk like a ballplayer” — Jay Z), a verb (“I smash this verse / and I swag and surf” — Lil Wayne), an adjective (“I got ya slippin’ on my swag juice” — Eminem), and even as an interjection (“Say hello to falsetto in three, two, swag” — Justin Bieber), swag refers to a sense of confidence and style. It’s slangy enough that few dictionaries have entered it yet.

Swag sounds new, but the informal use goes way back. It’s generally taken to be a shortened form of the verb “swagger,” which was used to denote a certain insolent cockiness by William Shakespeare, O.G. The adjectival use dates to 1640, and seems to have a similar connotation to the modern swag (“Hansom swag fellowes and fitt for fowle play” — John Fletcher and Philip Massinger, in “The Tragedy of Sir John van Olden Barnavelt”). The noun was first used even earlier: One 1589 citation reads like an Elizabethan attempt at freestyle (“lewd swagges, ambicious wretches”).

Nor was Mr. Bieber the first to use the word because he liked how it finished a line. The English playwright William Davies wrote, in 1786, of one of his characters that she moved like a half-full “cask set in motion, swag, swag.”

The website Gawker prophesied in 2012, and Mr. Bieber averred last year, that swag is over. It takes some swag to call time on a piece of slang that goes back centuries; and, in any case, Google Trends shows that the usage is holding steady. Swag is dead; long live swag.

Swag evolved out of standard English, but there’s also slang that is slang born and raised. As it moves through successive generations, it may morph — but without losing its cred.

“Fubar” was first used in print in 1943; it is an acronym whose expanded version I will bowdlerize as “rhymes with trucked up beyond all recognition.” This was slang created by the Greatest Generation as Americans marched to war, a shining example of how G.I.s adapted the custom of military acronyms to their own purposes. […]

(from The New York Times, Koky Stamper, 3.10.2014)

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