I live near the city of Manchester in the United Kingdom. I have lived there pretty much most of my life. I can spell all the names of the towns in the Greater Manchester area, but I often struggle to understand their use of language. Most towns and cities throughout the United Kingdom have their own dialect and also slang.
Slang is an informal language that often breaks the rules and conventions of English grammar. In a strange way it often increases and decreases over time. Once a new slang word or phrase has been overused, it will often disappear from use only to be replaced with something new which will also fade with time.
But why do British people use slang? How does it change so often and why? Please read on for some background and hints on how to use English slang.
1. Avoiding cliché
People in the United Kingdom are often clever in their use of English. They also have a strong sense of humour and always like something new. Since the dictionary was invented there are endless additions in the form of conventional and also slang words every year.
Slang is used, in some ways, to keep the English language fresh and exciting. In 1940's America, a film movement known as 'film noir' introduced a tough new slang language to American audiences. The word 'prison' became known as the 'Big House' in film noir slang. There was also 'Broad', a somewhat sexist term meaning a woman, and a 'C note' which meant a one hundred dollar bill. A the time the language used was seen as new and inventive but also easily understood in the context of the sentence.
Slang is unusable without being placed within a correctly formed sentence. The context, the circumstance of an event or fact, must be clear in a sentence. That means that slang is often used sparingly with one or more words of slang used to replace ordinary words. In cockney rhyming slang, pairs of words are often used to replace one existing word such as:
Someone pass me the dog and bone.
I came running down the apples and pears.
These clever replacement words are paired but have no connection to the items they have replaced. The connection is made through the similar sounds the replacement slang words have with their correct words:
Someone pass me the phone.
I came running down the stairs.
In some sections of the United Kingdom, slang is sometimes overused to the point it makes the speaker unintelligible. I had this experience once in the city of Newcastle upon Tyne when a young boy came over to me and asked:
Have you got any tabs for me Da?
I apologised that I did not understand his question, and he went on to explain that the words 'tabs' are slang for cigarettes, and 'Da' means Dad or Father.
I also witnessed something similar this year in a McDonald's restaurant in Edinburgh, Scotland. The customer's accent and use of slang was so strong that the lady behind the counter could not understand what the customer was asking for.
Twenty years ago the English defence forces had a policy regarding what they saw as 'strong regional accents'. They made clear to applicants that if their use of language was unintelligible then it may affect their chance of being admitted to the army and navy etc.
I've personally known English people who were worried that their accent and use of language might affect their chances of getting a job. A friend of mine had considered elocution lessons as they were interested in becoming a lawyer, a profession for which clear and understandable English is a necessity.
3. Overuse of slang
Recently the use of the English slang word 'muppet' has decreased. The Muppets was a television series in which puppets were depicted often creating stupid and comic actions. English people began to use the word as a derogatory way to label other people as stupid.
The slang word 'muppet' became so overused that it was seen as a cliché and is now seldom heard on the streets of the United Kingdom. No doubt it will have already been replaced with other slang.
4. Fast moving slang
It is quite amazing how new slang can spread so quickly through a country with millions of people. In the English language there is the word 'snide' which is an adjective meaning to make unpleasant comments, more often referred to as 'snide remarks'. When I was a child, the word was adapted into slang as 'snidey' when used to describe someone unpleasant or not to be trusted:
"I don't like him; he is snidey."
Years later, and I had returned to England from India where I had been working. A friend of mine said the below sentence to me:
There are a lot of people selling snide movies in England.
I asked what he meant by the use of 'snide' in regard to movies, and he used another slang word I understood to make himself clear: pirate movies.
Pirate movies is a slang term meaning movies that are illegal copies of original movies. The kind of movies you might see someone selling on a market stall or on a side street. It shows how I had become a stranger to my own language in just a few years.
5. How to understand and use slang
Slang is used in England during casual conversations with friends or acquaintances. In some ways it is used rather like swearing, it may be okay in a bar with close friends but it should not be used in a professional area such as your office. You would look foolish and unprofessional if you gave a presentation in your office using slang.
There is also the issue that slang is sometimes controversial and offensive. When asking a person what a slang word means try to remember not to use anything which is insensitive or could cause offence.
Generally, English people find it funny and touching when a person from a foreign country knows how to correctly use slang.
It would be quite funny if you turned up to a lunch with your English friends and said:
I'm absolutely Hank Marvin!
Hank Marvin is a popular and famous guitar player in England. Try to see if you can guess what his name has become slang for. You can then use Google to find out the answer by searching 'Hank Marvin Slang'.
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