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Published on December 20th, 2011 | by Staff 12-13


Studying slang: The history and meanings behind the popular slang of present and past

Alison Guh
Staff Writer

Urbandictionary.com, a popular online slang dictionary, defines “slang” is as “the continual and ever-changing use and definition of words in informal conversation.”

Each and every slang phrase has its own particular origins. However, these terms normally develop as a result of one of two reasons.

First, it can be developed by communities with a common factor, be it geography, shared interests, or subculture.

For example, “leet” or “1337” was at one point a popular alternative alphabet used by online subcultures. In “leetspeak”, symbols are used to replace the alphabet.

So therefore, “the Samohi” becomes “7[-]3  $@/\/[-]!”.

The other reason slang terms develop is to get around certain sensitive, or “taboo,” subjects such as violence, crime or drugs. To avoid blatantly stating something related to these topics people use slang terms that lessen the taboo association with the topic, and instead make it more acceptable in common language.

These slang terms can develop in all sorts of ways. They may be adapted from other words like “Spanglish” in which Spanish and English are combined to form a hybrid language, change the meaning of preexisting words such as “hot,” abbreviate a phrase such as “LOL” or be completely made up and unrelated to other words such as “brood.”

Much of the slang we use in modern times has surprising origins.

For example, the word “kibosh,” as in “to put a kibosh on something,” means to put an end to something. Though it may sound like an meaningless, nonsensical word it in fact has a much darker origin.

According to journalist and author Michael Quinion, some believe that the term “kibosh” comes from the Gaelic phrase “cie bais,” pronounced “ky-bosh.” This roughly translates to cap of death, serving as a reference to the  black skullcap that would be donned by a judge as he prepared to sentence someone to execution. That’s one way of putting an end to something.

Another term with unexpected origins is “blockbuster.” It is used nowadays to describe a hugely successful movie, play or book.

However, according to Merriam-Webster, a “blockbuster” was actually once a massive bomb weighing up to 12,000 pounds, that was dropped by the British Royal Air Force on German cities during World War II. The name was due to the fact that they were large enough to literally “bust” a city block. After the war, advertisers borrowed the term “blockbuster” to describe a huge movie, and “blockbuster” received its current connotation.

Yet another phrase with interesting origins is “pushing the envelope,” which means to take a dangerous risk, especially in conversation.

The “envelope” here is not in fact a paper one, but a mathematical one. According to word-detective.com, math is used to determine the “flight envelope” of a plane, or the specific combination of speed, height, stress and other factors that define the bounds of safe operation. By “pushing” the “envelope” of a plane, test pilots put their lives at risk to ensure that it will be safe when flown within its limits and find out what parts might fail if the limits are pushed.

Slang is a perpetually changing organism, constantly adapting to new times and trends. It develops throughout cultures and communities around the world. Though people often use slang in their daily lives, few realize the true origins of slang.


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