Slang invades the
dominant culture as it seeps out of various subcultures. Some words fall dead
or lie dormant in the dominant culture for long periods. Others vividly express
an idea already latent in the dominant culture and these are immediately picked
up and used. Before the advent of mass media, such terms invaded the dominant
culture slowly and were transmitted largely by word of mouth. Thus a term like
snafu, its shocking power softened with the explanation "situation normal,
all fouled up," worked its way gradually from the military in World War II
by word of mouth (because the media largely shunned it) into respectable
circles. Today, however, a sportscaster, news reporter, or comedian may
introduce a lively new word already used by an in-group into millions of homes
simultaneously, giving it almost instant currency. For example, the term
uptight was first used largely by criminal narcotic addicts to indicate the
onset of withdrawal distress when drugs are denied. Later, because of intense
journalistic interest in the drug scene, it became widely used in the dominant
culture to mean anxiety or tension unrelated to drug use. It kept its form but
changed its meaning slightly.
Other terms may
change their form or both form and meaning, like "one for the book"
(anything unusual or unbelievable). Sportswriters in the U.S. borrowed this
term around 1920 from the occupational language of then legal bookmakers, who
lined up at racetracks in the morning ("the morning line" is still
figuratively used on every sports page) to take bets on the afternoon races.
Newly arrived bookmakers went to the end of the line, and any bettor requesting
unusually long odds was motioned down the line with the phrase, "That's
one for the end book." The general public dropped the "end" as
meaningless, but old-time gamblers still retain it. Slang spreads through many
other channels, such as popular songs, which, for the initiate, are often rich
in double entendre.
are structurally tight, little of their language leaks out. Thus the Mafia, in
more than a half-century of powerful criminal activity in America, has
contributed little slang. When subcultures weaken, contacts with the dominant
culture multiply, diffusion occurs, and their language appears widely as slang.
Criminal narcotic addicts, for example, had a tight subculture and a highly
secret argot in the 1940s; now their terms are used freely by middle-class
teenagers, even those with no real knowledge of drugs.
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