Slang is a language that rolls up its sleeves, spits on its hands, and gets to work. — Carl Sandburg

Just between you and me, slang is a form of language created and used by a small group of people that’s intended to exclude outsiders. In other words, “The chief use of slang,” goes the old quote, “is to show that you’re one of the gang.”

At least that’s how it used to be. Now, thanks to social media, all of us are privy to the latest slang almost as soon as it’s created. Nowadays, G.K. Chesterton’s observation that “All slang is a metaphor, and all metaphor is poetry,” seems more appropriate. Or, as John Moore put it, “Slang is a poor man’s poetry.”

Slang has been around almost as long as poetry. I was able to find some salty sailor slang from the 19th century, but what little I could understand can’t be printed here. That being the case, my look back at American slang begins at a time when everybody rolled up their sleeves and got to work: the 1940s.

Back then it was probably expected that the head honcho would show up at the party wearing his zoot suit, and that cornball Abner would be a party-pooper and go find a place to sack out.

During the ’50s, shucks, that new rock ‘n’ roll had me so jazzed that I flirted with the prom queen even though I was a total klutz. But then her boyfriend showed up. He was a cool cat who told me that I was cruisin’ for a bruisin.’ “If you don’t want a knuckle sandwich,” he warned me, “you’d better beat feet back to your pad, daddy-o!”

In the ’60s I was still a doofus, but everything was boss. The groovy music was out of sight, I really dug it, man. Yeah, it was kind of a bummer that I had so few belongings they could all fit in the pockets of my baggies, but that didn’t matter to a hippie. I had a blast.

Somehow I managed to keep on truckin’ into the ’70s, where I was doing much better. I had a good gig and was able to chillax in my own crib. Everything was outta sight except for that one time I tried that new restaurant. I had been stoked to go, but everything was not copacetic. The place was a ripoff, so I said, “Let’s blow this taco stand. Peace out, everybody.”

By the ’80s everything was totally tubular. I had a great place with a bodacious view where I could hang loose. But not everyone was so lucky. My BFF had a grody McJob that made him want to ralph. All I could say about his situation was, “Gag me with a spoon.”

A decade later, my bestie was doing much better. FYI, he was covered in bling and his car was da bomb. When I asked him where he’d suddenly gotten all his money, all he said was, “Don’t go there.”

“Aiight,” I told him, “it’s your business, but it would be a real buzz kill if you got in trouble with the po-po.”

As for what the slang of today means, you’re better off checking the internet than asking me. That being the case, I’ll close with an old observation that pretty much sums up my own understanding of current slang: “I know only two words of American slang, ‘swell’ and ‘lousy.’ I think ‘swell’ is lousy, but ‘lousy’ is swell.” — J.B. Priestley

Jim Witherell of Lewiston is a writer and lover of words whose work includes “L.L. Bean: The Man and His Company” and “Ed Muskie: Made in Maine.”


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