In his new book, Slang: The People's Poetry (Oxford University Press), Michael Adams, an assistant professor of English at IU Bloomington, describes -- and passionately defends -- slang as the creative expression of the everyday. The first major work on American slang in nearly a decade, Slang bridges the gap between pop culture and academia with a thorough examination of the ways Americans continually reinvent or combine words to keep language a living, breathing entity. Adams calls himself an "historian of the English language" specializing in the history, theory and practice of lexicography, but he's is no stranger to pop culture. He previously authored Slayer Slang: A 'Buffy the Vampire Slayer' Lexicon (Oxford University Press, 2004) and in early 2006, was a (tongue-in-cheek) Stephen Colbert target on "The Colbert Report" (for daring to define Colbert's "truthiness" and naming it the word of the year at the annual meeting of the American Dialect Society).
In Slang: The People's Poetry, Adams references language ranging from Chaucer to Buffy. In the section "The Raunch and the Hip: Two Slang Aesthetics," he invokes examples from aesthetic dimensions of slang, while in another section, "'My Bad' Means Never Having to Say You're Sorry," he touches on its more cognitive aspects. Page 169 begins with a brief look at "much," one of Adams' favorite words from the Buffy lexicon because of the way the television show inventively paired the word with unexpected bedfellows -- "broken record much," "pathetic much" --using an adjective plus much instead of the usual verb plus much (for example, "Walk much?" when you trip in the presence of a sarcastic friend).
"'Much' didn't start with Buffy, but with Buffy it becomes a really active, productive feature -- and not just in the language of the show. People started using it in their language on posting boards. It's a new way of putting things to say 'arrogant much' -- it's grammatically possible, just not something we're used to."
One section, "Indiddlyfixing Is the Shiznit," focuses on "infixing," in which one word is sandwiched inside another, as in "abso-f***ing-lutely." While expletive-laden infixes are most common, Adams said he was "shocked and astonished" to learn how many bloggers and other writers have come to rely upon the construction.
"Take the word 'lexi-fabri-cography,' which means 'making up your own words,'" he said. "It's an example of somebody doing something slangy that's really just a version of poetry. That poetic impulse is a linguistic impulse and something that all speakers of language -- that is, everyone in the world -- shares."
Adams also addresses the difference between slang words and vocation or activity-related jargon (restaurant or snowboarding terms, for example). "In the book, I try to describe the difference between jargon and slang as basically a difference between a language of work and a language of being," he said.
Slang is divided into four sections: First is an attempt to define "slang" -- in the preface, Adams describes how linguist Susan Tamasi once critiqued him for not adequately defining the word in Slayer Slang. Next is a chapter on how people use slang to form identities, either to align with or separate from a particular group, followed by a chapter on slang as a means of poetic or creative expression. Finally, he describes the neurology of slang and how our brains actually process language.
In the final portion of the book, "It's All in Your Head," Adams describes the way Shakespeare's surprising use of language ("godded" as a verb, as in "He godded me," in Coriolanus) creates greater activity in the brain. In the same way, he writes, the occasional novelty or witticism that pops up in conversation might not be identified as poetry -- or even slang, necessarily -- but it may be "language with style" that resembles poetry or slang.
"It's impossible to prove, of course, but one suspects that poets and speakers of slang alike have always understood, intuitively, that they were manipulating the linguistic reactions of those in the vicinity of their speech, pushing even the most obdurately normal among us into momentary abnormality," he writes.
While he doesn't use a lot of slang in his own speech, Adams said he has been fascinated by words since he can remember. "I've always noticed language. It was true of slang when I was younger just as it was true of Italian -- I loved opera because of the beautiful sounding words. I was attracted to the sound and the attitude of language, even a language I didn't understand."