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Slang is so "jingo jango"

Monday, September 28, 2009 | 12:01 a.m. CDT

“Oh my god, her outfit was soooo jingo jango!”

Nothing in recent history has delighted me so much as this bit of lingo and the report that local high school kids are, sincerely, using it.

According to an article in Vox, which put out a Hickman-Rock Bridge issue last week, “jingo jango” means “ridiculous.” Reporters interviewed high school students and unearthed this gem, along with many other locally-used slang terms that I had never heard before and could never use without looking absolutely jingo jango. (Also entertaining were “Betty Crockin’ it,” a verb meaning “to flirt,” and “geekin’,” which contrary to my own geeky assumptions, means getting really drunk or high.)

I was afforded the opportunity to be amused by the terms at the expense of being cool. Why? Because any slang worth its salt should complete three tasks: (1) making conversation more informal, (2) opposing established authority and (3) identifying members of an in-group. And when it comes to teenage slang, I am, at 25 years old, out.  

Those three effects were set out by linguist Connie Eble when she explained how slang is different from any ole language in her book “Slang and Sociability,” the real-life tale of college students and why they speak the way they do. But her study doesn’t just apply to adults. Those three rules also show why teens, including those in Columbia, use slang like it’s going out of style.

The first rule is especially fit for American culture, where, Eble explains, “the appearance of informality is considered by many to be chic.” Being informal in speech is just an extension of being aloof and breezy in general; it shows the world how much one can’t be bothered to use proper words (insert hair flip, eye roll here), and there are few things cooler than simply not caring.

This is why young people slangily shorten words — it’s not a situation, but a sitch — and why cyber-slang abbreviations, despite often being more cumbersome to say than the words they represent, nonsensically abound. Take those individuals who actually push the letters “BTW” out of their mouths; using that abridgment online might save a typist seven strokes, but using it in life just gives a speaker two more syllables to work through. It’s all linguistic effort made in the name of appearing indifferent.

That is not to say that all informal speech is slang or that reeking of informality is all slang has to offer. The second rule helps further set slang apart from standard English, as well as demonstrate one of its obvious attractions for teens. “The aim and chief function of slang is to lower and disavow the dignity of discourse,” writes linguist Jonathan Lighter in a history of the English language. If “proper” English is a handshake, slang is a fist-bump and using it goes against the authority of anyone who ever told kids to mind their manners.

In history class, for example, a student might call Adolf Hitler a “racist tyrant.” But in the hallway, that same figure might well become a “whack job.” Slang separates the speech kids are using with each other from that they are using with their teachers and parents. Slang has appeal because they shouldn’t use it when talking to their mothers.

The third rule gets at the most crucial appeal, however: Using slang is like being in a secret society. Two teens could conceal the meaning of an entire conversation if they wielded their lingo well enough. On a broad scale, that means it's language that helps young people form a sense of solidarity and to acknowledge their generational values, but slang can also distinguish those extra cool young people from the crowd.

Lighter explains that slang is used to test peers and when they fail to understand, the slang-user gets the upper hand. “The uncomprehension of a bemused addressee … boosts the slangster’s ego; he knows something the addressee doesn’t, and he may explain it or not, as he pleases.” Exclusivity and being in the know are key.

Which leads us back to the fact that I could never use “jingo jango” with a straight face or without getting laughed at. But I can sit back and enjoy what the crazy kids are saying these days, with full anticipation of the amusement my many decades of being unhip are sure to bring me. 

Katy Steinmetz is a columnist for the Missourian and an editor for Vox Magazine. She moved to Columbia after spending two years teaching in Winchester, England, and one year in Edinburgh, Scotland. Her work has been published by a variety of outlets, including The Guardian and Businessweek.com. Katy plans to complete her MU master's degree in 2010.


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