Does anyone else slightly want to cry at that thing John Humphrys does on the Today programme about once every two years, when new slang words are put in the dictionary? You know, the thing where he pronounces each of the terms that the Youth of Today use, in a voice that suggests he is picking it up by the corner like someone else’s snot-soaked handkerchief?
He did it the other day, when “swag” and “jank” and various other Hip Young Thing words made it into the OED (“swag”, apparently, is now an adjective meaning cool; “jank” is disgusting or nasty). “Swag? In my day that meant the stuff that burglars carried in sacks!” he chortled, much as he must have done in 1924, muttering “‘Doll’ means ‘woman’ now? In my day it meant a small toy designed to look like a human!” This isn’t just Humphrys, of course, who I am unfairly singling out – he just happened to be the one I heard.
Will we ever, do you think, stop being surprised by this? Young people, desperate to define themselves against their parents’ generation and create their own identity, create subcultures with their own slang. As they get older, some of that slang sticks in their language, some of it doesn’t (I still find myself saying “safe” [cool] and “easy” [hello], both of which stopped being acceptable in 1996; I must sound to young people as my GCSE chemistry teacher did to me when he described things as “groovy”), and the occasional one or two will spread out of the subcultures altogether and just become a word, as “cool” has, or the positive sense of “wicked”. And some of it is noticed by the wider population, who act exactly as shocked every time, as though it comes as a gigantic shock to them that their own youthful slang was not the last word on the matter (as it were).
And of course some of it spreads to the elder generation in that excruciating way, as when someone on Radio 4 describes something as “blinging”, and you know that the word has died an awful death. That seems to happen shortly after the word makes the news by being put in the OED.
But what’s weird is the slight tone of moral or intellectual judgment about. The Humpryses of the world use their verbal tweezers to indicate that the young one don’t speak proper, that language is being corrupted by these youth and their careless speech, as though the rest of language hadn’t come about in exactly the same way – every word you use must, at some stage, have been used for the first time, and then spread throughout the language.
I doubt “jank” will stand the test of time, simply because most slang dies by the wayside and only a tiny minority of words survive into, as it were, adulthood. But it might do, and it might be that in 2113AD, an august figure in the House of Lords – perhaps a grandchild of an Arctic Monkey or something – rises up on her hind legs and uses it to describe British foreign policy. But she will probably then go home and hear on the ultramatic sub-etha radiobox that the young people are describing attractive people as “super pimply” or whatever. And she will sigh, and say: the way kids are misusing the language these days, it’s proper jank.