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Mawson, C.O.S., ed. (1870–1938). Roget’s International Thesaurus. 1922.

Variation and Change in Our Living Language

Other Kinds of Synchronic Variation   Not all aspects of synchronic variation can be fully represented by lexical entries; consequently, the Our Living Language Notes do not cover all types of linguistic diversity in America equally well. Gender variation and the social construction of male and female identity have been the focus of intense research in recent years on such topics as male/female differences in interruptions, tag questions (e.g., you know?), and the amount of talk and silence; but such aspects of conversational interaction or discourse do not lend themselves readily to dictionary coverage. The extent of one’s social network—the strength and diversity of one’s ties to friends and workmates, for example—has also been shown to be a salient factor in variation, both in America and Europe, but the features studied are elements of pronunciation and grammar rather than vocabulary. Variation by age has already been implicated in our earlier discussion of ongoing change in apparent time in features such as as far as and be all/like, and the fact that a-prefixing and the use of hern, ourn, and similar forms are more common among older speakers betrays their status as retentions from an earlier period. Recently, linguists have demonstrated that adolescence is a life stage in which the linguistic marking of social identity is at a peak. The extensive use of slang by teenagers, about which we say more below, is a part of this phenomenon.   24   Slang         As our dictionary entry indicates, slang occurs chiefly in casual, playful speech and is typically made up of short-lived coinages and figures of speech that are deliberately used in place of standard terms for the sake of added raciness, humor, irreverence, or other effect. To this we might add that the creation and use of slang are commonest among adolescents and teenagers, and that some words that enter the vocabulary as slang pass into more general usage and endure for decades, if not centuries, as has occurred with bad, cool, dig, and dude. If it is surprising to learn that some of these words go back to the early 20th century and even to the 19th century (as do bad and dude), it is equally surprising to learn that a seemingly modern, computer-age slang word like geek originated in the 19th- and early-20th-century world of the circus, where it originally referred to a performer who engaged in bizarre acts such as biting the head off a live chicken.   25       Some slang words illustrate very general principles of linguistic variation and change. For instance, igg, from ignore, illustrates the tendency to reduce or shorten words in informal speech. Although the incidence is higher as one goes down the social ladder, virtually all Americans reduce past and hand to pas’ and han’ in casual or excited speech, at least some of the time, and they can similarly drop the initial unstressed syllable in (a)bout. Unlike more broadly accepted slang reductions (such as mike for microphone), which typically retain their most strongly stressed syllable, igg involves the retention of an initial unstressed syllable and the loss of a stressed syllable. Some of the newer slang reductions, like za (from pizza) and rents (from parents) have an even more startling, in-your-face quality. Their effect derives from the fact that they involve the loss of an initial stressed syllable (PIZza, PArents) and the replacement of the original reduced vowel () in the remaining syllable by full vowels (ä, ). In this respect they defy convention, much as the recently popular greeting among African Americans What up? defied the rule by which the copula in collocations using what is, that is, and it is is usually contracted (as in wha’s up, tha’s ok, i’s me) but not deleted in African American Vernacular English. As the note at za reminds us, however, today’s startling slang neologism can become tomorrow’s conventional standard usage, for phone, bus, and wig were originally derived (from telephone, omnibus, and periwig) by clipping stressed syllables.    26       A century from now, The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language will undoubtedly bear witness to completed changes and new kinds of regional and social variation that we cannot now envision. But to the extent that intervening editions continue to document and discuss the ways in which this vibrant American language is varying and changing, future developments should not come as a complete surprise, and the Dictionary’s readers and compilers will have shared the pleasure of tracking the process.   27