Archives of the Streets

By Apurva Mishra, Batch of 2024

The year is 3021. Somewhere in Egypt, an archaeologist unearths a mobile phone. Attempts to recover data, yields only “lol sm, idk tbh, wuwd?”. “Novel variation of the hieroglyphs discovered”, the next day’s news proclaims. Futurism aside, take a moment to marvel at what the English language has mutated into. The digital environment has reduced entire phrases to intelligible textual contraction. Languages fade in and out, weaving through space and time. Slang, however, stands firm in its rebellion against conventional speech.

Jonathon Green, a slang lexicographer, characterizes language as open to infinite re-invention. This innovation is at the pace of thought, moving incessantly onward. Thus, sincerest sympathies are in order for those eluded by the acronym-riddled, pop culture derivative newspeak used by kids these days. Alas, (potential) boomer, catching up would be a lowkey impossible feat, no cap. The thing is, our rhetorical multivitamins are fresh out of order. Cue the violin

Born in the streets, slang holds the legacy of a place and its people. For instance, following the European immigration into Argentina in the 1880s, Italian words were quickly adopted into everyday speech. This slang, known as Lunfardo, makes Argentinian Spanish markedly different from that of other Hispanic countries. It has grown into an integral part of their music and culture.

In multilingual nations, a mélange of the various languages crystallizes to form the vernacular. As a firsthand illustration, the use of English nouns and verbs with a Hindi sentence structure is common to the point of imperceptibility. Likewise in South Africa, the English vernacular is peppered with words of Afrikaans derivation, along with Portuguese, Hindi, Malay and indigenous African. Although the lingo is a legacy of migration, slavery and colonialism, it now represents unity in diversity.

The viability of a slang word depends on its ability to articulate what’s integral to society, yet undefined by the standard vocabulary. Therefore, popular slangs from the decades past are naturally representative of that era. Grunt (meaning ‘infantryman’) came up during the Vietnam War. The word diss (for disrespect) was reinvented in the 1990s, coinciding with the worldwide success of hip-hop and rap music.

Slang has a high birth and death rate, a sure sign of questionable healthcare at Urban Dictionary. Speaking of mortality, YOLO from 2012 achieved self-actualization, with nary a prospect of a renaissance. With how quickly slang dies out, certain historical lingo is incomprehensible. A reasonable person would assume that ‘Jimmy o goblin’ is an antagonist in a kids’ show, not a term for money as it was in the 19th century.

On the other hand, certain colloquialisms have prospered. OK, the most recognizable word on the planet, was born as a corny joke in the 1830s: an abbreviation of the deliberately butchered ‘Oll Korrect’. Booze, for alcohol, has been going strong, ever since the 1500s (cheers?). While ‘beat it’, still in use as a synonym for ‘scamper’, is of Shakespearean origin.

Through the seasons of humankind, what is consistent is linguistic ingeniousness harnessed as a means to assert one’s identity and express solidarity. This notion carries an odd sense of responsibility, for elements of casual conversation may become a testament to the times. Perhaps, in the far future, memes and viral videos would feature in a 2020s themed Halloween pawri. Noice.