In 1959, American poet, Carl Sandburg (1878-1967), wrote, “Slang is a language that rolls up its sleeves, spits on its hands and goes to work.”
When the word first appeared in the 18th century, it referred to the language of the underworld. However, some slang still used today is both earlier in origin than 1700 and unrelated to the criminal lifestyle. Until the word slang appeared, such language was called cant or dialect. A 1785 book was entitled, The Classical Dictionary of the Vulgar Tongue.
Probably, slang is from the Scandinavian sleng (a slinging device; strategy). It would originally have implied a “thrown” language, tossed out to shock or surprise.
Slang is still considered a “transitory” language — one whose expressions quickly go out of date. But much very old slang is still heard. Pooped (exhausted) goes back to the 1500s.
Shakespeare (1564-1616) used slang. “Caterwaul” (to make screeching sounds) probably originated in Twelfth Night. “Dead as a doornail” can be found in Henry 1V, part 2. You’ll discover, “In a pickle” in The Tempest.
Other examples of early slang: footpad (16th century) — a highway robber who operated on foot as opposed to a highwayman who used a horse. Cat’s paw (late 18th century) — a dupe; a patsy. Bungler (17th century) — an inept person. And stuff (late 17th century) — meaningless addition to a sentence ending.
Much of the very early slang has assumed different meanings over the years. Punk is an example. First used in the late 1500s, punk then meant, “young female prostitute.” By the beginning of the 20th century, this word meant, “male prostitute.” Then, about 1910, it referred to a young criminal or member of a street gang. In the 1920s, a hobo’s younger companion was a punk, and by the 1950s, a punk was a coward, a weakling.
The circle almost closed in the late 1950s when, once again, punk meant “male prostitute.” But in the 1970s, punk took on a totally new meaning when it referred to a youth cult or member thereof. We began to hear of punk rock and such derivations as punkoid and punkish — all suggesting a style of rock and roll music and those involved in rock’s lifestyle.
Throughout all this, the word punk always also meant “nonsense; rubbish,” and, from the late 1800s until now, anything second-rate, worthless or not up to standard has been labeled punk.
Slang often enters accepted English. Success With Words estimates some 35,000 English words and/or expressions once were slang. Caterwaul is one.
Blockbuster is another example. This word originated in the Second World War as RAF slang. It referred to any immense bomb. In the 1950s, the advertising industry usurped blockbuster using it as a synonym for “colossal,” or “astounding.” Today’s dictionaries list this word as a noun meaning, “An extremely popular or financially successful film, book, etc.” Interestingly, it still means, “a huge bomb.”
Crestfallen (1589) is from cock-fighting and was slang for, “a drooping crest,” which indicated an injured bird. Today, it means, “downcast; dispirited; disappointed.”