Like poetry and pornography, slang is easier to recognize than to define. Most of it is disapproved of by someone, but obscenity alone doesn’t qualify. It isn’t slang, for example, to refer to manure with a four-letter word. But if you put the article “the” in front of that four-letter word and equate the president-elect of the United States to it, then slang it is, and very complimentary. Further complicating matters, a great deal of slang is completely inoffensive. Journalists call the first sentence of an article the lede, the last the kicker, the motive for reading it the hook and the paragraph that encapsulates its argument the nut graf–terms that might puzzle an outsider but won’t scandalize anyone.
One comes a little closer to a definition of slang by thinking about context. Dirty words suggest that the audience is no better than the speaker, and vice versa. Slang, on the other hand, usually suggests that speaker and audience share membership in a group. A prostitute who describes a slow-to-satisfaction customer as a thirty-three, thereby analogizing him to the standard speed for long-playing vinyl records, is probably not speaking to a police officer. A gay man who describes a lover with a similar quirk as long-winded is probably not speaking to a heterosexual. The implied identifications are flexible, however. If a gay hairdresser in London offers to zhoosh you, it’s safe to accept his titivation even if you’re a straight man. The word might make you blush, but it won’t compromise your orientation; it merely dignifies you with honorary membership in the group of people who understand how he talks.
Sometimes a slang word or phrase springs free of the people who coined it, but it remains slang only for as long as it trails groupiness of some kind, however attenuated or abstract. You needn’t work for the sanitation department to call maggots disco rice, a term recorded by the New York Times in July 2004, but the term nonetheless implies that a vivid acquaintance with the larvae was picked up somewhere. In September, when a writer for New York magazine hailed Sarah Palin’s promised son-in-law for attracting “the cougar vote,” the writer probably didn’t intend to signal that he and his readers belonged to the romantic community that unites older women and younger men. But he probably did expect that he and his readers shared an urbane taste for following pop-culture reportage on sexual behavior into its sillier vicissitudes.
To a lexicographer, slang’s abundance may present an even greater challenge than its definition. Although humans coin words as prolifically as bees make honey, dictionaries of standard English only include lexemes that have become a stable currency among strangers. Slang is not confined by this useful limit. My boyfriend and I refer to going online as checking our bids, in memory of a bygone fascination with eBay. Because we once elaborated the no-chicken label on a box of vegetarian broth into a fowl-friendly warning–“No, no, chicken! Keep away from the boiling water!”–we now always call the broth no-no chicken. The glossy young rich who crowd us out of our favorite restaurants are known to us as kittenheads, on account of a bus-side ad I once saw that juxtaposed an enormous fluffy white feline head, a crystal goblet full of glistening diced organ meats and the slogan “Next Stop, Uptown.” This is just the tip of the iceberg of our private slang, and we’re only two people. Multiply our sample by all the groups, large and small, who improvise with the English language for their own convenience and pleasure, and you see the problem. Slang is virtually infinite. It helps to exclude slang that hasn’t been published, but in the Internet age it doesn’t help much.