We all know that failing to use informal language in a situation that would require it can be awkward, comical or insensitive. This is more a question of manners and taste than it is of mastering language.
The reverse, however, can be disastrous. That would be using coarse and slangy language in situations that require standard English. At best, communication will fail. More likely, the result will be that the wrong message is conveyed: disrespect, perhaps, or maybe the opposite meaning of your words.
For example, if a teen tells her grandmother that the birthday present she sent was “the baddest,” Grandma is unlikely to think that the present made a hit. Curiously, “bad” in the sense of “good” does not use the traditional comparative and superlative of bad (worse, worst), but rather “badder” and “baddest.” This may cause the purists to dig in their heels about accepting “bad-as-good” into the standard lexicon.
In the same vein, the use of “dude” or “bro” in the wrong context or with the wrong person may not convey friendliness, but rather, contempt. “Dude” is thought to come from “Yankee Doodle,” who was a “dandy” (a fancy dresser, as understood in the day), and so “dude” and “dandy” were synonyms for many decades. It equally could have arrived via Scots erse, in which “duddies” were clothes (and gave us the term “duds”). It came to be known as a “city slicker” in the era of the dude ranches. Increasingly, it has come to mean “guy” or “nondescript male person.” Men who cultivate their own dignity usually find it offensive when applied to them.
It would seem that the slang rules are not only correct, but fairly simple:
- Don’t use slang when you are trying to speak a middle- or high-level form of English.
- Slang should be avoided in any sort of formal writing, except in drafting dialogue or when quoting someone.
The main problem is that one generation’s slang is another generation’s standard usage. The word “cool,” for example, has meant more than a temperature reference for generations. In the 1930’s it was a jazz term for a musical style. In the 1950’s it meant something like “fascinatingly counter-culture” à la James Dean or later, “the Fonz.” In the last few decades it has come to mean “OK,” as in “I’m cool with that.” It is an almost universal, bland and non-committal response to another person’s remark: “I got an A in history”; response: “Cool.” “Cool” also means something like “cute and fashionable” when applied to clothing. So, when is it “cool” to use “cool” in standard English writing? There can be no official answer. Much depends on how one sizes up the target audience. It may even be acceptable in high-level corporate boardrooms, but in informal usage it is surely OK.
“Awesome,” another word like “cool,” has really made the rounds. It started out as “awful,” meaning awe-inspiring, in the way that words like “playful” and “useful” employ the same suffix. Somehow “awful” evolved into “bad” or “very” (when used as an adverb). So “awesome” made its debut, to fill the void. The usage did not stay put for long: it quickly evolved from “awe-inspiring” into a term vaguely the equivalent of “super-good.” The word has been used in some respectable places: Christian hymnals and presidential speeches. Is it too soon to let it graduate from slang to standard speech? It’s hard to say . . .
In the same vein, the word “incredible” is used in a slangy way to mean “very good” instead of “not worthy of belief.” Try to avoid this, as it can lead you into odd outcomes, like the Vacation Bible School poster placed in front of a local church, declaring, “Jesus is incredible!” Really? Wouldn’t they rather declare that He is “highly credible”?
It’s obvious that there are no hard and fast rules about the use of slang. Like everything else in the subject of “level of speech,” it’s a question of feeling, a matter of knowing what is appropriate and what is not. It is more like manners than grammar.