Slang, Cant, Jargon, and Flash. When on the topic of slang-based language it is well worth taking a moment to understand the nature of each. It should also be mentioned that the boundaries between these four language are not clearly defined; the differences are surface level and for the most part, they borrow from and blend with one another through their deeper-level similarities.1
First on the list is slang, since the other three types of language are offshoots of this main category. Many scholars have tried their hand at pinning a definition on slang, but the nature of the beast is that it avoids definition. For this reason, it is much more helpful to concern ourselves with characteristics, rather than a single definition. In this case, we will look at three main characteristics.
The first characteristic of slang is that it belongs to specific social cliques or age groups.2 Such examples include teenagers, soldiers, university students, drug dealers, and doctors. The slang found in each group will be unique to the slang in the other groups; you would not find teenagers speaking like doctors, for example. When these groups intersect, their slang will move between groups; some of the slang terms from high school students will move with the students into university, that is, if these slang terms have not died off already.
This brings us to the second characteristic of slang, which is that a large portion of it is short-lived.3 New slang terms are invented constantly, less popular terms fall out of misuse, and unused words get readopted and imbued with a new, vigorous meaning.
The third characteristic of slang is that it is often used to define in-groups and out-groups.4 Using outdated slang terms is a sure way to get oneself labeled as “uncool” by the current in-group; a fate that often befalls adults trying to look “hip” in the eyes of cool and overly-judgmental teenagers. What this points to is the incredible difficulty of staying on top of slang for an outsider trying to pass as an insider.
Jargon is best defined as the language of professionals and groups with a common interest.5 Its main characteristic is that it is highly specialized, and often used to quickly communicate information between members of a group. Examples include health professionals, computer programmers, and online gamers. A side effect of jargon is that it very easily excludes those outside of the given group since the the language tends to be highly technical, and therefore understood only by those using the jargon.6
We now move on to the secret language of thieves and beggars: cant. What largely defines this particular language is its primarily use for deception and concealment.7 An example would be to use the phrase “check your pockets” as a code to warn a fellow partner in crime of a nearby policeman; only you and your accomplices know the meaning ascribed. The specialized aspect of cant is very much similar to jargon, and the constant creation of new words and meanings to avoid discovery and maintain secrecy bears resemblance to the continuously-changing vocabulary of slang. In this way, cant is a slang language with jargon’s emphasis on function.
The fourth type of language is flash. Specifically, flash refers to the fashionable slang of eighteenth- and nineteenth-century upper class Londoners.8 This language places considerable emphasis on the cliquish part of slang, and was used to differentiate the fashionable elite of the city from the rest. Historically, these types tended to also be the types who frequented brothels, gambled, and engaged in other on-the-edge-of-the-law activities. In this way then, flash has somewhat of a connection with its more criminal cousin, cant.
1 Coleman, Julie. A History of Cant and Slang Dictionaries, Volume II 1785 – 1858. New York: Oxford University Press, 2004. Page 2.
2 Coleman, 1
3 Coleman, 1
4 Coleman, 1
5 Coleman, 1
6 Coleman, 2
7 Coleman, 2
8 Coleman, 2