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Slang: It's Heaps Hectic

katlittrell's picture

In my last paper for this class, I focused on the importance of defining language in certain academic contexts. In the general course of my life, however, I find myself more celebrating the ambiguity and mutability of language, particularly that “peculiar kind of vagabond language, always hanging on the outskirts of legitimate speech, but continually straying or forcing its way into the most respectable company”1 -- slang. When I began thinking about this paper, I was sitting in the Lusty Cup, an on-campus café, and picked up a book that was serendipitously lying around. That book was called Slang Today and Yesterday by Eric Partridge, a New Zealander who lived first in Australia and then in Britain. Like Partridge, I live on the edge of multiple dialects of English, in my case Australian and American English. Perhaps it is natural for those who live on the edge of different English dialects to take a keen interest in the slight distinctions between dialects, as it is a source of constant amusement to me that wherever I am, I am always asked, “What do they say differently? What’s some slang you’ve picked up?” I imagine that Partridge’s own interest in slang was spurred by his position as a natural expert on three dialects of the English language, in whose daily life used a rich variety of slang accumulated across three countries, to the bemusement of his listeners to who their shared language of English was rendered distinctly foreign by his use of exotic, unintelligible slang.

In my experience, slang is the most exciting part of speech both for its colorful nature and its tendency to elicit delight from those who are hearing new slang for the first time, particularly when the slang used is a known word used in a new way. For me, there are often times where I use words or phrases which I had previously thought to be in common use, only to be greeted with blank stares, or a hardly-contained smile of amusement before the natural question: “What does that mean?”

The question is deceptively simple. Easy as the answer should be to provide, the question of meaning often brings me up short. How do I adequately explain the meaning, the feeling, the flavor of a certain word to my uninitiated audience? How do I explain the certain joy a particular word brings, or the exact context of emotion a certain word requires before it is appropriate? The task is inordinately difficult, and in an attempt to provide a decent explanation and examination of the evolution of slang, I will explore the word “hectic”, with its very distinct meanings in American and Australian English.

Map of Australia


Map of NSWMap of NSWThe word “hectic” was first used in 1495 in J. De Trevisa’s translation of Bartholomew de Granville’s De proprietatibus rerum, a treatise on the natural sciences as a reference to fever.2 This usage continued through to the 1800s, where it was adapted for usage by poets in referring to the flush of the cheeks3, and expanded to include the meaning of “habitual”4. By the early 1900s5, the word’s meaning shifted to connote a state of feverish activity, which is the meaning most modern Americans recognize. To Australians from the Illawarra area, "hectic" can be used as an adjective roughly synonymous to "awesome", as in "She has a hectic singing voice." It can also be used as an adverb meaning "very", as in "She sang hectically." But the importance of hectic, and the reason hectic even exists is because the synonyms for hectic pale in comparison to its vibrancy. While denoting the same things as "awesome" or "very", hectic carries with it a greater sense of pure excitement and enthusiasm for one's subject, such excitement that normal language cannot possibly convey and so an alternate word must be created. Slang is a succinct capturing of ideas, feelings and situations which depend on the cultural context and are varied as needed. Each new term brings some new sense, some new connotation to the table. “The idea wanders, as it were, from word to word and from one metaphor to another: sometimes the last, or even an intermediate sense becomes unrecognizably different from the first” (Partridge 23).

This transformation from old to new, known to unknown, domestic to exotic, is what makes slang intriguing and more full of flavor than “ordinary” words, or, as Partridge says, “slang is not used merely as a means of self-expression: it connotes personality” (4). I have found that the slang terms I use become stuck in the jargon of my circle of friends, whether intentionally or not. Phrases such as “no worries”, “heaps”, and, of course, “hectic” are now common terms in my friend circle. Likewise, I have picked up some of their slang terms such as "valid" and "totes forsh"6. It is this spread of terms due to the evolution and ambiguity of our language which provides vibrancy. No two people have identical vocabularies, and it is our differences in understanding which provide an opportunity for learning: “Lacking a common language, people have a means of discovering things they didn’t know. Their gap in understanding is itself productive of new meaning” (Dalke 71).

Partridge observes, “In Australian slang there is much American, just as there is much Cockney influence” (288). The continual overlap and divergence of language and the added color of slang (in addition to the allure of an exotic accent) makes conversation with an English-speaking foreigner something of an event. The intersect of these three dialects is illustrated by a play I am involved with, the Bryn Mawr Shakespeare Performance Troupe production of The History Boys. The History Boys is a British play by Alan Bennett currently being rehearsed here with a cast of Americans (and one Australian). Rehearsals are constant sources of interplay between the three dialects. While we have decided against putting on fake British accents, certain of the lines lend themselves to a British accent, and some of the cast puts on a British edge to their voice on certain words. such as "bloody" and "wanker". Because we have decided not to put on accents, my lonely strine7 tends to stand out. In a nod to the difference, in one of the scenes one of the boys makes fun of my character by putting on a broad Australian drawl. Again, in the interplay between dialects, it is the differences which excite and inform us.

The spy (and unspy) shades of meaning between Aussie, yank and pommy English might make having a convo fair tough, but the pay-off of a sweet as, hectic, chronically changing lingo is heaps worth it.8


1 Greenough and Kittredge, Words and Their Ways in English Speech, 1902; cited in Partridge p. 1.

2 “The feuer etyk hurtyth and greuyth the sadde membres.”

3 “Day’s last hectic blush.” F.D Hemans. Forest Sanctuary II.xii. 1826.

4 “He seemed naturally to affect a majestique carelesnesse, which was so hectique, so habitual in him as [etc.]” Hamon L’Estrange. The Reign of King Charles. p5. 1655.

5 “Didn't I say we never met in pup-pup-puris naturalibus, if I may so put it, without a remarkably hectic day ahead of us?” Rudyard Kipling. Traffics and Discoveries. p210. 1904.

6 Totally for sure.

7 Australian dialect. "Strine" is a syncope of the word "Australian", a parody of what the word "Australian" sounds like when pronounced in an exaggerated Australian accent.

8 The subtle (and not-so-subtle) ambiguities of meaning between Australian, American and British dialects might make communication more difficult at times, but the pay-off of more interesting, vibrant and constantly evolving language is well worth the price.


Works Cited

Dalke, Anne. “Where Words Arise, and Wherefore: Literature and Literary Theory as Forms of Exploration”. Soundings. 2007: pp65-75. PDF.

Partridge, Eric. Slang Today and Yesterday. 3rd ed. New York: Bonanza Books, 1961. Print.

Oxford English Dictionary, definition “hectic”. Web. March 11. 2011.


Anne Dalke's picture

The wandering word

What really strikes me here, katlittrell, is the marked turnabout that this paper takes from your last one, in which you were trying to pin down the "true and accurate meaning" of words in an academic context. This one engages in a decided counter-activity, spurred serendipidously and fortuitously by your discovery of Partridge's book on slang, intersecting with your own experience of speaking a different version of English than the one practiced in the U.S., and so ofttimes being misunderstood.

Etymology, in this new activity, has a very different flavor: rather than a search for the true meaning of a word, it looks @ the various branching points of its evolution, the multiple "speciations" of the wandering word. As observed by your classmate Lethologica, "words evolve just as much as anything else does." Delicious!--and such fun to trace back that history, and mark the moments of difference.

So, looking from that past, to the future. Learning to celebrate, rather than trying to police, such differences can, as you testify, "excite and inform us"; it's "heaps worth it." Tell me about what exactly makes this activity "worth it." Is something new generated? What precisely is the payoff? We laugh, delightly, @ the different meanings of "hectic." And then....? (Might this project, for example, give us different ways of thinking about teaching language? Both to first and second --not to mention trans-- language learners?