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American Speech 79.1 (2004) 59-86
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We're Cool, Mom and Dad Are Swell:
Basic Slang and Generational Shifts in Values
Robert L. Moore
Not all slang terms are created equal. Though slang is commonly described as serving a variety of social and psychological functions, it is not generally noted that these different functions imply the existence of different categories of slang. This paper outlines one particular kind of slang, what I call basic slang, and identifies the functions that shape its use and longevity. To illustrate the significance of basic slang and the semantic structure that underlies it, I present here an extensive social and historical discussion of the basic slang terms swell and cool with attention to their uses in American speech from the 1910s to the present.
Briefly, a basic slang lexeme is a slang expression that emerges when a young generation or cohort takes on a set of values starkly opposed to the values of its elders and begins to use a positive slang expression that is semantically linked to its new value orientation. It differs from most slang in that it typically endures for one or more generations, is used pervasively, and is applied to a wide array of referents as a general term of approval. The basic slang terms discussed here, swell and cool, can in many contexts be loosely glossed as meaning 'good'. But in addition to this broad applicability, both swell and cool have core referents, namely, the values adhered to by the young generation that distinguish them from their elders. These basic slang terms are subtypes of what Flexner (1975) calls a counterword, an expression whose meaning has expanded to a broader and more general applicability than that of the term's original referent.
It is the special semantic structure of counterwords that makes them particularly appropriate as basic slang terms and helps account for their unique qualities: that is, their endurance over long periods not merely in occasional use, but as pervasively used slang expressions whose main functions are (1) to express approval and (2) to align the speaker with an attitude or set of values characterizing his or her generation. The slang terms cool and swell and the attitudes that comprise their core meanings allow their users to employ them tirelessly for decades and not "wear them out," because those who use them in their heyday never tire of identifying themselves with the values they represented. Counterwords that serve as [End Page 59] basic slang terms illustrate a kind of semantic extension, a structural phenomenon outlined in detail in Kronenfeld's 1996 study, Plastic Glasses and Church Fathers.
Though ephemerality is one of the most commonly cited defining features of slang, basic slang terms are not ephemeral. Swell lasted in this role from about 1920 to 1965, and cool began to take its place during the 1950s and 60s, almost completely superseding it by about 1967. Cool continues to endure as a widely used positive counterword in 2004.
Data and Methods
I first identified swell and cool as terms deserving special attention when my interest in movies of the 1930s and 1940s brought to light the extraordinary and enduring pervasiveness of the term swell in that era. At about the same time I began to notice (with the help of my young daughter and her friends) that children born in the 1980s (i.e., the offspring of the 1960s generation) were using cool as their most pervasive term of approval. These two terms seemed, each in its own era, to defy the common understanding of slang as short-lived. Though it's true that exceptions to slang's ephemerality have been widely noted—Chaucer's bones 'dice' is the standard example—to my knowledge it has never been noted that certain slang terms are not only enduring but at the same time more pervasive than all their rivals. The very idea that a pervasively used slang term could endure for generations seems to contradict a fundamental feature thought to characterize...