Friday, September 18, 2009

Art & Culture: Slang: The People’s Poetry by Michael Adams

Michael Adams is that guy. He teaches English language and literature at the university level. He is the editor of a magazine that focuses very tightly on speech. He is the author of a book on the slang of the now defunct hit television show Buffy the Vampire Slayer. Yes, you’ve got it right: Adams is a word geek. So, clearly, if he writes a book called Slang: The People’s Poetry, it’s not going to be the expected compendium of slang that everyone else might do. Especially if said book is published by Oxford University Press.

So take those hints, and construct them into the book you might imagine Slang might be and you’re almost be there. First of all, there is no aspect of compendium to Slang. In some regards, it is an erudite love letter to a verbal form. With footnotes. And joy. Those things might sound separate -- footnotes, that is, and joy -- but Adams pulls it off. Early in the book, the author writes:
We enjoy slang (those of us who do enjoy it) just for its casual, vivid, racy, irreverent, and playful elements, and some combination of those elements is what alerts the ear to lexical trouble: slang rebels against the standard (whether mildly, wildly, or somewhere in between), and each synonym it supplies must add some social meaning to the standard alternative’s lexical meaning.
For me, this paragraph sums up, not only the content of Slang, but the context. Sometimes Adams is playful, sometimes he is verbose (“Whereas the impletive interposing with meaningful infix is a marginal variety of a marginal feature even of slang, let alone English at large, nonpletive infixings and interposings may be trendy.”), sometimes he is insightful (“Saying the wrong thing or saying the right thing in the wrong way, just generally lacking in social finesse, can mean social isolation.”) but there is never a moment when you think he got it wrong.

Slang will not make you laugh from end to end, but I’m quite sure that was not Adams’ intent. This is an intelligent book, executed with passion. Slang offers important comment and documentation on an aspect of our culture that is very often overlooked.

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