What is Slang?
… I have christened slang – and I am sure, quite consciously, that this is to do with that world of the ‘60s, which was known as the ‘counter-culture’ – for me, I call it ‘the counter-language’.
— Jonathon Green, slang specialist and lexicographer
Oxford Languages, the world’s leading dictionary publisher and provider of Google’s English dictionary, defines slang as:
… a type of language that consists of words and phrases that are regarded as very informal, are more common in speech than writing, and are typically restricted to a particular context or group of people.
“grass is slang for marijuana”
Just about every hobby, interest, field of work or study, and profession has its own slang and jargon.
Slang vs. Jargon
Slang and jargon are two different types of language. Jargon is specialized terminology that is used by professional or avocational groups, and only understood by those in these groups.
To illustrate, here’s a bit of baseball jargon that any serious fan would know, but a casual fan might not:
Uncle Charlie was really working for him today.
Uncle Charlie is a nickname for a curve ball. The sentence above means that the pitcher’s curveball is effective at getting batters to strike out on this particular day.
Slang would be,
His curveball was lit today.
Lit, a slang term that means really great, doesn’t require knowledge of baseball to understand.
Slang is available to all and, according to Grammar Girl’s Quick and Dirty Tips blog,
Slang is made of informal words and phrases that originate in speech, and often includes substitutions for formal words …
If you go to a conference, you’ll hear a lot of jargon, but probably not as much slang. Professional jargon is often a shortcut to making your message understood.
If you’ve ever heard two physicians talking about work, you’ve hard professional jargon. Rather than explaining that the patient had dizziness that was inner-ear related, one might say to the other, The patient was vertiginous, and I suspect benign positional vertigo. That tells much more of the story without using more words.
Slang can help give us a sense of belonging to a group, or it can quickly let us know we don’t belong. It can give the reader a sense that the writer understands them, that they have something in common. If you use it, be sure you know what you’re saying and that it sounds genuine. There’s nothing worse than a writer or speaker who tries to use slang they don’t understand to appear more hip, younger, or more connected than they are.
Here’s a tweet from a data scientist that’s clearly aimed at a narrow audience:
I honestly have no idea what he’s saying, but I’ll bet those who follow the #datascience hashtag do.
There’s nothing wrong with using professional jargon when you know your audience members are also members of your profession. However, use that same jargon in a non-professional context and you’ll have your listeners running for the dictionary. And the exit.
Is It OK to Use Slang in Business Writing?
The short answer is it depends. Who is your audience?
If you’re writing to an older audience, using teenage slang will not only make you sound foolish, but it will miss the mark for your readers. When you make your writing difficult to understand, you alienate your reader.
If you’re on the fence about whether or not to use slang, here are a few deciding factors.
1. What’s Your Brand Style?
Is it casual or formal? If you sell casual clothing, you may use slang more readily than a more formal clothing store that sells high-end business suits.
2. Is Your Audience Broad or Narrow?
If your product or service caters to a wider audience, you’ll have to be more careful with language to avoid offending a large number of readers. If it’s narrow you might get away with it.
3. Where are You Publishing?
Slang might be more appropriate on certain social networks than others. I’d advise against it on LinkedIn, but, depending on your audience and the above factors, you might use it on social networks if your style is more casual. The Instagram post below is an example of casual language selling casual clothing to a young audience.
4. How Long Do You Want Your Writing to Last?
Dated slang will date your writing. What might have been trendy last year may not this year. Slang can also be regional and if you’re a national brand you may confuse some readers. You might use it in ephemeral content such as social media stories, where it will expire after 24 hours, but avoid it in permanent or evergreen content.
5. Are You International?
Certain slang words can translate differently to other languages than English. Ensure that you’re not offending your customers and prospects from other countries.