Once I use a phrase . . . Medical slang


  1. Jeffrey Okay Aronson

  1. Centre for Proof Primarily based Medication, Nuffield Division of Major Care Well being Sciences, College of Oxford, Oxford, UK

  2. Twitter @JKAronson

The phrase “slang,” outlined within the Oxford English situs idn poker Dictionary as “The particular vocabulary utilized by any set of individuals of a low or disreputable character; language of a low and vulgar sort,” and first recorded in 1756, has been regarded as derived from “sling,” which itself comes from an IndoEuropean root SLENG, that means to slip or sling, to hurl or throw, because it have been language that’s hurled. Nevertheless, the proof that helps this rivalry is tenuous and the true origin of the phrase isn’t recognized.

Lexicographic anniversaries

Yearly since 20161 I’ve been contributing articles to The BMJ documenting medical anniversaries. The 2016 anniversaries included William Harvey’s 1616 Lumleian lecture to the School of Physicians on the circulation of the blood,2 René Laennec’s invention of the stethoscope in 1816,3 and the outline of the Guillain–Barré syndrome by Georges Guillain, Jean Alexandre Barré, and André Strohl in 1916.4

Every so often, I’ve accompanied these articles with items on what I name lexicographic anniversaries, by which I imply phrases whose first situations, recorded within the Oxford English Dictionary (OED), could be dated to anniversaries of the 12 months in query. For instance, the 170 medical examples for the 12 months 20205 that I found included cardialgic (1620), aegophony and stethoscope (each 1820), and electromyographic (1920).

The issue with that is that, though the OED’s lexicographers do a superb job of tracing the earliest makes use of of the phrases the dictionary consists of, on not a couple of events earlier examples could be discovered, so referred to as antedatings. Certainly, the editor of the primary version of the dictionary, James Murray, estimated that about three quarters of its headwords might be antedated. He additionally identified, in a presidential lecture to the Philological Society in 1884, that phrases are typically spoken earlier than they’re written down, in order that written sources will typically postdate the date of invention or introduction of a phrase. In my expertise of antedating medical phrases, I’ve discovered earlier situations in about 10% of instances.

Take the instance of “premedication.” The earliest occasion listed within the OED is from an editorial titled “N.A.R.S. Anesthesia Survey” revealed in a complement on anaesthesia to quantity 34 of the American Journal of Surgical procedure, revealed in 1920. By the way, this isn’t the present journal of that title, which was first revealed in 1926. Nevertheless, there’s a a lot earlier occasion of the phrase within the title of an 1849 e book by Samuel A Cartwright, referred to as “Some remarks on premedication: and the doctrine of a retrograde motion from collapsion [sic] of the absorbent and capillary vessels.” Cartwright’s e book was included in a listing of donations to the library of the Academy of Pure Sciences of Philadelphia, revealed within the academy’s proceedings in late 1849 and it was reviewed twice in that 12 months within the New Orleans Journal of Medication, in September and November 1849 (pages 265-72 and 366-75). The phrase additionally seems in one other e book by Cartwright, “The Pathology and Remedy of Cholera,” which was additionally reviewed within the New Orleans Journal of Medication in September 1849 (web page 224). The texts of those critiques make it clear that the phrase had been in use earlier than 1849, so additional antedating is feasible.


Commenting on my piece on lexicographic anniversaries for 2020 and antedatings of medical phrases within the OED, Jonathan Inexperienced, figuring out himself as @MisterSlang, creator of many books on slang, during which he’s an acknowledged skilled, tweeted: “v. fascinating piece, however tech stuff, dare I say, is simpler to hunt than slang, during which 80% of phrases merely play with SE. Attempt looking out a newspaper database for one among slang’s 125+ ‘canine’ phrases. In the long run, it is the exhausting method: studying. Then studying extra.” [“SE” stands for “Standard English.”]

Inexperienced was saying, if I’ve understood him accurately, that as a result of so many slang makes use of contain abnormal English phrases, it’s typically tough to hint the origins and first makes use of of slang phrases with out studying the context during which they occurred, and even then it might not be simple. Whereas technical phrases, he suggests, are a lot simpler to check. That has not all the time been my expertise. Physicists, for instance, are good at taking abnormal phrases, equivalent to “color” and “flavour,” “magnificence,” “allure,” and “fact,” and giving them extraordinary meanings.6 AI specialists use the time period “hallucination” when describing gobbledegook created by a programme equivalent to ChatGPT. And medical phrases generally emerge in the identical method. For instance, the noun “arrest,” first recorded in Chaucer, and that means stoppage, halt, or delay, was tailored for medical use within the late nineteenth century to check with cessation of cardiac or respiratory perform. The intransitive use of the verb didn’t emerge till the Eighties. And with out studying texts revealed earlier than 1849 it will likely be tough if not unattainable to find out whether or not there are earlier situations of “premedication.”

All this began me fascinated with medical slang.


I started by questioning in regards to the etymology of the phrase. And the place higher to start out than with IndoEuropean? The usual texts check with a hypothetical root, variously spelt as SLENK, [S]LEIDH, and SLENGWH, that means one thing like to slip or sling, to hurl or throw. They provide us phrases equivalent to sling and slink. In German “slang” means a snake, as within the Africaans loanwords boomslang, a tree snake, nachtslang, a nocturnal snake, such because the night time adder, and spuugslang, a spitting cobra. After which there’s the Yiddish loanword schlong, slang for a penis.

Subsequent I turned to Eric Partridge’s Brief Etymological Dictionary of Fashionable English.7 On the entry “slang, slangy” he writes “See SLING.” And at “sling” he writes

“Perh[aps] from ‘to sling’—prob[ably] from the dial[[ectal] p[ast]p[articiple] slang—and subsequently elliptical for ‘slang, i.e. slung, language,” is the n[oun] slang, orig[inally] the language of the underworld, now merely the unconventional (non-dial[ectal]) speech of all courses; cf the sl[ang] ‘sling off at’, to cheek, to abuse, and Nor[wegian] slengja kjeften, to make use of slang (lit[erally], to sling the jaw), and slengjeord.”

It’s as if slang, or slanguage, is language that’s hurled at you.

In A Classical Dictionary of the Vulgar Tongue (third version, 17768), Francis Grose provides an identical, albeit shorter, rationalization and provides a phrase from Kipling, to sling the bat, to speak the vernacular. Grose doesn’t give the supply, nevertheless it’s from a poem referred to as “Route Marchin’”: “An’ ‘ow they might admire for to listen to us sling the bat.” Grose is incorrect, nevertheless, to suggest that “vernacular” particularly refers to slang; the context of Kipling’s poem makes it clear that the troopers are speaking about talking the native language, Hindi, which they really communicate very badly; “bhasha” is a Hindi phrase for language. Others help this supposed origin by referring to “mud-slinging,” which is, nevertheless, irrelevant.

The OED, however, is having none of this. It defines “slang” as “The particular vocabulary utilized by any set of individuals of a low or disreputable character; language of a low and vulgar sort,” and cites the primary recorded occasion from 1756.9 As for etymology, it states that “The date and early associations of the phrase make it unlikely that there’s any reference to sure Norwegian varieties in sleng- which exhibit some approximation in sense.” And different respected dictionaries typically say “origin unknown.” The Chambers Dictionary10 says “of cant origin; reference to sling very uncertain.”

For what slang really is, watch this house.