AA: I'm Avi Arditti with Rosanne Skirble, and this week on WORDMASTER: "Slang" that's not necessarily slang.
RS: A. C. Kemp teaches international students as a lecturer in English language studies at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. She also runs the Web site slangcity.com and she used to teach a slang class at an adult education center.
AC KEMP: "I know when I started teaching this slang class, a lot of my friends said 'Oh, so you're teaching them hip-hop words,' or that sort of thing. And, in fact, the students, what they wanted to learn, were words that most Americans wouldn't consider slang."
AA: "Such as?"
AC KEMP: "Like 'cool' or idioms like 'kick someone out,' meaning to force someone to leave, or 'screw up,' to make a mistake. A lot of the things that Americans think are just regular English, they're not taught formally. If you're studying English in another country, in Turkey or Japan, they don't usually teach those kind of words."
RS: "What do you consider the most important slang words for those students, those who are either coming to the United States or are learning English in other countries?"
AC KEMP: "The most important words, I would say, are the most frequent words. The philosophy these days in teaching English as a second language is that when you look at vocabulary, you want to teach words that are very frequent. And that makes sense, because if you have a text, say, or you're listening to a conversation and you know ninety or ninety-five percent of the words, those words that show up from time to time are going to be a lot easier to guess if you know most of what that sentence means."
AA: A. C. Kemp did a little research for us: an analysis of terms currently used in popular culture.
AC KEMP: "What I did was I made a list of popular television shows like 'Grey's Anatomy,' 'The Office,' 'Desperate Housewives' and '24,' and I took scripts from those and scripts from movies -- and I tried pick a variety, like 'Finding Nemo' and 'Kill Bill' and 'American Pie' -- and I put all of those scripts, which you can get on the Internet, I took those scripts and put them in a file and ran a computer program called a concordancer.'
RS: The result? A list of how often eA Ch word in the file was used.
AA: A. C. Kemp says linguists usually think of slang as being "insider language:" language that's used by a particular group. But she picked out words that her students would consider slang.
A C KEMP: "And the one that I found the most commonly [used] was 'dude.'"
AC KEMP: "D-u-d-e, meaning man. And I thought, well, that's kind of strange, why is that so common? And I realized that I had some movies in there and some TV shows that were intended for teenagers. And for teenagers it's not just a word that means man, it's also the way they address each other. So when they say hello, they say 'Hey, dude.'
"And the next most common one was 'cool,' which most people know."
AA: "And that's been around for decades."
AC KEMP: "Oh, that's been around for over a hundred years. But that's one of those things about what is slang, that even though 'cool' has been around for so long, we still think of it as an informal slang word."
RS: "What else came up on your list?"
AC KEMP: "The third most popular one was 'hot,' meaning sexy or exciting, and 'hottie,' a sexy person. The next one was kind of interesting. That was 'whatever,' used as a sentence. Teenagers say 'whatever' to mean 'I don't care' or 'It doesn't matter to me.'"
AA: "And next on the list?"
AC KEMP: "'Chick.' That's another word that was really common in the sixties and seventies and it went out of fashion and it came back."
RS: "Meaning ... "
AC KEMP: "Meaning woman or girl."
AA: "And it was a very controversial term in its earlier days, how is it -- because it was seen as very chauvinistic -- "
AC KEMP: "Personally, I still see it as a derogatory term but it's -- you know, teenagers, I'm not sure if they see it as a bad thing or not. I suspect many of them do."
RS: A. C. Kemp teaches English to international students at M.I.T. and runs the Web site slangcity.com. She will be back with us next time to continue our conversation.
AA: And that's all for WORDMASTER this week. Archives on online at voanews.com/wordmaster. And our e-mail address is [email protected]. With Rosanne Skirble, I'm Avi Arditti.
MUSIC: "All the Young Dudes"/Mott the Hoople, 1972