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The word “slang,” first recorded in the mid-18th century, is of uncertain origin: suggestions include the old name for a convict’s fetters, the Old Norse verb “to sling,” slyngva, and the name of an 18th-century Dutchman, the Lord of Slangenburg. It’s an appropriate muddle. Slang initially meant the opaque private diction of criminals, only later expanding to its present sense of any very informal, non-standard language, and it remains a field in which meanings are hard to trace or pin down.

That’s not for want of trying, however. Around 1536, some 70 years before the first recognised English dictionary (Robert…

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