Which New English Word Has Linguists Excited?

A humble punctuation mark has graduated to an everyday spoken and written word with an entirely new linguistic function
May 1, 2013 Updated: April 17, 2014

 A steady stream of parent-mystifying slang is constantly transitioning to everyday dictionary-endorsed language without registering a blip on the linguistic monitors. But a new word (or rather an old punctuation mark) has got linguists excited. 

The word? Slash. Not the slash that means a cut or a slice, but the punctuation mark that for decades was unvoiced, unwritten, only ever seen as /.

What makes slash so significant is that it belongs to a very elite group of words, conjunctions, where new arrivals are almost unheard of. 

Slash is clearly a word to watch,” says Anne Curzan, Professor of English at the University of Michigan, writing in The Chronicle of Higher Education. “Slash I do mean word, not punctuation mark. The emergence of a new conjunction/conjunctive adverb (let alone one stemming from a punctuation mark) is like a rare-bird sighting in the world of linguistics: an innovation in the slang of young people embedding itself as a function word in the language.” 

“This use of slash is so commonplace for students in my class that they almost forgot to mention it as a new slang word this term. That young people have integrated innovative slash into their language while barely noticing its presence is all the more reason that conjunctive slash might have staying power.”

Whilst English gains perhaps a few nouns everyday, the rate of new conjunctions might be better measured in additions per century, says linguist Professor of General Linguistics of Edinburgh University Geoffrey Pullum in a blog. 

The use of slash as conjunctive was mooted by back in 2010 by Brett Reynolds, who said the earliest example he could find of the phenomenon was in an article in Time magazine in 1992. 

But the use of Slash is not limited to just the and/or meaning ascribed to the punctuation mark. Slash has evolved to create a new conjunctive function, says Curzan, which is what makes it so interesting. 

“For at least a good number of students, the conjunctive use of slash has extended to link a second related thought or clause to the first with a meaning that is often not quite “and” or “and/or” or “as well as.” It means something more like “following up.” 

“This innovative conjunction (or conjunctive adverb, depending on how you want to interpret it) occurs, students tell me, even more commonly in speech than in writing. And in writing, it is often getting written out as slash, even in electronically mediated communication, where one might expect the quicker punctuation mark (/) rather than the five-letter word slash, ” writes Curzon. 

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