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Defining ourselves arbitrarily

Robin Hanson writes that he does’t use slang:

I [Hanson] am not into slang. I want to talk to the widest possible audience, and to focus on timeless issues and insights, as opposed to the latest fashionable topics. I can see why people want to signal loyalty to their groups, especially in the military, but I have little confidence that this is good for the world as a whole.

I don’t know anything about the military (I don’t think this really counts) so I can’t comment on that part, and I don’t see the opposition between slang and “timeless issues and insights, as opposed to the latest fashionable topics” (after all, Mark Twain used slang and he had some timeless insights), but I’d like to pick up on a slightly different angle here, which is the set of quasi-arbitrary choices we make in order to define ourselves.

Robin Hanson happens not to use much slang and he uses this trait to define himself, not quite to stand out in the crowd but to put himself on one end of a scale. I wear nice clothes and a tie to work every day. I don’t have to, in fact it puts me on the fancy end of the dress scale at the university, it just feels appropriate to me. I think (with no particular evidence) that I’ll be effective if I dress-for-work for work, also I feel that it shows respect for students to dress in my “uniform.” And this ends up being part of how I define myself.

Thus, although I don’t buy Hanson’s analysis of what it means to use or not use slang—or, to be precise, I accept that these are Hanson’s motivations, I just don’t see them making any sense in general—I do feel I understand the meta-issue that it is convenient to define ourselves based on the somewhat (although not completely) arbitrary choices we make.

I’m pretty sure that some psychologists somewhere have studied this more systematically; the above is just my personal bloggy take.

P.S. I was amused (and slightly disappointed) that all the comments on this post have been on the definition of “slang” and nothing on my main point about our desire to define ourselves arbitrarily.


  1. Anonymous says:

    Teaching to college students has made me appreciate that sometimes a little slang does help me reach a wider audience.

  2. Entsophy says:

    Slang won’t be understood after a short period of time. So if you’re writing something timeless (i.e. possibly read a long time from now) it’s best to avoid things like slang or examples that no one will get later.

    This is especially true in the military. Military Acronyms have a shelf life of about 3-5 years. So it is difficult for someone fighting in Afghanistan to day to read an acronym laden product that was prepared in 2003.

  3. Paul says:

    Mark Twain made the slang he used timeless. Robin Hanson correctly cannot expect to achieve this.

  4. Foster Boondoggle says:

    “I am not into slang” is slang.

  5. Linguist hat on. Anonymous and Paul hit two nails on the head (to use an idiom, not slang).

    What looks like slang to one audience can sound like “normal” communication to another. You don’t sound more refined or understandable to the kids when you speak in what you think to be “proper English” (presumably you go to the queen for the definition of this like any traditionally-minded English speaker, but you’ll find even her speech has been changing over the decades, so you’ll have to choose your temporal reference point for correctness).

    Another way to put this is that what sounds like slang one year, sounds like proper English the next. Shakespeare sounds old fashioned, not correct.

  6. Mark Palko says:

    It’s important to distinguish between slang and jargon. Military acronyms would fall in the second category.

    • Entsophy says:

      Not really. Military acronyms are resemble slang far more than the specialized vocabularies and jargon of say physics or statistics. Military acronyms are, with rare exceptions, extremely ephemeral and faddish. They change every few years even though there is almost never a reason to change them. Moreover, psychologically they seem to serve a purpose closer to slang.

      Occasionally, Military people do write timeless documents. One example would be “Warfighting” written by the a Marine Corps Commandant years ago. While you’ll find plenty of examples of military jargon in it, it’s thankfully missing the acronyms. They wanted people a 100 years from now to still be able to understand it.

      • Mark Palko says:

        That’s a good point about acronyms but I still think that Hanson’s original comment would make more sense if he substituted ‘jargon’ for ‘slang.’

  7. Nick Cox says:

    In his bio Robin Hanson writes:

    “My Policy Analysis Market project hit the press shit fan in ’03, burying me in media attention for a while, and helping to kickstart the prediction market industry, which continues to grow and for which I continue to consult.”

    The first clause I would classify as a mangled slangy expression. I don’t think it qualifies as timeless English.

    “kickstart” is more marginal.

    The claim looks dubious to me unless slang is defined as what Robin Hanson doesn’t use, in which case the claim is empty.

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