You may notice that the English you’ve been taught and what you've heard on the streets may not always be the same. This is because you’ve likely been taught English in an academic or business setting, which works well if you’re planning on speaking English solely in a more formal setting, but what happens if you go outside into more informal settings?
In cases like these, you may soon realize that there are words that you’ve never learned before! English, like any other language, is dripping with slang and informal expressions that native speakers frequently use to interact with one another.
Similar to your own language, formal interactions with professors, business clients, or employers require you to speak formal and polite English. Saying “dude” or “what’s up?” to someone who you should be saying “sir” and “how do you do” to is a sure way to offend them. Like other languages, English has a proper and an informal set of words that you are sure to learn when you study English overseas.
English slang is also differentiated by region and country. For example, if you call someone a “mate” in New York City, it has a different meaning than if you were to use it to a resident of London. “Mate” in the UK, Australia, New Zealand, and South Africa is an expression of friendship, similar to “buddy” or “friend.” The most common way to hear someone say “mate” is also with “cheers.” In the United States and Canada, “man” works much the same. “Thanks, man” is appropriate to say if someone buys you a drink in a bar, or if a friend helps you with chores. It is a friendly, informal way of referring to someone.
English slang words aren't limited to expressions of friendship, but extend into many different areas of conversation. There are slang words for many ideas and concepts, and the confusing thing is that the slang words are always changing – just as all languages constantly evolve. Especially in today’s high paced, digital savvy world, there are so many different sources for slang. Slang in English comes from everywhere, especially where there is creativity, including:
Words from other languages have even been adopted by English speakers to become slang words in English. The Spanish word “Amigo” translates into friend in English and in some circles is used as if it were an English word. Other phrases pressed into service from Spanish include “no problemo,” for “no problem” and “adios” for “goodbye.” Spanish phrases are more commonly used in areas of the United States which are closer to Spanish speaking countries, like Texas and New Mexico, but have been adopted elsewhere as well.
A great number of English slang words are related to describing other people. In the United States if you think a girl or a guy is attractive, you would say they’re a “hottie” or that they’re “hot.” You could also say that someone is a “babe” or a “fox” to mean the same thing. If you think someone is overly intelligent, you could call them a “nerd” or a “geek.” It’s important to realize that it is unacceptable to say things like this to people you have a professional or formal relationship with, and it is important to remember that some slang terms have very negative connotations.
Slang in English also includes words for your significant other or romantic partner. Popular examples include “baby”, “babe”, “honey,” and “sweetheart.” There are a host of others, so many in fact, that we cannot list them all here.
Not all slang is acceptable for polite use; indeed, most of it is impolite. If you are not sure of a word, you may want to ask a friend whether a word is appropriate to use and how to use it, so that you do not have any unintended consequences or connotations associated with the words you are using. Many times students of the English language will first listen, and try to understand the context, before incorporating the word into everyday use.