English English language Etymology Linguistics Usage Word origin

Slash talk

Q: What is your take on using the word “slash” when speaking of something with various attributes, as in “He is a husband slash father”? We don’t usually pronounce symbols, but it seems as if I hear “slash” spoken more often than I used to, maybe due to its use in Internet addresses.

A: Is “slash” in that example merely a lexical rendering of the / symbol? Or does it have a life of its own apart from the symbol? Or has the symbol itself come to represent an actual word, as the ampersand is a stand-in for “and”?

We’ve checked eight standard dictionaries and all but one of them describe the word “slash” as a lexical rendering of the diagonal symbol. Oxford Dictionaries online, for example, defines the noun this way:

“An oblique stroke (/) in print or writing, used between alternatives (e.g., and/or), in fractions (e.g., 3/4), in ratios (e.g., miles/day), or between separate elements of a text.”

The Oxford Guide to Style says the most common use for the symbol is “as shorthand to denote alternatives,” but adds that the symbol is “sometimes misused for and rather than or.”

The sentence you cite (“He is a husband slash father”) is an example of “slash” used for “and” rather than “or.”

Is the term, as the style manual suggests, “misused” in your example?

Well, most standard dictionaries don’t recognize this use of the term—or, for that matter, this use of the symbol itself. An exception is The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language (5th ed.).

American Heritage describes a “slash” as either a symbol used in the traditional way or an informal conjunction (represented by word or symbol) meaning “as well as” or “and.”

The dictionary gives these examples of the conjunction: “an actor-slash-writer; a waiter/dancer.” It adds that the symbol is often used in print.

We suspect that the appearance of “slash” in American Heritage is a sign of things to come. In fact, the usage isn’t all that new. The word has been used this way for more than a dozen years.

The linguist Brett Reynolds, who blogs about language at English, Jack, has found a couple of examples from the 1990s.

This one is from the Sept. 28, 1992, issue of Time magazine: “Meet urban planner Campbell Scott (‘a realist slash dreamer’).” And this one is from the script for the 1999 movie Mumford: “sexual surrogate slash companion.”

In an Aug. 27, 2010, posting, Reynolds compares “slash” to “cum” (a Latin preposition meaning “with” that is often used in the sense of “and” or “along with”).

Although most standard dictionaries still consider “cum” a preposition, Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary (11th ed.) recognizes it as a conjunction and has this example from George Bernard Shaw: “a credible mining camp elder-cum-publican.”

In an Aug. 27, 2010, post on the Language Log, the linguist Geoffrey K. Pullum discusses the use of “slash” in two sentences like yours: “There is also a study slash guest bedroom” and “We need a corkscrew slash bottle opener.”

In considering which part of speech this use of “flash” falls into, Pullum concludes that it’s a coordinator (also known as a coordinating conjunction) like “and” or “but.”

“We seem to have actually added a coordinator to the language,” says Pullum, the co-author (with Rodney Huddleston) of The Cambridge Grammar of the English Language.

(The scholarly Cambridge Grammar lists the parts of speech as noun, verb, adjective, adverb, preposition, determinative, subordinator, coordinator, and interjection. Cambridge includes what most people would call conjunctions among coordinators and subordinators.)

Pullum describes the coordinator use of “slash” as “a new discovery about English” and “a fairly surprising one.”

He points out that “the class of coordinators is thought of as an extremely small, closed category that has hardly ever expanded since the Middle Ages (when at some point the preposition buton, meaning ‘outside,’ turned into the modern-day coordinator but).”

As for the etymology of “slash,” it showed up as a noun in the 1500s, when the word meant a cutting stroke with a sword or whip, according to the Oxford English Dictionary.

The earliest OED example for the noun is from A Panoplie of Epistles, a 1576 letter-writing manual in which Abraham Fleming translates works by Cicero, Pliny, and others into English:

“Because euery one was ready to cutte his throte as to haue a slash at his fleshe.”

English adopted “slash”—the noun as well as the verb—from esclachier, an Old French verb meaning to break.

The noun didn’t become a term for the symbol / until well into the 20th century. The OED’s earliest example is from a 1961 entry in Webster’s New International Dictionary of the English Language (3rd ed.).

Webster’s Third says “slash” and “slash mark” mean the same as a similar sense of the noun “diagonal,” which it defines as “the symbol / used especially to denote ‘or’ (as in and/or), ‘and or’ (as in straggler/deserter form), ‘per’ (as in feet/second), ‘in’ or ‘of’ (as in U.S. Embassy/Paris), ‘shilling’ (as in 6/8d),” and several other uses.

Of the various terms for the / symbol (“solidus,” “slash,” “slash mark,” “stroke,” “oblique,” “virgule,” “diagonal,” and “shilling mark”) the oldest is “solidus,” which dates from the late 1800s. (Some of the other terms appeared earlier, but not in the symbol sense.)

Here’s a 19th-century example for “solidus” from George Chrystal’s Introduction to Algebra (1898): “The symbols / (solidus notation) and : (ratio notation) are equivalent to ÷.”

The OED doesn’t have an entry for the word “slash” used as a coordinator. It has entries only for the noun or verb.

However, the lexicographer Jesse Sheidlower, a former OED editor, has cited several examples of the usage from the dictionary’s files.

In commenting on Pullum’s Language Log post, Sheidlower listed these examples with multiple slashes:

“I’m a dishwasher slash cake maker slash cookie scooper slash and whatever else they want me to do,” from the Dec. 15, 2002, issue of the New York Times.

“Halcyon, the café-slash-restaurant-slash-record store, is closing its doors in April,” from the Feb. 25, 2004, issue of the Village Voice.

“I’m an actress-slash-model-slash-hostess,” from Beth Kendrick’s 2005 novel Fashionably Late.

Getting back to your question, we believe that “slash” is evolving as a part of speech—in writing as well as speech. In our opinion, it’s only a matter of time before more standard dictionaries accept its use as a coordinator/coordinating conjunction/conjunction.

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