Newspapers have been reporting that Sheffield Springs Academy has decided to ban slang in an attempt to improve their students' employability. By all means teach them how to speak appropriately, but isn't that like telling children not to put peas up their nose?
How can you ban rebellion? More to the point, how can you ban conformity? Slang is central to popular culture so it's a vital way of showing that you fit in at school. Unless you don't want to fit in, in which case it's a great way of showing that you don't.
I teach a course on slang at the University of Leicester. Third years that choose to do the course put a glossary of their own slang online and are assessed according to how well their glossaries and web-pages are written, how well they've used their linguistic knowledge and how much research they've done. It's not an easy option, but the seminars are really good fun, partly because we're bringing together my knowledge and the students' - I learn as much from them as they do from me.
When I first ran the course, I was surprised at how much 1980s slang was still in use because I hadn't heard it for years. People often say that slang is short-lived, but many slang words enjoy long and happy lives by passing from one group to another. For example, current Leicester students use jammy "lucky; easy", blag "to do something with the minimum effort" and wicked "excellent", which have all been used with meanings similar to these for at least 80 years. Jammy "good" dates from at least the 1890s, but the "lucky" meaning is from the First World War, presumably because you really were lucky if you got jam. Blag "to persuade with deceptive talk" or "to scrounge" was first used among British con-men in the 1930s.
The "bad" sense of wicked goes back to the 13th century, but its about-turn dates from the jazz age: the decadent 1920s. Words quite often reverse in meaning in slang as they pass from positive to ironic use or are given a positive meaning to reject the values of people who use them negatively. If I say your T-shirt is groovy (since 1937), you're going to have to figure out for yourself whether I mean "good", "bad", "retro", or a combination between them. In other words, you're only going to understand what I mean by groovy if you're my kind of person. The words matter less than the values they're expressing.
Wicked is only one of a great wave of American slang terms used in Britain. More recent importations include floss "to show off" (used by African-Americans since the late 1930s) and chillax "to relax; to hang out" (chill and relax appear to have been combined in US student slang since around 2004).
The dominance of American slang is sometimes seen as evidence of the greater creativity of American English (particularly by Americans), but really it's a result of American cultural influence: when Britannia ruled the waves it was British slang that spread around the world. New British slang is less likely to be used worldwide today, but there's no reason to think that speakers of British English are less creative than they used to be.
Slang I've heard from my students for the first time this year includes ra "very", peak "bad", ream "sexually attractive; good" (yes, I do know the other meaning) and peng "sexually attractive". My students consider peak "bad" to be inner-city London slang, but Urban Dictionary has what appears to be an American example with this meaning from 2003. In recent years, peak has also meant "very good", "sexually aroused" and "sexually attractive."
Thanks to The Only Way is Essex, ream "sexually attractive" has become widely known recently, but this sense has been used since at least 2005 by the British urban youths who are otherwise known as chavs. It appears to be an adaptation of ream "good" (since 1859), which may come from rum "good" (since 1567) and also "bad" (since about 1766). Chav, by the way, despite what else you may have heard, comes ultimately from a Romani word meaning "child". It's been used in English slang since at least 1998, originally in the South East, but became a media buzz word in around 2004.
Peng has had the sense "sexually attractive" since at least 2005 in Britain. It's probably related to the meaning "strong cannabis", which seems to have been used in Britain and America since at least 2004. I can only find a handful of examples on Google blogs, but peng san appears to be used in Singaporean English (from a Chinese dialect) to mean something like "pass out; fall over; die", which offers a possible origin for the "strong cannabis" sense, but don't quote me on that, because I have absolutely no evidence to back it up.
My students feel that peng is a local word and one of the earliest Urban Dictionary entries mentions its use in Nottingham (not far from Leicester), so it may still be geographically restricted in the UK. Correct me if I'm wrong - you're the expert after all.
Julie Coleman is Professor of English Language at the University of Leicester. Her research interests lie in the history of the English language, particularly the history of the lexis and the slang and cant dictionary tradition. She has previously published A History of Cant and Slang Dictionaries Volumes I-IV (OUP, 2004-10) and Love, Sex and Marriage: A Historical Thesaurus (Rodopi, 1999). Her latest book, The Life of Slang, published this month.