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The Mongrel Speech of the Streets

Green’s Dictionary of Slang

by Jonathon Green
London: Chambers, three volumes, 6,085 pp., $625.00 (distributed in the US by Oxford University Press)
Elisha Whittelsey Collection, Metropolitan Museum of Art
Thomas Rowlandson: Six Stages of Mending a Face, Dedicated with Respect to the Right Hon.ble Lady Archer, May 29, 1792; from the exhibition ‘Infinite Jest: Caricature and Satire from Leonardo to Levine,’ on view at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York City, through March 4, 2012

On Perry Street, in New York’s Greenwich Village, in an otherwise unremarkable seventh-floor apartment known to many but visited by few, is a veritable lexicographic Wunderkabinett. It is probably truer to say that the apartment itself is a Wunderkabinett, since books begin at its very threshold, and in the space beyond there is precious little room, what with the bulging and bowed-down shelves, the ladders and stacks and piled-up boxes and Matterhorns of curled-edge paper. There is little enough room within for either its owner, a mercifully diminutive and slender lady of years named Madeline Kripke, or for those remarkably few possessions of hers—a bed, a stationary bicycle, some gymnasium weights, and a modest clutch of clothes—that are not, in some way, related to the collecting of books.

To be more specific: what Ms. Kripke has been collecting—and selling, and dealing in—for many decades past are books and manuscripts and ephemera that either are, or are about, dictionaries. And to refine things even further: she is best known for collecting dictionaries that represent the very living and breathing edge of the English language: the ragged and ill-defined omnium-gatherum of informal, witty, clever, newborn, and usually impermanent words that constitute what for the past two centuries has been known as slang.

Just about everything known and enviously regarded by those in the field is present in the collection (though not all is on display: Ms. Kripke has space in three warehouses dotted around New York, holding even more). There are sixteenth-century dictionaries of what was once politely known as “the vulgar tongue”; there are volumes and sets of volumes and monographs and private letters (a note to the Merriam-Webster Company from the young Brooklyn journalist who then called himself Walter Whitman was recently unearthed), as well as papers on cant, on argot, on jargon, on flash, on colloquial English and informal American, and countless studies that percolate through the interminably broad reaches of dialect.

Every imaginable activity that has lent itself to the employment of slang is represented on the Perry Street shelves. There are dictionaries and word collections and lexicons that catalog the language of circus performers and criminals, of gamblers and drug takers, of teenagers, aviators, policemen, miners, hobos, musicians, homosexuals and prostitutes and habitués of entire other worlds besides. Theirs are the raw words, the words of the half-light, the code words, the words not quite promoted to the respectable and the mainstream. So from the carnies, for example, we have words like grifter and shill; from prison, fall guy, bum rap, and screw; from soldiering, we learn that a rookie might drink armored cow, fall crook, catch a lergy, sweat it out, then, once recovered, go down the pally.

For such words, a new catalog has lately been added. Jonathon Green, noted in his native Britain as the reigning authority on informal English (The Big Book of Filth, The Big Book of Being Rude, and Newspeak: A Dictionary of Jargon are among prominent titles from his thirty years of study), has recently produced, and monumentally, one of the first dictionaries of slang to be based on the same historical principles made famous by James Murray and his predecessors on the Oxford English Dictionary. But the phrase “one of the first” should please be noted: for there has recently appeared another such dictionary, equally large and equally ambitious and which, had life been a little more fair, would have made it to the shelves first. And therein lies a melancholy tale.

But first, what exactly is slang, other than a slang word for a kind of language—a word that itself is probably a clipping from a possessive form, beggars’ language, soldiers’ language? Is it simply and merely the street tongue, the vernacular of the field, the front and the factory, the language that, as Carl Sandburg has it, “rolls up its sleeves, spits on its hands and goes to work”? Was Ambrose Bierce right to dismiss it as “the grunt of the human hog”?

Or is it somewhat yet grander, a linguistic invention worthy of G.K. Chesterton’s assertion in his Defence of Slang that “all slang is metaphor, and all metaphor is poetry”? Chesterton adored slang, especially when stacked against what he thought the starchy aridity of conversation in Belgravia drawing rooms. He loved phrases like keep your hair on, or the notion of a conceited person having a swelled head. The world of slang, he wrote, “is a kind of topsy-turvydom of poetry, full of blue moons and white elephants, of men losing their heads and men whose tongues run away with them….” Would the magnificent robustness and flexibility of Standard English tend to ebb away and ossify, he wondered, without the constant jostling and fizz provided by the jokester in his bar and the curser at his anvil? Is the American version of English—or the new language now called simply American—all the brighter and more vivid, as H.L. Mencken argued in his The American Language, because of the enthusiastic incorporation of slang into American literature and journalism? Is slang, in short, a lexical construct that is born of casually low intent while accomplishing an unintentionally high linguistic purpose?

Our undying fascination with slang—a fascination made evident by the vast number of dictionaries devoted to it—derives in part, I suspect, from its essentially fugitive nature, a nature that prompts us to wonder whether any particular word or phrase will ever manage the leap from the informal world of the street to a permanent presence in the standard lexicon.

Words sneak themselves into the vocabulary in all manner of ways. Lexicographers have been long enthralled by the ever-evolving meanings of words that already exist—this is the very basis of Murray’s OED, to be sure. We readily accept that new words are being constantly invented to describe new-made things and concepts: television, boycott, boson; and that foreign imports and loan words—amok, ketchup, anorak, colleen, axolotl, poncho, agitprop—stream into the language. But the reading of slang offers us something rather more satisfying. It is, after all, quite remarkable to be able to gaze into the formation of any future. To examine the speech of the streets closely is to glimpse at new forms of language struggling into life before our very eyes. Metrosexuals are everywhere; sticker shock is seen in the most refined of newspapers; it is now a fully established notion to have a husband chair in a women’s dress shop; and while the concept of santorum—a “byproduct of anal sex”—may die with the political dreams of the candidate for whom it was named, it is a word that could well survive.

If the sheer number of slang dictionaries assembled over the ages is impressive, then their antiquity is even more so—with the first of them appearing to antedate even the first full-dress English dictionaries. For though the earliest true attempt at a lexicon of more-or-less standard English words was Robert Cawdrey’s Table Alphabeticall of 1604, the first list of slang words—a subset of the whole, admittedly, and so perhaps easier to assemble—appeared almost forty years before, in 1567.

This list was assembled by Thomas Harman, a sickly, well-born, and unusually curious and sympathetic magistrate. It is a modest list indeed—114 words only—and is included in a short book titled A Caveat or Warening for Commen Cursetors. Harman had occasioned his keen and long-standing critical interest in the social life and habits of the “vagabonds”—the Old French–derived term he chose to use—while listening to their pleas as they appeared on charges before him. In line with his interest, and in part to help his mystified colleagues, he decided to note and codify the words he heard these unfortunate loafers speak, and from them build a vade mecum to help improve the workings of the court.

Julie Coleman, a historical lexicographer at the University of Leicester who has for the past fifteen years been assembling a comprehensive analysis of the scores of slang and cant dictionaries (and is shortly to publish The Life of Slang), reckons Harman to be “the father of canting lexicography.” His book’s value to collectors is immense, naturally; but it also happens to be of great significance to linguists, for its collection of words, when read today, illustrates the tendency that fascinates us so—that such a good proportion of the casual and vulgar discourse of old is amusing, clever, useful, or sonorously attractive enough to make it, eventually, all the way across the fields of usage into the formal and proper reaches of the language.

Most of the words and phrases Harman listed have long since vanished. To towre was to see, to dup the gyger was to open the door, to prygge was to ride, and the verb nygle was the way one crudely spoke, in Harman’s corner of sixteenth-century Kent, about having sex. Ugly words all, and deservedly done with. But the better ones remain. Cove, meaning a fellow, a chap, is still listed in the OED as a slang word (and appears, I see, in a current issue of Private Eye as I write this: a just-sacked British government official was described as “a shifty cove”). Booty and filch are there too—yet not as slang, but fully accepted into the mainstream. Such progress is noteworthy: from a private code peculiar to sixteenth-century Kentish vagabondage has come linguistic respectability today. By such illustration does Harman’s Warening, and a thousand other later dictionaries, display the struggle of language birth in something like real time.

It can be both instructive and amusing to trawl through these old slang word-lists to observe the varied fates of the entries. For example: in 1698 the word collector known only as “B.E. Gent” listed the charmingly evocative term beard-splitter for a man overeagerly interested in bedding women. Its use is minimal today, but from B.E.’s same list boglander survives as a rude word for an Irishman, numbskull is now a more-or-less acceptably standard word for someone pathologically stupid, and cluck, back in the seventeenth century a slang onomatopoeia for the noise made by a chicken, is just about the only word one would ever use for the sound today.

The success rate—the street-to-pulpit ratio, one might call it—remains more or less constant down the years. Most words vanish, some stay as slang, some become standard. So, a century after B.E., we see from the famous Classical Dictionary of Francis Grose that the naval punishment called Abel-Wackets is long forgotten, as well it might be; the whole kit and caboodle stays, though for now usually described as slang; and tantrum, once highly informal, is now made entirely good, utterable by parsons everywhere.

Then again, a hundred years later still, salt-water vegetables, listed in a Victorian catalog of New York slang, no longer means oysters (nor anything else, unless perhaps dulse—red seaweed—and carageenan—its extract); copper is today recognizably slang for police now almost always shortened to cop, as is jug for prison; and whiff—though informal slang back then—is a word quite properly standard nowadays, for inhaling or exhaling smoke, or a missed stroke in golf.

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