Just as culture has its counterculture, so language has its nonconformist, outsider self. Why it’s called slang is an enduring mystery to etymologists and lexicographers, but the elusiveness only adds to its intrigue.
Much of slang by its very nature goes unrecorded, or at least did so before the internet turned half the world into quasi-publishers. This makes tracking the history of slang a real challenge – how do you flesh out something that never had a proper skeleton to begin with?
Enter Jonathon Green, aka Mister Slang, whose new book Language! 500 Years of the Vulgar Tongue provides a sturdy history. (Its publisher, Atlantic Books, kindly sent me a copy for review.) Language! is a thoroughly engaging account of slang’s development from the early days of criminal cant to the broader current-day incarnations stemming from our cities’ subcultural and multicultural vernaculars.
Born in the street, it resists the niceties of the respectable. It is impertinent, mocking, unconvinced by rules, regulations and ideologies. It is a subset of language that since its earliest appearance has been linked to the lower depths, the criminal, the marginal, the unwanted or even persecuted members of society. It has been censored, ignored, shoved to one side and into the gutter from where it is widely believed to take its inspiration and in which it and its users have a home. It remains something apart, and for many that is where it should stay.
Slang has gradually gone partly mainstream – think of young people’s clippings (totes morto) and internet-driven fads (because memes) – but familiarity was once its enemy, and still can be. Thieves’ cant, ancestor of slang, was “a marginal language used by marginal people in a way that was consciously secretive”. Criminals relied on its obscurity, creating new terms to replace what was “smoked out”.
Pop culture has long allowed the public to experience transgressive language and behaviour from a safe distance. But by explaining cant in poems, ballads and pamphlets it compromised its purpose. Such artefacts had their ethical cake and ate it too, by exploiting the details of illicit activity while warning of the moral dangers. The particular appeal of this niche persisted,
whether in villainous ‘confessions’, gallows repentances, street-sold ballads or in today’s criminal memoirs.
Steadily pop culture began to adopt and disseminate more general slang, using it as it had used underworld cant: to lend authenticity and atmosphere. Though the civilian milieu “does not itself coin many slang words and phrases,” Green writes, “outside the oral use in which slang finds its sources it is perhaps the most efficient means of spreading them”. Early lexicographers duly took note, and gathered ever more of it.
There is also more of the devil in the details of slang than in conventional haunts. A little snakesman, we learn, is a small boy who is pushed through a small open window so he can open a door for thieves to enter without difficulty. A blue pigeon flyer steals the lead from roofs. The resurrection rig means body-snatching. A highwayman in Australia is a bushranger, and says “Bail up!” in place of “Stand and deliver!”
Slang, like all language, is embedded in culture, and a history of it must provide the social context of its use. Green does so with facility and enthusiasm, describing for instance not just the origins and development of cockney rhyming slang but the nature of ‘cockney’ itself – which apparently refers to someone born within the sound of the bells of the church of Saint Mary le Bow in London.
Green has written other social history books, so he is on comfortable ground here. He is at ease with data and puts his files to good use (“Slang, being a language of synonyms and themes, repeats itself. The penis has taken on 1,200 aliases in 500 years. . . . Slang’s vagina monologue is equally fecund”). Repetition can be weirdly wonderful, as in slang’s endless variations on the same few themes. Take this remarkable set of 17thC blasphemy-avoidance:
ads meant God’s and came in such compounds as adsblood! adsbleed! adsbud! Adsbudikins! adsheart! ad’s (heart’s) wounds! (also ad’s heartlikins! … heartliwounds! … waudds! … waunds! … wauntlikins!), adslife! (also adslidikins! ads my life, adsnigs! adso! (God’s oath!) and adsooks! adzooks! or ads wooks! Gad played a parallel role, giving gadsbobs! (also gadsbud!) gadsbodikins! (also gadsbudakins!) gadslid! gadsnigs! gadsnouns! (also gad-zoons! gadzounds!) gadso! gadsokers! (also gadsookers! gad-zookers!) gadsprecious! gadswogs! gadswoons! (also gad zoons!) and gadzooks! (also gadsooks! gadzookens! gadzookikins!). All these and many more invoked God’s blood, body, heart, wounds, nails and the synonymous ‘hooks’ and so on.
If you’re the sort of person who finds such lists fascinating, you’ll be in your element here. The book is peppered with colourful terminology and the equally colourful characters who coined, popularised, and collected it. Alongside forays into military slang, gay slang, sporting slang, and jive talk, there is astute analysis of particular authors’ and musicians’ use of it, and expert commentary throughout.
Language! is a richly entertaining and authoritative history of vulgar English, a defence and celebration of it, and a fitting complement to the author’s recent memoir-of-sorts Odd Job Man. Opened at random it offers rude rewards and rabbit-holes of alternative history. If that’s your poison, you can get Language! at your local bookshop or from the online store of your choice via Atlantic Books.