Slang, the language of the streets, the tavern, the underground, the counterculture, the gutter, has traditionally been seen as a male preserve. Women feature in it, of course – but chiefly, unflatteringly, as objects. Slang, as Jonathon Green writes in Language!, is ‘a gendered vocabulary that while it does not exclude woman, is keen to keep them in their place: the nagging wife, the sexy ingénue, the whore, the hag’.
So what of women not as objects in slang but as its creators and users? Far less has been written on this front. ‘Women’s use of slang is drastically under-reported,’ writes Green in his new book, Sounds & Furies: The Love–Hate Relationship between Women and Slang. As the world’s foremost slang lexicographer, he would know, and he has scoured the available records to describe the extent and nature of that relationship.
Those records go back centuries and surge in the digital era. Sounds & Furies is a rich social history told through a lexicological lens, from Chaucer to Mumsnet via Flappers and Valley Girls. There are ample, lengthy quotations and edifying commentary. The former can be grim on occasion and not for sensitive readers: slang’s treatment of social minorities, Green observes, is ‘depressingly conservative’; of women in particular it is ‘viciously misogynistic’.
The book’s focus, happily, is on women and slang, not in slang. Its sources are diverse: novels, newspapers, poems, plays, songs, ballads, court reports, vaudeville, memoirs, biographies, detective stories – crime being one of slang’s most fertile arenas – and of course the internet. In each case the slang is identified, contextualized, and analyzed. These often boisterous excerpts will delight fans of ‘low’ varieties of English.
Detecting authentic female slang is made trickier by the phenomenon of literary ‘ventriloquy’, whereby men write women and vice versa. But the results remain illuminating. A vogue for ribald pamphlets featuring women in stereotypical guises produced such titles as the 1699 An account of a great & famous scoldling match between four remarkable scolding fish-women of Rosemary-lane, and the like number of basket-women of Golden-lane, near Cripple-gate, on Monday last, upon a wager for five guinea’s.
As a ‘Tryal of their Skill at the Tongue-Tallent-Art’ it boasts an exchange of creative and colourful insults, many of them referring to sexual behaviour. But what is especially striking, Green finds, is that
other than the mutual recriminations conjured up for the text, there is no sense of moralising. If the basket-women and fish-wives wish to indulge their sexuality, if they are willing to go on the game, what matter. Nor is the scold herself pilloried. This is about verbal skill.
And what skill. Among the standout female contributors to slang who feature here are Mae West; Mary Frith (aka Moll Cutpurse); the ‘dirty blues’ singers of the 1910s–1930s; Helen Green van Campen (1880–1960), whose stories are ‘effectively invisible today’ but contributed 600 terms to the slang lexis, many for the first time; and Mary Elizabeth Braddon (1835–1915), author of some 80 novels:
She had no especial interest in recording the register [of slang], simply using it for its usual role of authenticity in one social sphere or another. Nonetheless she does seem to have been the first to put a few terms into print. Baby (a man, e.g., ‘this baby’), barnacle (a parasite), to chuck (to end an affair), jolly (a thrill or pleasure), to jump on (to attack, whether literal or figurative), lardy-dardy (affected), muddle (to make oneself drunk), off one’s nut (very eccentric, insane), rattle (to hit), rat-trap (a shabby or ramshackle building), roof (the head), smash (a heavy blow), muchly (as in ‘thank you muchly, predecessor to ‘ta . . .’) and she seems to be the first to record the thick (in this case asylum coffee, but used of any drink with a thick consistency, e.g. porter, tea or coffee).
The last chapter proper is a welcome account, and glossary, of lesbian slang. In lexicographical circles this has proved an elusive space: mainstream slang dictionaries repeat ‘the same small lexis’, while purpose-built dictionaries and glossaries ‘have little to offer’. But what is there is gathered, including online lists:
The Internet seems, as in so much else, to be making a difference. It is, perhaps, because for once those who have the option to amass this language are part of those who use it, rather than lexicography’s traditional coterie of old and certainly not lesbian men. The appearance online of a variety of lesbian slang lists may also be a generational thing. If one’s sexuality is far more out than has been the case, why not one’s vocabulary.
Reservations about the book’s male authorship are allayed by Green’s frank and self-effacing approach; blurbs by Julie Coleman and Deborah Cameron and a foreword by Kate Lister may further assuage doubt. In his introduction, on slang’s role as ‘a language that underpins group identification’ in the face of prevailing power structures, Green writes:
To denote 51 per cent of the population as ‘marginal’ seems counter-intuitive, but many activist women claim just that. Quality rather than quantity is what matters. Slang, the voice of the marginal, ought to be theirs too. If slang is seen as subversive and oppositional, are those qualities anywhere limited to men? It is the language of rebellion; in the era of #metoo, it seems an ideal vehicle.
Sounds & Furies is a unique and absorbing work that offers great bounty for lovers of social history – especially its lesser-lit corners – and the muckier side of language. At 550+ pages it is also excellent value. My only gripe is that it needed better copy-editing or proofreading to save this reader some orthographic distraction.
Sounds & Furies is newly published by Robinson, an imprint of Little Brown, who sent me a copy for review. You can order it from the publisher or your usual bookshop.