Book review: Dent’s Modern Tribes, by Susie Dent

February 7, 2017

Jargon and slang get a bad press. In the right contexts, though, they serve an important communicative purpose, at the same time allowing users to express their identity as part of a community – and to have fun with language while doing so.

Any specialised activity accumulates its own vocabulary, born of the particular actions, situations, equipment, and people involved. These lingos occasionally leak into other domains, or even the mainstream, but for the most part they remain more or less constrained or hidden, niche terminologies available only to the tribes in question.

susie-dent-dents-modern-tribes-the-secret-languages-of-britain-book-coverIn her new book Dent’s Modern Tribes: The Secret Languages of Britain, Susie Dent presents a host of these distinct lexicons for wider appreciation. As well as being a lifelong word lover, Dent is an unabashed eavesdropper, ear always poised for scraps of idiosyncratic interaction. That method, combined with straight-up interviews and chats, has yielded a wealth of material from a great variety of human professions and hobbies: cab drivers and cricketers, actors and anglers, soldiers and spies, roadies and ravers, firefighters and freemasons, teachers and (of course) trainspotters – dozens in all, each a rich source of verbal codes and curiosities.

These lexicons bundle history aplenty. For example, ever since Churchill, as UK home secretary, gave black-cab drivers the right to refuse a fare while eating, cabbies have referred to a meal as a Churchill. A slow period for taxis is called kipper season, ‘apparently from the days when cabbies could only afford to eat kippers’. Other terms are derived from more immediate sources: among cabin crew members a slam-clicker is, echoically, one who ‘goes straight to the hotel on landing and doesn’t emerge again until it’s time to leave’.

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Green’s Dictionary of Slang is now available online

October 12, 2016

Whenever I had a query about slang (and I’ve had many), or felt like a random trawl through the underbelly of language (which was often), my first port of call, traditionally, was Chambers Dictionary of Slang by Jonathon Green. I have several slang dictionaries for various countries or lexical domains, but CDoS was the most generally useful. It has since been superseded: instead of CDoS I now turn to GDoS.

gdos-greens-dictionary-of-slang-logoGreen’s Dictionary of Slang is the culmination of a life’s work for Green. First published in print as a three-volume behemoth in 2010, to awards and rave reviews, it now emerges in digital form with about 30% ‘revised, augmented and generally improved’. I’ve been beta-testing the website and can report it is a beautiful thing, vast and wondrous, filthy and fabulous, endlessly diverting and eye-opening.

Today, thanks to sterling work by web developer David P. Kendal, sees the official launch of Green’s Dictionary of Slang Online.

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Pelecanos: the words, the rhythms, the slang

July 28, 2016

I’m slowly catching up on the back catalogue of George Pelecanos, who has written about 20 crime fiction novels (and also wrote for The Wire). Recently I read Hell to Pay (2002), which contains several items of linguistic or metalinguistic interest.

The book is one of a handful by Pelecanos that centre on private detectives Derek Strange and Terry Quinn, the first black, the second white, the two ex-cops.

Terry Quinn goes looking for information from sex workers. He bums a cigarette as a way into conversation, but being a non-smoker he has nothing to light it with. Then he encounters Stella, a ‘pale’ girl ‘maybe knocking on the door of seventeen’:

She sat down without invitation. He handed her the cigarette.

‘You got a light?’

‘Sorry.’

‘You need a new rap,’ she said, rooting through her shoulder bag for a match. Finding a book, she struck a flame and put fire to the cigarette. ‘The one you got is lame.’

‘You think so?’

‘You be hittin’ those girls up for a smoke, you don’t ask ’em for a light, you don’t even have a match your own self?’

Quinn took in the girl’s words, the rhythms, the dropping of the g’s, the slang. Like that of most white girls selling it on the street, her speech was an affectation, a strange in-and-out blend of Southern cracker and city black girl.

‘Pretty stupid, huh?’

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Strong Language: The return of the ***king

July 26, 2016

It’s over a year since I blogged about Strong Language. Time to recap.

For the uninitiated, Strong Language is a group blog about swearing – the linguistics and culture of taboo language – set up by James Harbeck and me in 2014. It boasts a great team of writers comprising linguists, lexicographers, historians, editors, and other word adepts.

There are swears in this post, so bail out now if they bother you.

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Douglas Coupland’s Generation X lexicon

July 2, 2016

A quarter-century after publication seemed a good time to revisit Douglas Coupland’s self-consciously zeitgeisty novel Generation X: Tales for an Accelerated Culture. It remains a rewarding read, inventive and humorous, with a sincerity unspoiled by its often sardonic views.

A salient feature of the book is an ingenious, comical, cultural glossary supplementing the text as it unfolds. For example: Ultra short term nostalgia (unhyphenated in the book) is ‘homesickness for the extremely recent past: God, things seemed so much better in the world last week.’ This had special resonance after the UK’s Brexit vote last month, as did Historical Overdosing:

douglas coupland - generation x pink book cover abacusTo live in a period of time when too much seems to happen. Major symptoms include addiction to newspapers, magazines, and TV news broadcasts.

(The symptoms for Historical Underdosing are the same.)

Some of the near-100 such entries, like McJob – the first in the book – have become established in broader usage. The OED cites Generation X in its entry for McJob, but credits a Washington Post headline from 1986 as the first use.

It’s worth comparing the two glosses: where the OED is appropriately disinterested and concise, Coupland adds wry sociological insight:

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Slangs of New York

June 22, 2016

Martin Scorsese’s film Gangs of New York (2002) has a special feature on the DVD called ‘Five Points Vocabulary’. Five Points is a reference to the Manhattan district where the film is set, and the vocabulary is a glossary of slang from that era (1840s–60s) and place.

It looks like this:

Gangs of New York - Five Points vocabulary 1 from Vocabulum; or, The Rogue's Lexicon (1859) by George Washington Matsell

The glossary is spread over eight such pages, so rather than add images, I’ve compiled the text below. Fair warning: it’s slang, and therefore not politically correct.

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The problem with stigmatising slang and dialect in schools

May 4, 2016

I have an article in the Guardian this week in response to yet another school cracking down on students’ use of slang, regional dialect, and informal language. It’s in the Opinion section and is titled There’s nowt wrong with dialects, nothing broke ass about slang.

(Pretend there’s a hyphen in broke-ass.) Here’s an excerpt:

Standard English is a prestige dialect of huge social value. It’s important that students learn it. But the common belief that nonstandard means substandard is not just false but damaging, because it fosters prejudice and hostility. Young people can be taught formal English, and understand its great cultural utility, without being led to believe there’s something inferior or shameful about other varieties. . . .

People feel strongly about correctness in language, but this strength of feeling isn’t always matched by knowledge and tolerance. And because children are sensitive to how they’re perceived, stigmatising their everyday speech can be harmful. By educating them about linguistic diversity instead of proscribing it, we can empower students and deter misguided pedantry.

I’ve been reading the Guardian for as long as I can remember, so I’m glad to finally write something for it. (That split infinitive is a bonus.) The comments section is proving lively, as you’d expect, and I’m joining in here and there. Your thoughts are welcome at either location.

Update:

John E. McIntyre follows up at the Baltimore Sun, where he elaborates on ‘why schoolteachers’ policing of language is so misguided’.

toy story woody buzz meme - slang dialect linguistic diversity