Book review: ‘Language! 500 Years of the Vulgar Tongue’, by Jonathon Green

June 17, 2014

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. [Update: A mystery no more!]

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.

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Neologisms, jargon, pragmatics and cant

November 4, 2011

Macmillan Dictionary Blog recently asked guest writers to choose their favourite “online English” word. I couldn’t pick a favourite, so I cheated and wrote about hashtags.

What struck me most, though, was that three contributors chose the word blog. In a follow-up post, “A blob from a bog”, I write that its multiple selection

surprised and gladdened me, because blog is a word whose sight and sound I’ve always liked but have seen subjected to severe scorn and criticism for as long as it’s been around. . . .

Blog resembles blob and bog in particular, and both of these signify wet, messy, unruly things. I like both words, but I can see how some people wouldn’t. Bog, as well as being slang for toilet (hence the pun in blogroll), has negative connotations such as in the pejorative Irish slang bogman or bog man, meaning “unsophisticated person from the countryside”. [more]

Dawn McIlvain Stahl, on the Copyediting.com blog, was also following the discussion of online words. She never liked blog but wasn’t sure why, so she set about finding “firm ground in the blog bog”.

My next post for Macmillan, “A pragmatic note”, is about the subfield of linguistics known as pragmatics, which I describe as the study of language meaning and use in context: interpersonal, social, and cultural.

Pragmatics is a very broad field with fuzzy boundaries, so my post isn’t an attempt at summary so much as a few notes on its main elements, along with expert quotes and links to further reading:

Pragmatics pays heed to social conventions and cultural norms – such as those of politeness, formality, and familiarity – and also to prosody, intonation, facial expressions, and gestures, all of which can vary considerably from one context to the next. . . .

In any conversation, we are likely to exchange both sentence-level information and more subtle, implicit information that must be inferred from the situation and from our experience of a particular language and culture – invisible meaning, as it is sometimes described. The ability to do this is called pragmatic competence. [more]

Paul-Charles Chocarne-Moreau – Opportunity makes the thief (1896)

Macmillan Dictionary’s theme for October was subcultural English, and under this category falls “Pinch a phrase from thieves’ cant”.

Here I look at the old jargon of the underworld, the secret lingo of street criminals and people on the margins of society: phrases like marriage-music (“children’s cries”), arsworm (“a little diminutive fellow”), and priggers of the cacklers (“poultry-stealers”):

Cant has been more spoken than written, and its precise origins are, unsurprisingly, shrouded in uncertainty. But it was once a vibrant vocabulary that served not only to identify someone as part of the subculture but to prevent those outside it from understanding the speaker.

Historically, this crooked corner of English met with considerable lexicographic interest. Early dialectologists seeking fresh slang for their collections would pay late-night visits to disreputable areas, partly out of linguistic interest but also as a service to society. . . . The idea was that by becoming acquainted with thieves’ and scoundrels’ “mysterious Phrases” we might more easily detect and deter their villainous activity. [more]

The above post links to several old dictionaries of cant and criminal slang that are available online. They make marvellous browsing material.

Finally, in “Caught in a webinar”, I briefly examine the newish portmanteau coinage webinar, asking whether it’s a useful and perfectly acceptable term or a faddish and objectionable barbarism. Opinion is strongly divided.

[P]eople complain that webinar . . . “should be banished on pain of death” . . . but if it is found useful enough for long enough, it will survive no matter how malformed some people consider it.

New words, especially voguish portmanteaus, tend to push people’s buttons, often for reasons that are difficult to discern – a gut reaction that just sticks. If you have reason to use webinar but you really can’t stomach it, you can always take advantage of the richness of synonymy in English by falling back on web seminar, online seminar, web conference, and so on. It’s worth the extra syllables if it keeps your blood pressure down. [more]

I mentioned that October was Macmillan Dictionary’s month of subcultural English. You can explore other monthly themes here, and you can browse my archive of articles on language and words here.

Comments are welcome; and thank you, as always, for reading.

[image source]