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   Chapter 15 SLANG.

Stories That Words Tell Us By Elizabeth O'Neill Characters: 17547

Updated: 2017-11-30 00:04

Every child has some idea of what is meant by "slang," because most schoolboys and schoolgirls have been corrected for using it. By slang we mean words and expressions which are not the ordinary words for the ideas which they express, but which are invented as new names or phrases for these ideas, and are at first known and used only by a few people who use them just among themselves. There are all kinds of slang-slang used by schoolboys and schoolgirls in general, slang used by the pupils of each special school, slang used by soldiers, a different slang used by their officers, and even slang used by members of Parliament.

The chief value of slang to the people who use it is that at first, at any rate, it is only understood by the inventors and their friends. The slang of any public school is continually changing, because as soon as the expressions become known and used by other people the inventors begin to invent once more, and get a new set of slang terms. Sometimes a slang word will be used for years by one class of people without becoming common because it describes something of which ordinary people have no experience, and therefore do not mention.

The making of slang is really the making of language. Early men must have invented new words just as the slang-makers do to-day. The difference is that there are already words to describe the things which the slang words describe. It may seem curious, then, that people should trouble to find new words. The reason they do so is often that they want to be different from other people, and sometimes because the slang word is much more expressive than the ordinary word.

This is one reason that the slang of a small number of people spreads and becomes general. Sometimes the slang word is so much better in this way than the old word that it becomes more generally used than it, and finds its way into the ordinary dictionaries. When this happens it is no longer slang.

But, as a rule, slang is ugly or meaningless, and it is very often vulgar. However common its use may become, the best judges will not use such expressions, and they remain mere slang.

A writer on the subject of slang has given us two good examples of meaningless and expressive slang. The people who first called marmalade "swish" could have no reason for inventing the new name except to seem odd and different from other people. Swish is certainly not a more expressive or descriptive word than marmalade. The one means nothing, while the other has an interesting history coming to us through the French from two old Greek words meaning "apple" and "honey."

The expressive word which this writer quotes is swag, a slang word for "stolen goods." There is no doubt that swag is a much more expressive word than any of the ordinary words used to describe the same thing. One gets a much more vivid picture from the sentence, "The thieves got off with the swag," than he would had the word prize or even plunder or booty been used. Yet there is no sign that the word swag will become good English. Expressive as it is, there is a vulgar flavour about it which would make people who are at all fastidious in their language very unwilling to use it.

Yet many words and phrases which must have seemed equally vulgar when first used have come to be accepted as good English. And in fact much of our language, and especially metaphorical words and phrases, were once slang. It will be interesting to examine some examples of old slang which have now become good English.

One common form of slang is the use of expressions connected with sport as metaphors in speaking of other things. Thus it is slang to say that we were "in at the death" when we mean that we stayed to the end of a meeting or performance. This is, of course, a metaphor from hunting. People who follow the hounds until the fox is caught and killed are "in at the death." Another such expression is to "toe the mark." We say a person is made to "toe the line" or "toe the mark" when he or she is subjected to discipline; but it is a slang phrase, and only good English in its literal meaning of standing with the toes touching a line in starting a race, etc., so that all may have an equal chance.

We say a person has "hit below the belt" if we think he has done or said something unfair in an argument or quarrel. This is a real slang phrase, and is only good English in the literal sense in which it is used in boxing, where it is against the rules to "hit below the belt." The term "up to you," by which is expressed in a slang way that the person so addressed is expected to do something, is a slang expression borrowed from cards.

Even from these few examples we can see that there are various degrees in slang. A person who would be content to use the expression "toe the line" might easily think it rather coarse to accuse an opponent of "hitting below the belt." There comes a time when some slang almost ceases to be slang, and though good writers will not use it in writing, quite serious people will use it in merely speaking. It has passed out of the stage of mere slang to become a "colloquialism."

The phrases we have quoted from present-day sport when used in a general sense are still for the most part slang; but many phrases taken from old sports and games, and which must have been slang in their time, are now quite good English and even dignified style. We speak of "wrestling with a difficulty" or "parrying a thrust" (a metaphor taken, of course, from fencing), of "winning the palm," and so on, all of which are not only picturesque but quite dignified English.

A very common form of slang is what are called "clipped" words. Such words are gov for "governor," bike for "bicycle," flu for "influenza," indi for "indigestion," rec for "recreation," loony for "lunatic," pub for "public house," exam for "examination," maths for "mathematics." All of these words are real slang, and most of them are quite vulgar. There is no sign that any of them will become good English. The most likely to survive in ordinary speech is perhaps exam.

Yet we have numbers of short words which have now become the ordinary names for certain articles, and yet which are only short forms of the original names of those articles. The first man who said bus for "omnibus" must have seemed quite an adventurer. He probably struck those who heard him as a little vulgar; but hardly any one now uses the word omnibus (which is in itself an interesting word, being the Latin word meaning "for all"), except, perhaps, the omnibus companies in their posters. Again, very few people use the full phrase "Zoological Gardens" now. Children are taken to the Zoo. Cycle for "bicycle" is quite dignified and proper, though bike is certainly vulgar. In the hurry of life to-day people more frequently phone than "telephone" to each other, and we can send a wire instead of a "telegram" without any risk of vulgarity. The word cab replaced the more magnificent "cabriolet," and then with the progress of invention we got the "taxicab." It is now the turn of cab to be dropped, and when we are in haste we hail a taxi. No one nowadays, except the people who sell them, speaks of "pianofortes." They have all become pianos in ordinary speech.

The way in which good English becomes slang is well illustrated by an essay of the great English writer Dean Swift, in the famous paper called "The Tatler," in 1710. He, as a fastidious user of English, was much vexed by what he called the "continual corruption of the English tongue." He objected especially to the clipping of words-the use of the first syllable of a word instead of the whole word. "We cram one syllable and cut off the rest," he said, "as the owl fattened her mice after she had cut off their legs to prevent their running away." One word the Dean seemed especially to hate-mob, which, indeed, was richer by one letter in his day, for he sometimes wrote it mobb. Mob is, of course, quite good English now to describe a disorderly crowd of people, and we should think it very curious if any one used the full expression for which it stands. Mob is short for the Latin phrase mobile vulgus, which means "excitable crowd."

Other words to which Swift objected, though most of them are not the words of one syllable with which he declared we were "overloaded," and which he considered the "disgrace of our language," were banter, sham, bamboozle, bubble, bully, cutting, shuffling, and palming. We may notice that some of these words, such as banter and sham, are now quite good English, and most of the others have at least passed from the stage of slang into that of colloquialism.

The word bamboozle is still almost slang, though perhaps more common than it was two hundred

years ago, when Swift attacked it. Even now we do not know where it came from. There was a slang word used at the time but now forgotten-bam, which meant a trick or practical joke; and some scholars have thought that bamboozle (which, of course, means "to deceive") came from this. On the other hand, it may have been the other way about, and that the shorter word came from the longer. The word bamboozle shows us how hard it is for meaningless slang to become good English even after a struggle of two hundred years.

We have seen how many slang words in English have become good English, so that people use with propriety expressions that would have seemed improper or vulgar fifty or ten or even five years ago. Other interesting words are some which are perfectly good English as now used, but which have been borrowed from other languages, and in those languages are or were mere slang. The word bizarre, which we borrowed from the French, and which means "curious," in a fantastic or half-savage way, is a perfectly dignified word in English; but it must have been a slang word at one time in French. It meant long ago in French "soldierly," and literally "bearded"-that is, if it came from the Spanish word bizarra, "beard."

Another word which we use in English has a much less dignified use in French. We can speak of the calibre of a person, meaning the quality of his character or intellect; but in French the word calibre is only in ordinary speech applied to things. To speak of a "person of a certain calibre" in French is very bad slang indeed.

Again, the word fiasco, which we borrowed from the Italian, and which means the complete failure of something from which we had hoped much, was at first slang in Italian. It was applied especially to the failure of a play in a theatre. To break down was far fiasco, which literally means "make a bottle." The phrase does not seem to have any very clear meaning, but at any rate it is far removed from the dignified word fiasco as used in English.

The word sack as used in describing the sack of a town in war is a picturesque and even poetic word; but as it comes from the French sac, meaning "pack" or "plunder," it is really a kind of slang.

On the other hand, words which belong to quite good and ordinary speech in their own languages often become slang when adopted into another. A slang word much used in America and sometimes in England (for American expressions are constantly finding their way into the English language) is vamoose, which means "depart." Vamoose comes from a quite ordinary Mexican word, vamos, which is Spanish for "let us go."

It is very interesting to find that many of our most respectable words borrowed from Latin have a slang origin. Sometimes these words were slang in Latin itself; sometimes they were used as slang only after they passed into English. The French word tête, which means "head," comes from the Latin testa, "a pot." (We have seen that this is the word from which we get our word test.) Some Romans, instead of using caput, the real Latin word for "head," would sometimes in slang fashion speak of some one's testa, or "pot," and from this slang word the French got their regular word for head.

The word insult comes from the Latin insultarc, which meant at first "to spring or leap at," and afterwards came to have the same meaning as it has with us. The persons who first used this expression in the second sense were really using slang, picturing a person who said something unpleasant to them as "jumping at them."

We have the same kind of slang in the expression "to jump down one's throat," when we mean "to complain violently of some one's behaviour." The word effrontery, which comes to us from the French effronterie, is really the same expression as the vulgar terms face and cheek, meaning "impudence." For the word comes from the Latin frons, "the forehead."

An example of a word which was quite good English, and then came to be used as slang in a special sense, and then in this same special sense became good English again, is grit. The word used to mean in English merely "sand" or "gravel," and it came to mean especially the texture or grain of stones used for grinding. Then in American slang it came to be used to mean all that we mean now when we say a person has "grit"-namely, courage, and strength, and firmness. This use of the word seemed so good that it rapidly became good English; but the American slang-makers soon found another word to replace it, and now talk of people having "sand," which is not by any means so expressive, and will probably never pass out of the realm of slang.

An example of a word which was at first used as slang not many years ago, and is now, if not the most elegant English, at least a quite respectable word for newspaper use, is maffick. This word means to make a noisy show of joy over news of a victory. It dates from the relief of Mafeking by the British in 1900. When news of its relief came people at home seemed to go mad with joy. They rushed into the streets shouting and cheering, and there was a great deal of noise and confusion. It was noticed over and over again that there was no "mafficking" over successes in the Great War. People felt it too seriously to make a great noise about it.

A slang word which has become common in England during the Great War is str?fe. This is the German word for "punish," and became quite familiar to English people through the hope and prayer to which the Germans were always giving expression that God would "str?fe" England. The soldiers caught hold of the word, and it was very much used in a humorous way both at home and abroad. But it is not at all likely to become a regular English word, and perhaps will not even remain as slang after the war.

Besides the fact that slang often becomes good English, we have to notice that good English often becomes slang. One of the most common forms of slang is to use words, and especially adjectives, which mean a great deal in themselves to describe quite small and ordinary things. To speak of a "splendid" or "magnificent" breakfast, for instance, is to use words out of proportion to the subject, though of course they are excellent words in themselves; but this is a mild form of slang.

There are many people now who fill their conversation with superlatives, although they speak of the most commonplace things. A theatrical performance will be "perfectly heavenly," an actress "perfectly divine." Apart from the fact that nothing and no one merely human can be "divine," divinity itself is perfection, and it is therefore not only unnecessary but actually incorrect to add "perfectly." A scene or landscape may very properly be described as "enchanting," but when the adjective is applied too easily it is a case of good English becoming slang.

Then, besides the use of superlative adjectives to describe things which do not deserve such descriptions, there is a crowd of rarer words used in a special sense to praise things.

Every one knows what a "stunning blow" is, but few people can ever have been stunned by the beauty of another's clothes. Yet the expression "stunning hat" or "stunning tie" is quite common. Expressions like a "ripping time" are even more objectionable, because they are even more meaningless.

Then, besides the slang use of terms of praise, there are also many superlatives expressing disgust which the slangmongers use instead of ordinary mild expressions of displeasure. To such people it is not simply "annoying" to have to wait for a lift on the underground railways; for them it is "perfectly sickening."

Horrid, a word which means so much if used properly, is applied to all sorts of slightly unpleasant things and people. When one thinks of the literal Latin meaning of this word ("so dreadful as to cause us to shudder"), the foolishness of using it so lightly is plain. People frequently now declare that they have a "shocking cold"-a description which, again, is too violent for the subject.

Another form of slang is to combine a word which generally expresses unpleasant with one which expresses pleasant ideas. So we get such expressions as "awfully nice" and "frightfully pleased," which are actually contradictions in terms.

This kind of slang is the worst kind of all. It soon loses any spice of novelty. It is not really expressive, like some of the quaint terms of school or university slang, and it does a great deal of harm by tending to spoil the full force of some of our best and finest words. It is very difficult to avoid the use of slang if one is constantly hearing it, but, at any rate, any one who feels the beauty of language must soon be disgusted by this particular kind of slang.

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