Slang by James Runciman

Story type: Essay

Has any one ever yet considered the spiritual significance of slang? The dictionaries inform us that “slang is a conversational irregularity of a more or less vulgar type;” but that is not all. The prim definition refers merely to words, but I am rather more interested in considering the mental attitude which is indicated by the distortion and loose employment of words, and by the fresh coinages which seem to spring up every hour. I know of no age or nation that has been without its slang, and the study is amongst the most curious that a scholar can take up; but our own age, after all, must be reckoned as the palmy time of slang, for we have gone beyond mere words, and our vulgarizations of language are significant of degradation of soul. The Romans of the decadence had a hideous cant language which fairly matched the grossness of the people, and the Gauls, with their descendants, fairly matched the old conquerors. The frightful old Paris of Francois Villon, with all its bleak show of famine and death, had its constant changes of slang. “Tousjours vieil synge est desplaisant,”says the burglar-poet, and he means that the old buffoon is tiresome; the young man with the newest phases of city slang at his tongue’s end is most acceptable in merry company. Very few people can read Villon’s longer poems at all, for they are almost entirely written in cant language, and the glossary must be in constant requisition. The rascal is a really great writer in his abominable way, but his dialect was that of the lowest resorts, and he lets us see that the copious argot which now puzzles the stranger by its kaleidoscopic changes was just as vivid and changeable in the miserable days of the eleventh Louis. In the Paris of our day the slang varies from hour to hour; every one seems able to follow it, and no one knows who invents the constant new changes. The slang of the boarding-house in Balzac’s “Pere Goriot” is quite different from that of the novels done by the Goncourt brothers; and, though I have not yet mustered courage to finish one of M. Zola’s outrages, I can see that the vulgarisms which he has learned are not at all like any that have been used in bygone days. The corruption of Paris seems to breed verbal distortions rather freely, and the ordinary babble of the city workman is as hard to any Englishman as are the colloquialisms of Burns to the average Cockney.

In England our slang has undergone one transformation after another ever since the time of Chaucer. Shakespeare certainly gives us plenty; then we have the slang of the Great War, and then the unutterable horrors of the Restoration–even the highly proper Mr. Joseph Addison does not disdain to talk of an “old put,” and his wags are given to “smoking” strangers. The eighteenth century–the century of the gallows–gave us a whole crop of queer terms which were first used in thieves’ cellars, and gradually filtered from the racecourse and the cockpit till they took their place in the vulgar tongue. The sweet idyll of “Life in London” is a perfect garden of slang; Tom the Corinthian and Bob Logic lard their phrases with the idiom of the prize-ring, and the author obligingly italicises the knowing words so that one has no chance of missing them. But nowadays we have passed beyond all that, and every social clique, every school of art and literature, every trade–nay, almost every religion–has its peculiar slang; and the results as regards morals, manners, and even conduct in general are too remarkable to be passed over by any one who desires to understand the complex society of our era. The mere patter of thieves or racing-men–the terms are nearly synonymous–counts for nothing. Those who know the byways of life know that there are two kinds of dark language used by our nomad classes and by our human predatory animals. A London thief can talk a dialect which no outsider can possibly understand; for, by common agreement, arbitrary names are applied to every object which the robbers at any time handle, and to every sort of underhand business which they transact. But this gibberish is not exactly an outcome of any moral obliquity; it is employed as a means of securing safety. The gipsy cant is the remnant of a pure and ancient language; we all occasionally use terms taken from this remarkable tongue, and, when we speak of a “cad,” or “making a mull,” or “bosh,” or “shindy,” or “cadger” or “bamboozling,” or “mug,” or “duffer,” or “tool,” or “queer,” or “maunder,” or “loafer,” or “bung,” we are using pure gipsy. No distinct mental process, no process of corruption, is made manifest by the use of these terms; we simply have picked them up unconsciously, and we continue to utter them in the course of familiar conversation.

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I am concerned with a degradation of language which is of an importance far beyond the trifling corruption caused by the introduction of terms from the gipsy’s caravan, the betting ring, or the thieves’ kitchen; one cannot help being made angry and sad by observing a tendency to belittle all things that are great, to mock all earnestness, to vulgarize all beauty. There is not a quarter where the subtle taint has not crept in, and under its malign influence poetry has all but expired, good conversation has utterly ceased to exist, art is no longer serious, and the intercourse of men is not straightforward. The Englishman will always be emotional in spite of the rigid reserve which he imposes upon himself; he is an enthusiast, and he does truly love earnestness, veracity, and healthy vigour. Take him away from a corrupt and petty society and give him free scope, and he at once lets fall the film of shams from off him like a cast garment, and comes out as a reality. Shut the same Englishman up in an artificial, frivolous, unreal society, and he at once becomes afraid of himself; he fears to exhibit enthusiasm about anything, and he hides his genuine nature behind a cloud of slang. He belittles everything he touches, he is afraid to utter a word from his inner heart, and his talk becomes a mere dropping shower of verbal counters which ring hollow. The superlative degree is abhorrent to him unless he can misuse it for comic purposes; and, like the ridiculous dummy lord in “Nicholas Nickleby,” he is quite capable of calling Shakespeare a “very clayver man.” I have heard of the attitude taken by two flowers of our society in presence of Joachim. Think of it! The unmatched violinist had achieved one of those triumphs which seem to permeate the innermost being of a worthy listener; the soul is entranced, and the magician takes us into a fair world where there is nothing but loveliness and exalted feeling. “Vewy good fellow, that fiddle fellow,” observed the British aristocrat. “Ya-as,” answered his faithful friend. Let any man who is given to speaking words with a view of presenting the truth begin to speak in our faint, super-refined, orthodox society; he will be looked at as if he were some queer object brought from a museum of curiosities and pulled out for exhibition. The shallowest and most impudent being that ever talked fooleries will assume superior airs and treat the man of intellect as an amusing but inferior creature. More than that–earnestness and reality are classed together under the head of “bad form,” the vital word grates on the emasculate brain of the society man, and he compensates himself for his inward consciousness of inferiority by assuming easy airs of insolence. A very brilliant man was once talking in a company which included several of the superfine division; he was witty, vivid, genial, full of knowledge and tact; but he had one dreadful habit–he always said what he thought. The brilliant man left the company, and one sham-languid person said to a sham-aristocratic person, “Who is that?” “Ah, he’s a species of over-educated savage!” Now the gentleman who propounded this pleasant piece of criticism was, according to trustworthy history, the meanest, most useless, and most despicable man of his set; yet he could venture to assume haughty airs towards a man whose shoes he was not fit to black, and he could assume those airs on the strength of his slangy impassivity–his “good form.” When we remember that this same fictitious indifference characterized the typical grand seigneur of old France, and when we also remember that indifference may be rapidly transformed into insolence, and insolence into cruelty, we may well look grave at the symptoms which we can watch around us. The dreary ennui of the heart, ennui that revolts at truth, that is nauseated by earnestness, expresses itself in what we call slang, and slang is the sign of mental disease.

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I have no fault to find with the broad, racy, slap-dash language of the American frontier, with its picturesque perversions and its droll exaggeration. The inspired person who chose to call a coffin an “eternity box” and whisky “blue ruin” was too innocent to sneer. The slang of Mark Twain’s Mr. Scott when he goes to make arrangements for the funeral of the lamented Buck Fanshawe is excruciatingly funny and totally inoffensive. Then the story of Jim Baker and the jays in “A Tramp Abroad” is told almost entirely in frontier slang, yet it is one of the most exquisite, tender, lovable pieces of work ever set down in our tongue. The grace and fun of the story, the odd effects produced by bad grammar, the gentle humour, all combine to make this decidedly slangy chapter a literary masterpiece. A miner or rancheman will talk to you for an hour and delight you, because his slang somehow fits his peculiar thought accurately; an English sailor will tell a story, and he will use one slang word in every three that come out of his mouth, yet he is delightful, for the simple reason that his distorted dialect enables him to express and not to suppress truth. But the poison that has crept through the minds of our finer folk paralyses their utterance so far as truth is concerned; and society may be fairly caricatured by a figure of the Father of Lies blinking through an immense eyeglass upon God’s universe.

Mr. George Meredith, with his usual magic insight, saw long ago whither our over-refined gentry were tending; and in one of his finest books he shows how a little dexterous slang may dwarf a noble deed. Nevil Beauchamp was under a tremendous fire with his men: he wanted to carry a wounded soldier out of action, but the soldier wished his adored officer to be saved. At the finish the two men arrived safely in their own lines amid the cheers of English, French, and even of the Russian enemy. This is how the votary of slang transfigures the episode; he wishes to make a little fun out of the hero, and he manages it by employing the tongue which it is good form to use. “A long-shanked trooper bearing the name of John Thomas Drew was crawling along under fire of the batteries. Out pops old Nevil, tries to get the man on his back. It won’t do. Nevil insists that it’s exactly one of the cases that ought to be, and they remain arguing about it like a pair of nine-pins while the Moscovites are at work with the bowls. Very well. Let me tell you my story. It’s perfectly true, I give you my word. So Nevil tries to horse Drew, and Drew proposes to horse Nevil, as at school. Then Drew offers a compromise. He would much rather have crawled on, you know, and allowed the shot to pass over his head; but he’s a Briton–old Nevil’s the same; but old Nevil’s peculiarity is that, as you are aware, he hates a compromise–won’t have it–retro Sathanas!–and Drew’s proposal to take his arm instead of being carried pick-a-or piggy-back–I am ignorant how Nevil spells it–disgusts old Nevil. Still it won’t do to stop where they are, like the cocoanut and pincushion of our friends the gipsies on the downs; so they take arms and commence the journey home, resembling the best friends on the evening of a holiday in our native clime–two steps to the right, half a dozen to the left, etc. They were knocked down by the wind of a ball near the battery. ‘Confound it!’ cries Nevil. ‘It’s because I consented to a compromise!’”

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Most people know that this passage refers to Rear-Admiral Maxse, yet, well as we may know our man, we have him presented like an awkward, silly, comic puppet from a show. The professor of slang could degrade the conduct of the soldiers on board the Birkenhead; he could make the choruses from Samson Agonistes seem like the Cockney puerilities of a comic news-sheet. It is this high-sniffing, supercilious slang that I attack, for I can see that it is the impudent language of a people to whom nothing is great, nothing beautiful, nothing pure, and nothing worthy of faith.

The slang of the “London season” is terrible and painful. A gloriously beautiful lady is a “rather good-looking woman–looks fairly well to-night;” a great entertainment is a “function;” a splendid ball is a “nice little dance;” high-bred, refined, and exclusive ladies and gentlemen are “smart people;” a tasteful dress is a “swagger frock;” a new craze is “the swagger thing to do.” Imbecile, useless, contemptible beings, male and female, use all these verbal monstrosities under the impression that they make themselves look distinguished. A microcephalous youth whose chief intellectual relaxation consists in sucking the head of a stick thinks that his conversational style is brilliant when he calls a man a “Johnnie,” a battle “a blooming slog,” his lodgings his “show,” a hero “a game sort of a chappie,” and so on. Girls catch the infection of slang; and thus, while sweet young ladies are leading beautiful lives at Girton and Newnham, their sisters of society are learning to use a language which is a frail copy of the robust language of the drinking-bar and the racecourse. Under this blight lofty thought perishes, noble language also dies away, real wit is cankered and withered into a mere ghastly crackle of wordplay, humour is regarded as the sign of the savage, and generous emotion, manly love, womanly tenderness are reckoned as the folly of people whom the smart young lady of the period would describe as “Jugginses.”

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As to the slang of the juniors of the middle class, it is well-nigh past description and past bearing. The dog-collared, tight-coated, horsey youth learns all the cant phrases from cheap sporting prints, and he has an idea that to call a man a “bally bounder” is quite a ducal thing to do. His hideous cackle sounds in railway-carriages, or on breezy piers by the pure sea, or in suburban roads. From the time when he gabbles over his game of Nap in the train until his last villainous howl pollutes the night, he lives, moves, and has his being in slang; and he is incapable of understanding truth, beauty, grandeur, or refinement. He is apt to label any one who does not wear a dog-collar and stableman’s trousers as a cad; but, ah, what a cad he himself is! In what a vast profound gulf of vulgarity his being wallows; and his tongue, his slang, is enough to make the spirits of the pure and just return to earth and smite him! Better by far the cunning gipsy with his glib chatter, the rough tramp with his incoherent hoarseness! All who wish to save our grand language from deterioration, all who wish to retain some savour of sincerity and manhood among us, should set themselves resolutely to talk on all occasions, great or trivial, in simple, direct, refined English. There is no need to be bookish; there is much need for being natural and sincere–and nature and sincerity are assassinated by slang.

September, 1888.

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