Cursing like a Bargee & Slinging the Bat

July 29th, 2012

A paper on ‘Rudyard Kipling and Slang’ delivered to the Rudyard Kipling Society in London on June 29 2012

Rudyard Kipling is not at first sight a particularly ‘slangy’ author. If, as many of us do, we come to him as children he seems positively disapproving. In the Just so Story ‘How the First Letter Was Written he (as Tegumai) admonishes Taffy (his daughter Josephine) for using ‘awful’ to mean ‘great’. ‘Taffy,’ said Tegumai, ‘how often have I told you not to use slang? “Awful” isn’t a pretty word.”.’ Whether or not an adjectival use of ‘awful’ still qualified as slang in 1902 is arguable, and whether Kipling was appeasing those who termed his work vulgar, no matter. The reality is that when one starts dissecting Kipling’s fiction one finds that slang plays a regular, important role. There are hundreds of slang words and phrases in the works, as well as a wide range of job-specific jargon, typically in his sea stories. He uses it for the most basic of reasons: to confer authenticity. He is not a coiner, but a recorder, and his slang lexis is that of the contemporary world, leavened, as in the conversations of the Soldiers Three, by the specifics of a given background.

His areas of interest – schoolboys, soldiers – are of course two of the prime founts of all slang creation. He only missed out on criminals. But substitutes for them the jargons of various specialists, such as engineers, sailors and freemasons. However these are not general slang and I shall resist them.

If he does not immediately strike one as slangy today, his contemporaries were in no doubt, nor invariably complimentary. Critics used the word to denigrate; the pious burghers of Chicago attempted to boycott his work. The Nobel Prize committee of 1907 was undeterred: ‘The accusation has occasionally been made […] that his language is at times somewhat coarse and that his use of soldier’s slang […] verges on the vulgar. Though there may be some truth in such remarks, their importance is offset by the invigorating directness and ethical stimulus of Kipling’s style.’

Researching the citations that underpin the entries in my own slang dictionary, published in 2010, I naturally included Kipling on my reading list. He was not among those books that I first plucked from my shelves – Jack Kerouac, Raymond Chandler, Irvine Welsh – where every page seemed to offer multiple examples. But I could not have overlooked him. His works render up around 500 slang terms. This is an imprecise science – what I record is not always the entirety of what I find, since I require but a single example per definition per decade of use and if I have what I want, I do not duplicate – but it is a workable figure. Among literary stars Joyce is good for 1000 terms; Jane Austen for two. Kipling sits squarely in the middle. Of these almost 20 per cent represent, at least as currently recorded, the first uses of given terms. Among them are brass hat, an officer, conk out, to collapse, clobber, to hit, it, sex appeal, jammy, easy, leatherneck, a marine, mafeesh! the Arabic expression of dismissal and disinterest, rot, to talk nonsense, show, a battle, turf out, to eject and whack up, to accelerate. Most of them have lasted.

The sources of Kipling’s slang fall into three major groups: the language of Anglo-India, which in itself comprises English-Indian pidgin, Army usage and general slang; the schoolboy vocabulary of Stalky and Co, and the deviation into Cockney represented by Kipling’s venture into East End realism, ‘The Record of Badalia Herodsfoot.’ Ortheris is of course Cockney too, but as we shall see, more in style than in linguistic substance. Aside from those comes the general occurrences of slang to be found throughout the short stories. ‘The Story of the Gadsbys,’ that ‘tale without a plot’, is especially fruitful.

Notswithstanding Mrs Hauksbee, so much of Kipling’s world, as critics seem united in suggesting, represents male enclaves. Soldiers, schoolboys, subalterns and beyond them the experts in various male pursuits: engineering or deep-sea fishing. Badalia is a woman, but what greater example of male dominance does one require than her murder by a drunken, violent, and seemingly conscienceless husband. All of which makes this world the ideal repository for slang, the epitome of man-made language. Slang’s taxonomy: crime, intoxication, sex both private and commercial, insults personal, national and racial, a lexis of term for women that at the very best poses them as sex objects; one for men that tends to the self-aggrandizing. The abstract, the emotional, what one might term feminine language is quite absent. One might even go further and suggest that in the slang-rich tales, at least, there is even a sense if not of war then of focused antagonism, of pitting the individual or the group against some form of authority, be it the British Army, a public school, however anomalous a version, or even, in Badalia’s case, poverty. And the experts, for instance the fishermen, are battling nature itself.

That said, one must acknowledge a paradox. Kipling is infinitely complex but it is not wholly foolish to suggest that among his mottos was ‘do as you are told’ and another ‘know your place’. ‘Law Order Duty, Restraint Obedience Discipline’ as ‘McAndrew’s Hymn’ lists it. Slang is the antithesis: the language, as I have often defined it, ‘that says “no”’, a vocabulary which if it does boast a single abstract thought, it is that of doubt: a steadfast and mocking refusal to believe not simply in ‘higher’ things but that ‘high’ of itself is anything beyond a self-deluding, self-serving construct. Kipling uses it, but he does not, as it were, take its side.

In one of the first collections of slang, or more properly the canting speech of wandering criminal beggars, Thomas Harman’s Caveat for Common Cursetours of 1565, the author embellishes his lists and descriptions with a supposed conversation between a pair of rogues. It is a format that has been enshrined in slang writing – both lexicographical and fictional – ever since. It has been suggested that this exposure of a group’s language is an example of middle-class authority: by appropriating the language one displays one’s own power over its users. This, I think, complains too much. The appropriation, the display exists, but the back story seems simpler and less sinister. Like the lexicographers who collect it, the novelist is not usually a professional criminal, a pimp, a thug, or any other of those for whom slang is a lingua franca. But if the dictionary makers need to capture as much as possible to display their expertise and thus underpin the authority of their lexicons, then so too must the novelists to parade theirs, and in doing so confer that vital ingredient – authenticity – on their tale. Kipling is no exception. His skill is in the blending. Kipling learned up his slang as had Dickens, – typically the language of Fagin, Sykes and the gang – and duly exhibited it. Where Dickens scores over a potboiler such as his contemporary Harrison Ainsworth, is that the terms appear seamlessly. Kipling achieves this too. We know that this is a learned vocabulary – we know that Kipling did his homework – but it does not stand out as such. Mulvaney’s Irish may get perilously close to the stage at times, but it remains of a piece with the story; Stalky and Co may delve rather more deeply into Surtees and other literary sources than comparable schoolboys, but again it works.

So I am impressed by Kipling’s integration of slang into the work but perhaps not overwhelmed. It has been suggested that he ‘gave a voice back to the inarticulate’. No. He simply continued a long tradition. He was hardly the first to vocalize the Cockney, the question is simply did he, as has been claimed, do it in a novel, more truly representative way? Less debatable is his pioneering treatment of soldiers. At least the ‘other ranks’. Shakespeare, in Henry V, had offered his footsloggers, but his successors had stayed with the officer class. Kipling deals with officers, whether in embryo – Stalky’s ‘Coll.’ was after all a manufactory thereof – or in adulthood, but the first are schoolboys and the second are not delineated by their language, other than that its standard English tones underline their class. Soldiers Three has a very different perspective, and it is there that we can start.

Slang, as a linguistic phenomenon, was hardly new when in 1890 Kipling arrived in London. That same year saw the first – of seven – volumes of slang’s equivalent to Oxford’s work-in-progress, the New English Dictionary. This was Slang and Its Analogues, compiled by the scholar and spiritualist John S. Farmer, and Kipling’s friend-to-be W.E. Henley. This was serious scholarship but that it was impossible to get the book printed or publicly distributed in the UK reflected slang’s continuing outsider status. The book was still contentious 50 years on, when a writer described it as containing ‘over a hundred synonyms for the most ill-used monosyllable in the language, and none fit for decent print.’ I assure you, knowing the book well, that 100 is a gross understatement.

Kipling, meanwhile, was that year’s critics’ darling, feted by nearly all as the writer of Plain Tales from the Hills, Departmental Ditties, Barrack Room Ballads (published by Henley’s Scots Observer) and perhaps most important of all at that stage, the stories that made up Soldiers Three. They noted many things that rendered the young man’s skills outstanding, among them was his employment of non-standard language.

Yet there are not so many slang terms in Soldiers Three as one might expect: just over 40, and nearly all are spoken by an Irishman. And for all that Kipling was credited with their invention, the reality is that all were to some extent established. Kipling did not claim otherwise. What he did resent was the suggestion that he had made up the style, if not the substance, of his barrack-room badinage.

‘Among Mr. Kipling’s discoveries of new kinds of characters,’ said his fan, the poet and critic Andrew Lang, ‘probably the most popular is his invention of the British soldier in India.’ Kipling was less grateful than Lang might have expected. A letter of 1890 states how ‘the long-haired literati of the Savile Club are swearing that I “invented” my soldier talk in Soldiers Three. Seeing that not one of these critters has been within earshot of a barrack, I am naturally wrath.’ Kipling had not invented it. He had picked it up, along with the prototypes of his characters in such oases of ex-patriate tedium as the barracks at Mian Mar where as a journalist he had enjoyed relatively privileged access.

Barrack Room Ballads, with 57 terms, and Departmental Ditties, with 25, also offer up their share of slang. The first draws on the life of the other ranks with language to suit. Terms that had yet to be recorded include: sling the bat (to talk Hindi or Urdu; he had already introduced bat in Plain Tales from the Hills), blind (to swear and in its adverbial use, e.g. go it blind), clobber (as clob, to beat or kill), crack on (to boast), Fuzzy-Wuzzy (a Sudanese), grouse (to grumble), hairy (first-rate), hell for leather, jildi (speed, energy), give the knock (to knock down), oont (a camel), go on the shout (to go drinking) and snig (to pilfer). The Ditties, with their in-jokes and poèmes a clef stories of such as Potiphar Gubbins, C.E., Ahasuerus Jenkins and Delilah, are not based on soldiers’ lives: masher, skittles! (nonsense!), fanti (eccentric) and screw (a salary) are examples of that relatively exotic species: middle-class slang.

Kipling’s language, irrespective of coiner, came through him to exemplify a type. As Mafia dons and ‘soldiers’ began modelling themselves on the Godfather trilogy, Goodfellas and similar movies, so did the British trooper take on Kipling’s fictions as his model. In 1917 Sir George Younghusband recalled in A Soldier’s Memories, ‘I myself had served for many years with soldiers, but had never heard the words or expressions that Rudyard Kipling’s soldiers used […] But sure enough, a few years after, the soldiers thought, and talked, and expressed themselves exactly like Rudyard Kipling had taught them in his stories […] Kipling made the modern soldier.’ Younghusband was almost certainly over-doing it: it was highly unlikely that an officer would have been party to the language of those he commanded, but Kipling undoubtedly promoted rank-and-file language as no-one had attempted before him.

By the 1940s Orwell was offering a more skeptical assessment. For him the writer was patronizing and ‘facetious’: ‘The private soldier, though lovable and romantic, has to be a comic. […] Very often the result is as embarrassing as the humorous recital at a church social.’ And added, ‘Can one imagine any private soldier, in the nineties or now, reading Barrack-room Ballads and feeling that here was a writer who spoke for him?’

The case remains, perhaps, unresolved. Like Dickens in ‘his’ London, Kipling is our greatest witness for ‘his’ India and has stamped his version on posterity. And for me there is a greater question: whether or not Kipling invented the modern soldier, did he also create the modern Cockney. The type, of course, was long-established. The term, which meant a mother’s darling, had been used of Londoners since the 17th century and embraced all, rich and poor. Its movement had been socially downhill, though John Jorrocks, star of Stalky’s beloved Surtees, was wealthy and a Cockney – and proud of both. As for Cockney speech, the mid-century’s exemplars was Dickens’ Sam Weller. Sam has been characterized as coming from the comic servant tradition, perhaps so, but his speech patterns – not least his characteristic ‘v’ for ‘w’ substitution – can be found in other books of the time. Stylistically Weller is followed by E.J. Milliken’s monstrous creation, ’Arry, who flourished in Punch for 20 years from 1877. A modern ’Arry might be labeled a chav, but he rises far above the underclass in aspirations, social encounters and loudly voiced opinions: traditionalist, jingoistic and unashamedly conservative. (An older Kipling, one might suggest, might have appreciated him). He appears in the form of slang-heavy verse letters to his country friend ‘Charlie’, five or six per year.

Milliken described his creation thus:

‘As to ‘Arry’s origin, and the way in which I studied him, I have mingled much with working men, shop-lads, and would-be smart and “snide” clerks — who plume themselves on their mastery of slang and their general “cuteness” and “leariness.” My ’Arry “slang” is very varied, and not scientific, though most of it I have heard from the lips of street-boy, Bank-holiday youth, coster, cheap clerk, counterjumper, bar-lounger, cheap excursionist, smoking-concert devotee, tenth-rate suburban singer, music hall ‘pro’ or his admirer,” etc. etc.’

I am not sure whether Kipling read Punch nor if so whether he would have paused at ’Arry. I assume he would have loathed him, though he might have admired his creator’s artistry. In their respective vocabularies ’Arry and Kipling’s expatriates and soldiers overlap 97 times but that might be pure coincidence. This was the language of a certain type at a certain time. Again, it is Kipling’s observation that one must admire. (He also uses a dozen words that Weller pronounces in Pickwick).

’Arry is good for 1000 citations and Milliken’s list displays a far wider range of sources than Kipling could have experienced. That noted, and on the evidence of Kipling’s best-known cockneys – Ortheris and Badalia Herodsfoot – I find it hard to follow P.J. Keating’s claim that Kipling had not merely brought to life the world of Tommy Atkins (a nickname he had not invented but popularized as never before) but had also made ‘a complete break with convention and given English fiction with a new cockney archetype’. Of the Soldiers Three one is stage Irish, one from Yorkshire, and thus dialectal, and Ortheris, the Cockney (who would presumably have called himself ‘Aw’fris’), is relatively quiet, or at least as compared with the loquacious Mulvaney. As Orwell noted, Kipling concentrated less on word than on delivery and Ortheris ‘is always made to speak in a sort of stylized Cockney, not very broad but with all the aitches and final ‘g’s’ carefully omitted.’ His vocabulary is far smaller and far more mundane than is that of the self-consciously worldly ’Arry, but his background is much poorer, while ’Arry is more lower-middle than truly working-class.

The late 19th century saw the appearance of a group who, in fictionalizing life in the East End, became known as the ‘Cockney novelists’ . These were Arthur Morrison, William Pett Ridge, Edwin Pugh and others. Whether like Morrison purveying the East End’s lowest depths, all drunken violence, poverty and crime, or like Pugh or Pett Ridge counterfeiting a level of cheery optimism that would in time be reworked as the Blitz spirit, these writers chose to stay within their environment. Kipling ranged far wider, but in 1890 he did make one foray into the East End, and in so doing gives us another chance to assess his version of Cockney speech.

Kipling was appalled by London, hating its foggy weather, its dirt (both literal and metaphorical), and appalled by its human beings, whether the ‘long haired things / in velvet collar rolls’ or what he generalized as a drunken, violent underclass. His single essay into the city’s eastern squalor, ‘The Record of Badalia Herodsfoot’, is unsparing. It is the story of an East End slum woman who volunteers her local knowledge to augment and improve upon the church’s official charitable work and who, even after being kicked almost to death by her drunken husband, still refuses to betray him with her final breath. Like Dicky Perrott, wretched focus of Arthur Morrison’s Child of the Jago, she is unable even in extremis to abandon the code of the slums. In its unyielding pessimism Kipling’s tale is all Morrison and offers not a vestige of Pugh or Pett Ridge. J.M. Barrie dismissed it as ‘merely a very clever man’s treatment of a land he knows little of’ and suggested that ‘the dirty corner is Mr Kipling’s to write about if he chooses’ but Barrie was far happier in Kensington Gardens.

As he had treated it in his Indian stories, Kipling’s creation of Cockney speech patterns lie more in dropped initial h’s and final g’s, double negatives and eye-dialect than in slang as such. Thus ‘port wine’ is ‘pork wine’, a ‘curate’ a ‘curick’, ‘diptheria’ ‘diptheery’, ‘what’, as similarly pronounced by Ortheris, is ‘wot’, and so on. Like Tommy Atkins, their cousin overseas, these East Enders have a vocabulary of ‘less than six hundred words, and the Adjective.’ There is slang, but it is of the quotidian sort, including slop (policeman), garn!, shut your head, and the epithets blooming, blasted, and bleeding.

Kipling’s own vocabulary was more restrained. He claimed himself to be implacable in his choice of terms: ‘I will write what I please. I will not alter a line. If it pleases me to do so I will refer to Her Gracious majesty – bless her! – as the little fat widow of Windsor and fill the mouth of Mulvaney with filth and oaths.’ But even if Edgar Wallace praised him as ‘the poet of the cuss-word and the swear,’ there were limits. He suggests that ‘Thomas [i.e. Tommy Atkins] really ought to be supplied with a new Adjective to help him express his opinions’ but we never read it and see only blanks. Judging by the evidence of Frederick Manning’s Her Privates We and other World War I memoirs of Army life one may assume it was ‘fucking’ — ‘bloody’ having been already declared ‘the Great Australian Adjective’.

He was also willing to accommodate his audiences. The language of stories originally written in India, where his readers would have had no problems with his use of Anglo-Indian imperial pidgin, had to be simplified for those ‘at home’. Though such changes are not mandatory and Soldiers Three – where it would have been foolish and anomalous to put standard English into the mouths of men who rarely speak it – is full of pidgin, e.g. jildi, mafeesh, dekko, chee-chee, pukka, peg and baksheesh.

Kipling of course knew that pidgin well, used it extensively and although it is strictly an argot, the language of a closed group, I cannot resist a brief mention. In the Civil and Military Gazette for April 15, 1886 he penned an appreciative review of a new dictionary, authored by Col. Henry Yule and A.C. Burnell. It was named, not without some carping at such alleged vulgarity, Hobson Jobson, and subtitled ‘A Glossary of Colloquial Anglo-Indian Words and Phrases.’ Kipling termed it ‘a glorified olla podrida of fact, fancy, note, sub-note, reference, cross-reference and quotations innumerable bearing all things concerned directly or indirectly with the East.’ He saw it as gaining bulk and passing from decade to decade, like the OED. He was over-optimistic: the language faded like the Raj that spawned it, although his own work, naturally absent from the first edition, would be included in a revision.

In 1889 the soldier-scholar Col. W.F. Prideaux, writing from Jaipur, reviewed another new dictionary – Barrère & Leland’s Slang, Jargon & Cant – for Notes and Queries. He challenged the authors’ decision to include Anglo-India’s language:

‘The Hindustani words with which Anglo-Indians interlard their discourse are no more slang than the numerous French words which are employed in English conversation. No one calls penchant, ennui, corset, &c. , slang, and there is no reason for considering a word as slang which expresses a Hindustani idea for which there is no exact English equivalent.’ As for slang proper, ‘Anglo-Indians are not an inventive race, and amongst ourselves we prefer to borrow than to originate […] when we do diverge from our usual correctness of language, we employ the floral exuberances of the Gaiety or the Pink ‘Un, and do not babble Hindustani.’

The Gaiety was the Gaiety Theatre, formerly the Strand Music Hall. By Kipling’s time it had become ostensibly up-market, with its Gaiety Girls whose supposed respectability still had them pursued by stage door Johnnies who took them up the road to Romano’s restaurant, much beloved of roués, sporting men, and popular writers of every complexion. It was also the unofficial headquarters – the real office being in nearby Fleet street – of what Prideaux, and many thousands of ex-patriate British males whether soldiers or civilians called the ‘Pink ’Un’. This was the Sporting Times, thus named for its being printed, like today’s FT, on pink stock. Kipling and the Pink ‘Un writers shared a good deal of slang: a good quarter of Kipling’s usage can also be seen on those rosy sheets. Yet again, it would be a mistake to assume any borrowing – in either direction.

Where they undoubtedly overlapped, was in an appreciation of the music hall. Among the many encomia that the star Albert Chevalier received was his being ‘the Kipling of the music hall, for he takes the common clay of Whitechapel, and fashions it into real works of art.’ It was not merely, the reference suggests, that both men were successes, and as we have seen, Kipling was no habitué of Whitechapel, but that their particular art depended on their skilful manipulation of popular language. Kipling, suggested George Orwell – whether or not the suggestion was intended to compliment – ‘might have been a good novelist or s superlative writer of music-hall songs.’ Kipling, who enjoyed Gatti’s, nearby his first London quarters in Villiers Street, did, as we know, make one attempt at just such composition. But this, the song ‘My One and Only’, was designed for what was known as a Lion Comique – a parody of an upper-class swell – and not Chevalier’s stock-in-trade, a sentimentalized facsimile of the Cockney costermonger. The writer did not pursue the halls, though there is evidence in Barrack-room Ballads, that he borrowed from the rhythms of their songs. And Stalky and Co reference such songs as ‘Patrick, Mind the Baby’, ‘Pretty lips, sweeter than cherry or plum’ and ‘A way we have in the Army.’

Which, conveniently, brings us to Stalky.

Kipling’s most prolific use of slang – some 40% of the terms he uses– came in the quasi-biographical school stories that appeared in Stalky and Co. and various subsequent collections.

It has been suggested that the Stalky trio, in their constant striving to ‘get one over’ the powers that be, are a development of the Soldiers Three. This may be so, but need we go so far from home. The boys, in their mockery of the sort of earnest wholesomeness proposed by the much-mocked Dean Farrar in his own Eric and St Winfred’s, and the muscular Christianity of Thomas Hughes’ Tom Brown, are perhaps the original examples of a figure just as traditional as the head of school or the captain of cricket: the school rebel. Stalky just predates P.G. Wodehouse’s early school stories, published between 1902-09, and Wodehouse’s mockery is much gentler, but there is surely something of Wodehouse’s Psmith in Study No. 5. ‘Are you,’ asks Psmith of a new acquaintance, ‘ the Bully, the Pride of the School, or the Boy who is Led Astray and takes to Drink in Chapter Sixteen?” “The last, for choice,” said Mike, “but I’ve only just arrived, so I don’t know.” But Kipling would not have liked Psmith who out of school may well have sported a velvet collar.

The density of slang is hardly surprising; school life represents yet another closed world, and localized forms of language invariably develop. Enough for a full dictionary of Public School Slang to appear in 1940. The Coll may not have been quite such a school but in this at least it echoed its semi-peers.G.C. Beresford recalled:

‘the howling of strangely brainless extemporised slang-words, or rather, exclamations, like “fids,” “luscious tuck,” “not likely,” “ghee I,” “I gloat,” [and] “pretty average beastly”.’ Slang, a rebel against standard English, also provides articulacy to those who rebel against other standards.

Much of the slang is in general use, but many terms are not that far from Billy Bunter who although he would not appear in print until 1908, had been invented by ‘Frank Richards’ in an unpublished story of the 1890s. There are overlaps with Richards, as well as Thomas Hughes, Farrar, and F. Anstey’s Vice Versa. Surtees, though more for his phrase-making than his slang, is paid his due and some 50 terms are shared with ’Arry. Only Uncle Remus, while often quoted, provides nothing to the lexis.

Kipling’s words include: ass (the animal, rather than the posterior), my aunt!, bags I!, bait (a rage), biznai, blub (to cry), brew (a study feast), bug-hunter (an entomologist), burble, bust-up (a row), buzz (to throw), cat (to vomit), cave! (look out!) and keep cave, cram (a tutor or last-minute pre-examination work), crammer, cribber (one who uses some form of illicit aid when taking examinations), dicker (a dictionary), the suffix –eroo, funk (a coward), impot (an imposition, i.e. punishment of ‘lines’), jaw (a lecture)and pi-jaw (an earnest, moralizing one), padre (a chaplain), , ripping!, rot (to talk nonsense), scrag (to beat up), slack (lazy), sneak (to tell tales), stinker (a hard piece of work), suck up, swot as noun or verb, tip (of a parent to pass over money), whiff (to smell unpleasantly) and wigging (a telling-off). Kipling was not a pioneer of school stories – although here, as in his soldier tales, he had a new and more realistic take on the language: such slang as Tom Brown and his chums use is almost wholly adult – but it is hard to believe that many of his successors in the field had not read Stalky.

Like the nine and sixty ways of constructing tribal lays there are a multitude of ways in which writers use slang. Slang’s presence in writing – high- and lowbrow, popular and literary – has become a commonplace. Some authors pick at it, preferring a tasting menu to the full a la carte; others, unsatisfied with a single trip to the bargain buffet, make repeated journeys and glut themselves and their readers. Like the assessment of lay construction, these and other uses of what I call the counter-language all – so long as the auctorial knife and fork are handled with skill – qualify as ‘right’. Kipling was not the first writer to use slang, but he remains one of the most skilful. There is much more to his work, but what there is plays its role and, dare I suggest, that work would be the less without it.

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