This is a lecture I gave recently as part of the British Library’s Evolving English program. To accommodate its length I have broken it down into this introduction, and three further parts.
Slang. In the words of the late, and indubitably great Ian Dury: ‘Arseholes, bastards, fucking, cunts and pricks’. That’s right: ‘Dirty words’. ‘Bad language’. That is, is it not, the popular view. And the popular view is half right. Slang is not ‘bad’ but it is language. It is language as much as is standard English, as much as is jargon, as much as is technicality. As much as is any of the variant registers that make up English. Or for that matter, and in local context, that make up French, Spanish, Italian, German and so many more.
The book I have just seen published, the three-volume Green’s Dictionary of Slang, was seventeen years in the making. The entirety of my work on slang goes back another ten, to the researches for a far slimmer lexicon, the Dictionary of Contemporary Slang. The entirety of the headwords in that book, some 11,500, would fit easily into those now on offer in just the letter S. The big book was born in 1993 when I started putting together the single-volume Cassell Dictionary of Slang. No citations allowed, but once it appeared, in 1998, I was commissioned to create the larger work , to be compiled ‘on historical principles’ which means including usage examples. We had the Cassell material as a core. All we had to do, thereafter, was pick up some citations. We picked up around 575,000, of which 415,000 have been used in the book. But if the Cassell material remains the core, it is a very different work. There was a good deal more work to do.Read more
What I do know is that I have dedicated my life to taking slang seriously. In every sense of the phrase. Amassing a database and thence a dictionary from the widest possible sources, and assessing what I have found in a manner that I hope both exceeds and by-passes the slipshod, easy dismissal of the topic as ‘dirty words’.
That said, slang certainly offers a vocabulary and a voice to all our negatives. Our inner realities: lusts, fears, hatreds, self indulgences. It subscribes to nothing but itself – no belief systems, no true believers, no faith, no religion, no politics, no party. It is, for Freudians, the linguistic id.
The id, as laid out in the New Introductory Lectures on Psychoanalysis of 1933: ;is the dark, inaccessible part of our personality, […] most of this is of a negative character […]. We all approach the id with analogies: we call it a chaos, a cauldron full of seething excitations… It is filled with energy reaching it from the instincts, but it has no organization, produces no collective will, but only a striving to bring about the satisfaction of the instinctual needs subject to the observance of the pleasure principle.’
Id. The German and before that Latin for ‘it’. And it, as you will all know, stands in slang for sex.Read more
And for all that I suggested earlier, is it really a language? or no more than an aggregation of words. A lexis. A vocabulary. If a language demands the fulfillment of certain rules: pronunciation, word order, grammar, then no, it is not. It is marginal, used by the marginal, expresses marginality. Those who use it may see it as a language, they may be wrong. That posited etymology, the s for ‘secret’ and lang for ‘language’ suggests that the belief is deep. But that suggested etymology is wrong too. It may be, or rather may have been secret, but no matter: it still fails the tests that render it a fully fledged language. What it is, perhaps, is a lexis of synonymy. There are themes: topics it embraces, the philosophy of its use (‘counter’ / ‘subversive’) but even if it demands dictionaries, it is not a language as such.
Yet with all that said, the diagram with which Sir James Murray, its first editor, prefaced the OED, setting linguistic groupings around a central core, does equate slang with jargon / technical terms / dialect / etc. as equally valuable subsets of the over-riding ‘English language’. Even if Murray seems to mix the concepts of ‘vocabulary’ and language’.
The current OED offers this under language
Definition 1.a. The system of spoken or written communication used by a particular country, people, community, etc., typically consisting of words used within a regular grammatical and syntactic structure.
In that case, no. It is not a system. Nor, even if Victor Hugo wrote, in The Hunchback of Notre Dame, of ‘the kingdom of argot’, and playwrights such as Thomas Dekker and Ben Jonson rendered visible a ‘beggar’s brotherhood’, is it a community. But let us look further:
Definition 2. a. The form of words in which something is communicated; manner or style of expression
Then yes, slang is certainly that. And here the OED even cross-references to ‘slangism’ and ‘slanguage’Read more
Lexicography might be represented as the great jigsaw puzzle. Constantly turning the bits until one fits another and gradually, so gradually, the picture emerges.
And like the accumulation of money for the very rich, who no longer need it, the amassing of a slang dictionary is no more than a means of ‘keeping score’. Or if one seeks an alternative image, slang lexicography – perhaps all lexicography – is an attempt to map a territory that remains fluid, shifting and in the end un-mappable. The lack of full and/or accessible records ensures that we must leave blank spaces on our maps. ‘Here Be Dragons’ or anthropophagi – or at least we hope so. But the ‘game’ will continue whether or not the score is maintained; the territory exists, mapped or otherwise. The interested world requires its guides.
But the slang dictionary, that shifting, unfinished scorecard, that map that can never fill in every territory, is inadequate in almost every way.Read more
The rat cannot speak. It can communicate – rat to rat, and in extremis rat to human and doubtless other predators – or more properly vocalise, in a series of tones and registers that mainly exist beyond human hearing. Only when, characteristically, the human brings pain to the rat, can its squeaks be heard. Perhaps it is better thus: were rats to speak, their justified charge-sheet of human cruelties, tortures and misrepresentations might even prove shameful to that one fellow creature that surpasses all others in its capacity for inflicting pain. But even could rats speak, it is unlikely that they would be heard, or if heard attended. For if rats, those quintessential denizens of the literal and metaphorical lower depths could speak, then their language would be of those depths. If rats spoke, they would not adopt the standard, privileged as it is on every level. If rats spoke, they would speak slang.Read more