A talk given to the International Anthony Burgess Foundation in Manchester as part of a Conference to celbrate the Fiftieth Anniversary of the publication of A Clockwork Orange
The phrase queer as a clockwork orange, which means eccentric or bizarre, and can be applied sexually or otherwise, was sourced by Anthony Burgess to late World War II when, as a serving soldier, he heard it in the mess. I am quite willing to believe him: the phrase is cognate with similar slang similes such as queer as a coot, first ascribed to his acquaintance Julian McLaren Ross, queer as a three dollar bill, queer as duck soup, a coinage of the 1930s and oldest of all queer as Dick’s hatband, which seems as impenetrable a construct as Burgess’s borrowing and has been recorded in this sense since at least 1835 (meaning ‘below par, or ‘out of sorts’ it goes back a further half-century). As I say, I wish to believe, but…the problem is that we have no proof. Despite the resources of the Internet, and other than in scholarly articles that quote Burgess himself, the first recorded citation comes as late as 1977, in a glossary appended to a book designed to help policemen battle with the contemporary world.Read more
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.Read more
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