Taking Slang Seriously IIDecember 28th, 2010
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.
Slang is the lexical reification of the comedian Lenny Bruce’s dictum: ‘Everybody wants what should be. But there is no what should be, there is only what is.’ Slang, as the critic Jonathan Meades has noted, is ‘a depiction of the actual, of what we think rather than what we are enjoined to think.’ Slang is even, dare I suggest, a sort of lexical WikiLeaks, revelatory of our own otherwise guarded opinions.
It is voyeuristic, amoral, libertarian and libertine. It is vicious. It is cruel. It is self-indulgent. It treats all theologies – secular as well as spiritual – with the contempt that they deserve. It is funny. It is fun.
Given its position on the margins one might see it as a means of self-affirmation: I denigrate/blaspheme/utter obscenities, therefore I am. Shouting dark words into the darkness of the world. Like the tramp I see almost daily on my walks along a street near my flat in Paris, it lies cheerfully in the gutter. And like him it may be gazing at the stars, but far more likely beneath the skirts of passing women. And ‘gutter’ is the word, not ‘ditch’ , because slang is the language of the city. For Jack-the-lad not Johnny hayseed.
Standard dictionary definitions of ‘slang’ make clear what it is that links the city and its language: the over-riding suggestion is of speed, fluidity, movement. The descriptors that recur are ‘casual’, ‘playful’, ‘ephemeral’, ‘racy’, ‘humorous’, ‘irreverent’. These are not the terminology of lengthy, measured consideration. Slang’s words are twisted, turned, snapped off short, re-launched at a skewed angle. Some with their multiple, and often contrasting definitions seem infinitely malleable, shape-shifting: who knows what hides round their syllabic corners. It is not, I suggest, a language that works out of town; it requires the hustle and bustle, the rush, the lights, the excitement and even the muted (sometimes far from muted) sense of impending threat. To use slang confidently one needs that urban cockiness. It doesn’t work behind a yoke of oxen, even athwart a tractor. Then there are the value judgements: ‘sub-standard’, ‘low’, ‘vulgar’, ‘unauthorized’. The word we are seeking is street. Street as noun, more recently street as adjective. The vulgar tongue. The gutter language.
In a way slang is the true esperanto – the real international language. And even if because it is found in so many different languages it cannot be a true esperanto, it remains so in its over-arching imagery and its role in communication and as a statement of self.
There are few languages that have resisted a slang. Perhaps they are spoken in the few countries that have no city, slang’s necessary crucible. Languages, of course, are different: some vastly, some relatively slightly, but all are different. But in their slangs as in the humans who speak them: plus ça change. The details differ, the big picture is much the same. Slang has a story, and that story has universal themes.
Slang’s thematic range is not wide, though its synonymy runs very deep, and one can see the same ideas recurring from classical Greek and Latin onwards. The very narrowness of this ‘waterfront’ is the best testament to its utility. Stripped down, modernist, cutting edge – at whatever time, that is, that it has reflected the currently ‘modern’ and whatever edge has been at that moment ‘cutting’.
Which proves to me at least that even if the individual terms that make up the vocabulary may be dismissed as ‘ephemeral’– and that is a far from accurate dismissal – the persistence of these themes ensures that slang lasts. The imagery does not vanish; it is not short-term. It reflects the way that we think of certain topics. One might call it stereotyping since it is often in stereotypes that slang deals but could a better synonym be psychological ‘shorthand’?
So what do the similarities tell us? That the basic concerns remain consistent in slang as they do in much that is human: sex, money, intoxication, fear (of others), aggrandizement (of oneself). Let me offer a rough taxonomy of the hundred-odd thousand words and phrases in the book.
Crime and Criminals 5012 / Drink, Drinks, Drinking and Drunks 4589 / Drugs 3976 / Money 3342 / Women (of various descriptions, almost none of them complementary) 2480 / Fools and Foolish 2403 / Men (of various descriptions, not invariably, but often self-aggrandising) 2183/ Sexual Intercourse 1740 / Penis: 1351 / Homosexuals/-ity 1238 / Prostitute/-ion 1185 / Vagina 1180 / Policeman / Policing 1034 / Masturbate/-ion 945 / Die, Death, Dead 831 / Beat or Hit 728 / Mad 776 / Anus or Buttocks 634 / Terms of Racial or National abuse: 570 (+ derivations = c. 1000, with blacks and Jews leading the parade) / Defecate/-ion & Urinate/-ion 540 / Kill or Murder 521 / Unattractive 279 / Angry 255 / Fat 247 / Vomiting 219
All concrete. No abstracts. Caring, sharing, selflessness and compassion: sweet fuck all.
If slang can boast a single abstract concept, it is doubt, with which it mocks and undermines every vestige of true belief. With that in mind, let me offer some heresies:
Although the word slang has received definitions in every major dictionary since Webster’s American in 1828, it remains a slippery customer. Unlike such peers as ‘dialect’ or ‘technical’ it defeats the linguists who seek to establish it in a specific register. Even the OED seems confused: its current definition runs thus: ‘Language of a highly colloquial type, considered as below the level of standard educated speech, and consisting either of new words or of current words employed in some special sense.’ But slang is not colloquial; that’s its point. Colloquialisms are not slang. That’s theirs. Other dictionaries are equally baffled. Slang ducks and slang dives. We are forced to accept the answer of an essay of 1978, which asked ‘Is slang a word for linguists’. And answered: ‘No’.May I suggest then that the official definitions of ‘slang’ are ultimately a waste of time, intellectual marginalia for a supremely non- (but not anti-) intellectual code. And like pornography, conveniently defined as that which induces an erection in an otherwise elderly and impotent judge, we know it when we see it.
To me its greatest charm is that at its heart, even its most obscene and gutter-dwelling heart, it is subversive. This is not political subversion – slang is above politics – but a subversion of the English language itself. And by subverting English, it subverts the givens of the world that English informs. So many of its terms do no more than turn standard usages upside down. Appropriating them for reinterpretations that mock their lost respectability. Standing aside, voluntarily or otherwise, from the standard world, the slang user rejects standard language and substitutes a code within which he/she feels secure and which serves to define him/herself. Of course no-one exists purely in slang-world. It is feasible, perhaps, in a closed society such as a prison, but rarely elsewhere. One must discard slang to enter ‘real life’ just as many of us must still discard casual clothes to go to work.