Old slang’s time

The other day, I was standing outside a Turkish restaurant in east London when a passerby asked me if I had any chips. I said I didn’t, even though I was hazy about what he had in mind. Surely it was nothing to do with gambling or potatoes?

Later, I looked up the word in the relevant volume of Jonathon Green’s recently published Dictionary of Slang. As I’d suspected, spare change had been among the possible meanings, yet I learnt that “chips” can also be adulterated heroin, a sip of liquor or a stolen mobile phone – as well as a prostitute or a reprimand. I hadn’t had any save perhaps the last of these at my disposal at the time, but that now ceased to matter for, having consulted Green’s impressive triple-decker, I kept on reading.

This is the sort of book that, even when examined for a specific purpose, invites sustained perusal. Its existence urges the fundamental question: what is slang? The word itself is of uncertain origin. I have heard it said that it is related to the verb “to sling” – slang is whatever gets slung – but, turning to the Oxford English Dictionary, one finds the disappointing statement that it is “a word of cant origin, the ultimate source of which is not apparent”.

In the OED and other authoritative dictionaries, the definitions of slang – “highly colloquial use of language”, “very casual speech or writing”, “language peculiar to a particular group” – fail to suggest its electricity. Less conventional definitions are more eloquent about its dangers and allure. The poet Walt Whitman compared slang to belching, and the Danish linguist Otto Jespersen claimed that “it is a sport, and, like any other sport, something that belongs essentially to the young”.

The young, indisputably, are prolific coiners of slang, and connoisseurship of slang is a means of clinging on to an ecstatic youthfulness. Green sees it as part of the combative counterculture: “Slang is the language that says ‘no’. Born in the street, it resists the niceties of the respectable.” Yet it is also a conduit for inscrutable desires, and he approvingly quotes Sigmund Freud’s dictum that slang’s vibrancy is drawn from the “dark, inaccessible” parts of ourselves.

Slang is a barometer of society’s inner life. Much of it may be ephemeral but it plays a crucial part in marking our identities – in making us stand out, yet also in helping us fit in. Although we all use slang, we’re better at spotting (and condemning) other people’s than we are at acknowledging our own.

It is tempting to characterise slang in human terms: when we think about it, we straightaway think of its users, who may be vicious, feral, libertine, naughty, funny, inventive or slippery. Not surprisingly, slang has been likened to poetry – the “people’s poetry”, according to one formula. It clusters around our passions and taboos; by voicing the anxieties and enthusiasms that we share, it creates rapport.

There have been dictionaries of slang for more than 400 years. Early treatments of the subject were integrated into more general publications, such as a 1560s treatise about vagrants by Thomas Harman. The first freestanding work in the field was A New Dictionary of the Terms Ancient and Modern of the Canting Crew (1699).

This title has just been attractively reissued by Oxford’s Bodleian Library, more catchily billed as The First English Dictionary of Slang. Today it seems a curious item but contemporary readers would also have found it curious, albeit useful – a key to some of the shadier mysteries of the post-Restoration underworld. The dictionary isn’t what its original title page claimed. Rather than being exclusively concerned with the language of canters – that is, beggars, thieves and vagabonds – it presents in its roughly 4,000 entries a picture of the more colourful departments of everyday experience.

Some of the words it contains have become commonplace: “eyesore”, “kidnapper”, “waspish”. Others now seem quaint: “soul-driver” as a term for a parson, “Cornish hug” for a powerful grip. A few of the definitions deserve revival: a “fumbler” is “an unperforming husband”, and a “vainglorious” man “one that Pisses more than he Drinks”.

The author of this little volume was at the time named only as “B. E. Gent”. While there are hints in the content that he may have been a naval man and possibly a Quaker, no positive identification has ever been made. The text, resuscitated here with a crisply informative introduction by the OED’s chief editor John Simpson, is a testament to this unknown figure’s inquisitive temperament. When one reads about “owlers” secretly conveying wool to the coast for export under cover of darkness, or “buffers”, who kill horses for their skins by “running a long Wyre into them”, one senses some of the seedy precariousness of late 17th-century life.

Unsurprisingly, Green, who has been studying and collecting slang for three decades, supplies abundant information about both owlers and buffers. The latter, it emerges, can also be perjurers, boxers, pistols, users of crack cocaine, women’s breasts, innkeepers and, of course – as in the novels of PG Wodehouse – genial old fools.

Green’s dictionary, which has occupied him for 17 years, builds on many of his previous publications, which have included a survey of jargon, books on prejudice and rudeness, and smaller but substantial dictionaries of slang. The result is an astonishingly detailed register of creativity in all its hues. At well over 6,000 pages, it is the most comprehensive record of the subject to date. It offers definitions of around 110,000 words and phrases. These are supported by more than 400,000 quotations illustrating their use.

It is a work of rigorous scholarship, buttressed by the efforts of a sizeable team (including seven editors and five database assistants). Yet it too discloses something of its compiler’s personality. Green has previously written a study of dictionaries, Chasing the Sun (1996), in which he comments that any volume of this kind is “a subset of the greater ideal, and therein, since choices must be made, lies the first statement of individual intent”. No aspect of lexicography is completely untouched by personal taste.

While Green’s approach is wide-ranging, it is possible to discern a particular relish for the terminology of teenage pleasures, drug culture and black America. This is fertile terrain; in each of these fields, linguistic innovation is highly valued, and the novelties that originate there often percolate into mainstream society – as we may know from witnessing the adoption of terms first met in TV shows such as Skins and The Wire. Nothing seems to excite this most worldly of lexicographers than unpacking the vocabulary of trendsetters and troublemakers.

Leafing through the pages of Green’s Dictionary, one accumulates a stock of favourite oddments: an “Oklahoma credit card” is a siphon tube for stealing petrol, a “knocking-jacket” a nightdress, and a “fogle-hunter” a pickpocket who specialises (or really “specialised”, one imagines) in stealing silk handkerchiefs. Some of the illustrative quotations are equally droll: one letter-writer recalls that “I told you in my last how she gave the athletic stockbroker at Hove the mitten” – to be given the mitten is to have one’s proposal of marriage rejected – and another makes the seemingly far-fetched claim that “Penrith is becoming a real funk-hole”, though a funk-hole is here a place of refuge rather than somewhere James Brown might have frequented.

We all know that some common words have many different senses. But some uncommon ones do a bizarre double duty. A “ham sandwich” is both “nothing” and a term for a particular model of Cadillac. A “Scotch warmingpan” has been known to denote both “a complaisant young woman” and the breaking of wind.

A lot of Green’s entries prompt at least a moment of incredulity. Rhyming slang often seems especially improbable. How many people have used “Goldie Hawn” for a prawn or “hors d’oeuvre” for a pervert? Not many, perhaps, but Green delights in inclusiveness. The result is a potent mix of scholarship and sacrilege. The entry for “triple master blaster” (and “entry” is le mot juste) made me spill coffee on one of the three organs this particular act avails.

It is hard to do justice here to the depth of Green’s erudition, not least because so many of the entries deal with taboo subjects. Sex, drugs and crime are to the fore, some way ahead of those other perennial favourites, money and food. Propriety prevents me from explaining the meanings of “mossy doughnut” and “everlasting wound” (terms for the same thing) or why someone who enjoys “silverback riding” is unlikely to perform a “kit-kat shuffle”. I can get away with noting that “barnyard pimp” is American prison slang for fried chicken, and that “lunch gut” is a bout of vomiting that follows dosing oneself with heroin, but few readers would thank me for explaining why “handmade”, in many contexts a badge of quality workmanship, is not so positive when used of a person’s anatomy.

Green works hard to provide etymologies for these strange items but often has to admit defeat. Explaining the origins of slang is difficult, partly because so much slang is used in the interests of secrecy or clannishness, and also because pride of possession – the idea that “ownership” of slang is a mark of distinction – means that the stories of slang terms become encrusted with anecdote and myth.

Green’s range of sources is, as ever, remarkable. He and his amanuenses have scoured everything from Chaucer to the novels of Barbara Taylor Bradford, and from the Tuscaloosa News to that favourite ornament of student bathrooms, Roger’s Profanisaurus. Many of the books sound delicious in their own right: An Indiscreet Guide to Soho, The Human Side of Crook and Convict Life, ‘Unprintable’ Ozark Folk Songs.

The research involved, as well as the physical dimensions of the finished work, means that Green’s Dictionary is expensive. A searchable electronic version will apparently follow – and is desirable. The future of works of this kind undoubtedly lies online; the reasons include lower production costs and the ease of adding material.

Yet what we shall miss when large reference books cease to be tangible objects is their luscious browsability. It is precisely this quality that makes Green’s Dictionary of Slang not just useful but charming too. Consulting the printed volumes rather than an electronic database, I find that when I look up “chips” my eye is drawn to “chinstrap” on the facing page – an Ulster term for a dirty ring around an unwashed neck, as well as a more general one for the buttocks.

Nothing makes a stronger impression than the graphic yet outlandish insults that occasionally leap off the page. You could go several lifetimes without anyone saying to you, “May your chooks turn into emus and kick your shithouse down”. But a natural impulse, having encountered the expression, is to find an occasion to use it.

Although it may seem merely daft, this extreme playfulness is purposeful: when one displays what one can do with language, the gesture is similar to a peacock fanning its tail. Slang is easily dismissed as thoughtless, yet it is always a performance, a shimmering symptom of the Darwinian dance of self. Today’s slang may seem coarse or obscure but, as both these works illustrate, some of it will be tomorrow’s idiom.

Henry Hitchings is author of ‘The Secret Life of Words’ (John Murray)

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