English Origin and Slang Page 1
HOW TO SPEAK AND WRITE CORRECTLY by JOSEPH DEVLIN, M.A.
CHAPTER XI Page 1: SLANG
Origin, American Slang and Foreign Slang
Slang is more or less common in nearly all ranks of society and in every walk of life at the present day. Slang words and expressions have crept into our everyday language, and so insiduously, that they have not been detected by the great majority of speakers, and so have become part and parcel of their vocabulary on an equal footing with the legitimate words of speech. They are called upon to do similar service as the ordinary words used in everyday conversationâ€”to express thoughts and desires and convey meaning from one to another. In fact, in some cases, slang has become so useful that it has far outstripped classic speech and made for itself such a position in the vernacular that it would be very hard in some cases to get along without it. Slang words have usurped the place of regular words of language in very many instances and reign supreme in their own strength and influence.
Cant and slang are often confused in the popular mind, yet they are not synonymous, though very closely allied, and proceeding from a common Gypsy origin. Cant is the language of a certain classâ€”the peculiar phraseology or dialect of a certain craft, trade or profession, and is not readily understood save by the initiated of such craft, trade or profession. It may be correct, according to the rules of grammar, but it is not universal; it is confined to certain parts and localities and is only intelligible to those for whom it is intended. In short, it is an esoteric language which only the initiated can understand. The jargon, or patter, of thieves is cant and it is only understood by thieves who have been let into its significance; the initiated language of professional gamblers is cant, and is only intelligible to gamblers.
On the other hand, slang, as it is nowadays, belongs to no particular class but is scattered all over and gets entre into every kind of society and is understood by all where it passes current in everyday expression. Of course, the nature of the slang, to a great extent, depends upon the locality, as it chiefly is concerned with colloquialisms or words and phrases common to a particular section. For instance, the slang of London is slightly different from that of New York, and some words in the one city may be unintelligible in the other, though well understood in that in which they are current. Nevertheless, slang may be said to be universally understood. “To kick the bucket,” “to cross the Jordan,” “to hop the twig” are just as expressive of the departing from life in the backwoods of America or the wilds of Australia as they are in London or Dublin.
Slang simply consists of words and phrases which pass current but are not refined, nor elegant enough, to be admitted into polite speech or literature whenever they are recognized as such. But, as has been said, a great many use slang without their knowing it as slang and incorporate it into their everyday speech and conversation.
Some authors purposely use slang to give emphasis and spice in familiar and humorous writing, but they should not be imitated by the tyro. A master, such as Dickens, is forgivable, but in the novice it is unpardonable.
There are several kinds of slang attached to different professions and classes of society. For instance, there is college slang, political slang, sporting slang, etc. It is the nature of slang to circulate freely among all classes, yet there are several kinds of this current form of language corresponding to the several classes of society. The two great divisions of slang are the vulgar of the uneducated and coarse-minded, and the high-toned slang of the so-called upper classesâ€”the educated and the wealthy. The hoyden of the gutter does not use the same slang as my lady in her boudoir, but both use it, and so expressive is it that the one might readily understand the other if brought in contact. Therefore, there are what may be styled an ignorant slang and an educated slangâ€”the one common to the purlieus and the alleys, the other to the parlor and the drawing-room.
In all cases the object of slang is to express an idea in a more vigorous, piquant and terse manner than standard usage ordinarily admits. A school girl, when she wants to praise a baby, exclaims: “Oh, isn’t he awfully cute!” To say that he is very nice would be too weak a way to express her admiration. When a handsome girl appears on the street an enthusiastic masculine admirer, to express his appreciation of her beauty, tells you: “She is a peach, a bird, a cuckoo,” any of which accentuates his estimation of the young lady and is much more emphatic than saying: “She is a beautiful girl,” “a handsome maiden,” or “lovely young woman.”
When a politician defeats his rival he will tell you “it was a cinch,” he had a “walk-over,” to impress you how easy it was to gain the victory.
Some slang expressions are of the nature of metaphors and are highly figurative. Such are “to pass in your checks,” “to hold up,” “to pull the wool over your eyes,” “to talk through your hat,” “to fire out,” “to go back on,” “to make yourself solid with,” “to have a jag on,” “to be loaded,” “to freeze on to,” “to bark up the wrong tree,” “don’t monkey with the buzz-saw,” and “in the soup.” Most slang had a bad origin. The greater part originated in the cant of thieves’ Latin, but it broke away from this cant of malefactors in time and gradually evolved itself from its unsavory past until it developed into a current form of expressive speech. Some slang, however, can trace its origin back to very respectable sources.
“Stolen fruits are sweet” may be traced to the Bible in sentiment. Proverbs, ix:17 has it: “Stolen waters are sweet.” “What are you giving me,” supposed to be a thorough Americanism, is based upon Genesis, xxxviii:16. The common slang, “a bad man,” in referring to Western desperadoes, in almost the identical sense now used, is found in Spenser’s Faerie Queen, Massinger’s play “A New Way to Pay Old Debts,” and in Shakespeare’s “King Henry VIII.” The expression “to blow on,” meaning to inform, is in Shakespeare’s “As You Like it.” “It’s all Greek to me” is traceable to the play of “Julius Caesar.” “All cry and no wool” is in Butler’s “Hudibras.” “Pious frauds,” meaning hypocrites, is from the same source. “Too thin,” referring to an excuse, is from Smollett’s “Peregrine Pickle.” Shakespeare also used it.
America has had a large share in contributing to modern slang. “The heathen Chinee,” and “Ways that are dark, and tricks that are vain,” are from Bret Harte’s Truthful James. “Not for Joe,” arose during the Civil War when one soldier refused to give a drink to another. “Not if I know myself” had its origin in Chicago. “What’s the matter withâ€”â€”? He’s all right,” had its beginning in Chicago also and first was “What’s the matter with Hannah.” referring to a lazy domestic servant. “There’s millions in it,” and “By a large majority” come from Mark Twain’s Gilded Age. “Pull down your vest,” “jim-jams,” “got ’em bad,” “that’s what’s the matter,” “go hire a hall,” “take in your sign,” “dry up,” “hump yourself,” “it’s the man around the corner,” “putting up a job,” “put a head on him,” “no back talk,” “bottom dollar,” “went off on his ear,” “chalk it down,” “staving him off,” “making it warm,” “dropping him gently,” “dead gone,” “busted,” “counter jumper,” “put up or shut up,” “bang up,” “smart Aleck,” “too much jaw,” “chin-music,” “top heavy,” “barefooted on the top of the head,” “a little too fresh,” “champion liar,” “chief cook and bottle washer,” “bag and baggage,” “as fine as silk,” “name your poison,” “died with his boots on,” “old hoss,” “hunkey dorey,” “hold your horses,” “galoot” and many others in use at present are all Americanisms in slang.
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