HOW TO SPEAK AND WRITE CORRECTLY by JOSEPH DEVLIN, M.A.
CHAPTER XI Page 2: SLANG
California especially has been most fecund in this class of figurative language. To this State we owe “go off and die,” “don’t you forget it,” “rough deal,” “square deal,” “flush times,” “pool your issues,” “go bury yourself,” “go drown yourself,” “give your tongue a vacation,” “a bad egg,” “go climb a tree,” “plug hats,” “Dolly Vardens,” “well fixed,” “down to bed rock,” “hard pan,” “pay dirt,” “petered out,” “it won’t wash,” “slug of whiskey,” “it pans out well,” and “I should smile.” “Small potatoes, and few in the hill,” “soft snap,” “all fired,” “gol durn it,” “an up-hill job,” “slick,” “short cut,” “guess not,” “correct thing” are Bostonisms. The terms “innocent,” “acknowledge the corn,” “bark up the wrong tree,” “great snakes,” “I reckon,” “playing ‘possum,” “dead shot,” had their origin in the Southern States. “Doggone it,” “that beats the Dutch,” “you bet,” “you bet your boots,” sprang from New York. “Step down and out” originated in the Beecher trial, just as “brain-storm” originated in the Thaw trial.
Among the slang phrases that have come directly to us from England may be mentioned “throw up the sponge,” “draw it mild,” “give us a rest,” “dead beat,” “on the shelf,” “up the spout,” “stunning,” “gift of the gab,” etc.
The newspapers are responsible for a large part of the slang. Reporters, staff writers, and even editors, put words and phrases into the mouths of individuals which they never utter. New York is supposed to be the headquarters of slang, particularly that portion of it known as the Bowery. All transgressions and corruptions of language are supposed to originate in that unclassic section, while the truth is that the laws of polite English are as much violated on Fifth Avenue. Of course, the foreign element mincing their “pidgin” English have given the Bowery an unenviable reputation, but there are just as good speakers of the vernacular on the Bowery as elsewhere in the greater city. Yet every inexperienced newspaper reporter thinks that it is incumbent on him to hold the Bowery up to ridicule and laughter, so he sits down, and out of his circumscribed brain, mutilates the English tongue (he can rarely coin a word), and blames the mutilation on the Bowery.
‘Tis the same with newspapers and authors, too, detracting the Irish race. Men and women who have never seen the green hills of Ireland, paint Irish characters as boors and blunderers and make them say ludicrous things and use such language as is never heard within the four walls of Ireland. ‘Tis very well known that Ireland is the most learned country on the face of the earthâ€”is, and has been. The schoolmaster has been abroad there for hundreds, almost thousands, of years, and nowhere else in the world to-day is the king’s English spoken so purely as in the cities and towns of the little Western Isle.
Current events, happenings of everyday life, often give rise to slang words, and these, after a time, come into such general use that they take their places in everyday speech like ordinary words and, as has been said, their users forget that they once were slang. For instance, the days of the Land League in Ireland originated the word boycott, which was the name of a very unpopular landlord, Captain Boycott. The people refused to work for him, and his crops rotted on the ground. From this time any one who came into disfavor and whom his neighbors refused to assist in any way was said to be boycotted. Therefore to boycott means to punish by abandoning or depriving a person of the assistance of others. At first it was a notoriously slang word, but now it is standard in the English dictionaries.
Politics add to our slang words and phrases. From this source we get “dark horse,” “the gray mare is the better horse,” “barrel of money,” “buncombe,” “gerrymander,” “scalawag,” “henchman,” “logrolling,” “pulling the wires,” “taking the stump,” “machine,” “slate,” etc.
The money market furnishes us with “corner,” “bull,” “bear,” “lamb,” “slump,” and several others.
The custom of the times and the requirements of current expression require the best of us to use slang words and phrases on occasions. Often we do not know they are slang, just as a child often uses profane words without consciousness of their being so. We should avoid the use of slang as much as possible, even when it serves to convey our ideas in a forceful manner. And when it has not gained a firm foothold in current speech it should be used not at all. Remember that most all slang is of vulgar origin and bears upon its face the bend sinister of vulgarity. Of the slang that is of good birth, pass it by if you can, for it is like a broken-down gentleman, of little good to any one. Imitate the great masters as much as you will in classical literature, but when it comes to their slang, draw the line. Dean Swift, the great Irish satirist, coined the word “phiz” for face. Don’t imitate him. If you are speaking or writing of the beauty of a lady’s face don’t call it her “phiz.” The Dean, as an intellectual giant, had a license to do soâ€”you haven’t. Shakespeare used the word “flush” to indicate plenty of money. Well, just remember there was only one Shakespeare, and he was the only one that had a right to use that word in that sense. You’ll never be a Shakespeare, there will never be such anotherâ€”Nature exhausted herself in producing him. Bulwer used the word “stretch” for hang, as to stretch his neck. Don’t follow his example in such use of the word. Above all, avoid the low, coarse, vulgar slang, which is made to pass for wit among the riff-raff of the street. If you are speaking or writing of a person having died last night don’t say or write: “He hopped the twig,” or “he kicked the bucket.” If you are compelled to listen to a person discoursing on a subject of which he knows little or nothing, don’t say “He is talking through his hat.” If you are telling of having shaken hands with Mr. Roosevelt don’t say “He tipped me his flipper.” If you are speaking of a wealthy man don’t say “He has plenty of spondulix,” or “the long green.” All such slang is low, coarse and vulgar and is to be frowned upon on any and every occasion.
If you use slang use the refined kind and use it like a gentleman, that it will not hurt or give offense to any one. Cardinal Newman defined a gentleman as he who never inflicts pain. Be a gentleman in your slangâ€”never inflict pain.