Slang Creates Solidarities

Considering the temper of [Lindley] Murray’s writing, it may come as a surprise that he has nothing to say about slang. One feels confident that he would have dismissed it as a disgracegull aberration. But slang would not have meant much to him. The OED’s first citation for this word in the sense ‘language of a highly colloquial type’ is from 1818. As a term for the special vocabulary of a group of disreputable people, it appears in 1756. Previously what we now think of as slang had been known as jargon, cant, lingo or—less commonly—specialty. Alexander Gil, writing in 1621 in support of a phonetic spelling system, had condemned the ‘cant speech’ of ‘the dirtiest dregs of the wandering beggars’; he described their language as ‘that poisonous and most stinking ulcer of our state,’ and argued that it would not go away ‘until the magistrates have its authors crucified.’

Jargon, originally a term for the chattering of birds, was used censoriously by [Thomas] Hobbes, [Jonathon] Swift and [Samuel] Johnson. It signified the language peculiar to professions—and, less commonly, to cliques and particular ethnic groups. But only one substantial and wide-ranging view of the subject has been produced. This was the work of Francis Grose, the son of a rich Swiss jeweller, who in 1785 had published A Classical Dictionary of a Vulgar Tongue. There had, it was true, been compilations of slang as long ago as the sixteenth century; one early collection appeared in Thomas Harman’s A Caveat or Warening for Common Cursetors (1565), which its author was able to put together as a result of about twenty years’ ill health, during which he would interview any beggar who appeared at his door. It was Grose, though, who made this kind of compendium a credible department of lexicography. He argued, too, that the abundance of English slang was a reflection not of the nation’s corruption, but of its liberty: ‘the freedom of thought and speech, arising from, and privileged by ou constitution, gives a force and poignancy to the expressions of our common people, not to be found under arbitrary governments.’

The noteworthiness of Grose’s work lies partly in its almost clairvoyant interest in what we might now call popular culture. A Classical Dictionary of a Vulgar Tongue was the fruit of a considerable amount of reading and also of numerous nocturnal trips from his favorite Holborn tavern into the nearby slums—accompanied by Batch, his manservant, and later by another friend he called The Guinea Pig. In the Dictionary Grose explains about three thousand words. Among these are items of jargon used by soldiers and sailors, prostitutes and pugilists, tailors and tradesmen. But Grose is not just a collector of pleasing oddments; he argues that slang is central to the life of language, and notes how quickly the language of the street finds its way into politics, as well as into the prose of people writing for magazines.

It will be apparent by now that language plays a central role in establishing our relationships with other people, and this is especially true in the case of slang. For slang, more than any other kind of language, creates solidarities.

—Henry Hitchings

Transcribed by me from pages 128–29 of The Language Wars: A History of Proper English © 2077, NY: Farrar, Straus and Giroux.


Tweet: The OED’s 1st citation for slang—‘language of a highly colloquial type’—is from 1818.
Tweet: The word jargon signified the language peculiar to professions, cliques, & particular ethnic groups.

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