The Slang Dictionary. Published by Chatto and Windus. 1894.“The Slang Dictionary” from 1894 is the perfect antidote to break the fairy spell of my last three Darwin posts. With this book, I enter the world of criminals, vagabonds, hawkers and the street-wise, so no more floating about on gossamer wings. I now need to be ‘fly’, stay on my toes and keep my ‘glasyers’ (eyes) peeled.
It is a real eye-opener, just how many words we assume are achingly modern, when in fact, they originate from the 1800's or even the 1700's. Slang has been around for far longer than we think. It is basically condensed choice expressions that sum things up in a nutshell; sharp one-liners that slice through niceties. Bawdy, mocking, irreverent or cruel, slang is often very inventive and sometimes hilarious.
‘Bad’ meaning ‘good’ has been used since 1897, ‘Dude’ first appeared in the 1870’s, and ‘Fly’ (a word associated with hip hop meaning smart, knowing and aware) was a word being used in London 200 years ago, as recorded in the 1811 edition of Groses’s “Classical Dictionary of the Vulgar Tongue. ” While back in 1755, Dr Johnson in his “Dictionary of the English Language” defined ‘Rap’ as ‘To utter with hasty violence.’ So rapping is not so cool or modern after all.
The actual word ‘slang’ was first seen in print around 1800, but would have been used in speech long before that. In England it was commonly known as ‘Cant’ , in South Africa, ‘Cuze-cat’, In France, ‘Argot’ and in Italy, ‘Gergo’. To be precise, Cant is actually the old secret language of gipsies. And whereas Cant is old, Slang is modern to the times, because it is ever-changing. Cant was formed for purposes of secrecy. Slang, though it has a tendency to be used for secrecy too, is more used to give a sense of belonging to a small group. It’s often difficult to pinpoint the origins of a slang term, as they are used by a small subculture, before entering mainstream usage. It was originally considered to be the language of foreigners or criminals, but by the 1900’s, slang began to be used by writers, as its surprising and novel effect, enriched the language. In “Defence of Slang” in 1901, G.K.Chesterton wrote “All slang is metaphor, and all metaphor is poetry.”
The poet Carl Sandburg described slang as “language that takes off its coat, spits on its hands and goes to work.”
Not everyone approved of slang. In Webster’s original 1828 dictionary it was described as “low vulgar unmeaning language.” There was disapproval from general society which is unsurprising, as slang was, and still is, a rebellious poke at the mainstream. Slang often comes from the street, and carries with it the qudos of being in a secret club; a special minority in the know, although when it makes its way into common currency it quickly loses its alluring edge. Marketing moguls, however, have grabbed onto the flying mane of slang, and are now riding this horse for all its worth, as they continually try to come up with their own new words and phrases in an attempt to be the new cool, in the hope of selling more of their product for more.
Yet slang continues to be a way for the verbal vanguard of our society (and then for the rest of us) to use language descriptively, or figuratively, and can still pack a punch and startle, as new words are continually filtering in, and changing our language over time.
So, enough of the ‘gyb’ let’s get down to the hawkery; as well as the above 1894 edition, we also have a 1925 edition in stock, which both also include lists of back slang and rhyming slang. In addition, we have a 1933 “Slang Today and Yesterday” by Eric Partridge, an undated “The American Thesaurus of Slang” by Lester Berrey, a 1945 edition of “Roll on my Twelve”, short stories of the Royal Navy with a glossary of naval slang terms, and a modern 2008 “Dictionary of Tommies’ Songs and Slang, 1914-18.” So whether you want to talk like a hawker, a street-wise American, an old army recruit, or just be utterly fascinated by our rich and varied language, we have the perfect book for you here in the Darwin Rare Books Room. And none of these will set you back in ‘sugar and honey’ much more than a ‘bottle of spruce’, a ‘castle rag’, an ‘Abraham’s willing’, a Camden Town’ or a ‘rogue and villain.’ And if you don’t know what I’m talking about, you’ll just have to buy the book!