1911 Encyclopædia Britannica/Slang
SLANG, in what is now the usual sense, a general name for the class of words and senses of words, more or less artificial or affected in origin or use, which are not recognized as belonging to the standard vocabulary of the language into which they have been introduced, but have an extensive currency in some section of society either as a means of concealing secrets or as intentionally undignified substitutes for those modes of expression that are employed by persons who value themselves on propriety of speech.
As thus defined, slang includes many varieties of speech, which are current respectively among different sections of the population. The one, however, which most perfectly answers to the definition, and may be regarded as the primary type, is the artificial jargon, partly cryptic and partly facetious, used by vagrants and professional thieves. It is true that the name of slang is now seldom applied to this jargon; it is more commonly designated by its older name of "cant." Nevertheless in the 18th century it was chiefly used in this particular application. The earliest example of the word hitherto discovered occurs in Toldervy's History of Two Orphans, published in 1756. One of the characters in this story is a man who, "in return for the numerous lies which he told, was called the cannon-traveller"; and it is said of him that "he had been upon the town, and knew the slang well." It is not clear whether "slang" here has its modern sense, or whether it means the ways of fast life in London. A more unequivocal instance, two years later in date, is quoted in J. C. Hotten's Slang Dictionary (1864) from a book entitled Jonathan Wild's Advice to his Successor, apparently one of the many catchpenny publications that were called forth by the popularity of Fielding's burlesque romances. No copy of this book is in the British Museum or the Bodleian Library, and inquiries have failed to discover any trace of its existence; but there is no reason to doubt that Hotten had seen it. The passage, as quoted by him, is as follows: "Let proper Nurses be assigned to take care of these Babes of Grace (i.e. young thieves).... The Master who teaches them should be a man well versed in the Cant Language, commonly called the Slang Patter, in which they should by all means excel." Four years later, in 1762, the word is found with a different and now obsolete meaning, in Foote's play The Orators. A fast young Oxford man, invited to attend a lecture on oratory, is asked, "Have you not seen the bills?" He replies,"What, about the lectures? ay, but that's all slang, I suppose." Here the word seems to be equivalent to "humbug." In the 1st edition of Hugh Kelly's comedy, The School for Wives, there is a passage (omitted in some of the later reprints) in which one of a company of sharpers, who pretend to be foreigners and speak broken English, says: "There's a language called slang, that we sometimes talk in.. .. It's a little rum tongue, that we understand among von another." Francis Grose's Dictionary of the Vulgar Tongue (1785) has the entry "Slang, the cant language"; and after this instances of the word are abundant. In the early part of the 19th century it appears in literature chiefly as a general term of condemnation for "low-lived" and undignified modes of expression. It seems probable that the word came from some dialect of the north of England; but this is difficult to establish, as most of the dialect glossaries date from a time long after it had obtained general currency, so that it would escape the notice of the compilers as being outside their proper scope. The English Dialect Dictionary mentions only the sense of "abusive language," which is said to be current in Yorkshire and the Lake Country. Some reason for believing that the word is genuinely dialectal - an inheritance from the language of the Scandinavian settlers in the north of England - is afforded by the coincidence of its uses with those of the modern Norwegian verb slengja (etymologically equivalent to the English "to sling") and related words, as given in the dictionary of Ivar Aasen. Slengja kjeften (literally, to sling the jaw), means to pour out abuse; the compound slengje-ord (ord = word) is explained by Aasen as "a new word without any proper reason," which comes very near to the notion of a "slang word." The English word has, in cant speech, certain applications to matters other than those of language; and although these have not been found recorded at any very early date, they may possibly be old, and may contribute to the determination of the primary sense. Any particular mode of thieving or of making a living by fraudulent means is called a "slang"; and the same term is applied to the particular line of business of a showman or a troupe of strolling players. Further, the word is used adjectively to designate fraudulent weights and measures, and the early slang dictionaries explain the verb slang as meaning "to defraud." The precise relation between these various senses cannot be determined, but they seem to agree in having some reference to what is lawless or irregular, and this general notion may be regarded as having a certain affinity to the meaning of the verb "to sling," with which the word is probably etymologically allied. It is unlikely that the word slang, in the senses here under consideration, has any direct connexion with the homophonous word meaning "a strip of land."
The modern extended application of the term, which is closely paralleled by that of the French synonym argot, is not difficult to account for. In the first place, the boundaries of the world in which slang - in the original sense - is current are somewhat indeterminate. It is, for instance, not easy to draw the line between the peculiar language of "rogues and vagabonds" and that of the lowest order of travelling showmen and strolling players, or between this latter and the strictly analogous body of expressions common to all grades of the histrionic profession. Similarly, the prize-ring, the turf, the gaming-table and all the varieties of "fast" and "Bohemian" life have their own eccentric vocabularies, partly identical with, and in general character altogether resembling, the slang of the criminal and vagrant classes. In the second place, a little consideration is sufficient to show that thieves' cant is only one species of an extensive genus, its specific difference consisting in the unessential circumstance that its use is confined to one particular class of persons.
Although the term "slang" is sometimes used with more or less intentional inexactness, and has often been carelessly defined, the notion to which it corresponds in general use seems to be tolerably precise. There are two principal characteristics which, taken in conjunction, may serve to distinguish what is properly called slang from certain other varieties of diction that in some respects resemble it. The first of these is that slang is a conscious offence against some conventional standard of propriety. A mere vulgarism is not slang, except when it is purposely adopted, and acquires an artificial currency, among some class of persons to whom it is not native. The other distinctive feature of slang is that it is neither a part of the ordinary language, nor an attempt to supply its deficiencies. The slang word is a deliberate substitute for a word of the vernacular, just as the characters of a cipher are substitutes for the letters of the alphabet, or as a nickname is a substitute for a personal name. The latter comparison is the more exact of the two; indeed nicknames, as a general rule, may be accurately described as a kind of slan slang expression, like a nickname, may be used for the purpose of concealing the meaning from uninitiated hearers, or it may be employed sportively or out of aversion to dignity or formality of speech. The essential point is that it does not, like the words of ordinary language, originate in the desire to be understood. The slang word is not invented or used because it is in any respect better than the accepted term, but because it is different. No doubt it may accidentally happen that a word which originates as slang is superior in expressiveness to its regular synonym (much as a nickname may identify a person better than his name does), or that in time it develops a shade of meaning which the ordinary language cannot convey. But when such a word comes to be used mainly on account of its intrinsic merit, and not because it is a wrong word, it is already ceasing to be slang. So long as the usage of good society continues to proscribe it, it may be called a vulgarism; but unless the need which it serves is supplied in some other way, it is likely to find its way into the standard speech.
The account here given of the distinctive characteristics of slang conflicts with the view of those writers who so define the term as to make it include all words and uses of words that are current only among persons belonging to some particular class, trade or profession. But such an extended application of the word is not supported by general usage. It is true that it is not uncommon to apply the name of slang to the technical language of trades and professions, or even of arts and sciences. This, however, is really a consciously metaphorical use, and is intended to convey the imputation that the employment of technical language has no better motive than the desire to be unintelligible to the uninitiated, to or excite admiration by a display of learning. If the imputation were true, the designation would be strictly applicable. Technical and scientific terms may justly be stigmatized as slang when they are used pretentiously without any good reason, but not when they are chosen because, to those who understand them, they afford a clearer, more precise, or more convenient expression of the meaning than is found in the ordinary vocabulary. At the same time, it is true that every trade or profession has a real slang of its own; that is to say, a body of peculiar words and expressions that serve as flippant or undignified substitutes for the terms that are recognized as correct. It happens not infrequently that words of this kind, owing to frequency of use and] the development of specific meanings, lose the character of slang and pass into the category of accepted technicalities.
A class of words that has a certain affinity with slang, though admitting of being clearly distinguished from it, consists of those which are proscribed from the intercourse of reputable society because they express too plainly ideas that are deemed indelicate, or because they are brutally insulting. Such words share with slang the characteristic that they are ordinarily employed only in intentional defiance of propriety; they differ from it in being really part of the original vernacular, and not of an artificial vocabulary which is substituted for it. The customary euphemisms which take the place of these condemned words are, of course, far removed from slang; but the name is strictly applicable to those grotesque metaphors which are sometimes substituted, and emphasize the offensiveness of the notion instead of veiling it.
The known history of European slang begins (leaving out of account the meagre references in German documents hereaf ter to be mentioned) with the "Ballades" of Francois Villon in the 15th century. The French argot of these compositions contains much that is still obscure, but the origin of some of its words is evident enough. Facetious expressions relating to the destined end of the malefactor are prominent. Paroir and montjoye (for which later the less ironical monte a regret was substituted) are nicknames for the scaffold. Acollez, hanged, corresponds to the English "scragged"; the synonymous grup seems to be an onomatopoeic formation suggestive of choking. There are some derivatives formed with the suffix art: riflart is a police-officer, abroieart fog. A few words from foreign languages occur: audinos, prayer, is the Latin audi nos of the litanies; arton, bread, is obviously Greek, and its appearance in the 15th century is somewhat hard to account for. Moller, to eat, may perhaps be the Latin molere to grind. Anse, the ear, is no doubt the Latin ansa, handle. In the 15th century and later the ranks of vagabondage were often recruited from the class of poor students, so that the presence of some words of learned origin in the vocabulary of the vagrant and criminal classes is not surprising. Among the prominent features of later French slang may be noted the use of the suffix mare to form derivatives such as perruquemare, a wig-maker, and the practice of rendering conversation unintelligible to outsiders by tacking on some unmeaning ending to every word.
In Germany the word Rotwalsch (the modern Rotwelsch, still the name for the cant of vagrants) occurs as early as the middle of the 13th century, and during the following century there appear lists of slang terms for various species of malefactors and begging impostors. The earliest attempt at a vocabulary of "Rotwelsch" is that of Gerold Edlibach, compiled about 1490. A second vocabulary, containing nearly the same set of words, is contained in the famous Liber vagatorum, first printed in 1510 in High German; versions in Low German and the dialect of the Lower Rhine appeared shortly afterwards. An edition of this work printed in 1529 has a preface by Martin Luther. The most remarkable feature of the jargon represented in these early glossaries is the large number of Hebrew words that it contains. It is not clear whether this fact indicates that Jews formed a large proportion of the German vagabond class at the beginning of the 16th century; the explanation may be simply that the Hebrew words contributed by Jewish vagrants found acceptance because they were unintelligible to ordinary people. However this may be, the later dictionaries of "Rotwelsch" not only retain most of the Hebrew words found in the earliest authorities, but add greatly to their number. There are some words from Italian, as bregan, to beg, from pregare, and barlen, to speak, from parlare. The language of the gipsies seems to have contributed nothing, nor are there any words from Latin or Greek. Some of the words are ordinary German words used mataphorically, like wetterhan (weathercock) for a hat, zwicker (twitcher) for the hangman, brief (letter) for a playing-card. Others are descriptive compounds such as breitfuss (broad-foot) for a duck or goose, or derivatives formed by means of the suffixes -hart (or -art) and -ling, as grunhart (from gran, green), a field, glathart (from glatt, smooth), a table, fluckart (from flug, flight), a bird, funckart (from funke, spark), fire, flossart (from floss, stream), water, flossling, a fish, lassling (from lassnen to listen), the ear. It is noteworthy that modern Dutch thieves' cant, as presented in the dictionary of I. Teirlinck, is closely similar in its principles of formation, and in many of its actual words, to that of the early German vocabularies.
The earliest English "cant" or "Pedlers' French," as exhibited in R. Copland's The Hye Waye to the Spyttel House (1517), John Awdeley's Fraternitye of Vacabondes (1561), Thomas Harman's Caueat for Cursetours (1567) and various later writers, bears a close. resemblance in its general character to the German Rotwelsch of the Liber vagatorum, the most noteworthy point of difference being the absence of Hebrew words. The suffix corresponding to the -hart and -ling of German slang is -mans, as in lightmans, day, darkmans, night, ruffmans, the woods. The word cheat, a thing (whether this is etymologically connected with the verb to cheat is uncertain), is used to form a great variety of descriptive compounds, such as grunting cheat, a pig, bleting cheat, a sheep, cackling cheat, a cock or capon, mofling cheat, a napkin, smelling cheat, the nose, pratling cheat, the tongue. There are some ordinary English words used as descriptive nicknames for things, as glasyers, eyes, stampes, legs, stampers, shoes, prauncer, a horse, glymmar, fire, lap, buttermilk or whey, high pad, the highway, pek, meat. Obviously of Latin origin are grannam, corn, pannam, bread, cassan, cheese. Commission, a shirt, is from the Late Latin camisia; it afterwards appears shortened to mish. Perhaps boon and bene, good, may be Latin, but a French origin is possible. Vyle, a town, is probably French; deuse a vyle, the country, seems to be a compound of this. A few words seem to be of Dutch or Low German origin, as bung, a purse (Low Ger. pung), kinchin, a child, cranke, a malingerer, and perhaps feague or feak (Low Ger. fegen), which appears in;modern slang as fake. Certainly from this source is the gambling term foist, to palm a die, which has become recognized English in a figurative sense. Harman's list includes a considerable number of words of obscure and perhaps undiscoverable origin, as towre, to see, lowre, money, wyn, a penny, trine, to hang, cofe or cove, a man, mort, a woman. Attempts to discover an etymology for some of these in Romany are unsuccessful. Ken, a house, is used by English gipsies, but may be an importation from cant. Even in later English slang the number of Romany words is surprisingly small; pal, originally meaning brother, is one of the few certain examples.
From the 17th century onwards it has been more and more difficult to distinguish between the cant of thieves and vagrants and the slang of other classes more or less characterized by disorderly habits of life, such as pugilists, the lower orders of strolling players, professional gamblers and persons of all ranks addicted to low pleasures. Many words that were once peculiar to the outcasts from society are now in general slang use. While a few of the words of the "Pedlers' French" of the 16th century have survived to the present or recent times, the majority have been superseded by later inventions. The older slang names of coins or sums of money, for instance, are nearly all obsolete, and their modern synonyms, mostly of obscure origin, cannot be traced very far back. Quid, a guinea. or sovereign, was used in the 17th century; bob, a shilling, bull, a crown piece, tanner, a sixpence, and others, are of 19th-century date. In recent times the vocabulary of low-class slang has obtained several words from Yiddish or Jewish-German, such as gonnof, a thief (Hebrew gannabh as pronounced by German Jews), f oont, a pound (German Pfund), ooftish, contracted to oof, money (from the German auftischen, to regale a person with something).. A peculiar growth of the 19th century is the so-called "back slang," current chiefly among London costermongers, which is a cryptic j argon formed by pronouncing words backwards, as in ecilop or slop for "police," "eno dunop and a flah," one pound and a half, thirty shillings. What is called "riming slang," consisting of such fantastic expressions as mutton-pie for eye, lord of the manor for "tanner," i.e. sixpence, is a jocular invention which does not seem to have had any considerable currency except in the columns of the sporting newspapers.
It is generally admitted that in the United States the currency of slang is wider, and its vocabulary more extensive, than in other English-speaking countries. Indeed, an American encyclopaedia has the entry "Slang, see Americanisms." The two things, of course, are not identical, and some of those American expressions that are in England regarded and used as slang have no such character in their native country. But the invention of new words of grotesque sound and ludicrously descriptive point is a favourite form of humour in America, and the freedom with which these coinages are used in many newspapers contrasts with the more sober journalistic style usual in England. Much of the current slang of America is used only in the land of its origin, and it is not uncommon to meet with newspaper articles of which an untravelled Englishman would hardly be able to understand a sentence, and on which the dictionaries of Americanisms afford little light. The American contribution to the current slang of the British Isles consists mainly of words and expressions that are recommended by their oddity, such as "scallywag," "absquatulate," "skedaddle," "vamoose" (from the Span. vamos, let us go), and words relating to political life, such as "mugwump" (originally an Indian word meaning "great chief"), "carpet-bagger," and "gerrymander." Australia, also, as may be seen from the novels of Rolf Boldrewood and other writers, possesses an ample store of slang peculiar to itself, but of this "larrikin" is the only word that has found its way into general use in the mother-country.
To the philologist the most interesting question connected with slang is that relating to the importance of the share which it has in the development of ordinary language. It is probably true that the standard vocabulary of every modern European language includes some words that were originally slang; but there is certainly much exaggeration in the view that has been sometimes maintained, that slang is one of the chief sources from which languages obtain additions to their means of expression. The advocates of this view point to the fact that a certain number of Italian and French words descend, not from the Latin words of identical meaning, but from other words which in vulgar Latin were substituted for these by way of jocular metaphor. Thus the Italian testa, Fr. tete, head, represent the Lat. testa, pot or shell; the Fr. joue, cheek, corresponds by strict phonetic law to the Late Lat. gabata, porringer. It may be conceded that in these instances, and a few others, words of popular Latin slang have become the accepted words in the languages descended from Latin. But the number of instances of this kind is, after all, inconsiderable in comparison with the extent of the whole popular vocabulary; and the conditions under which the Romanic languages were developed (from Latin as spoken by peoples mainly of non-Latin origin) are somewhat abnormal. A consideration of the essential characteristics of slang, as previously explained in this article, will show that it is only to a limited extent that it is likely to be absorbed into the general language. It has been pointed out that slang words, for the most part, do not express notions which ordinary language cannot express quite as efficiently. This fact implies a noteworthy limitation of the capabilities of slang as a source from which the deficiencies of a language can be supplied. As the prevailing tendency of words is toward degradation of meaning, one of the most frequently recurring needs of language is that of words of dignified and serious import to take the place of those which have become cheapened through ignoble use. It is obvious that slang can do nothing to meet this demand. The less frequent want of terms of contempt or reprobation may, of course, be supplied by adoptions from slang; and in the exceptional instances in which, as has already been indicated, a slang word has no synonym in ordinary speech, it may very naturally find its way into recognized use.
On the whole, the debt of modern standard English to slang of all kinds is probably smaller than most persons would suppose. A few words have been furnished by thieves' cant, and, as might be expected, most of these relate to criminal or vicious practices. No one will be surprised to learn that rogue and bully, and the verbs to filch and to foist, are derived from this source. On the other hand, one would hardly have expected to find "drawers, hosen" in Harman's vocabulary of "Pedlers' French" in 1567. The word soon came into general use, probably because (though not euphemistic in original intention) it suited the same affected notion of delicacy which led to the substitution of "shift" for "smock." There are some words, such as prig, to steal, which were once vagrant slang, but are now universally understood and widely used, without, however, losing their "slangy" character. The utmost that can be said is that they are on the debatable ground between slang and merely jocular language.
Although it often happens that words belonging to the more reputable kinds of slang undergo some improvement in status - acquiring some degree of toleration in refined circles where they would once have been considered offensive - there are few instances in which such a word has come to be regarded as unexceptionable English. One example of this is prig (a distinct word from the term of thieves' cant already mentioned), which originally denoted a person over-scrupulous in his attire and demeanour, but has now acquired a different sense, in which it supplies a real need of the language. Other words that were once slang but are so no longer are mob, humbug, tandem (apparently a university joke founded on "at length" as the dictionary rendering of the Latin adverb).
Bibliography. - English: Most of the authorities for the early history of English vagrant slang are reprinted in vol. ix. of the Extra Series of the Early English Text Society, edited by E. Viles and F. J. Furnivall (1869), which contains John Awdeley's The Fraternitye of Vacabondes (from the edition of 1 575), Thomas Harman's Caueat for Commen Cursetours (1567-1573), and The Groundwork of Conny-catching (anonymous, 1592), besides extracts from other early works which furnish glossaries. The Dictionary of the Canting Crew, by B. E. (no date, but printed at the end of the 17th century; photographic reprint by J. S. Farmer), is valuable as containing the earliest known record of many words still in use; while mainly treating of thieves' and vagrants' language, it includes much that belongs to slang in the wider sense. Among the many later works, only the following need be mentioned here: Francis Grose's Classical Dictionary of the Vulgar Tongue (3rd ed., 1796); The Slang Dictionary, anonymous, but understood to be by the publisher, J. C. Hotten (new edition, 1874), a work of considerable merit, with an excellent bibliography; A Dictionary of Slang, Jargon and Cant, by A. Barrere and C. G. Leland (1889); and Slang and its Analogues, by J. S. Farmer and W. E. Henley (1890-1904), which surpasses all similar works in extent of vocabulary and abundance of illustrative matter, though the dates and even the text of the quotations are often inaccurate. For the slang of public schools see The Winchester Word-book, by R. G. K. Wrench (1901) and The Eton Glossary, by C. R. Stone (1902).
French: The earliest systematic treatment of argot is found in La Vie genereuse des Mattois, Gueux Bohemiems et Cagoux, by Pechon de Ruby (a pseudonym), which went through several editions in the early part of the 17th century, and has been reprinted in 1831 and 1868. The slang of the 15th century is discussed in Le Jargon au quinzieme siecle, by Auguste Vitu (1883), which includes an edition of the Ballades of Villon; in Le Jargon et jobelin de F. Villon, by Lucien Schone (1887), and in L' Argot ancien, by L. Sainean (1907). Francisque Michel's Etudes de philologie comparee sur l'argot (1856) is important for its rich collection of material and its copious references to sources. Later works deserving attention are Dictionnaire de la langue verte, by Alfred Delvau (2nd ed., 1867), and Dictionnaire de l'argot, by Loredan Larchey (1889). For modern slang, taken in a very comprehensive sense, the chief authority is Lucien Rigaud, Dictionnaire de l'argot moderne (1881). For the special slang of printers, see Eugene Boutmy, Dictionnaire de l'argot des typographes (1883).
German: An admirable collection of the original documents for the history of thieves' and vagrant slang from the earliest period has been published by F. Kluge, under the title Rotwelsch (1901). An earlier book of great importance is Ave-Lallemant, Das deutsche Gaunertum (1858). For modern popular slang see A. Genthe, Deutsches Slang (1892). University slang is ably treated in Deutsche Studentensprache, by F. Kluge (1895).
Dutch: Isidor Teirlinck, Woordenboek van Bargoensch (1886).
Italian and Spanish: F. Michel, in Etudes de philologie comparee sur l'argot (see above), gives a vocabulary of Italian thieves' slang from Nuovo modo da intendere la lingua zerga (1619, reprinted at the end of the Trattato dei Bianti, 1828), and one of Spanish slang from Romances de Germania (ed. 6, shortly before 1800). For Spanish thieves' language see also A. Besses, Argot espanol (Barcelona, no date); a large proportion of the words given by this writer is gipsy.