The Mystery of Words/Part 1/Chapter 8

The Mystery of Words  (1924)  by Ralcy Husted Bell
Part I, Chapter VIII



From a purely literary point-of-view, few studies would prove more curious and fruitful than the study of slang. It is a whole language within a language, a sort of sickly excrescence, an unhealthy graft which has produced a vegetation, a parasite which has its roots in the old Gallic trunk, and whose sinister foliage crawls all over the side of language. This is what may be called the first, the vulgar aspect of slang. But, for those who study the tongue as it should be studied, that is to say, as geologists study the earth, slang appears like a veritable alluvial deposit. According as one digs a longer or shorter distance into it, one finds in slang, below the old popular French, Provencal, Spanish, Italian, Lavantine, that language of the Mediterranean ports, English and German, the Romance language in its three varieties, French, Italian, and Romance Latin, and finally Basque and Celtic, a profound and unique formation. A subterranean edifice erected in common by all the miserable. Each accursed race has deposited its layer, each suffering has dropped its stone there, each heart has contributed its pebble. A throng of evil, base, or irritated souls, that have traversed life and have vanished into eternity, linger there almost entirely visible beneath the form of some monstrous word.

Victor HugoLes Misérables.

One of the elementary principles of linguistics is the tendency and ability of every living language to absorb words and phrases from outside sources, including other languages, without losing its individuality and its essential characteritsics. There is no fact better known than the fact that in all languages additions are continually made to the vocabulary by the legitimization of slang and dialectic words and phrases. Among the thousands of slang words that live for a day, there are some that have sprung into favor and have become immortal. Now these words, when once formally adopted, are just as much a part of the body of a language as are the other words in accepted use in that language before their advent. Just as the Latin language adopted and was enriched by words imported into Rome from the Roman provinces and colonies, so have modern languages become likewise enriched and enlarged by importations from distant points. The comparative philologist and the educated linguist do not deny, but recognize, the fact that evolution and devolution are both continually going on in every language, causing more or less marked changes which become appreciable at the end of a sufficiently long period of time; neither would they deny that, when the transformation due to these causes has become sufficiently great through dialectic segregations, the resultant language—which is at first only a dialect—may, in time, become a distinct language. But insistence is laid upon the fact that the transformation of a dialect into a language is a process that usually has required centuries. The transformation of the original Latin language into the modern Latin languages, so called, which include Italian, Portuguese, Spanish, Catalan, Provencal, Romance, Roumanian, etc., illustrates the slowness of the process. These languages remained Latin dialects until the fifth or sixth century. In fact, in the Italian, for instance, the vulgar Latin dialect became Italian only in the thirteenth century, and then mainly through the initiative and works of Dante.

Dr. C. O. MaillouxExcerpt from a letter to the N. Y. Herald.

Slang has no country, it owns the world; and if language exists beyond our little globe, slang is punctuated by the stars. Sometimes it is called dialect; but dialect is less elemental than slang, which is nearer universal. Slang is the voice of the god that dwells in the people. It is a spiritual law. It is the coarsest of crude matter. it is the rude artisan that carves ugliness into beauty. It is the drunken workman that defaces his work. It is the jade who defiles a statue. It may be anything.

Slang, argot! Nothing else in language is more strange, more strong, uglier, or more beautiful. It is the element in language that lives most, lasts longest, and decays quickest. It is vital. It belches words which become miasma. It spews words that fall into the gutter and disappear—cruel, warty, misshapen, monstrous! words that are ashamed in the light—words that are the seed of hideous fungi growing in darkness from decay. Slang also drops words that quiver, palpitate in the light—words that strike hard, that smell of sulphur and trail smoke.

Slang is the fetid breath of the sewer—an unclean exhalation of the underworld. It is a stench. Some of its words are pustulous, infectious, horrible: some are criminals, others merely the stupid monsters of ugliness—idiotic ejaculations. Some are only unclean; others are solely vicious. Taken together, they form the vocabulary of the Good God and the Great Beast that dwell side by side in humankind.

To some of us language is like a landscape: various, diverse, mysterious. There are shining peaks and blue skies, and over all the glory of color. There are jungles, also, and dismal swamps. These are alive with things. The leaves rustle, claws protrude, fangs gleam, eyes glare: everything threatens; the vitality is hideous.

Slang is one of the most interesting of all linguistic phenomena. There is nothing strange about it as a sociologic phenomenon. For truly, “it is the language of wretchedness”; but it also is the speech of joy. It is everywhere and it glides through everything: commerce, business, the professions, gambling and other forms of thievery, intimate conversation, sports and play, love-making and war, art, science, and religion. Now and then it becomes stable; oftener it is ephemeral—too full of dialect’s local color to be intelligible generally as slang.

The mother talking to her babe speaks the argot of angels. The murderer hisses to his pal the slang of hell. The author writes to-day in the argot of yesterday; the poet sings in it; the philosopher thinks in it; and only he who has mother-wit enough to pray in it, may win the ear of the Good God, or the frown of the Great Beast.

Much of the slang of Shakespeare’s day has become good idiom in this. Shakespeare, in his most intellectual play, lets Hamlet indulge freely in “quips and cranks and wanton wiles.” This is natural. The spring of laughter and the fountain of tears flow from the same cavern of the heart. That which was slang to the frequenters of the Globe is standard English to those of the modern theatre. Such words as mob, boss, cab, taxi, car, stunt, dope, boob, jazz, and so forth, may all find their place shortly in respectable society. Cervantes and Le Sage, denuded of slang, would cut sorry figures in literature. The writer of to-day who would be read to-morrow should write in slang.

Slang is multifarious in kind. One is heroic, daring, bold, dazzling. Another is low, crawling, poisonous, and vile. At the bottom of misery and misfortune lies a reptilian instinct ever ready to strike at “‘fortunate facts and reigning rights.” The venom of this instinct is slang. The venom is an excretion of social deformities and human infirmities—ideas are congenitally diseased; they are born exuding foul humors; these humors infect manners and distort events. Civilization has a skin-disease; it is covered with eruption; it is subject to boils and it is eroded by ulcers. The boil may be a king, the ulcer a financier, the burrowing microbe a thief, and the itch may be a liar or a social climber with a well-paid publicity staff. There are blistering marriages, flaying divorces, abrasions called battles, and burns called public men—many of them worse than “public women.” Some of these ills are superficial, and others are symptoms of deep-seated disease. All these things produce suffering. Suffering causes wretchedness; and wretchedness speaks slang.

Who shall stop his ears to slang when it issues from hungry mouths—from hearts that suffer till they hate—from womanhood torn by agony or drunk on sensual joy?

Slang issues from the two mill-stones: stolid cruelty above and mad pain below. Hatred has its hiss. Iniquities have their howl. The quivering multitude has its voice—for the poor can not be deprived of their sole protest. The hiss, the howl, the voice—all coalesce into speech—this speech is slang.

The bludgeons of the law, the devastations of power, fall on the innocent as well as on the guilty. Misfortunes make us democratic. There is a democracy in the rags of misery. Democracy fraternizes the victims of that stony severity called charity; it unites the hearts that bleed and the eyes that weep; it swells in the rebellion of curses; and it hovers over all the evil diseases of our civilization. This democracy speaks slang. Thus slang is the ebullition on the surface of the people, and it has its parallel deep within the heart. Therefore history can not be written without regard to slang.

Whatever else he may be, man is a material spheroid whose spiritual center is consciousness. Perhaps everything else is environment; and, so far as consciousness is concerned, the environment is the relationship between ideas. The ideas vary from unseen atoms to constellations of shining stars. They all are reflected in slang. They are expressed in argot. They live narrowly in dialect. But consciousness is of two kinds: the radiant and the black. One gives out light and warmth as some divine orb. The other lives in the shadow of a devilish, dead sun, and therefore it exhales darkness. The luminosity and the warmth of the one, the darkness and the woe of the other, express themselves in slang. Nothing could be more mysterious; for from some inexplicable synthesis of the two, genius is born.

Joseph Wright, M.A., Ph.D., D.C.L., of the University of Oxford, compiled a work of many thousand words entitled “The English Dialect Dictionary, Being the Complete Vocabulary of all Dialect Words Still in use, or known to have been in use During the last Two Hundred Years.” The work is great, incomplete as it is. It is a kind of sacred book. It reveals the decrees of fate to the elect; that is to say, to those who think. To one wise enough to understand, it unfolds the Law; and therefore it discovers the wisdom of the prophets. It preserves for us “the tongue of those who sit in darkness.” It presents a riddle which read one way, spells shameless metaphor; and if read another way, it gives the syntax of poetry. Here, in the words of Villon, sont les neiges d’antan.[1] Here are the weeds of yesterday, the flowers of to-morrow. Here we may trace origins through philological processes; and here we are shocked at words that leapt full-armored from the brain of man as Minerva from the brain of Jove.

These immediate, spontaneous, mysterious words are startling. Were they born without parents; that is to say, without etymology, analogy, derivatives? What were the hidden links of thought or suggestion connecting them with others that went before? Were they born of popular madness? Are they the eruptions, the lava, the flame and ash of language?

As we have seen, law is an invariable relation existing between series of phenomena. The changes in grammar maintain, in general, a tendency toward simplification. This tendency also is called a law. Gradually prepositions take the place of case-terminations of nouns; articles denote genders; pronouns indicate persons; and verb-tenses give way to auxiliaries. This is called the law of specialization. The mind struggles to express its ideas with increasing ease and clearness. This illuminates the law and, in a way, it accounts for slang.

Thus is language subject to transformation; and each transformation is the result of new forms supplanting the old. The process is not uniform. Parts of speech which embarrass the tongues of the many, persist for a time in serving the tongues of the few; in time these parts perish as other forms more easily slip into their places. The newer forms usually do not at once rise to the dignity of those supplanted; but time and usage beautify many which, fathering others, disappear. This continual process is called the evolution of language. Slang is a strong element in the process.

As the servant of man, language has acquired a large part of his moral possessions as well as a stewardship of the most precious of his material property. Slowly through many centuries, language has assumed this power and made these acquisitions. The study of language must include, therefore, something more than orthographic change, grammatic loss, and historic speculation. It must deal with the phenomena of the mind, and it must approach them through the field of human interest.

Through the science of language, we assemble data on subjects enabling us to make rules that shall help us in our most practical affairs. We discover laws that enlighten us in various ways, but particularly in the method employed, consciously or not, for the modification and the preservation of the most important instrument ever invented. This science enables us to discredit with reason a good deal that has been written on the subject of language. It permits us to see the fallacy of the contention that perfected language was indigenous to prehistoric human soil; that as soon as the soil became productive of cultivated literature, decadence in language became active; and that this was the rule. The mythical “fall” of man is equalled only by the “fall” of his language.

Language is at once physiological, physical, and psychological. Orthoëpy largely is physiological. Psychic phenomena transform and otherwise modify speech; and these phenomena are as active to-day as ever. Ceaselessly, intelligence and ignorance work side by side as a team in the modifying of our tongue. Slowly, almost imperceptibly, and quite paradoxically, they shape it into an engine more and more capable for its purposes. Ignorance and Wisdom are the two gods of destiny. The collective human will, a vast underlying, impersonal power, is a potent factor in this process: a factor that has been ignored and even denied by students of speech. This will everywhere is present, and ever busy changing, mutilating, repairing, and transforming language. Countless millions of efforts are made every day to express a little more clearly than language permits, those ideas which the mind seeks to utter. Millions of these efforts mutilate whilst trying to simplify grammar; millions combine to form the crude and simpler phrases of slang; millions of efforts hack away at an adverb until it is trimmed down to a preposition. In this continual process countless individuals combine all unwittingly against existing forms of speech. Numberless obscurities, swarms of failures precede the nobler successes. The process is psychologic in which masses of people collaborate.

Slang is rich in figures of speech. Metaphor hangs over it as an iridescent cloud. In the darker depths of the cloud savage lightnings dart. Smiling phrases of picturesque speech flash out and disappear, leaving us puzzled.

There is refuge in cunning, as the diplomatic element of language so well exemplifies. Slang is so diplomatic that usually as soon as it is understood it changes. The greater part of it is nascent and ever-changing. Words and phrases disappear for a century and suddenly reappear. To study slang is to uncover the heart of man from the débris of the past. The convict speech of the last century becomes the standard of excellence in this. Felony becomes respectable and boasts of heraldry. The great soul of mankind is a tumbling sea of light and darkness. What is its destiny? We think of it and shudder. The shudder is slang.

Slang is endowed with perpetual and disreputable youth. The paradox of it is: if it survive youth it becomes admirable idiom. Slang is emotive, symbolic, intellectual. It is the most entrancing element of language, because it displays so many unsuspected and diverse forms of thought. It is the mirror of human character: traits of the populace are set forth as by reflection from fragments. Slang retains fugitive moans and furtive smiles. If we were wise enough, we should be able to read in it an explanation of human misery, and perhaps the source of happiness. It should tell us the reason why the children of men are tortured for their heritage of feeling. It might even explain the absence of compassion in the scheme of things.

  1. “Antan—ante annum—is a word of Thunes slang, which signified the past year (the yester year), and by extension, formerly.” (Hugo.)