Charlotte Brontë liked to let her hair down linguistically from time to time. In an unpublished piece of early fiction, she imagines a scene at a horse race in which the owner of the defeated favorite suspects that his horse was doped. Ned Laury introduces an underworld informer, Jerry Sneak—the man who interfered with the horse—but demands: “Who’ll provide the stumpy, the blunt, the cash as it were to pay for the liquor that cousin of mine will require before he peaches?”
This kind of “flash” slang was doubtless not what the Brontë family used at tea in Haworth parsonage; but it was disseminated through magazine articles that offered readers a vicarious taste of vulgar vocabulary. Modern viewers of Mafia movies who, in turn, pepper their conversation with references to people being “whacked” by “wiseguys” in the “waste management business” are engaged in the same verbal tourism.
But what counts as slang? Where does it come from? And why does it exert such a powerful hold on the middle--class imagination? Jonathon Green sets out to answer these questions in the course of charting the development of slang as it is recorded in literature, from medieval beggar-books to World War II soldiers’ pornography.
Perhaps appropriately, “slang” has proved a slippery word for dictionary-makers to trace. As Green points out, although the word is used in a variety of contexts from the 1750s to mean “a line of work,” “nonsense,” and as a verb, “to swindle” or “to banter with,” no formal attempt was made to pin down its origins until 1859, and no etymology has been proven. It may derive from Scandinavian languages: In Norwegian, sleng means “an invention, device, strategem,” and a slengjenamm is a nickname; in Swedish, slanger means “to gossip.” The notion of “slinging” as “throwing” may also be relevant: slang as a set of words hurled into the world. Nobody really knows.
Green, however, has a strong view of where slang originates and why. It is, in his view, a product of the city. It can absorb dialect words and those of professional jargons, but its role is distinct. Slang, he argues, exists as a counter-language, a “language that says no.” It is necessarily oppositional to “standard English” and is spoken to reinforce a community that needs to express itself, often in coded fashion, in a vocabulary that signals its disregard for polite norms.
Some of the earliest written records we have of slang are in books that profess to warn the reader against the cant used by professional criminals and false beggars to evade detection by law-abiding citizens. This genre of book flourished between the 14th and the 16th centuries and endured in various guises into the modern era. Travelers were warned to be on their guard against the Prigman, who walked with a stick in his hand “like an idle person,” but used his implement to steal drying clothes from hedges; the Abraham Man, who feigned madness in order to solicit financial aid; and the Courtesy-man, who inveigled his way into victims’ homes, helping himself to their property. The wary were also alerted to “moochers” (petty thieves), and the strategems used by prostitutes and their pimps to “cross-bite” their targets, encouraging the punter to pay for his pleasure before appearing in the guise of an enraged father or brother to beat and rob him.
One of the questions such books raise is whether the slang they “record” was, in fact, accurate or wholly invented by the author. Hypocrisy is written into the fabric of the text—the “warning” against roguery is clearly also an invitation to the reader of higher social standing to participate imaginatively in the criminal conversation, to be thrilled by its threat and titillated by its rudeness. Having such words in our own mouths (whether voiced or not) is a way of being tickled by the roughness of someone else’s tongue, of shivering at the lewdness and violence of their whisper in our own ears.
Though guides to thieves’ cant were gradually replaced by 19th-century accounts of “flash” language, the two-faced attitude to slang that they display remained typical. Charles Dickens, in Oliver Twist (1838), used some 200 slang terms to give Fagin’s den the feel of a real underworld hideout. Readers reveled in this language; copies of the book circulated even among real pickpockets. But Oliver, despite growing up in the workhouse, is never allowed to use a slang expression; as a born gentleman, he instinctively speaks purely. It is the proof of his incorruptible innocence. In his magazine Household Words, Dickens published an essay on slang, probably by George Augustus Sala. The 1853 article expressed the view that either slang should be “banished, prohibited” or that there should be a New Dictionary that would