In honour (?) of Valentine’s Day, I offer another slightly amended wander down the primrose path I trod with The Dabbler five years or so ago. The piece, as originally titled, was named ‘No Words for Love in Slang’. Well, no hearts and flowers, anyway. Please read on:
For those who wish cross-reference to GDoS, all combinations with ‘love’ can be found here unless otherwise noted.
I tried to write a musical once. I had lunched well, couldn’t face the database and it served to counterfeit work. It was called – goodness, how did you guess – Slang! I forget the plot – which is always the problem: I can sketch the puppets but can never make them dance – and it came to nothing. I composed, well, doodled, what I laughingly termed some lyrics. There was only one that was passable. It was called ‘There’s No Word for “Love” in Slang’. As I recall, the hero (poor, honest and resolutely foul-mouthed) sang it on his way to meet the heroine (rich, daughter of a grasping, snobbish papa, and forbidden on pain of disinheritance any non-standard syllables). You can see why I didn’t finish it. But the song title was correct. Because there isn’t.
Valentine’s Day comes every year and may bring many a surprise (not least its definitions in slang), but one thing is wholly predictable: no troths will have been plighted on behalf of the counter-language. Slang remembers the unfortunate Valentine’s end: one does not attain martyrdom without…being martyred. So too the concept of ‘love’ at the vocabulary’s hands. Of course, if one searches for ‘love’ as a headword, one finds several. Though none, I would note, a verb. There is love as in ‘love of a…’ which is a term of praise kindred to duck, as in ‘duck of …’ and tends to apply to small children or else items of clothing: hats, dresses, although Walter, he of that multi-volumed stroke book My Secret Life, recalls how, on holiday, his hosts offered to ‘get me a love of an Italian boy to bugger.’ And there is the cry of Lord love a duck! which combines them. But it should surprise no-one that love is usually found in compounds, and that in the bulk of those compounds the word is substituting for ‘sex’. Thus these, for the penis, which of which at least some seem to have escaped from heavy metal, or at least a Spinal Tap tribute band: love bone, love dart, love gun, love hammer, love muscle, love pump, love rod, love staff, lovesteak, love stick, love torpedo, love truncheon and love warrior (Not mention corporal love, which fleshy non-com ‘stands to attention’). If one has one genital than one must have its opposite number. Here it is: the love box, love canal, love crack, love flesh, love glove, love hole, love lane (and thus take a turn on Love Lane or on Mount Pleasant, to have sex), lovelips, love’s cabinet, love seat and the love shack which can equally efficiently multitask as the place a man keeps for seductions and as an object of sexual desire (who can also, lord help them, be a love muffin) and conquest. The fountain or treasury of love work too.
Nor are we done with the licentious list: love apples, grenades and spuds are testicles; the love button is the clitoris, love rug the female pubic hair, love custard and love juice semen, and the love envelope, a condom. Love handles (the idea being that one can hold on to them during sex) represent the excess flesh around a portly stomach that may be seen in a kinder light by those who appreciate the Rubensesque figure. There is the love bug, which in this context stands for VD rather than VW, as in Hollywood’s twee Herbie. And, how could we forget, the love machine is a what an older synonymy termed the ‘town bull.’
Love’s lexis is not all sexual. There are always the drugs: a love affair (punning on slang’s nicknames) is a speedball, i.e. a mixture of heroin (‘boy’) and cocaine (‘girl’). The love drug, plain and simple, is MDMA or Ecstasy, love weed marijuana and pure love LSD. Love curls represented a hairstyle in which the hair is cut short and worn low over the forehead, love-pot a drunkard. Perhaps slang’s take is best summed up in love letter, an American usage of the 1940s defined either as a bullet or as some form of hard projectile thrown at a human target. And for the love of Mike! (who can also be Heaven! holy Buddha! Jupiter! Michael Angelo! Moses! Pete (and Alf)! Peter the hermit! and Polly Simpkins!) is an exclamation of exasperation or surprise.
One can expand the search, but can one render the definitions more affectionate? No. Love and kisses, rhyming on ‘the missus’ at least suggests a tinge of harmony, but love and marriage, as ordained by a number of crooners, is merely a carriage, while other rhymes offer love and hate (weight), God-love-her (one’s mother) and light of love (a prison governor), and never forget that this last, un-rhymed, means a whore.
Last chance: definitions containing ‘love’. Excluding those that include ‘affair’. Slang resists moderation and passion, even obsession are the rule. Not much improvement here. Do one’s balls on, busted on, collared on, dead set on, daffy, dotty, doughy, drop one’s ovaries (a gay term as it happens, at least in South Africa), fall for, have it for, hung up on, gone a million, nuts on, potty about, snowed over, soft on, spoons on, stuck on, go turtles on (‘turtle dove’ = love) and wrapped. Is it me, or do other also fail to hear much in the way of hearts and flowers? Half of them, after all, are synonyms for ‘mad’. As for sugar on and sweet on, it is not merely my diabetes that shudders.
I give up. Slang and love use single beds, or draw a line with what used to be known as the Dutch wife, i.e. a bolster (though modern use has redefined the compound as a blow-up ‘love doll’). I gave up the musical too. Let it not be said, however, that my creative fantasies are at an end. I see…the hard-boiled slang lexicographer. ‘They call me Lex, lady, Lex Argot. Argot’s the name — etymology’s my game’. No guns, just a vast and heavy book. And maybe the cute and of course a sassy lesbian mixed-race sidekick, who speaks only in Multi-ethnic London English. Or rhyming slang. ‘There are 130,000 words in the naked dictionary: this has not really been one of them.’