Green’s Dictionary of Slang News

January 2018 Update & Hero of Slang 7: Edward Bradley

Welcome to the fifth and latest update to the online version of Green’s Dictionary of Slang, the first to appear in what is now the second year of the  dictionary’s life as a website.

 

As ever, some statistics: research over the last three months has added 294 new slang terms, 376 entries have been predated as to their currently recorded ‘first use’ and nearly 3,300 citations – including ante-dates, inter-dates and post-dates to reflect the continuing use of many terms –  have been uploaded. The database currently offers 54,791 headwords (within which are nested over 133,000 discrete words and phrases, underpinned by a total of 630,000 citations). All of this new material can be seen by subscribers; the changes that are reflected by the predates  are also shown in alterations in the approximate dating used in the absence of citations: for instance ‘late 19C’ to ‘early 19C’, ‘1980s+’ back to ‘1940s+’, and so on. But as ever, for those who want or need to access the detailed heart of the data, we have to recommend a subscription.

 

For an overview, in chronological order, all users of the dictionary can go here. This uses the same software as the Timelines of Slang. As usual the research has focused largely on newspaper databases, notably that held by the British Library, the US Library of Congress and, for Australia, Trove. These, by their nature, tend to look backwards in time, but there is also an on-going accretion of up-to-date slang.

 

New terms are marked in red, ante-dates in blue. The format has been improved: entries now link to the specific part of an entry, its sense and where pertinent its homonym number. Unfortunately the software does not permit click-through access (this is in development) , but users will be able to see which part of an entry has improved.

 

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Given the lack of focus on a single area of slang over the past quarter, I offer in place of my usual disquisition, Hero of Slang 7 (slightly augmented from the original version as published on line by the Dabbler in 2011). In this case the star is the Reverend Edward Bradley, best-known by his literary pseudonym ‘Cuthbert Bede’.

 

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Heroes and Heroines of Slang 6: Sir Thomas Urquhart

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The Translator: Sir Thomas Urquhart

 

Of the many canards that assail the object of the slang lexicographer’s toil and linguistic affections is that of verbal inadequacy, the mockery by the loquaciously well-endowed of the size of one’s lexis. To use slang, they sneer, is to demonstrate communicative inadequacy. You and whose dictionary, ripostes the wounded drudge, brandishing 133,000 slang variations. The counter-language is in fact vastly inventive, creative some might suggest, given its admitted focus on certain themes, to the point of satiety.

 

It is true that this may not have been apparent in slang’s earliest days, when faint hearts omitted it from the printed page and what was recorded focused strictly on the jargon of the world of crime, but earliest days pass, and comes the hour comes the man or woman. Slang, as this expanding list of heroes and heroines is intended to demonstrate, has many such. Thus, as the latest example of slang’s brightest stars, I offer the word-obsessed courtier and author Sir Thomas Urquhart of Cromarty (1611-60).

 

A Scottish aristocrat and unabashed cavalier, he was knighted by Charles I, and inherited his father’s estates, but also his debts. He attempted to deal with them by writing. In the way of his century, Urquhart’s works boasted splendid titles. Among them were the Pantochronochanon, or, A Peculiar Promptuary of Time, which explained his family genealogy,  the Ekskubalauron, or, The Discovery of a most Exquisite Jewel, which pushed Urquhart’s hatred of presbyterianism – the family were always episcopalians – and simultaneously touted a wide range of Scottish heroes, not all of whom may in fact have existed. A third important work was the Logopandecteision, or, An Introduction to the Universal Language. This promoted the universal language that had been invented, if never popularized, by the linguistic scholar Francis Lodwick.

 

This last title had barely appeared when this ‘logofascinated spirit’ as he described himself, took upon himself the publication of ‘The Works of Master Francois Rabelais doctor in physick … now faithfully translated into English.’ Rabelais (c. 1494-1553) was French and had written in a contemporary version of that language the work known as Gargantua and Pantagruel, the first books of which appeared in 1534 authored by one ‘Alcofribas Nasier’ – an anagram of the author’s name. Books one and two of Urquhart’s translation appeared in 1653, book three in 1693; the last two books, edited and translated by Peter Motteux, came in 1694 and 1708. Sir Thomas remains the canonical interpreter of an ‘Englished’ Rabelais.

 

The literary merits of his work (among other things one of the more censored productions of the last half millennium) are irrelevant here. What matters is the language he used, or more properly the language into which Urquhart, a devotee of  ‘metonymical, ironical, metaphysical and synecdochical instruments of elocution’ – or ‘meaningful words’, as the less circumlocutious might put it – rendered it in his translation.

 

A good example is one of Urquhart’s (and Rabelais’) lists, all items of which refer to what the translator initially terms the ‘you know what’, a piece of careless vaguery applicable to many aspects of sex, and in this case the giant Gargantua’s penis. When Urquhart wrote, aside from its medico-Latin self, the primary synonym for penis was yard. Its roots lie in number of terms, typically the Old Teutonic gazdjo, all of which mean a thin pole and which as such may possibly be linked to the Latin hasta, a spear, and even to the Italian cazzo, also slang for penis. (Certainly 17th century slang’s gadso and catso borrow from the Italian original and like a number of similar terms mean both penis and rogue or villain.) The first dictionary use comes in John Florio’s New World of Words of 1598: ‘Priapismo, […] pertaining to a mans priuities, or the standing of a mans yard), but it can be found much earlier, e.g. in Wyclif’s 1682 translation of the Bible (where, in Genesis, it is found in the story of the first circumcision). Though Urquhart does not disdain yard, he had Rabelais’ vast linguistic inventiveness to deal with. He proved an able pupil.

 

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The Translated: ‘Alcofribas Nasier’

 

The list derives from a scene in which that same penis, an object of both wonder and delight, is being dandled by an enthusiastic gaggle of court ladies. So gross a member doubtless merited so extensive a list: ‘One of them would call it her pillicock, her fiddle-diddle, her staff of love, her tickle-gizzard, her gentle-titler. Another, her sugar-plum, her kingo, her old rowley. her touch-trap, her flap dowdle. Another again, her brand of coral, her placket-racket, her Cyprian sceptre, her tit-bit, her bob-lady. And some of the other women would give these names, my Roger, my cockatoo, my nimble-wimble, bush-beater, claw-buttock, evesdropper, pick-lock, pioneer, bully-ruffin, smell-smock, trouble-gusset, my lusty live sausage, my crimson chitterlin, rump-splitter, shove-devil, down right to it, stiff and stout, in and to, at her again, my coney-borrow-ferret. wily-beguiley, my pretty rogue.’

 

Looking at his choice of images, one sees many that would recur in slang’s treatment of the penis: the colour of pink flesh (brand of coral, crimson chitterlin), the idea of consumption whether by vagina or mouth (the crimson chitterlin again, the sugar-plum, live sausage or tit-bit), the idea of the penis as attacking the woman (fiddle-diddle – the fiddle, aside from suggesting interference, is also something upon which the lover ‘plays’), tickle-gizzard, touch-trap, bush-beater, claw-buttock, rump-splitter ) or simply rummaging in her garments  (placket-racket, smell-smock, trouble-gusset – racket, smock and gusset all doubling as garments and genitals in a variety of slang terms); it can come from hell (old rowley, shove-devil, bully-ruffin; whether the sailors who nicknamed the 19th century warship HMS Bellepheron the ‘Bully-Ruffian’ were aware of this is unknown); it can show its shape (Cyprian sceptre, staff of love, stiff and stout), it can be cunning (picklock, pioneer, coney-borrow-ferret, wily-beguiley, my pretty rogue) and simply metonymize the rampant male (down right to it, in and to, at her again). And of course none, none at all actually use the word in question.

 

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The Translation: a 19th century edition with illustrations by Doré

 

It is a wonderful list – and Rabelais/Urquhart produce many similar, and often in the context of the pleasures of sex or food. As noted, a couple of culinary images feature in the penis-list. What Urquhart termed a live sausage, was, and remains in French, an andouille, and he took what Rabelais termed a couille bredouille (literally ‘an empty-handed testicle’), and translated it as a chitterling, properly an animal intestine, another meaty delight and a staple of soul food. Sausages also take centre stage in Book Four of the epic, where over eight chapters the author presents the fantastical history of the satirical War of the Andouilles, in which the army of tripe-stuffed sausages, worshippers of a flying pig, and its allies the ‘savage Blood Sausages and the Mountain Sausages’, combined its literal, gustatory meaning with its penile one, and offered the mix as an attack on Protestantism.

 

Urquhart’s translation was both literal – some of its words already existed – and inventive, a far larger number were his coinages; it was a skill that he had already demonstrated in his Trissotetras, or, A most exquisite table for resolving all manner of triangles (1645) in which of the 200 words he used to ‘simplify’ Pythagoras’ theorem (which had required only 23), the bulk were of his own making.

 

On the level of pure imagery Urquhart’s coinages are not especially exceptional. But in many cases they represent themes that would embed themselves (and in some cases were already embedded) in slang. Meanwhile the subject of his list – the male member, no more, no less, and synonymized to such variegated degrees – was certainly still unique. No slang dictionary – or more properly glossary, since no dictionary of slang proper would appear for another 45 years – had yet approached sex so freely. The 16th century whores and villains whose careers had been itemised in the canting lists obviously had sex, but as regards the bits and bobs, the human giblets required to get the job done, then the canting crew, at least in print, were often as puritan as the establishment they defied. There was jockum for penis and wap for have sex, but little else. That Urquhart was one of that establishment, a member of the Scottish landed gentry and intimate of King Charles I, merely underlines an irony. That Rabelais, the fount of Urquhart’s creativity, was French went without saying: the belief that one had to cross the Channel if one wanted to get that ‘dirty’ stuff uncensored was a truism (if not a truth) that appealed to 17th century Britons as effectively as its always has to their successors.

 

Heroes & Heroines of Slang 4. ‘Walter’

 

As we know from slang’s taxonomy, that rough list of those topics of which it is so ardent an explorer, and for which in this area it racks up many thousands of synonyms – perhaps 10,000 in all – sex and its performance rank high in the counter-linguistic vocabulary. This is logical: the subject may have emerged long since from whatever closet in which a mix of religiosity, censoriousness and shame, some might suggest modesty, had confined it, but there remain lingering vestiges of taboo. The nice may have outstripped the naughty, but the latter remains. Slang, always on the margins, is thus a logical bedfellow for pornography, another side of sex that, while never so available, always was and still does go hand-in-hand with a certain reticence.

 

Porn was there from the early 18th century, often translated from French originals, but it doesn’t come fully on stream until the mid-19th century. It found a London home in a cluster of ancient alleyways  where the Strand becomes Fleet Street – Holywell St (there had been an actual well, holy or otherwise), Wych Street, Russell Court – that would be demolished around 1900. The impetus was property development but the sense of ridding the city of a moral plague spot was not un-noticed.  Its mere topography represented a threat: a marginal area, narrow twisting streets, ancient buildings, dubious inhabitants, immoral merchandise. It was everything that town planners, hell’s-bent on carving out a shiny new metropolis deplored. It was known as ‘The Backside of St Clements’ (an adjacent church). It had to go.

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Holywell Street

Publishing had begun early in the century. It focused on politics: radical, dangerous texts. The same men who would make the area Stroke Book Central started off their career publishing them. Foremost among them, William Dugdale, a one-man embodiment of Holywell squalor, who published radical tracts before ever he set a forme of filth. He was on the edge of the 1819 Cato Street Conspiracy, aimed to bring a cabinet dinner to an explosive conclusion, but was never caught. He moved to piracy (Byron’s Don Juan) then to softcore (the semi-sexy Memoirs of a Man of Pleasure which had appeared as the less titillatory History of the Human Heart  in 1769) and in 1832, with an edition of Cleland’s Memoirs of a Woman of Pleasure (aka Fanny Hill), went the rest of the way round the pornographic corner.  And down the hill. Thereafter it was pulp all the way. Read with but a single hand.

 

His tumescent catalogues included The Battles of Venus, The Bed-Fellows or the Young Misses Manuel [sic], The Confessions of a Young Lady, The Ladies’ Telltale, Scenes in the Seraglio and The Victim of Lust. There was a good deal of fladge though it was left to the far less notorious general publisher  – and slang lexicographer – John Camden Hotten to produce such titles as Lady Bumtickler’s Revels. There was a series, Lascivious Gems: among them ‘The Diary of a Nymphomaniac’, ‘The Fanciful Extremes of Fucksters’, ‘The Pleasing Pastime of Frigging’ and ‘A Night in St John’s Wood.’

 

He put out bawdy songbooks – The ‘Tuzzymuzzy Songster’, ‘The Wanton Warbler’ – and embryonic top-shelf monthlies such as The Boudoir and The Exquisite, He was regularly prosecuted and ran up nine sentences by 1857. His trial that year so appalled Lord Campbell –  ‘a sale of poison more deadly than prussic acid, strychnine or arsenic’ –  that My Lord drove through the first Obscene Publications Act. The idea of women frequenting Dugdale’s shops was apparently the final straw. A century later there was a new OPA and Lady Chatterley’s prosecutor would ask: ‘Is this a book you would wish your wife or servants to read?’ Like its texts, little changes in Pornland.

 

The stock was repeatedly seized and destroyed. No matter: there was always more, knocked out in the cobwebby back rooms of one of his half dozen shops. The books, illustrated with barely lavatorial daubs, sold at three guineas, approximately three times the price of a ‘straight’ three-volume novel and six weeks’ wages for the average worker; he became rich. It didn’t last. When he died in 1868 he was serving a sentence in the Clerkenwell House of Correction and the death certificate hints at syphilis. There are no portraits. His legacy lay in the trade.

 

The trade would expand, and still does although textual porn tends to be home-created and launched on line, but if porn has a truly magnum opus that comes twenty years after Dugdale. Between the years of 1888-94 ‘a gentleman’ summoned regularly from Amsterdam to his residence in London a printer well-versed in the publication of pornographic literature. To this individual he entrusted the manuscript of his erotic memoirs, garnered from some thirty years of sexual adventuring. This memoir, entitled My Secret Life, runs to some eleven books, as near one million words as makes no difference. No author was ever declared, although the writer appears, from conversations he recounts, to be called ‘Walter’. Popular belief, based on the scholarship of the late Gershon Legman, unrivalled analyst of erotic folklore, and more recently on Ian Gibson’s The Erotomaniac, ascribes it to Henry Spencer Ashbee. Ashbee’s day job was respectable commerce; his ‘hobby’, writing as the coarsely punning ‘Pisanus Fraxi’, was the compilation of three massive bibliographies of erotic literature. It was based on a personal collection of ‘facetiae’ and ‘curiosa’ which would form (after the prurient philistines of Great Russell Street had done their castratory worst to the thousands of volumes left them in his will) the core of the British Library’s Private Case.

 

Blurbing one of his catalogues, a list that included The Lustful Turk, Flossie, a Venus of Fifteen, The Amatory Experiences of a Surgeon and Nunnery Tales, Dugdale had promised that ‘every stretch of voluptuous imagination is here fully depicted, rogering, ramming, one unbounded scene of lust, lechery and licentiousness.’ He might have been puffing My Secret Life.

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The eleven books are positioned as an ‘erotic memoir’. While it may indeed have qualified as the latter, the role of eros, like that of beauty is strictly limited to the beholder. Or perhaps the performer. ‘Walter’ obviously saw every copulation as worthy of recall (the recall itself, if true, is impressive) but the reader’s main experience is not erection but exhaustion. Act follows act, partner upon partner, place upon place. No one has counted how many couplings our hero enjoys: a couple of thousand perhaps. The text yields up 464 individual slang terms and like his bouts of sex they are regularly repeated. In its first volume alone cunt appears 331 times, prick 253, fuck 177, frig 102.

 

My Secret Life leans heavily on the canonical terms. Like his  contemporaries, ‘Walter’ relishes the simple obscenities and he enjoys persuading his partners to mouth them as they copulate. But even if the book is, as claimed, a genuine sexual autobiography (it lacks even the rudimentary fantasies of its unarguably fictional equivalents, being a repetitive list of essentially vanilla copulations) ‘Walter’, like every pornographer, makes some attempt to ring the linguistic changes. He has some 52 synonyms for the penis, including engine, pego, cunt-rammer, doodle, cucumber, stretcher, gristle, frigger, generating tool, persuader, pickle, spindle, spouter and truncheon. Vagina brings in 59: grummet, machine, article, sperm-sucker, pin-cushion, pleasure place, pouter, man-trap, horse-collar, tail, purse, scabbard and you-know-what. Sexual intercourse has nearly 100, among them shove, bullock, bounce, bumbaste, belly-bump, grind, poke, pump, split, strum, whop and have a game of fathers and mothers. A fan of oral intercourse, he gives the lexicographer a first use of eat for fellate, and related terms include suck and minette for fellate, plus gamahuche, which worked for either gender, and the two-way term sixty-nine.

 

For all that, and given such meticulous exposition, he sets himself up as a discreet seducer: there may have been, and he assures us there were, just as many tumblings of supposedly respectable bourgeoises, but we are not introduced to these partners. Revelation is reserved for servants and whores (the former reluctant then, invariably and true to more avowed pornography, enthusiastic; the latter merely enthusiastic, albeit mercenary), plus the odd teen virgin. If, as the 18th century radical John Wilkes allegedly claimed, ‘life’ is simply ‘a few good fucks and then we die’, Walter’s version, once truly secret, now lovingly written out, is determined to prove the point.

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He is admirably cosmopolitan – Europe provides as a happy a hunting ground as does the UK – and despite being a Victorian (with all the clichés that we have learned to attribute to that confused and often paradoxical century) remarkably libertarian. He’s no feminist – we can’t have everything – but for all that he treats servants as one might expect, he assumes no special superiority for the crested above the cloven. With what not merely the Victorians, but their 21st century descendants might condemn as sexually ‘abnormal’, ‘Walter’ has no problems. If he calls any practice ‘aberrant’, e.g. his occasionally consummated desire for homosexual fellatio (given and gotten both) or his intermittent obsessions with either brand of ‘scat’, then it is never the acts, but simply his own reluctance to perform them that is found wanting.

 

It may betray a degree of personal fetishism, a lexicographer’s fantasies perhaps, but deliberately or otherwise, the Index is quite as fascinating as the text to which it refers. It may be discursive at times, and sometimes mis-paginated, but it is surely unique. Some entries are self-explanatory; checking the text almost takes away the fun. ‘Virginities, women want to piddle after defloration’; ‘Sodomites, put pestles up arseholes’; ‘Thrusts of prick, number given when fucking’ (average 45 thrusts/min. apparently); ‘Fucking, with another man present and sucking man’s prick whilst’; ‘Farting, one left in a closet by self’; ‘Cunts, felt in church by me and frigged’; ‘Anus, toothbrush up a man’s while he’s gamahuched’. Others, however, have a mystery all of their own and the mind struggles, after 2,300 pages of in, out and equally often round-and-about, to recall the specifics of ‘Apprentice dress-makers, three in a cab’; ‘Barn-loft, page frigging himself in’; ‘Champagne and sperm, singular letch’; ‘Bloody nose and broken pisspot’; ‘Kid gloves and cold cream frigging’; ‘Postage stamp, a woman got by gift of’ and ‘Double-cunted harlot’. The Index also introduces us to another side of our author, the philosopher: ‘Prick, is an emblem of the Deity’; ‘Fucking, is obedience to the Divine command “increase and multiply”’ (that said, Walter procures as many abortions as he fathers bastards); ‘Gamahuching, man is superior to the beasts therein’; and ‘Cunts, are divine and not obscene organs.’ Even De Sade, philosophizing in his boudoir, would surely have been impressed.

 

In a way the forty odd folio columns that make up the Index are the biggest tease of all. Promising so much and ultimately delivering all too little. For all the charm of their entries, once accessed the relevant anecdote lends itself too regularly to the same old thing. But then as Walter himself affirms, intercourse itself is repetition, it is the preliminaries and the posture that differentiate one rogering from another. Elaborate if innately empty form has to offer up a garnish to predictable content.

 

There were but six printed copies of the great tome and but three, apparently, survive. The price was £100 (nearly £9,000 today), daunting even to the wealthier fan. Grove Press printed a facsimile in 1966 and an on line version is available from www.gutenberg.org (and many other sites).

 

Heroes & Heroines of Slang 3: ’Arry

Heroes and Heroines of Slang 3: ‘Arry (and ’Arriet)

 

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The word cockney has resolutely resisted any simple etymology. It is first noted in 1362, when it meant a ‘cock’s egg’—that is, a defective one. However there was an alternative use, first recorded in Chaucer and defined in the second edition of the OED (1989) as ‘a mother’s darling’; a cockered child, pet, minion; ‘a child tenderly brought up’; hence, a squeamish or effeminate fellow, ‘a milksop’. Hence too the equation, presumably coined by self-aggrandizing countrymen, of the weakling with the townsman, a use initially recorded in 1521. These initial uses – the townee, the softy – were general; if London was assumed then it was simply because it was still the country’s largest town. The modern definition, in which the reference narrows down not merely to the working-class Londoner, but specifically to one who has been ‘born within the sound of Bow bells,’ would emerge around 1600.

 

Bow bells? A set of chimes not, as often believed, in London’s eastern suburb of Bow, but within the church of Saint Mary le Bow in Cheapside in the City of London. In 2000 a study was carried out to see how far the Bow bells could be heard: it was estimated that they would have been audible six miles to the east, five to the north, three to the south, and four to the west, an area that covers Bethnal Green, Whitechapel, Spitalfields, Stepney, Wapping, Limehouse, Poplar, Millwall, Hackney, Hoxton, Shoreditch, Bow, and Mile End, as well as Bermondsey, south of the River Thames. In 1600, that represented a good chunk of a city that was yet to develop its West End. Nor were the original Cockneys invariably working class. All sorts of individuals would once have spoken the London dialect, even if the great push for linguistic ‘purity’ during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries prohibited such ‘vulgarisms’ from the aspirant middle class. To paraphrase the writer Harry M. Ayers, Cockney may be ‘the underprivileged slum cousin of “good” English’, ‘the whipping boy of purists’ and ‘ a despised jargon’ but it remains the language of several million people.

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Heroes & Heroines of Slang 2: Helen Green van Campen

 

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Helen Tabor. Helen Green. Helen van Campen. Helen Cotter. Helen Hill. One childhood turning teenage, four husbands (two divorced, two died on her), one busy widowhood. Van Campen seems to have been the name that lasted, though early fans first met her as Green. Born in 1880 to Louisiana bluebloods with the obligatory plantation. Memoirs say ‘petite, athletic, fearless.’ Pre-teen travels on a Gilded Age Grand Tour: Europe, the Middle East (Luxor) and Russia (St Petersburg). In 1893 the family money runs out: another victim of that year’s ‘Great Panic’ on the stock market and the depression that follows. Ms Tabor is unfazed; turns to bloodstock and in the next few years breeds and races steeplechasers; more travels, this time for racing, across the States, down to Brazil and back to Europe. In 1897 another trip: the Klondike Gold Rush in Alaska. Based in Nome, a shorefront tent city that stretched 30 miles, and which claimed itself to be the world’s largest gold-pan. The lucky, even the barely competent could pick the precious metal off the sand. She visits three times, though she doesn’t seem to have left Alaska rich.

 

In 1905 she’s in New York. New town, new career. Journalism and short stories focused on working girls (hotel switch-boards and department store counters), on vaudeville and its lowlife professionals. At some stage, maybe 1905, she marries Burt Green, a vaudeville pianist, who some say clues her into the world he knows and these early pieces appear under his surname. First published in the N.Y. Telegraph the vaudeville stories appear in a couple of collections: At the Actors’ Boarding House (1906) and The Maison de Shine (1908). Ethel Barrymore, of the theatrical family, predicts imminent fame. In 1909 a third volume, no bananas, top or other, this time but featuring Mr Jackson, Green’s version of the well-heeled rogue-with-a-heart-of-gold.  New York palls, or maybe it’s the marriage. In 1910 they divorce, he to a career that will partner him up with such as Oscar Hammerstein II, she’s back in Alaska. Now with husband number two: Frank Rumsey Van Campen, chief mining engineer for the Alaska Syndicate’s Beatson Copper Mine, currently biggest in the state. Still, the New York gossip hacks claimed him as one of their own: a writer; they also wrote up the literary couple as purchasers of a gold mine and sympathised with the new bride, sweeping snow off the front porch and pining for ‘the reeking hop houses’ of Chinatown and the ‘gilded cafes’ of Times Square. No such thing: she loved it. In 1915 P.G. Wodehouse, writing in Vanity Fair on ‘The habit of picking on New York’ noted that ‘Mrs. Helen van Campen (Helen Green, of blessed gifts and memories) is the latest writer to commit mayhem on our unoffending city.’ Her theory, he claims , being that ‘the population of New York are a set of effete worms,’ while in Alaska, which she prefers ‘and does not care who knows it, every man is a Galahad and every woman is like the heroine of a three-volume novel.’

The couple live on LaTouche Island in Prince William Sound. Mrs Van Campen rides and writes (working in a small cabin which the miners build for her out in the bay), still looking at local topics, which now means stories with an Alaskan theme. But not always. In 1913 she wrote ‘Life on Broadway’, nine sketches for McLure’s, a popular slick, eight featuring what the critic Susan Harris Smith has termed  ‘social-climbing, gold-digging, fast-talking slang-slinging hustlers’: Flossie, the operator, Elmer the front lobby coat-boy and Evangeline, their showgirl pal. Their speech is  a mixture of current slang, everyday working-class New York speech and a heavy larding of mis-applied pretension. Nearer home there was ‘Corsets in Alaska’ and ‘What Miners Read’, a puff job for a literary mag. She would always write: in 1946, her contribution ‘I’ll See You in Alaska’, in that year’s state Guide took the form of a ‘Dear Helen’ Q & A.

 

QUERY: ‘I’m crazy to go to Alaska Just divorced (he was n.g. {no good}) and considered glamorous (won a beauty contest) and where are all those MEN?’

H van C:  ‘Interior, sis. More fems on the coast. You’ll get a man.’

 

In 1918 he quits the mine and in 1919 she quits him. Husband number three arrives in 1920: George Cotter, a contractor and big game hunter and the two of them move across the bay to Seward. Her writing prospers as do her adventures. To quote her entry in the Alaska Mining Hall of Fame, ‘She traveled throughout the Alaska Territory by boat, railroad and dogsled and on horseback. She looked at reindeer herds near Teller, visited with hard rock miners at Nebesna Gold Mine, hunted moose on the Kenai Peninsula, and visited placer miners in the Chisana district. For nearly two years, Helen operated a small placer gold mine on Cooper Creek, near Seward on the Kenai Peninsula.’ She took photos, mainly of indigenous peoples, and would click away for the rest of her life.

 

Ever mobile, the couple moved to Argentina (George had a contracting gig) in 1921, then back to Texas (another job: oil) in 1924. He died that year, out on the road. From around 1915 she’d been writing Hollywood scripts and commuted between there and Alaska – Seward and later Fairbanks, where she moved in 1939. During the war she worked as director of personnel services at the U.S. Army Air Force Base at Ladd Field in Fairbanks. At some stage there was a fourth marriage: to Edwin C. Hill, a CBS radio star who put out soft features: ‘The Human Side of the News’.

 

She died in April 1960. She remains a major figure in Canada, memorialized in a  scholarship aimed to help young journalists.

 

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The works of Helen Green van Campen offers 600 slang terms of which she could claim to have put 165 in print for the first time. Among them she brings us shroud and boiler, a  dress suit, including its ‘boiled’ shirt (a better-known equivalent was the Wodehousian soup and fish), dead bird, a hopeless case or situation, off one’s dip, crazy, brace game, a crooked gambling game and thus any form of fraud, and to put on the fritz, to spoil, to render out of order, to put a stop to, which term probably originates in the spluttering of a faulty wire or connection, though it may have been popularized by Fritz, a German, and the hostility to such generated by World War I propaganda. Then there is get hunk with, to get even with, which used standard American hunk (originally from Dutch hunk, meaning ‘home’ in a children’s game), in a safe or good position or condition and which may thus be linked to hunky-dory. Van Campen also pioneered fix someone’s clock, to take revenge upon, to get even with or to foil an antagonist’s plans (modernity prefers that the clock should be cleaned). Her use of Joe Hep, which extends the slightly older hep (which she also launched into print), suggests the possibilities of the lexicographer David Maurer’s supposed (and generally rejected) etymology for hep: that Joe was real, ran a Chicago bar (perhaps, we might fantasize, even adjacent to that tended by slang’s other mythological booze-hoister Mickey Finn) and dispensed ‘the real thing’ when it came to inside dope. Perhaps, but the best guess for hep is a variation on hip, and hip most likely came from opium’s lie on the hip, the position the smoker took and suggests an early identification of drugs and cool.

 

Other terms, already known, were tough sledding, I’m from Missouri (you’ll have to show me), moll buzzer, on the water wagon, give someone the eye, also-ran, monkey business, , souse, shoot the con, put the bee on, watch my smoke, a roll that would choke a mule, four-flushing, johnny-at-the-rat-hole, twenty-three skidoo and much besides. Nothing exceptional, nothing criminal: this was mainstream slang, the currency of the world in which she moved.

 

No-one would suggest that Mrs Green was the first to use slang. And certainly not that of New Yorkers who being urban and metropolitan were the pioneers of the form in the USA. But she is undoubtedly one of the best of a rash of late 19th century/early 2oth century purveyors of non-criminal slang, all of whose stories, often at least partially humorous, started their life in the contemporary tabloid press.  What singles her out from such as George Ade, a mid-Westerner whose Fables in Slang (and much beside) would make millions from the register, was that her slang words appear as wholly natural. There’s no sense of forcing, of slang for slang’s sake. A typical Ade fable is bespattered with almost Germanic capitalisation, and each capital signposts another example of the counter-language. Green’s slang is wholly contextual: it flows as and where required. Whether, as some suggest, husband Burt passed on what he knew, is unproven: Helen seems quite capable of hunting it down alone. As regards the stories, who cares. Its appearances are matter-of-fact, one might hear it in one’s daily life.

 

One scene she does pioneer: that of drugs. Or at least she is the first to treat the subject in a way that quite rejected the predictable and seemingly irresistible sensationalism of its contemporary coverage. Again, she wasn’t the first to note the city’s drug consumption: first opium, and after and alongside that such injectable and sniffable narcotics as morphine and then heroin (cocaine seemed to have side-stepped her vaudevillians, though those trudging round the country doing two shows a day in the small time could probably have used some). The usual scenario, however, was very much of the ‘shock! horror!…I made my excuses and left’ style. Coverage offered a mixture of a mis-transcribed and mis-labelled taxonomy of the outfit required for opium smoking, the inevitable, reprehensible admixture of white girls and yellow men, and the horrors, much deserved, of withdrawal. But no more.

 

Green offers a dozen terms, perhaps not many, but as many as any peer would have known. And she offers them straight. ‘One night I’m a layin’ on the hip, smokin’ up a few’ says a boarder at the Maison de Shine. That’s her take: no more, no less, it’s what you do. Other examples of drug slang include dope and smoke (both opium; large-scale cannabis use had yet to materialise in New York), morph, morphine and white stuff, morphine again, or the recently synthesised and more powerful heroin, and bunk (as in bunkum), weak or counterfeit drugs; a shell, a measure of opium; hit the stem, to smoke opium, fix up or take a shot, to inject oneself, effected by the gun or hypodermic syringe; yen, the desire for narcotics, against, addicted, gag and habit, both meaning regular use, and winging, withdrawing (a seeming precursor but definite antonym of the widely used and positive flying); and the hop joint, opium’s equivalent of a shooting gallery.

 

In terms of her writing and like the vaudeville she once hymned, Green, with or without the Van Campen is largely invisible today. Her screenwriting, for instance, has yet to surface in IMDb. She has a presence in Canada but it is for her achievements beyond New York’s demi-monde. Slang, as ever is not a good career move and she is hardly unique. With the exception of Damon Runyon, he who parlayed sports reporting onto Broadway and thence to his ‘Guys and Dolls’ most of Green’s early contemporaries have faded. Even Ade, for whom a town in Indiana, a football stadium (at Purdue University) and a World War II Liberty ship were all named. The great slang-wielding gossip writers – O.O. McIntyre and later Walter Winchell – might never have been. If Helen Green has joined their lost Valhalla, so be it. Slang will not forget.

vancampenseward

 

 

Heroes of Slang 1: John Wilmot, 2nd Earl of Rochester

 ‘Rouse stately Tarse

And the lett thy Bollocks grind

Heave up, faire Arse,

And lett thy Cunt be kind

To th’ Deed.

Thrust Pintle with a force,

Spend till my Cunt overflow.’

‘ffuckadilla’s Song’ from Sodom (1684)

 

 

John Wilmot (1647-80), second earl of Rochester, was a member of the circle of fast-living wits and courtiers at the court of Charles II. Son of a Cavalier hero and a staunchly Puritan mother, and born some might have said fittingly on All Fools’ Day, he was educated as a typical contemporary aristocrat. Wadham College, Oxford, which he entered at the age of 12, preceded the Grand Tour, which in turn was followed by introduction at Court. Aged 18, after fighting sea battles against the Dutch, he abducted and married the heiress Elizabeth Malet. During one of his almost annual banishments from court, caused by a penchant for pushing the royal patience too far, he allegedly set up on Tower Hill as ‘Alexander Bendo,’ a self-styled ‘German astrologer’, offering gullible clients ‘rare secrets … for help, conservation, and augmentation of beauty.’

 

Rochester’s wit and erudition were paraded in his poetry, which has been cited by critics as setting him among the last of the Metaphysical poets and the first of the Augustans. He died young, and thus his output, in which he was happy to savage his own failings as acutely as those of others, was small, but it was varied and highly influential. Dryden, whose patron he briefly was, Swift and Pope were all influenced by him. For many people his subsequent reputation rests particularly on his lampoons, satires and erotic writings. He wrote, according to the Oxford Companion to English Literature, ‘more frankly about sex than anyone in English before the 20th century.’

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