In an attempt to add a third dimension to the lexicon (beyond, that is, the predictable team of ‘here’s a word or phrase’ and ‘here’s what it means’), GDoS is proposing a new series, lexico-biographies as it were: The Heroes of Slang. The bibliography behind this website is moving towards 10,000 sources; there is no chance, nor wish to cover them all (see here for a timeline of the most prolific). But the Heroes of Slang will be just that: a week-by-week go-round of those who have done most to bring slang into the limelight, whether creators, exploiters or collectors. The aim is to offer some back-story, some biography and a range of the slang that’s associated with their work. We can’t, again, look at everything — Irving Welsh, for instance, is cited for 1,400 terms — but these posts will show the flavour of each artist through the best of the slang they use.
The series will begin next week, with the ‘profane and lewd writings’ of Lord Rochester, a dissolute aristocrat and ‘one of the wittiest poets’ of the late 17th century who, to quote the Oxford Companion to English Literature, wrote ‘more frankly about sex than anyone in English before the 20th century.’ Slang’s version of lit. crit. is a little more focused: he offers some 200 early terms; and a good two-thirds of them referenced aspects of what in a very rare example of euphemism, he termed et-caetera
But first, a brief introduction.
As things stand, the database holds around 130,000 slang words and phrases. Culled from five continents they embrace half a millennium’s coinage and use. Standard English it isn’t, even if much of its vocabulary consists of playful twists, turns, embellishments and corruption of that worthy lexis. Call it a counter-language. They cover slang’s usual waterfront – let’s say dope and sex and many metaphorical variations on rock ’n’ roll, with a variety of obscenities, insults, put-downs and allied rudenesses thrown in for good measure – and there’ll doubtless be more along soon. (For samples of slang’s major themes see here). Backing them up, the proof of the counter-linguistic pudding, are some 600,000 citations, or usage examples.
Of course slang, coming as it does from the gutter, is rarely written down or in any other way preserved by those who coin and use it. Not on the front line, anyway. They’re far too busy putting it to work. (An exception can be made for the lyricists of rap and grime, whose language flows directly from the street to the recording). But it does get noticed, often by those such as this author – a lexicographer – and by a wide range of creative individuals. They are, given the relatively recent development of alternative media, generally writers (whether of books, both fiction and, in the case of one or another variety of sociological research, non-fiction) but also script-writers (TV or film), lyricists, journalists, music hall artists and of course criminals and as I say, the dictionary-makers, those voyeurs of words plucked from worlds into which they would never dare tread, other than at second hand. All of these individuals have cast light upon and thus immortalised what might otherwise have been an invisible and rather short-lived vocabulary. I call them the ‘Heroes of Slang’. Forgive me, there are Heroines too, but this is slang, all too often the so-called ‘male gaze’ rendered black and white, and we don’t look to the counter-language for political correctness. Nor, in terms of gender, is it an equal opportunity employer.
Nor, let’s be honest, did our heroes or heroines set out to take the high ground. It was more a matter of grabbing a low-rent lingo and appreciating what could be done with it. If sex sells, so too does violence, or down-pedaling a little, crime in general (which meant the cly-faker as well as the crape-hanger), and the first collectors of slang, however much they claimed to be educators, knew very well how much people enjoyed an outlaw. Throwing in the relevant language simply upped one’s authority. And as collectors gave way to creators and they turned from ballads and gallows-side ‘last words’ to plays and novels and onwards to all varieties of fiction, no matter what the medium, it offered writers that ever-valuable bonus: atmosphere. Not to mention authenticity. It’s a two-way deal: you legitimize the counter-language and it gives that useful heft to your work in return.
Taken on its own terms, the hero is essentially absent from slang, the word’s only appearances being to nickname a phallic sandwich and a major narcotic. The heroine, it is important to remember her ‘e’, is quite invisible. (The drug version, which carries the same etymology and in its naming promised to make its users ‘heroic,’ comes up with nearly 600 terms). These limitations are what might be expected of the environment: such kindnesses as ‘positive’ and ‘praise’, let alone ‘role model’ are not candidates for slang’s dictionaries.
However our Heroes (and Heroines) are not dismayed. They embrace this language of sedition, let us be vulgar: the piss-take, reveling in it for sheer pleasure, exploiting it for literary atmosphere, displaying it in songs, in scripts and of course massing it in dictionaries. Most of them are or were flesh-and-blood: Shakespeare, Dickens, P.G. Wodehouse, Nelson Algren, Ian Dury and such lesser-knowns as Helen Green and Robert Leslie Bellem. Some, such as Moll King, were, real-life villains. Though some, one would be foolish to ignore them, are fictional creations: ‘’Arry,’ ‘Cabbie Jim,’ ‘The Celebrated Burglar and Pickpocket’ (and these will definitely need further introduction). There are newspaper columnists whose whole existence depended on the lavish use of slang: Arthur ‘Bugs’ Baer, Walter Winchell, Damon Runyon. As for slang’s collectors, they include Francis Grose (by name and by physique), John Camden Hotten (who kept a ‘flower garden’ wherefrom he published flagellation porn), and my own predecessor ‘the Word King’ Eric Partridge. Some are simply types or social groups (the ‘larrikin’, the ‘flapper’), whose character was embodied in their language: slang. Sometimes one looks to given media, often magazines or newspapers: London’s Sporting Times known as ‘The Pink ’Un,’ America’s Spirit of the Times, another one printed on pink stock and just as racy, The Sydney Bulletin, apostle of a new, and highly slangy, Australian. All qualify. Creating slang, using slang, spreading slang into the wider world, they, I suggest, are its stars. The Heroes and Heroines of Slang.