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Heroes & Heroines of Slang 5: Mary ‘Moll’ Frith

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It is time for another of slang’s heroes. Or rather, heroines: this week Mary Frith, who bestrode both criminal London and the stage as her alter ego: ‘Moll Cutpurse.’

 

Frith was born near Ludgate in the City of London around 1584. For one who would go on to become a real-life ‘queen of crime’ her first recorded appearance was fittingly in a court record, accused of stealing a purse. No verdict is recorded, but there were further court appearances, again for thefts, at all of which she managed to obtain a verdict of ‘not guilty’.  In 1612, however, her luck seems to have run out. It is not certain when her nickname arrived, but it was certainly in place by that year when, writing to his friend Sir Dudley Carleton on 12 February, John Chamberlain told him how:

 

‘Mall Cut-purse a notorious bagage (that used to go in mans apparell and challenged the feild of divers gallants) was brought to [Paul’s Cross], where she wept bitterly and seemed very penitent, but yt is since doubted she was maudelin druncke, beeing discovered to have tipled of three quarts of sacke before she came to her penaunce.’ The punishment was for wearing ‘indecent dress: which as Chamberlain  makes clear, referred to Frith’s frequent sporting of male clothing.

 

By then she was indeed notorious. In a male-dominated hierarchical society she had come to epitomize much that that world feared and thus condemned. Her cross-dressing in ‘mans apparell’ was seen as undermining the established separation of genders, her frequenting of tobacco houses – the first woman recorded as so doing – and her later boast that it was a lifetime’s consumption of the weed that had ensured her longevity, was similarly subversive: women should not smoke. In these contexts, modern studies of her life have claimed her as a proto-feminist. In addition there was her image as a 17th century ‘Moriarty’, that fictional ‘Napoleon of crime,’ controlling every aspect of contemporary villainy. In her role as both receiver and broker of stolen goods she resembled her 18th century successor Jonathan Wild, who would finally be hanged for playing both ends of law-breaking against his own greedy middle.  Thus the modern historian John McMullen:

 

‘She acquired some control over the organization of thieving… and established a warehouse to handle stolen property. Her subordinates were paid higher rates and worked mainly for her; she in turn returned the stolen goods to their owners. Her influence as a receiver and thief-taker was institutionalized. Her informers and accomplices advised her about robbers and pickpockets, and advertised her reputation. She cultivated specific crimes, instigating a lucrative trade in stealing and returning shopbooks and account ledgers that had specific value only to business owners. She established a market in high-value items such as personal jewels, rings, and watches. Her influence in the underworld stemmed from her power as defender of the public interest…she provided shape and discipline to thieving gangs and she expanded the frontiers of theft.’

 

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Inevitably Frith became a symbol, and was as such celebrated and/or vilified in the contemporary media. In 1610 the writer John Day composed, but it would appear did not publish a pamphlet entitled The Madde Pranckes of Mery Mall of the Banckside with her Walkes in Mans Apparrell and to what Purpose. Four years Thomas Freeman wrote that:

 

‘They say Mol’s honest, and it may bee so,

But yet it is a shrewd presumption no;

To touch but pitch, ’tis knowne it will defile,

Moll wears the breech, what may she be the while?

Sure shee that doth the shadow so much grace,

What will shee when the substance comes in place?

 

A few years later John Taylor, the Water-Poet (named for his day job: rowing Londoners across the river Thames), praised her as a contrast to those whose lives were dominated by ephemeral fads and fashions:

 

Moll Frith doth teach them modesty,

For she doth keepe one fashion constantly,

And therefore she deserves a Matrons praise,

In these inconstant Moone-like changing dayes.

 

Frith’s finest hour came not in print, but on stage: Middleton and Dekker’s play The Roaring Girle, or Moll Cutpurse, first performed in 1611. There was no pretence about the heroine’s identity and Frith, perhaps egged on by the playwrights for purposes of publicity, even appeared on stage at the Fortune Playhouse. She was dressed as a man and closed the evening’s performance with a jig. Critics have argued over the play: some see it as an early demonstration of feminism in action; others, given the final scenes in which ‘Moll’ is re-absorbed into law-abiding society, as a sell-out, a means of ensuring that the audience left the theatre in the comforting knowledge that all was right in the larger worlds and the underworld was no more real, let alone threatening, than a stage performance. More important for our purposes is Moll’s cheerful revelation of the supposedly secret language of the underworld, its cant.

 

In the first scene of Act V the Roaring Girl meets a fellow low-lifer, one Tearcat, and as her guests, a gaggle of aristocrats, look on, puts him through an interrogation:

 

Moll: And Tearcat, what are you? a wild rogue, an angler or a ruffler…?

Tearcat: Brother to this upright man, flesh and blood, ruffling Tearcat  is my name and a ruffler is my style, my profession.

[…]

Trapdoor: I have, by the salomon, a doxy that carries a kinchin mort in her slate at her back, besides my dell and my dainty wild dell, with all whom I’ll tumble this next darkmans in the strommel, and drink ben bouse, and eat a fat gruntling cheat, a cackling cheat and a quacking cheat

 

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All good stuff no doubt – no less than nineteen  discrete cant terms in this brief example and the whole scene carries on in the same way – but it reads less like a feasible dialogue and more like a cursorily dramatized slang glossary, bereft only of alphabetical order and explanatory definitions. In parts it echoes Harman’s canting dialogues, throwing in as many strange terms as possible into a supposedly spontaneous dialogue. Nonetheless Middleton and Dekker, who had already issued his cant-based pamphlets, were making cant available to yet another audience. The on-stage aristocrats are initially appalled by the language: ‘The grating of ten new cart-wheeles,’ complains one, ‘and the gruntling of five hundred hogs comming [sic] from Rumford market, cannot make a worse noyse then this canting language does in my eares’, but distaste leads to fascination. It is likely that the off-stage audience were similarly fascinated and equally keen to learn. The play contains some 117 terms, many of them in this contrived scene. Dekker, ever-fascinated by the underworld scene, drew on what he knew: nearly three-quarters of the words can be found in his canting pamphlets The Bellman of London or in Lanthorne and Candlelight. Several more are pre-dated by his play, The Second Part of the Honest Whore (1609). There are eleven first uses, none of them cant. To make ducks and drakes, to make a mess; fadoodling, used to mean sexual intercourse and offered as euphemistic explanation of wapping and niggling, both of which are spoken but not further explained, fleshfly, a whore, a heap, a good deal, e.g. of money;  hog-rubber, a peasant;  muzzle-chops, one who has a prominent mouth and nose; a nipping Christian, a cutpurse; puggard (from SE pug, to pull or tug), a thief; tearcat, a thug; and whisking, brisk or smart. Finally the play is the first to use moll to mean a woman, usually with overtones of promiscuity. Moll, of course, has lived on, notably in the compound gangster’s moll. The term was especially popular in the mid-19th century when it was reclaimed by cant, stripped of any sexual overtones and used in such compounds as moll-tooler, moll wire or moll whiz, a female pickpocket, square moll, an honest woman and moll-buzzer, a street thief specialising in purse-snatching.

 

The Roaring Girle, was not Frith’s only on-stage representation. Later in 1611 Nathan Field staged his play Amends for Ladies. It was, as the title suggests, a response to the Middleton/Dekker play, and Moll appears in a much less kindly light. Nor does she play a central role, offering merely a cameo which may be seen as Field’s attempt to profit from The Roaring Girl’s success. Compared with the leading female roles, the Widow, the Wife and the Maid, and the story of their relations with their lovers, Moll’s subversive, transgressive personality, its parading of the sins of thieving and lust, has been clearly introduced only for vilification. Such subversive attitudes must be punished and Moll is duly pilloried as an emblem of everything seen as wrong with the over-independent female.

 

In 1614 Frith married one Lewknor Markham, probably son of the author Gervase Markham (apostrophised as ‘the earliest English hackney writer’). As one might expect, she kept her maiden name and the marriage did not last. She established a fencing school, but this was probably a front and perhaps ‘fencing’ (the underworld use of word was first recorded in her lifetime) was a pun. In 1624 she was summoned before the Star Chamber: her crime an unpaid bill, but the evidence focussed on her subversiveness.  In 1644 she was listed among those recently discharged from Bethlem Hospital, better known as ‘Bedlam’; it appeared that at least for a while she had been considered mad. She died on July 26 1659.

 

A biography appeared three years later. As the ODNB notes, it managed to muddle virtually every known fact. But by then the facts were academic. Moll Cutpurse, the embodiment of so many transgressions, had been taken up for moralising and myth.

 

 

 

 

Slang Family Trees. Number 5: The Penis

Just added to the Slang Family Trees, 1332 terms for the Penis, arranged as to semantic/thematic linkage. A .pdf can be found here:

penis https://www.dropbox.com/s/fpky2vapqzmp6gp/PENIS.pdf?dl=0
[http://bit.ly/2ooI8QV]

Slang Family Trees

 

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A Sample of ‘Drunk’

Events beyond my control are making the next installment of Heroes and Heroines of Slang a little late. In the meantime dictionary users might enjoy a new and on-going project: Slang Family Trees. The aim of this is twofold. On the one hand, and like the Timelines of Slang, it is another way of visualizing the slang database. On the other, the product of that visualization is to present some of slang’s primary themes – such as sex, the parts of the body, drunkenness or the police – in terms of the way slang sees them. If the Timelines put the many synonyms in chronological order, the Family Trees show the way these underlying images extend out from the central theme. In this way of seeing the vocabulary, the vagina, for instance, is not simply a hole, but an abyss, a ring, an entrance, a passage, a road, a container and a box. Slang has terms that fit each of these sub-sets and many more. The system can applied to any of slang’s themes.

These are the current family trees:

The ‘penis’ family tree will be posted soon. The aim is to cover all those topics that slang has developed to a greater extent than has any other linguistic register.

 

 

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.

 

vancampenchapshorse

 

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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The Heroes of Slang: A Short Introduction

 

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.

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January 2017 Update

We are pleased to announce the first of what will be regular three-monthly updates to Green’s Dictionary of Slang Online.

Since the launch in October 2016 on-going research has added 2,250 new citations, 351 antedatings of recorded use, and 371 new slang words and phrases.

New words include brinsy (1639), skin the fox (1683), lappy-gagger (1717), jamming cull (1739), dance a lunching-drum (1867), poison shover (1893), blood on the moon (1901), square Jane, no nonsense (1917), Anzac poker (1921), sneak disser (2012), S.L.I.M.E. (2014) and manaman (2016).

Notable antedates include in the days of Queen Dick (1652 from 1786), unruly member (1683 from 1734), Newgate knocker (1781 from 1843), go to it (1812 from 1956), shicer (1845 from 1936), pleased as a dog with two cocks (1859 from 1915), dornick (1900 from 1933), prat (1901 from 1940) and axle grease (1941 from 1981). Details are to be found in the database.

To take a look at what has been done as regards antedates and new material, we have created a timeline of the updates. New material is marked with a red star, antedates with a blue. Subscribers, who have access to the citations that underpin every entry and sense, will be able to see all these in the dictionary itself; other users will benefit in improved dating and of course the new words.

The research for GDoS includes material from all English-speaking countries, and covers over half a millennium of slang creation. The new research looks at both geographical and chronological developments. Thanks to the Trove database of Australian newspapers we have been able to look particularly at Australian material (some 277 additions or revisions), which work has been coupled to a specific project, in collaboration with Dr James Lambert of the National Institute of Education, Singapore, the ante-dating of material gathered in the 1940s by Australian lexicographer  Sidney J. Baker. Mr Baker offered no supporting proofs of his glossary; this has now been, where possible, provided.

New material has looked particularly at music, drawing on recent rap and grime lyrics. This is naturally a vast topic: it will continue. In addition, the continuing reading of on line databases, individual books and other print publications, current newspapers and social media, has naturally added slang at all stages of the lexis, in this particular selection going back to the 16th century.

In terms of functionality

  1. the advanced search now provides a count of results
  2. a quicker way through from bibliography entries to cites (users can click through from a given bibliography entry to find the relevant citations)
  3. as the first move towards creating a variety of ways which will allow non-subscribers to see what the full dictionary has to offer, a ‘Word of the Week’ will permit non-subscribers to see a full entry, with its supporting citations. Our first Word of the Week is the boys.

Mister Slang Podcast episode 3: Yiddish

Jonathon Green and Peter Curran discuss the origins of Yiddish, the language which originated in Germany and became the means of expression of Jewish America. Plus, Lenny Bruce is proclaimed a Hero of Slang.

Listen or download on SoundCloud

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