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10/01/2014 09:14 am ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

Slang: A History And A Defense

In the introduction to the original Oxford English Dictionary its editor included a diagram: at its heart was "English": the language as a whole. Around it were various subsets: regional, technical, formal... and slang. Slang may have been bottom center of the chart, set above the lower depths, but no matter. It was part of the English language.

Like its peers, slang has a role to play. Its vulgarity, its crudity, its impudence, its irrepressible loudness offers a vocabulary and a voice to all our negatives. Our inner realities: lusts, fears, hatreds, self indulgences. It subscribes to nothing but itself -- no belief systems, no true believers, no religion, no politics. It is a linguistic equivalent of Freud's id:

the dark, inaccessible part of our personality, [...] a chaos, a cauldron full of seething excitations [...] striving to bring about the satisfaction of the instinctual needs subject to the observance of the pleasure principle.

Check the slang dictionary, all 130,000 terms; check the themes that dominate it. In its determinedly macho vocabulary slang reminds me of nothing so much as one of those pictograms that depict the male body as sensed by its inhabitant: the brain is tiny; the mouth and hands huge; the penis vast. A few examples:

A Complete Timeline of the Slang Terms for 'Drunk'
drunk

A Complete Timeline of the Slang Terms for 'Penis'
penis

A Complete Timeline of the Slang Terms for 'Fool'
fool

Equate the entire English language with a traditional newspaper: slang represents the crime pages, the gossip column and in every sense the "sports pages." It is the film noir of language, its pulp fiction. There are few if any happy endings and a good laugh is the encounter of pomposity and banana-skin. Its pessimistic, deflatory vocabulary echoes the same dreams of loss and exclusion that underpin noir and give slang something to rail against.

Slang is language's equivalent of the comedian Lenny Bruce's dictum: "Everybody wants what should be. But there is no what should be, there is only what is." And a sort of lexical WikiLeaks, revelatory of our own otherwise guarded opinions.

It is voyeuristic, amoral, libertarian and libertine. It is vicious. It is cruel. It is self-indulgent. It is funny. It is fun. Given its position on the margins one might see it as a means of self-affirmation: I denigrate/blaspheme/utter obscenities, therefore I am. Slang is aggressive, angry. It is frustrated by the way the world works, by the hypocrisy of the powerful.

Slang refuses to take the whole game seriously: cynical and insolent (but its cynicism is that of the failed romantic and who, pray, defines what is insolent?) it pricks the bubbles of the self-regarding. It operates as a vehicle for a side of the collective imagination: down-market, of course, lacking "taste" (and like "insolence," what exactly is "taste"?), but hugely energetic, and at its best devoid of artifice and affect.

Slang is the sound of the city: its over-riding image is of speed, fluidity, movement. Its words are seen as "casual," "playful," "ephemeral," "racy," "humorous," "irreverent." These are not the terminology of lengthy, measured consideration. Slang's words are twisted, turned, snapped off short, re-launched at a skewed angle. Some with their multiple, and often contrasting definitions seem infinitely malleable, shape-shifting: who knows what hides round their syllabic corners. It is not a language that works out of town; it needs the hustle and bustle, the rush, the lights, the excitement and even the muted (sometimes far from muted) sense of impending threat.

Slang has a bad rep; gets a bad rap. Negative value judgments: "sub-standard," "low," "vulgar," "unauthorized". The word we are seeking is street. Street as noun, more recently street as adjective. The vulgar tongue. The gutter language. It's a truly man-made language. Women are objects, never subjects. Maybe it's not just the street but that corner where the guys hang.

Slang has a story, and that story has universal themes. Slang's thematic range is not wide, though its synonymy runs very deep, and one can see the same ideas recurring from classical Greek and Latin onwards. Even if the individual terms that make up the vocabulary may be dismissed as "ephemeral" -- and more stay than disappear -- the persistence of these themes ensures that slang lasts.

Creating a series of timelines from my database, I find around 1,400 terms for each of the male and female giblets; a further 1,800 for bringing them into intimate contact. Moving beyond sex -- provider in all of some 10% of the lexis -- the mad and their afflictions are good for 900 and fools and their fantasies for 1,600 more. Money brings 3,300, drugs 4,000, alcohol and its consumers 4,600 and surmounting all are 5,000 drawn from crime.

Slang insults, slang mocks, slang teases and disdains. Caring, sharing, selflessness and compassion? please. If it has one abstract concept, it is doubt, with which it gleefully undermines every vestige of true belief. At its heart, even its most obscene and gutter-dwelling heart, it is subversive. This is not political subversion, but subversion of the English language itself. And by subverting English, it subverts the givens of the world that English informs. So many of its terms do no more than turn standard usages upside down. Appropriating them for reinterpretations that mock their lost respectability.

Slang does not exist to comfort the afflicted nor to make anyone feel "better". There is no feel-good factor (other, perhaps, than the masturbatory). Its role is to afflict the comfortable. It is a vote for the disenfranchised. Or possibly those who simply eschew the polls.

It's a "limited vocabulary" say the haters, but using slang demands articulacy, offering itself to those who lack the mastery of standard usage. And articulacy, like beauty, is wholly relative. I watch "The Wire." A five minute scene with no script but the iteration of fuck, its compounds, its derivations and its phrasal verbs. I read James Ellroy: "The studio scrape doc was a lez named Ruth Mildred Cressmeyer. Ruthie owned a dyke slave den [and] botched a scrape on Bill McPherson's coon squeeze..." If these are not poetry then perhaps it is me that lacks articulacy.

The novelist Peter Carey, discussing coal, anthracite and mineral oil, terms theirs to be "practical smells". To me slang "smells" too: practical not ephemeral, the heady, urgent stench of reality.

Jonathan Green is the author of The Vulgar Tongue: Green's History of Slang

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