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The Life of Slang

Julie Coleman

n 1858, the Rev A Mursell complained to The Times that “hordes of barbarous words” were “threatening the entire extinction of genuine English”. With hindsight, he needn’t have worried, but slang continues to divide us, infuriating as many as it inspires. Is it a dangerous weed in the garden ofcultivated language, or a wild fruit grafted onto the native stock? Is it an adventurous new fashion or, Julie Coleman says, “thegarish and foolish clothes of the jester”?

For Coleman, a professor of English at Leicester University, and the author of several books on language, slang is actually neither reprehensible nor admirable — though it is, as she vividly demonstrates, completely fascinating. It is for her simply colloquial language taken to an extreme, an informal version of standard English that is “acceptable in fewer places and used by fewer people”. Yet slang is incredibly powerful. It signals our identity, winning us friends and enemies, making us attractive or repulsive, protecting us or endangering us, and marking out precisely where we stand on the multiple front lines in the wars between generations, sexes, ethnicities and nations.

What slang absolutely does not do, Coleman argues, is signal a limited vocabulary. This old schoolmasterly chestnut is “bosh (1834-), rot (1846-), tosh (1892-), crap (1898-), bullshit (1915-), bollocks (1919-) and pants (1994-)”. (Rather endearingly, whenever Coleman gives us a slang term she tells us precisely how long it has been around. This turns date-spotting into something of a sport. Who could have imagined that using “dead” for “very” dates back to 1589, that “like” was first used as an interjection in 1778, and that “hang out” is a Victorian expression? Who knew that “tool” meant “penis” as long ago as 1553?)

If anything, she argues, slang is really an extension of vocabulary. People who say something is “banging” or “wicked” certainly know the words great, fantastic, wonderful and excellent, Coleman explains. (And with a donnish twinkle, she notes that all these “standard” words of approval were slang when they first appeared.) They simply want their friends to know who they are, and to exclude anyone outside the gang.

Slang communicates attitudes and cements relationships. But it is not especially innovative or creative (users of slang do not actually invent the words they bat around, of course). Nor, says Coleman, is it necessarily youthful or radical. Only since the second world war, she says, have the young and the poor been its chief wielders. In the 19th century, public schoolboys and Oxbridge gentlemen were in the vanguard. During the first world war, it was infantry conscripts (their trench journals give us the earliest “zooms”, “joyrides” and “wangles”). Between the wars, it was flappers (girls who went around with “boyfriends” who got “perfectly shellacked”). In the second world war, it was RAF officers (who gave us “gungho”, from the Chinese meaning “work together”, and “banzai”, from a Japanese celebratory cry meaning “10,000 years”).

What all these outrageously diverse groups had in common, Coleman argues, was that they were living under pressure in dense social networks that mixed “belonging, isolation and continuity”. These are, apparently, the ingredients of the perfect primal soup from which slang can arise, as an answer to a need for self-expression. The navy never produced as much slang as the army because its shipbound groups were that bit too isolated — sailing talk thus remained as incomprehensible “jargon” to outsiders, not slang. Public schoolboys do not create as much slang as they did 100 years ago because they are less isolated and self-victimising than they were.

Tension and social isolation are exactly what make slang a teenage thing nowadays. And when youth is the key to identity, young people turn over their vocabulary rapidly to avoid sounding like sad oldies, or indeed the advertisers who now stalk vulture-like around youth language. Teenage terms of approval such as wizard (1922-), fantastic (1938-), supersonic (1947-), safe (1970-) and sound (1988-) may all still be in use but the people who use them aren’t cool any more.

“Cool” (1918-), incidentally, was uncool for a while but is now cool again. It probably won’t be for long. Ingeniously, Coleman traces the speed it has taken slang terms to cross the Atlantic and finds that transfer times are shortening. It took “ragtime” 17 years to reach Britain (in 1913). “Jazz” took just four years. “Swing” took two. After the 1970s, technology and marketing got the crossing time down to a year or so. “Bling”, which appeared in hip-hop records in April 1999, and in American newspapers in November, took barely a year to reach British newspapers.

Coleman is deliciously sharp on contemporary trends. Posh white teen­agers use African-American ghetto slang because they can thus “show their disdain for the standards and traditions of mainstream society without actually having to give up their privileges or go to the trouble of being creative in their own right”. That’s splendidly cattish and precise, but the real pleasure of this book lies in the long history of slang, which occupies its second half.

It begins with the Anglo-Saxons — or rather it doesn’t, because it seems they did not give us our swear-words. We know what Anglo-Saxons swore to their lords on the battlefield, Coleman explains, but we have no idea “what an Anglo-Saxon warrior shouted when he dropped his shield on his foot”. She suspects he didn’t have slang at all, because there wasn’t a linguistic standard to rebel against. The same was apparently true right up to Chaucer’s time, when “arses were called arses because that was the word for them”. Only once euphemisms arose did the original word become stigmatised.

Any decent book on language has to relish quotation, and Coleman digs up some crackers, ranging from Ben Jonson (“’Sdeath, you abominable pair of stinkards”) to her own students (“OMG, you can’t go out wearing that! Why? Because it’s bare gay”). In a splendid riff on our linguistic debt to music hall, she reveals that “jingoism” derives from a patriotic chorus that included the words “by jingo” (itself a euphemism for “by Jove”), that to “wing it” meant to undertake without necessary preparation, as if straight from the wings, and that “barnstorming” referred to theatrical tours of rural districts in which performances were aimed squarely at the unsophisticated.

Such etymologies are irresistible, and rise well above the usual spurious just-so stories that bedevil the field. Chav (1998) comes from the Anglo-Romany “chavvy”, meaning child — and thus “brash and loutish working-class youth”. It has nothing to do with Chatham. Yob (1859) is one of the only words to have made it into the language from back-slang (it is “boy”, backwards). As for rhyming slang, did anyone else not know that “berk” comes from “Berkley” or “Berkshire hunt”, and “blowing a raspberry” from “raspberry tart”?

All of this is dreadfully (1602), immensely (1654) enjoyable, but it is ultimately Coleman’s sociological theory of slang that lifts this book above the usual semi-disposable level of writing about rude words. If the writing occasionally lurches into textbookish territory, it is worth it: the thinking is there. What is most remarkable is the idea that if slang is a linguistic reaction to conflict or oppression, it needs that opposition in order to flourish. Without the standard, you don’t get the slang. Maybe the Rev A Mursell was talking tosh, but we needed him just as much as the rappers and RAF officers who gave us the tremendous (1812), excellent (1898) and indeed perfectly nang (current) language we enjoy today.

Gay, throughout the ages
1. Noble, beautiful, excellent (c.1325-1802)
2. a. Bright or lively-looking, colourful (a.1375-)
b. Showily dressed (a.1387-)
3. a. Carefree, light-hearted, merry (c.1400-)
4. a. Wanton, lascivious (c.1405-a.1450)
b. Dedicated to pleasure, uninhibited, promiscuous (1597-)
c. euphemistic (Of a woman) living by prostitution (?1795-1967)
d. originally US slang (Of men, at first, then also women) homosexual (1941-)
e. slang Foolish, stupid; socially inappropriate (1978-)

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