Tuesday, May 21, 2024

My slang-ophilia - a history


For a writer with the proper equipment – an ear, curiosity enough to kill a dozen cats, and a large capacity for laziness -  Twitter, Tik Tok, blogs and the infinite cesspool of comments on Internet is all, somehow, quicksilver, full of slang mutants that often live have the half-lives of a celebrity goof on a reality tv show but that flash, in their plunge towards death, some signal from the Weltgeist. Some unutterable, utterable sadness.  The slang, the acronyms, the rapid erasures of jargon and slogan, I am in love with them beyond any ideological position.

This love of slang: it has a deep history. Before Rabelais, there were the Roman satirists, like Juvenal, and before Juvenal, Aristophanes, and before Aristophanes, the scribes of Egypt. I suppose. According to W. Puck Brecher’s The Aesthetics of Strangeness, the Japanese thematic of kyo, or madness, which generated a whole subculture in 18th and early nineteenth century Japan, was attracted to the eccentric possibilities of slang – which seems to be paralleled by the way obscene slang became politicized under the French Revolution, particularly by the rather disgusting Hebert, the writer of Pere Duchesne, a revolutionary journal that made the word fuck a regicidal weapon. “I am the real Pere Duchesne, foutre” was the slogan of the journal. Hebert became, by one of those odd throws of the dice of history, one of Marie Antoinette’s judges, and in a glorious moment, when he accused her of incest with her boy, she appealed to all the women in attendance to help her – and they rioted.

The charge was withdrawn.

According to Charles Brunet, Hebert’s biography, the newsboys in Paris in the 1790s would sell his journal with the catchphrase, “Il est bougrement en colère aujourd’hui le Père Duchesne!” “He is bleeding angry today, Père Duchesne!” Bloody, of course, used to be more vulgar than it is now.

The love of slang in modernism – its use – was part of a double movement, on the one hand towards erudite reference, on the other hand towards popular culture: Leopold Bloom’s love of Paul de Kock, or Eliot’s love of music hall, on the one hand, the footnotes to the Wasteland on the other. Modernism, whatever it was and is, is a difficult vehicle for straightforward ideological readings. In France, Marcel Schwob, the great friend of Colette and the great admirer of Robert Louis Stevenson, wrote a famous essay on slang – argot. The connection between class, colonialism and the stranger comes out where it always does, in the metaphoric:

And it isn’t an affair, here, of the slang of the métier, the technical languages that exercize a necessary influence on the names of instruments, or of mechanical procedures ; the slang which we study is the special speech of the dangerous classes of society. An imperious necessity pushes us to produce this language. The words of our language are neither chased after nor tracked. But those of raw speech live approximately with the respresentative of social justice like the miners in Arizona with the Arapahoe Indians. Thus these miners form a young nation, vivacious, which immigrates and colonizes constantly. Slang is like a nation of miners which disembarked on our shores with cargos of immigrants. It is easy to see that these ports of arrival are divided between high society and low. At the low end, are the workers who gather the words and carry them towards the center of language. The terms so introduced are often designated in the dictionaries as « vulgar ».  

The metaphor of the miners and the Arapahoes never quite works, at least in as much as it is supposed to do conceptual work. Slang is the miner; always colonizing, always emigrating, always tearing up the land and water. But in this image, the Arapahoes are the social police – which inverts the usual colonialist hierarchy without making much sense. Schwob moves on to a more illuminating metaphor when he seizes on the miners as emigrants, making, in a sense, in their underground tunnels a movement towards the center of language.

The nearness of slang to “life” is a common trope among the slangophiliacs. Mencken took from Whitman his interest in “Americanisms” and American slang, and quoted Whitman’s wonderful demand for a Real Dictionary:

“The Real Dictionary will give all the words that exist in use, the bad words as well as any. The Real Grammar will be that which declares itself a nucleus of the spirit of the laws, with liberty to all to carry out the spirit of the laws, even by violating them, if necessary. . . . These States are rapidly supplying themselves with new words, called for by new occasions, new facts, new politics, new combinations. Far plentier additions will be needed, and, of course, will be supplied. . . . Many of the slang words are our best; slang words among fighting men, gamblers, thieves, are powerful words. . . . The appetite of the people of These States, in popular speeches and writings, is for unhemmed latitude, coarseness, directness, live epithets, expletives, words of opprobrium, resistance. This I understand because I have the taste myself as large, as largely, as any one.”

Probably Schwob knew of Whitman, since he was an Anglophile, and Whitman was a reference in the 1890s. The idea that we put the declaration of independence in our mouths anytime we speak shakes off the dead forms of Victorian British English – makes the language live. This battle is always being waged – as for instance in the battle over black English, which gets a going over in the movie American Fiction – although there the direction taken is rather the reverse of what one expects, not a defence of black English but a glance into how it becomes exoticized, commodified and neoliberalated.

Mencken was inclined to think that slang words were invented by some particular someone. And this may be, but slang dies if it is just some cute invention. It is slang because it is taken up, used and evolved. That Jack Doyle, the “keeper of a billiard academy in New York City”, invented hard-boiled may or may not be true, but hard-boiled is a mass event, as slang.  Like jokes, generally, slang is unsigned. As a philologist, one might be interested in the fact that John Marston the Elizabethan playwright invented the word “puffy” – but its manifold use is a matter of reinvention and readjustment. When I was writing my novel, Made a Few Mistakes, I had a character who founded a magazine about strip joints, and I wanted some grasp of stripper slang. I went to Tumblr, which was before it committed suicide and excluded porno, and found many stripper written sites. There I had a whole course in the argot of the metier – for instance, I learned about “rain.” For a writer, the internet is a wonderland -as is a bar, a street argument, and a group of tourists at Notre Dame.

Sometimes, it is all good.




Anonymous said...

I so love this post! So many directions to go with it...I'll restrict myself to - as they say on the internet and talk shows in the US - 'a question and a comment'. The question: is slang/argot not also a question of idiom(s)? And thus also a matter of what resists translation but also calls for it?
The comment: well, the question comes from someone you know. A young woman who was accepted into the highly competitive ENS philo program and said screw it. Worked as a bartender in NYC across a range - the high-roller financial/celebrity joints and the dive bars. Nobody quite understood why, but your post explains why - at least in part.

- Sophie

Roger Gathmann said...

Thank you Sophie! Translation, slang, identity - your question targets a very old politico-linguistic problem. As Mencken pointed out long ago, British animadversions on American slang mistook an idiom for slang. But how idiom shades into slang, how the whole view of correct language is absorbed in questions of who has the power of the tongue is, well, a problem we all wrestle with.
As for that young woman - she never yielded to some easy reading, some pompous translation of her songline, that is for sure! I miss that.

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