Slang

— Slang is the foe and the friend of the English language. Broadly defined, it is the using of a word or a phrase differently from the common acceptation. Its object may be to intensify meaning, or to hide the lack of meaning. This happens whenever one’s own vocabulary falls short of the demands of one’s thought. This is also the case when a writer or speaker quotes from a foreign tongue.

That is an implied confession that the native language is inadequate. It is like the bank check which one offers in payment when the pocket is empty. It is open to the same hazard as the check, that the account may be overdrawn, or the taker cannot be identified when presenting it. But on its face every check is a call upon the abundant wealth in the bank vaults, and every quotation from another language is a demand upon the thought stored up in that language. The only question is whether the quoter has the right to draw, and whether the hearer can make use of it. But many native slang phrases are like the irredeemable paper money of a bankrupt state, which for a time circulates because of convenience. It is in itself worthless, and there is nothing behind it. Other phrases and words are as the gold dust of Californian or Australian diggings. They are uncoined, but pass by weight and measure at coin rates till they reach the mint, and reappear as eagles or sovereigns. Now it is indisputable that a large part of any civilized tongue, and of the English speech in particular, is made up of just such additions. Every new discovery in art and science is like a placer, in this respect ; it is a fresh yield of ideas which at once obtain currency in language, and erelong are stamped with the image and superscription of authority. The phrase “ to coin a word ” expresses this fact. The most of the technical vocabulary of our language thus came into being.

The distinctive test of good slang from bad is that it has a real meaning. Bad slang has no meaning ; it is simply a succession of sounds which, because they come trippingly from the tongue, impose ou the ignorant imagination of the hearer. When the mathematical professor silenced the fishwife by calling her a “ scalene triangle,” a “parallelopiped,” and an “hypothenuse,” he used this weapon. As a rule, the slang of the very low classes, the thieves’ Latin, the “ argot,” the “ flash language,” is not inexpressive. Not only is its meaning clear enough to the initiated, but there is apt to be a vigorous and picturesque felicity in its terms when once their history is disclosed. For instance, the word “ soedollager,” once quite current, was manifestly an uneducated man’s transposition of “ doxologer,” which was the familiar New England rendering of “doxology.” This was the Puritan term for the verse of ascription used at the conclusion of every hymn, like the “ gloria ” at the end of a chanted psalm. Everybody knew the words of this by heart, and on doctrinal grounds it was proper for the whole congregation to join in the singing, so that it became a triumphant winding up of the whole act of worship. Now a “ soedollager ” was the term for anything which left nothing else to follow, a knockdown blow, a decisive, overwhelming finish, to which no reply was possible.

There is a slang of great cities which owes its whole life to senseless repetition. Its phrases are like the unsavory missiles caught up from the gutter, dead rats, old shoes, battered tins, which street Arabs throw at one another. To this order belong most party and national nicknames, class appellations ; and such slang may be described as the quintessence of vulgarity. They have their brief run in a city, get a place in the leaders of a daily journal or two, where they appear in quotation marks, as a pickpocket in irons before the court of police, and then disappear forever. Such terms as “in the soup,” “boodle,” “the bar’l,” “ fat - frying,” etc., belong to the more recent unsavory imbecilities of politics.

Good slang is idiomatically expressive, and has a narrow escape sometimes from being poetical. An English traveler had a quarrel with the mate of a Mississippi steamboat, and the case came into court. The counsel for the plaintiff, in his opening address to the jury, thus stated his cause of action : “ The first officer of the Bella Richards addressed my client in most violent and peremptory terms, and threatened him that if he did not immediately remove his personal effects from the entrance-way of the steamer he would precipitate him into the raging flood below.” The evidence of the bystanders as to the mate’s words was as follows : “ Look here, stranger, if you don’t tote your plunder off that gang-plank right smart, I ’ll spill you in the drink.”

It is to he hoped that these few lines will help to illustrate the distinction between the admissible and the objectionable, or, wider yet, between the desirable and the intolerable. Every new word which has a new meaning of its own, and is not a vain duplicate or pedantic substitute for a sufficient old one, enriches the language. Every metaphor which turns a new facet of diamantine thought to the light is a gain. Much of the slang which is religious, professional, mercantile, or political is made up of terms which have failed, chrysalids which have never broken through their limitations. But they might have done so, and soared aloft on butterfly wings as broad as any in Brazilian meadows. No one can say of a new word, on its first using, that it has come to stay, while the humblest term which lands on the shore of time may, like the unnoticed emigrant, have the future of a Stewart or an Astor awaiting it. He who first formed the word “ electricity ” from the Greek name of amber little thought what a family tree was to bourgeon therefrom in the ages after. So, again, a new word with the brightest of prospects, with the blue blood of the oldest American families, with every appearance of fitness, dies in the cradle of its primal proof-sheet, and is seen no more. The word “gerrymander,” born of an epigrammatic retort, has endured, while others as apt and euphonious have not even a headstone on the historic page. When I was a small boy, I lived in a town divided by a broad river from another smaller and less wealthy town. We called the boys from the opposite village " Coskies ; ” why, we did not know, but it was a word of obloquy, to be resented with fists and stonethrowing. I have since found out the reason. In the days of James Madison the town on the western shore was patriotically Federalist. The town opposite was bigotedly Democratic Republican. Hence its inhabitants were worshipers of Bonaparte, and were only fit to he called “ Corsicans,” which title of scorn the Boston Centinel (the proof-reader will kindly preserve the orthodox and ancient spelling) bestowed upon the radical and sans-culottic Democrats. Therefore the name which James Boswell, Esq., of Auchinleck, proudly wore in his hat at the Shakespeare Stratford Jubilee became, in my schooldays, a term of reviling and bitterness, albeit we were utterly ignorant why it should he. Long ago it went to its misspelt grave, and I, like Old Mortality, clean the moss from its headstone.

There is a moral to this desultoriness. (I came near writing " a moral pocket handkerchief,” but remembered just in time that this might be regarded as slang, even if spoken by Sam Weller, the immortal.) And this moral is that slang is to be eschewed. But another side of this moral is that one must make sure that what is rejected is slang, and not the protoplasm of legitimate and classic English. Protoplastic germs look uncommonly alike. And as a postscript moral, let me add that “ idioms,” that is " slang, " current in one language will not always hear literal translation into another. Unless the proper equivalent exists, the result is apt to be misleading. My friend Brown was disputing with a Swiss guide the tariff of the guide’s services. " Spalten wir den Unterschied ! ” (Let us split the difference), cried Brown. " Was? Wie meinen Sie ? ” answered the perplexed Helvetian. " Wie kann man einen Unterschied spalten ? ”