FacebookTwitterGoogle+RedditEmail

Review: Max Décharné’s “Vulgar Tongues: An Alternative History of English Slang”

Often, what we call slang means dirty words. And dirty words were usually not dirty at the time of their origin or even considered to be so by the people who initially employed them (usually a sub-group of our society). Then these vulgar terms ran into various versions of Puritanism and/or censorship, and suddenly—after the people who considered them dirty fidgeted when they heard them or read them—they were outlawed and considered obscene. Yet, as Max Décharné writes in his fascinating study, Vulgar Tongues: An Alternative History of English Slang, this situation makes no sense at all today, especially, because on the Internet we can read about or view every kind of unimaginable (or perhaps for some imaginable) acts, even though we still feel compelled to watch our language, avoid the very words we are already familiar with. Who do we think we are fooling? There’s some hypocrisy here, but I’ll let that pass.

Most slang—especially what is not considered dirty—originated in specific sub-groups of our society. The list of obvious possibilities includes vagabonds, rogues, prostitutes, gangsters, hoodlums, hoods, and thieves, generally not considered mainstream or proper but on the margins of society. But as Décharné exhaustively illustrates, other more savory groups as musicians, policemen, the military, even geeks and nerds, have typically employed a specific vocabulary related to their work. Sometimes the vocabulary arises from an activity—such as drinking too much booze (an obvious slang term)—with considerable overlapping of profession and activity (music and drugs, for example).

Décharné begins his work by quoting the Oxford English Dictionary (OED), with three definitions of Slang, n: “a. The special vocabulary used by any set of people of a low or disreputable character; language of a low and vulgar type. b. The special vocabulary or phraseology of a particular calling or profession; the cant or jargon of a certain class or period. c. Language of a highly colloquial type, considered as below the level of standard educated speech, and consisting either of new words or of current words employed in some special sense.”

Those three categories pretty much cover the turf, even though more often than not those not included in one of these groups become interested in finding the definitions of words of a prurient nature. In my early adolescent, I looked up all the four-letter words I was familiar with only to discover that the dictionaries did not include those words. Then one day, I discovered Eric Partridge’s Dictionary of Slang, published in 1937, and there I began to discover what I was looking for. Voilà! That dictionary led me to other specialized dictionaries, and I was on my way.

It wasn’t long before I began to encounter fxxx in books I was reading and shortly later limericks, such as the following, that Décharné believes dates to the early 1940s, “likely of army origin.”

There was a young gaucho named Bruno
Who said ‘Screwing is one think I do know.
A woman is fine,
And a sheep is divine,
But a llama is Numero Uno.”

Well, it didn’t take long before the guys I palled around with were all making up their own limericks. But that’s what happens with slang and especially risqué language.

Décharné makes it absolutely clear that such language moves in waves through time from commonly expressed, to underground or forbidden, to aboveground again. In a chapter devoted to the oldest profession, he tells us that the first listing for cunt in the OED puts it in use in 1230: “…for hundreds of years this was not remotely a taboo or slang word, but merely everyday speech. It was a cognate with similar words in many European languages,” but then it shifted to improper, obscene. In 1691, a book was published that Décharné refers to as the forerunner of the modern telephone directory, but its subject was sex: A Catalogue of Jilts, Cracks, Prostitutes, Night-Walkers, Whores, She-friends, Kind Women, and Others of the Linnen-Lifting Tribe, who are to be Seen Every Night in the Cloysters in Smithfield, from the Hours of Eight to Eleven, during the Time of the Fair.

Fact is, many of the book and song titles cited in Vulgar Tongues are utterly delightful. Songs like “Banana in Your Fruit Basket” and “My Pencil Won’t Write No More,” a book titled Feeling You’re Behind, and the cult-movie Reefer Madness.  Double entendres have always abounded as one way to get around the censors. This has been especially true with popular music and the advent of professional recording studios in the United States, beginning with Rock’N’Roll, in the 1960s.

Décharné is legitimately worried about the new wave of Puritanism that emerged in the 1980s, carrying the name political correctness. But his conclusion illustrates the resilience of slang, unconventional language, always with us, always morphing into something else: “Slang used to come from the street, from the working stiffs, the grafters, the frails, the jack-rollers, the winchester geese, the hep-cats, the old lags, the mollies, the lobsters and the jug-bitten. Much of the time, it still does, but it is fighting against a tidal wave of fake language deployed by committees of marketing executives or by focus groups in the pay of politicians, all desperately seeking to look cool. In today’s online information blizzard, countless of billions of words are sent out into the fray in the hope of causing a Twitter storm, perhaps trending on Facebook, or else gaining a ludicrous number of plays on You Tube, alongside the tap-dancing kittens and latest celebrity Wardrobe malfunction.

He’s right. Anything that can be made commercial eventually will.

Max Décharné: Vulgar Tongues: An Alternative History of English Slang
Pegasus, 400 pp., $26.95

More articles by:

Charles R. Larson is Emeritus Professor of Literature at American University, in Washington, D.C. Email = clarson@american.edu. Twitter @LarsonChuck.

November 13, 2018
Patrick Cockburn
The Midterm Results are Challenging Racism in America in Unexpected Ways
Victor Grossman
Germany on a Political Seesaw
Cillian Doyle
Fictitious Assets, Hidden Losses and the Collapse of MDM Bank
Lauren Smith
Amnesia and Impunity Reign: Wall Street Celebrates Halliburton’s 100th Anniversary
Joe Emersberger
Moreno’s Neoliberal Restoration Proceeds in Ecuador
Carol Dansereau
Climate and the Infernal Blue Wave: Straight Talk About Saving Humanity
Dave Lindorff
Hey Right Wingers! Signatures Change over Time
Dan Corjescu
Poetry and Barbarism: Adorno’s Challenge
Patrick Bond
Mining Conflicts Multiply, as Critics of ‘Extractivism’ Gather in Johannesburg
Ed Meek
The Kavanaugh Hearings: Text and Subtext
Binoy Kampmark
Concepts of Nonsense: Australian Soft Power
November 12, 2018
Kerron Ó Luain
Poppy Fascism and the English Education System
Conn Hallinan
Nuclear Treaties: Unwrapping Armageddon
Robert Hunziker
Tropical Trump Declares War on Amazonia
John W. Whitehead
Badge of Shame: the Government’s War on Military Veterans
Will Griffin
Military “Service” Serves the Ruling Class
John Eskow
Harold Pinter’s America: Hard Truths and Easy Targets
Rob Okun
Activists Looking Beyond Midterm Elections
Binoy Kampmark
Mid-Term Divisions: The Trump Take
Dean Baker
Short-Term Health Insurance Plans Destroy Insurance Pools
George Wuerthner
Saving the Buffalohorn/Porcupine: the Lamar Valley of the Gallatin Range
Patrick Howlett-Martin
A Note on the Paris Peace Forum
Joseph G. Ramsey
Does America Have a “Gun Problem”…Or a White Supremacy Capitalist Empire Problem?
Weekend Edition
November 09, 2018
Friday - Sunday
Louis Proyect
Why Democrats Are So Okay With Losing
Andrew Levine
What Now?
Jeffrey St. Clair
Roaming Charges: Chuck and Nancy’s House of Cards
Brian Cloughley
The Malevolent Hypocrisy of Selective Sanctions
Marc Levy
Welcome, Class of ‘70
David Archuleta Jr.
Facebook Allows Governments to Decide What to Censor
Evaggelos Vallianatos
The Zika Scare: a Political and Commercial Maneuver of the Chemical Poisons Industry
Nick Pemberton
When It Comes To Stone Throwing, Democrats Live In A Glass House
Ron Jacobs
Impeach!
Lawrence Davidson
A Tale of Two Massacres
José Tirado
A World Off Balance
Jonah Raskin
Something Has Gone Very Wrong: An Interview With Ecuadoran Author Gabriela Alemán
J.P. Linstroth
Myths on Race and Invasion of the ‘Caravan Horde’
Dean Baker
Good News, the Stock Market is Plunging: Thoughts on Wealth
David Rosen
It’s Time to Decriminalize Sex Work
Dan Glazebrook
US Calls for a Yemen Ceasefire is a Cynical Piece of Political Theatre
Jérôme Duval
Forced Marriage Between Argentina and the IMF Turns into a Fiasco
Jill Richardson
Getting Past Gingrich
Dave Lindorff
Not a Blue Wave, But Perhaps a Foreshock
Martha Rosenberg
Dangerous, Expensive Drugs Aggressively Pushed? You Have These Medical Conflicts of Interest to Thank
Will Solomon
Not Much of a Wave
Nicolas J S Davies
Why Yemeni War Deaths are Five Times Higher Than You’ve Been Led to Believe
FacebookTwitterGoogle+RedditEmail