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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

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

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