The Vulgar Tongue: Green's History of Slang
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Once the language of thieves and beggars, slang is an ever present part of today's culture for people across the strata. It allows us to connect to others, to express otherwise guarded thoughts, and to convey humor in the everyday. But how did slang escape its stigma as the language of the streets and integrate itself so seamlessly with "standard English?"
The Vulgar Tongue tells the full story of English language slang, from its origins in early British beggar books to its spread in American and Australian culture in the eighteenth century. The aim is not to record the history of the over 125,000 English words that make up the lexis. Rather, the author focuses on the common, often profane themes that run through the word-list--crime, sex, bodily parts and functions, insults, and drink and drugs--and their scope and function throughout the various cultures and overlapping subcultures of English language history, from the sporting world to the university campus to ethnic communities. In tracing its development and trajectory throughout the English-speaking world, Jonathon Green offers an impassioned defence for its vitality, showing how slang has grown into a modern, versatile vocabulary that has nevertheless established its own role in contemporary English.
Drawing on thirty years' worth of research, The Vulgar Tongue is a celebration of the words and phrases of an overlooked aspect of human language and interaction.
youth, coster, cheap clerk, counterjumper, bar-lounger, cheap excursionist, smoking-concert devotee, tenth-rate suburban singer, music hall ‘pro’ or his admirer, etc. etc.33 Whatever our reaction to ’Arry, we cannot deny that what makes him is his use of slang. The Sporting Times may have had Doss Chiderdoss’s weekly shot of its rhyming version, but ’Arry outdid the Pink ’Un in every line. Whether he is on the boulevards of ‘Parry’, punting on the river, commenting on adverse criticism in a
then married and opened up his own shop in Little Britain, still a centre of the literary world. It was not a success: its meagre profits were promptly tossed away on the gambling tables and Head judiciously packed up and relocated in Dublin. There he wrote a play, Hic et Ubique, or the Humours of Dublin, which, according to his biographer William Winstanley (in Lives of the Most Famous English Poets, 1687), was ‘acted privately with great applause’. Armed with this success he returned to London
in 1663 and had his hit printed, having removed the more ‘licentious’ portions. An attempt to rekindle his bookselling career failed: gambling remained both alluring and expensive; this second bookshop collapsed in its turn and Head was reduced to hackwork. He remained a hack, suffering vertiginous ups and downs and ‘many crosses and afflictions’ for what remained of his life, which ended, according to Winstanley, when in 1686 he drowned on a crossing to the Isle of Wight. John Aubrey, on the
greets the war by questioning Britain’s need for imperial troops, then at the end of the poem cycle he dies ‘a gallant gentleman’, killed in action at Gallipoli and a symbol of many thousands of other working-class Anzacs. All three authors wrote phonetically, Dyson perhaps the most emphatically so, though all attempt to reproduce the contemporary working-class accent. ‘A’ becomes ‘er’, ‘you’ ‘yer’ and ‘of’ ‘iv’; ‘h’s’ are invariably dropped, as are ‘th’s’. Syllables vanish. More pertinent is
their ultimate definition might be, were far from dour. Nor is rhyming slang invariably funny. Like any such creation, not least ‘mainstream’ slang itself, the best is admirable and witty, the worst – especially in many of its modern iterations – laboured and banal. The primary reason for its longevity is probably its adoption by the world of entertainment and popular media. It was not only Cockneys, already versed in the vocabulary, who appreciated hearing its use on stage. Both the cheap ‘penny