How to Speak and Write Correctly
By Joseph Devlin

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Chapter XI


Origin–American Slang–Foreign Slang

Slang is more or less common in nearly all ranks of society and in every walk of life at the present day. Slang words and expressions have crept into our everyday language, and so insiduously, that they have not been detected by the great majority of speakers, and so have become part and parcel of their vocabulary on an equal footing with the legitimate words of speech. They are called upon to do similar service as the ordinary words used in everyday conversation–to express thoughts and desires and convey meaning from one to another. In fact, in some cases, slang has become so useful that it has far outstripped classic speech and made for itself such a position in the vernacular that it would be very hard in some cases to get along without it. Slang words have usurped the place of regular words of language in very many instances and reign supreme in their own strength and influence.

Cant and slang are often confused in the popular mind, yet they are not synonymous, though very closely allied, and proceeding from a common Gypsy origin. Cant is the language of a certain class–the peculiar phraseology or dialect of a certain craft, trade or profession, and is not readily understood save by the initiated of such craft, trade or profession. It may be correct, according to the rules of grammar, but it is not universal; it is confined to certain parts and localities and is only intelligible to those for whom it is intended. In short, it is an esoteric language which only the initiated can understand. The jargon, or patter, of thieves is cant and it is only understood by thieves who have been let into its significance; the initiated language of professional gamblers is cant, and is only intelligible to gamblers.

On the other hand, slang, as it is nowadays, belongs to no particular class but is scattered all over and gets entre into every kind of society and is understood by all where it passes current in everyday expression. Of course, the nature of the slang, to a great extent, depends upon the locality, as it chiefly is concerned with colloquialisms or words and phrases common to a particular section. For instance, the slang of London is slightly different from that of New York, and some words in the one city may be unintelligible in the other, though well understood in that in which they are current. Nevertheless, slang may be said to be universally understood. “To kick the bucket,” “to cross the Jordan,” “to hop the twig" are just as expressive of the departing from life in the backwoods of America or the wilds of Australia as they are in London or Dublin.

Slang simply consists of words and phrases which pass current but are not refined, nor elegant enough, to be admitted into polite speech or literature whenever they are recognized as such. But, as has been said, a great many use slang without their knowing it as slang and incorporate it into their everyday speech and conversation.

Some authors purposely use slang to give emphasis and spice in familiar and humorous writing, but they should not be imitated by the tyro. A master, such as Dickens, is forgivable, but in the novice it is unpardonable.

There are several kinds of slang attached to different professions and classes of society. For instance, there is college slang, political slang, sporting slang, etc. It is the nature of slang to circulate freely among all classes, yet there are several kinds of this current form of language corresponding to the several classes of society. The two great divisions of slang are the vulgar of the uneducated and coarse-minded, and the high-toned slang of the so-called upper classes–the educated and the wealthy. The hoyden of the gutter does not use the same slang as my lady in her boudoir, but both use it, and so expressive is it that the one might readily understand the other if brought in contact. Therefore, there are what may be styled an ignorant slang and an educated slang–the one common to the purlieus and the alleys, the other to the parlor and the drawing-room.

In all cases the object of slang is to express an idea in a more vigorous, piquant and terse manner than standard usage ordinarily admits. A school girl, when she wants to praise a baby, exclaims: “Oh, isn’t he awfully cute!” To say that he is very nice would be too weak a way to express her admiration. When a handsome girl appears on the street an enthusiastic masculine admirer, to express his appreciation of her beauty, tells you: “She is a peach, a bird, a cuckoo,” any of which accentuates his estimation of the young lady and is much more emphatic than saying: “She is a beautiful girl,” “a handsome maiden,” or “lovely young woman.”

When a politician defeats his rival he will tell you “it was a cinch,” he had a “walk-over,” to impress you how easy it was to gain the victory.

Some slang expressions are of the nature of metaphors and are highly figurative. Such are “to pass in your checks,” “to hold up,” “to pull the wool over your eyes,” “to talk through your hat,” “to fire out,” “to go back on,” “to make yourself solid with,” “to have a jag on,” “to be loaded,” “to freeze on to,” “to bark up the wrong tree,” “don’t monkey with the buzz-saw,” and “in the soup.” Most slang had a bad origin. The greater part originated in the cant of thieves’ Latin, but it broke away from this cant of malefactors in time and gradually evolved itself from its unsavory past until it developed into a current form of expressive speech. Some slang, however, can trace its origin back to very respectable sources.

“Stolen fruits are sweet” may be traced to the Bible in sentiment. Proverbs, ix:17 has it: “Stolen waters are sweet.” “What are you giving me,” supposed to be a thorough Americanism, is based upon Genesis, xxxviii:16. The common slang, “a bad man,” in referring to Western desperadoes, in almost the identical sense now used, is found in Spenser’s Faerie Queen, Massinger’s play “A New Way to Pay Old Debts,” and in Shakespeare’s “King Henry VIII.” The expression “to blow on,” meaning to inform, is in Shakespeare’s “As You Like it." “It’s all Greek to me” is traceable to the play of “Julius Caesar." “All cry and no wool” is in Butler’s “Hudibras.” “Pious frauds," meaning hypocrites, is from the same source. “Too thin,” referring to an excuse, is from Smollett’s ’Peregrine Pickle.” Shakespeare also used it.

America has had a large share in contributing to modern slang. “The heathen Chinee,” and “Ways that are dark, and tricks that are vain,” are from Bret Harte’s Truthful James. “Not for Joe,” arose during the Civil War when one soldier refused to give a drink to another. “Not if I know myself” had its origin in Chicago. “What’s the matter with––? He’s all right,” had its beginning in Chicago also and first was “What’s the matter with Hannah.” referring to a lazy domestic servant. “There’s millions in it,” and “By a large majority” come from Mark Twain’s Gilded Age. “Pull down your vest,” “jim-jams,” “got ’em bad,” “that’s what’s the matter,” “go hire a hall,” “take in your sign,” “dry up,” “hump yourself,” “it’s the man around the corner,” “putting up a job,” “put a head on him,” “no back talk,” “bottom dollar,” “went off on his ear," “chalk it down,” “staving him off,” “making it warm,” “dropping him gently,” “dead gone,” “busted,” “counter jumper,” “put up or shut up," “bang up,” “smart Aleck,” “too much jaw,” “chin-music,” “top heavy," “barefooted on the top of the head,” “a little too fresh,” “champion liar,” “chief cook and bottle washer,” “bag and baggage,” “as fine as silk,” “name your poison,” “died with his boots on,” “old hoss,” “hunkey dorey,” “hold your horses,” “galoot” and many others in use at present are all Americanisms in slang.

California especially has been most fecund in this class of figurative language. To this State we owe “go off and die,” “don’t you forget it," “rough deal,” “square deal,” “flush times,” “pool your issues,” “go bury yourself,” “go drown yourself,” “give your tongue a vacation,” “a bad egg,” “go climb a tree,” “plug hats,” “Dolly Vardens,” “well fixed," “down to bed rock,” “hard pan,” “pay dirt,” “petered out,” “it won’t wash,” “slug of whiskey,” “it pans out well,” and “I should smile." “Small potatoes, and few in the hill,” “soft snap,” “all fired,” “gol durn it,” “an up-hill job,” “slick,” “short cut,” “guess not,” “correct thing” are Bostonisms. The terms “innocent,” “acknowledge the corn," “bark up the wrong tree,” “great snakes,” “I reckon,” “playing ’possum," “dead shot,” had their origin in the Southern States. “Doggone it,” “that beats the Dutch,” “you bet,” “you bet your boots,” sprang from New York. “Step down and out” originated in the Beecher trial, just as “brain-storm” originated in the Thaw trial.

Among the slang phrases that have come directly to us from England may be mentioned “throw up the sponge,” “draw it mild,” “give us a rest,” “dead beat,” “on the shelf,” “up the spout,” “stunning,” “gift of the gab," etc.

The newspapers are responsible for a large part of the slang. Reporters, staff writers, and even editors, put words and phrases into the mouths of individuals which they never utter. New York is supposed to be the headquarters of slang, particularly that portion of it known as the Bowery. All transgressions and corruptions of language are supposed to originate in that unclassic section, while the truth is that the laws of polite English are as much violated on Fifth Avenue. Of course, the foreign element mincing their “pidgin” English have given the Bowery an unenviable reputation, but there are just as good speakers of the vernacular on the Bowery as elsewhere in the greater city. Yet every inexperienced newspaper reporter thinks that it is incumbent on him to hold the Bowery up to ridicule and laughter, so he sits down, and out of his circumscribed brain, mutilates the English tongue (he can rarely coin a word), and blames the mutilation on the Bowery.

’Tis the same with newspapers and authors, too, detracting the Irish race. Men and women who have never seen the green hills of Ireland, paint Irish characters as boors and blunderers and make them say ludicrous things and use such language as is never heard within the four walls of Ireland. ’Tis very well known that Ireland is the most learned country on the face of the earth–is, and has been. The schoolmaster has been abroad there for hundreds, almost thousands, of years, and nowhere else in the world to-day is the king’s English spoken so purely as in the cities and towns of the little Western Isle.

Current events, happenings of everyday life, often give rise to slang words, and these, after a time, come into such general use that they take their places in everyday speech like ordinary words and, as has been said, their users forget that they once were slang. For instance, the days of the Land League in Ireland originated the word boycott, which was the name of a very unpopular landlord, Captain Boycott. The people refused to work for him, and his crops rotted on the ground. From this time any one who came into disfavor and whom his neighbors refused to assist in any way was said to be boycotted. Therefore to boycott means to punish by abandoning or depriving a person of the assistance of others. At first it was a notoriously slang word, but now it is standard in the English dictionaries.

Politics add to our slang words and phrases. From this source we get “dark horse,” “the gray mare is the better horse,” “barrel of money," “buncombe,” “gerrymander,” “scalawag,” “henchman,” “logrolling,” “pulling the wires,” “taking the stump,” “machine,” “slate,” etc.

The money market furnishes us with “corner,” “bull,” “bear,” “lamb," “slump,” and several others.

The custom of the times and the requirements of current expression require the best of us to use slang words and phrases on occasions. Often we do not know they are slang, just as a child often uses profane words without consciousness of their being so. We should avoid the use of slang as much as possible, even when it serves to convey our ideas in a forceful manner. And when it has not gained a firm foothold in current speech it should be used not at all. Remember that most all slang is of vulgar origin and bears upon its face the bend sinister of vulgarity. Of the slang that is of good birth, pass it by if you can, for it is like a broken-down gentleman, of little good to any one. Imitate the great masters as much as you will in classical literature, but when it comes to their slang, draw the line. Dean Swift, the great Irish satirist, coined the word “phiz” for face. Don’t imitate him. If you are speaking or writing of the beauty of a lady’s face don’t call it her “phiz.” The Dean, as an intellectual giant, had a license to do so–you haven’t. Shakespeare used the word “flush” to indicate plenty of money. Well, just remember there was only one Shakespeare, and he was the only one that had a right to use that word in that sense. You’ll never be a Shakespeare, there will never be such another–Nature exhausted herself in producing him. Bulwer used the word “stretch” for hang, as to stretch his neck. Don’t follow his example in such use of the word. Above all, avoid the low, coarse, vulgar slang, which is made to pass for wit among the riff-raff of the street. If you are speaking or writing of a person having died last night don’t say or write: “He hopped the twig,” or “he kicked the bucket.” If you are compelled to listen to a person discoursing on a subject of which he knows little or nothing, don’t say “He is talking through his hat.” If you are telling of having shaken hands with Mr. Roosevelt don’t say “He tipped me his flipper.” If you are speaking of a wealthy man don’t say “He has plenty of spondulix,” or “the long green.” All such slang is low, coarse and vulgar and is to be frowned upon on any and every occasion.

If you use slang use the refined kind and use it like a gentleman, that it will not hurt or give offense to any one. Cardinal Newman defined a gentleman as he who never inflicts pain. Be a gentleman in your slang– never inflict pain.


Chapter I  •  Chapter II  •  Chapter III  •  Chapter IV  •  Chapter V  •  Chapter VI  •  Chapter VII  •  Chapter VIII  •  Chapter IX  •  Chapter X  •  Chapter XI  •  Chapter XII  •  Chapter XIII  •  Chapter XIV  •  Chapter XI

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