Take a butcher's at this: a new history of slang

Vulgar Tongues: an Alternative History of English Slang gathers material from a mind-boggling range of sources – but still leaves you wanting more.

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In 1950, the postwar crime reporter Percy Hoskins (of the Daily Express) published a book whose title was appropriated by a British television series in the late 1960s and 1970s. This book – No Hiding Place! – promised to be “the full authentic story of Scotland Yard in action”, and it remains a compulsive read today, not least for its helpful guide to underworld slang, presented in an appendix “for the benefit of the young detective”.

From this, we learn such standard slang terms as “bracelets” for handcuffs, “dabs” for fingerprints and “milky” for cowardly, but also less guessable coinages, such as: “He did a tray on the cave-grinder” (he got three months’ hard labour), “kybosh” (one shilling and sixpence) and “on the jamclout” (shoplifting).

At this distance in time, such unlikely stuff probably raises more questions than it answers. For example, why would “on the jamclout” mean shoplifting, when “jamclout” surely means sanitary towel? Was Hoskins being had on? Were unscrupulous criminals shooting him a line?

Consulting other, later slang dictionaries, I couldn’t find the expression at all, but if we go back to the trusty Eric Partridge, in A Dictionary of the Underworld (1949), we find him quoting a source from 1933: “One member of a team makes a small purchase and holds the clerk’s attention while the other steals.” Aha. You will notice that Partridge doesn’t specify the type of small purchase, perhaps out of delicacy, but I think we are finally getting closer to the etymology, if we use our loaves to join the dots.

This is the trouble with books on slang. However exhaustive they are, they always leave you asking, “But why?” Max Décharné’s engaging book Vulgar Tongues is a spectacular feat, collating information from a mind-boggling range of sources – from jazz lyrics to dime novels, from 18th-century brothel directories to 1960s criminal autobiographies.

Take a word such as “chippie”, meaning whore. Décharné gives us a couple of quotations from Dashiell Hammett’s Red Harvest (1929) and Raymond Chandler’s The High Window (1942) – which is where you would expect him to find some. But his killer examples are the title of the jazz record “Chasin’ Chippies” by Cootie Williams and His Rug Cutters (1938) and an exchange from a 1960 Chester Himes novel set in Harlem, The Big Gold Dream:

 

“I was watching out for my girls,” Dummy replied.

“Your girls?”

“He’s got two chippie whores,” Grave Digger replied. “He’s trying to teach them how to hustle.”

 

Confronted with such impressively wide reading, it seems churlish to ask for more. Yet I find it frustrating that someone so immersed in jive talk doesn’t ask bigger questions about it. Every chapter (on sex, crime, the police, and so on) is written in the same way, and with the same basic purpose: to impress the reader with the variety and colourful nature of historical slang, and to prove through a plethora of examples that words that you thought were coined in 1965 had been around (sometimes meaning something else) since the 19th century, or at least since the Jazz Age. “Groovy” was not coined by Paul Simon for his “59th Street Bridge Song”, for example. Originally it meant what you would assume it to mean: in a groove, boring, square.

Slang words often start out as the property of an in-group and, when they escape into the daylight, they can either catch on or transform themselves horribly (take the dire fate of “hipster”). At other times, the slang meanings of normal words simply die and are forgotten. While reading this book, I heard on BBC Radio 3 the announcement of a “Young Brass Award” and choked on my teacake (“brass”, in the old days, being yet another word for whore).

What I wanted from Décharné was impossible. I wanted him to think about the purpose of slang. I was brought up speaking mostly slang and, in most social situations even today, I have to edit my speech, for fear of sounding like Eliza Doolittle in My Fair Lady – speaking in a middle-class accent but using expressions such as: “What I say is, them as pinched it, done her in.” Once, as a guest on CNN’s American Morning, I panicked while trying to think of a way of saying “punch their face in” and resorted to “showed them a bunch of fives”, which was considerably more baffling as far as the lovely news anchor Soledad O’Brien was concerned.

The slang of my mum’s generation is the default language of my thoughts. When­ever I hear of someone going on exotic trips, I want to say (as my nan would have done), “You get about in your tea half-hour.” When I’m racing upstairs with the dogs, I often exhort them, “Come on, come on, up the apples!”

So, for me, slang is mainly about belonging (and nostalgia), but also about borrowed wit. People pick up slang and use it to make themselves sound more clever and original, but self-evidently it’s not original at all. When you use slang expressions, you are reaching lazily for the pre-existing. This puts a unique pressure on slang. More so than any other branch of language, it has to evolve or die. Décharné never asks the question, but in all the cheap novels he cites in this book, do the authors expect their readers to understand the slang, or to be dazzled (or even worried) by it? Slang seems to operate to its full advantage when it collides with people who have no idea what it means.

I was so pleased that Décharné cites the Howard Hawks film Ball of Fire (1941). Written by Billy Wilder and Charles Brackett, it gives us Gary Cooper as a strait-laced professor of English brought face-to-face with a showgirl called Sugarpuss O’Shea (Barbara Stanwyck), whose effortless slang expressions include, “shove in your clutch” (go away) and “What’s buzzin’, cousin?” (what’s occurring?) – although the best line in the film is given to her mobster boyfriend, played by Dana Andrews: “She sulks if she has to wear last year’s ermine.”

The main effect of reading Vulgar Tongues, in my case, was to make me feel inadequate and poorly read. Why had I never heard of You Can’t Win (1926), the “classic” hobo memoir by Jack Black, or Robin Cook’s “landmark” debut novel, The Crust on Its Uppers (1962)? Good heavens, I didn’t even know that Cootie Williams had a band called the Rug Cutters!

I disagree a bit with the book’s subtitle – An Alternative History of English Slang – as so many of the words and phrases turn out to be American in origin. I also think that it’s a shame that no one pointed Décharné towards No Hiding Place! by Percy Hoskins, with its invaluable appendix giving us “on the riprap” (cadging) and “on the ear ’ole” (also cadging).

But you finish this book agreeing with John Simpson, the recently retired chief editor of the Oxford English Dictionary, who campaigned throughout his tenure to gather words from wider sources. His predecessor Robert Burchfield preferred to wait for words and expressions to be used in respectable quarters, such as the Times newspaper and the literary novel. I’m guessing that you could waste several decades waiting for the expression “shove in your clutch” to turn up in the novels of A S Byatt. Meanwhile, the language would be much the poorer without it.

Lynne Truss’s books include “Eats, Shoots and Leaves” (Fourth Estate)

Vulgar Tongues: an Alternative History of English Slang by Max Décharné is published by Serpent’s Tail (400pp, £14.99)

This article appears in the 15 December 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Christmas and New Year special 2016