This week our roving wordsmith Jonathon Green rummages around in the output of our most famous Victorian writer, Charles Dickens, to see whether his urban characters spoke much in the way of realistic contemporary argot…
Dickens is 200 this year and who am I to eschew the bandwagon. Write, they say, of what you know, and that is slang so herewith a few thoughts on the bicentenarian Inimitable and his take on the counter-language.
In the first place it was not for the gentry. Even if the individual in question does not turn out ‘gentle’ until the end of a lengthy and convoluted plot worthy of the most melodramatic blood-and-thunder ‘Newgate Novel’, had Dickens not disavowed the genre. Thus Oliver Twist, despite a ‘workus’ upbringing and immersion in Fagin’s Saffron Hill lair, still manages to maintain his pure standard English. Nor, it seems, for the ladies. Nancy , her lowly position in prostitution’s hierarchy notwithstanding, strays nary a syllable from linguistic respectability. (One might like to believe that it was this gross implausibility that had Dickens kill her off, but probably not.)
The Wellers père et fils of The Pickwick Papers are far more feasible. What is Sam Weller but the echt-Cockney of the mid-19th century. Not until the arrival of Punch’s ’Arry in 1877, would he be replaced as the exemplar of the social type. (Weller’s cockneyisms also made him a best-seller: the fourteenth issue of Pickwick ran to 400 copies, the fifteenth, with Sam arrived, increased to 40,000). He declaims:
‘My father, Sir, wos a coachman. A widower he wos, and fat enough for anything—uncommon fat, to be sure. His missus dies, and leaves him four hundred pound. Down he goes to the Commons, to see the lawyer and draw the blunt—very smart—top boots on—nosegay in his button-hole—broad-brimmed tile—green shawl—quite the gen’l’m’n. Goes through the archvay, thinking how he should inwest the money—up comes the touter, touches his hat—“Licence, Sir, licence?!—“What’s that?” says my father.—“Licence, Sir,” says he.—“What licence?” says my father.—“Marriage licence,” says the touter.—“Dash my veskit,” says my father, “I never thought o’ that”.’
There is the celebrated ‘v’ for ‘w’ substitution (and vice versa), a certain amount of phrase-making, and the use of the historic present. But actually there is little real slang: nothing criminal and neither rhyming nor back-slang, although by the 1830s Sam ought to have known them both.
In public Dickens proclaimed himself anti-slang, but perhaps that should be ambivalent. In the issue of his journal Household Words for 24 September, 1853, he penned what appears at first to be an outspoken attack, calling for the once pure and undefiled English language to be rescued from ‘the sewerage of verbiage and of slang.’ He believed, like many before and after him, that slang was ruining the language, substituting cheap verbal short-cuts for genuine wit. He blamed America, ‘every Canvas Town epithet from the vocabularies of gold-diggers,’ but the British were equally culpable, employing without discrimination ‘every bastard classicism dragged head and shoulders from a lexicon by an advertising tradesman to puff his wares, every slip-slop Gallicism from the shelves of the circulating library.’
His solution would have pleased, and may even have inspired the still embryonic lexicographer John Camden Hotten. ‘I must express my opinion either that slang should be proscribed banished, prohibited, or that a New Dictionary should be compiled, in which all the slang terms now in use […] should be registered, etymologised, explained, and stamped with the lexicographic stamp, that we may have chapter and verse, mint and hall-mark for our slang. Let the new dictionary contain a well-digested array of the multitude of synonyms for familiar objects floating about; let them give a local habitation and a name to all the little by-blows of language skulking mid rambling about our speech, like the ragged little Bedouins about our shameless streets, and give them a settlement and a parish. If the evil of slang has grown too gigantic to be suppressed, let us at least give it decency by legalising it.’
‘The compiler of such a dictionary would have no light task. I can imagine him at work in the synonymous department. Only consider what a vast multitude of equivalents the perverse ingenuity of our slanginess has invented for the one generic word Money. Money—the bare, plain, simple word itself—has a sonorous, significant ring in its sound, and might have sufficed, yet we substitute for it—tin, rhino, blunt, rowdy, stumpy, dibbs, browns, stuff, ready, mopusses, shiners, dust, chips, chinkers, pewter, horsenails, brads [...] and then we come to specie—pieces of money. Sovereigns are yellow-boys, cooters, quids; crown-pieces are bulls and cart-wheels; shillings, bobs or benders ; sixpenny-pieces are fiddlers and tizzies; fourpenny pieces, joeys or bits; pence, browns, or coppers and mags.’
He offers further lists of synonyms for drunks and drinks, for men, for thieves, and to steal, to run away, to beat, a horse and a donkey, the hands and feet, boots, to pawn, for food, watches, policemen, magistrates and more.
But doesn’t he protest too much? Of course he has decided that slang is bad, and sets out to establish his case. But is this really ‘slang’? His definition of the form, notably in its lengthy teasing of upper class affectation, typically the use of unnecessary gallicisms, and the drawling substitution of ‘w’ for ‘l’ (‘Young Lord Fitzpurse speaks of himself and his aristocratic companions as ‘fellow; (very often pronounced “faywows”.’) and his critique of those classes very far above slang’s usual creators, is surely too broad. This is not slang as a gutter tongue. His target less the counter-language than the counter-jumper. A portmanteau term for anything he dismisses as witless, redundant word-play irrespective of any social group.
At the same time, as seen in his lists of synonyms his own knowledge of genuine slang, the language of the street, is impressive. All this, he claims, comes off the top of his head, and flatters his readers by suggesting that they will be able to come up with much more. One need only read his work to see that slang plays an important role, if only in characterising his lower-class players. Perhaps 25% of his uses come in Oliver Twist, and a proportion of that is cant, but there are hundreds more. To what extent his middle-class readership, safely barricaded within Household Words from the less savoury penny and threepenny ‘dreadfuls’, knew the slang as well as did its editor is unknown; but now, thanks to his expertise, they would know it was there.