Heroes of Slang: Charles Dickens

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.


image ©Gabriel Green
You can buy Green’s Dictionary of Slang, as well as Jonathon’s more slimline Chambers Slang Dictionary, plus other entertaining works, at his Amazon page. Jonathon also blogs and Tweets.
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About Author Profile: Jonathon Green

Jonathon 'Mr Slang' Green is the world's leading lexicographer of English slang. You can buy Green's Dictionary of Slang, as well as Jonathon's more slimline Chambers Slang Dictionary, plus other entertaining works, at his Amazon page. Jonathon also blogs and Tweets.

7 thoughts on “Heroes of Slang: Charles Dickens

  1. Worm
    February 2, 2012 at 12:51

    One bit iof Dickensian slang that I can think of right off the top of my head is ‘Brimstone and Treacle’ (porridge) from Nicolas Nicolby, and, in song form in Smike (shudder)

    Regarding the whole ‘W’ for ‘V’ thing – would it be fair to say that it probably seems much more pronounced when you read it in print than Dickens actually intended? Do you think it was supposed to sounded something like how Buster Merryfield spoke in Only Fools and Horses?

  2. andrewnixon@blueyonder.co.uk'
    February 2, 2012 at 13:10

    Strange that Oliver Twist should account for a quarter of his slang uses. Is there a biographical reason I wonder – ie. was he particularly slumming it at the time?

    • jgslang@gmail.com'
      February 2, 2012 at 13:34

      There are appx 720 slang terms used by Dickens; of these 186 come from Oliver Twist. A bit over 25% of the total. Of course such figures are necessarily iffy, or the total is – I have probably not read every word of CD, and if I have, I may well have missed some slang – but it’s definitely in the ballpark. Was Dickens slumming? No.Was Dickens showing off his knowledge of criminal cant as used by the Victorian underworld – which terms make up the bulk of the OT lexis? Probably, but being Dickens he would have made sure that he had done the research (perhaps through personal knowledge and very probably via Pearce Egan’s 1823 revision of Francis Grose’s slang dictionary of 1785). Thus his underworld scenes are so much more authentic, at least linguistically, than those of the echt-Newgate novels produced by Ainsworth or Lytton, whose cant is far more patchy and often anachronistic. (And unlike Ainsworth, Dickens was not tempted to create his own ‘olde worlde’ canting songs).

      • Brit
        February 2, 2012 at 20:32

        Thanks JG – so it’s mostly due to the characters (Artful Dodger etc)

  3. Worm
    February 2, 2012 at 14:08

    by the way…in the left of picture above – Les Dawson or what!?…

  4. info@shopcurious.com'
    February 3, 2012 at 21:34

    I just love reading your posts! Canting songs and slang for ‘money’….reminds me of contemporary rap/hip-hop culture. Wouldn’t surprise me if that’s something you’re an expert on too, Jonathon?

  5. jonhotten@aol.com'
    February 4, 2012 at 18:26

    Great as ever. Dickens inspired Camden Hotten in more ways than one didn’t he? One of the first examples of a cash-in biog?

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