As the calendar flips over, Mr Slang’s thoughts turn to shysters, splodgers and time’s horrid advance…
Fugit irreparabile tempus, singula dum capti circumvectamur amore.*
Earlier this week the Editors, seeking to place us all – writers and readers both – on intellect’s Parnassus (I first typed ‘top shelf’ but I admit that only Mr Slang, and that but occasionally, so qualifies) eschewed such posts as The 5 Reasons to Look at Pippa Middleton’s Bottom while supporting Manchester United. My immediate thought was to pen just such an article – what is tone if it cannot be lowered? – but the reality is that these particular proper nouns leave me like some cobwebbed judge looking myopically up from polishing his glasses on his black cap and asking of the attendant court, ‘What are “the Beatles”.’ Ah, sweet days of yore and most judges are very likely younger than me these days.
This is not, I would stress, to set me among the mossybacks. I am aware of Ms M, of her appealing posterior (and indeed ‘bum’ or ‘ass’ as the 1.2m google hits denote it) and indeed of Cottonopolis’ muddied oafs (oaves?). But I care for neither and even fortified by my third caffè corretto of the a.m. (traditionalists may balk but Poire William is an admirable substitute for grappa) have nowt to offer.
Still, I strive, as Hizzoner might intone, to be ‘with it.’ If nothing else slang demands an eye on the literary ball and so it is even if slang’s (and thus my) definition of ‘literature’ may qualify as somewhat idiosyncratic. The most recent tome I consumed was a morsel of modern noir entitled Frank Sinatra in a Blender. Suffice it to say that Frank Sinatra was a diminutive Yorkshire terrier and the Blender was…a blender. For margaritas and such. I regularly ponder as to my ethnicity but never feel so English as when I realise that while I read the dog v. blender scene teeth a-gritted and fingers clasped across barely open eyes, I lapped up, para. by eviscerative para., the scene in which Frank’s owner, the good if somewhat stimulant-addled PI, took his shiny new chainsaw to the limbs of the bad, and self-pityingly vociferous, dog-molestor. (You will wish to know, I am sure, that while a paw was temporarily lost, it was sewn on and all are romping as our narrative draws to a close. Well, nearly all.)
A nod to judges (and to the rendering of justice as a branch of DIY) brings me to my promise of some posts back: a few words on the law and its primary beneficiaries. Yet what is there to say that the old pub sign, the tautological ‘Honest Lawyer’ – a gowned but headless figure, thus bereft of his most dangerous weapon: the tongue – cannot say much better. (The sign of the ‘Good Woman,’ similarly headless and silenced, might also be noted though it will gain nul points from this department). My own small book on criminal slang divides the profession’s nicknames into those based on verbosity, mendacity, mediocrity, greed, a devotion to dressing up and, over-riding all, corruption. Among those I enjoy are Australia’s spruiker (from Yiddish shpruch, a saying or Dutch spreken, to talk), in another life a tout for a carnival’s more than usually duplicitous sideshows; the 18th century’s ambidexter, who takes with both hands, and the 20th’s ambulance-chaser.
Then there is the kyfer: the least accessible term and the most recent. It comes from the Arabic kaif, ‘that which pleases one’, and keyif, ‘the amiable beauty of a fair woman’; the word is the root of kif, a form of hashish. Since the 19th century it has been used for the vagina and thence women regarded as sex objects (‘a bit of kyfer’). The legal use appeared in the 1990s and may perhaps be seen as a semi-euphemistic version of the derogatory use of cunt.
Then there is the lord chief injustice, the shyster. This has been linked to German, in this case Scheisse(r), ‘shit’/‘shitter’ although less distasteful (and perhaps less pertinent) is an alternative: the Dutch scheidsman or schiedsreichter, an arbitrator. Whatever the origin such gentlemen lack respect. As the New York Herald explained on 6 August 1874 the city’s courts ‘are steadily haunted by a host of vultures, who are known as ‘shysters’ but who profess to be called lawyers. With a few honorable exceptions these men are entirely without education or decency, and many of them cannot tell a volume of Parker’s Criminal Law from a Greek Testament.’ It was one of these whose name suggests yet another derivation: one Scheuster (pronounced ‘shyster’), whose courtroom antics so infuriated Justice Osborne of the city’s Essex Market Court that he began talking of ‘scheuster’ practices. Shyster may also reflect shicer, another use of Scheisse(r), which has meant a whore, a criminal, an idler and a defaulter on debts before reaching its most recent definition, a dishonest bookie and reminding us that the law shares more than its initial letter with the words luck and lottery. Oh yes, and larceny too.
No matter. My title refs to ‘time’ and its horrid advance and on that approaching April day when Hitler would have reached 124 I shall make 65. Thus my thoughts as the calendar flips over. In truth, other than the sheer unpleasantness of the fact, it makes little difference. I shall not retire – how can I? I have yet to attain gainful employment – and I needed merely to pass 60 to obtain the sole worthwhile badge of decrepitude, London Transport’s Freedom Pass. A search on ‘old man’ gives me 49 terms, a depressingly large proportion offering inferences of impotence or untoward ogling. I shall sidestep alte kaka, a Yiddishism that like shyster carries thoughts of defecation, and for once take refuge in rhyming slang: splodger, as in (old) codger, though that in turn appears to be linked to cadge, which is based on cache, to hide, or simply catch, and the images of course are miserliness, vagrancy and want.
*Virgil Georgics: ‘Time flees irretrievably, while we wander around, prisoners of our love of detail’
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.