This week Mr Slang takes us back to 19th Century America and a remarkable ‘Chronicle of the Turf, Agriculture, Field Sports, Literature, and the Stage’…
‘I’m a Salt River Roarer! I’m a ring-tailed squealer! I’m a reg’lar screamer from the ol’ Massassip’! WHOOP! I’m the very infant that refused his milk before its eyes were open, and called out for a bottle of old Rye! I love the women an’ I’m chockful o’ fight! I’m half wild horse and half cockeyed-alligator and the rest o’ me is crooked snags an’ red hot snappin’ turtle. I can hit like fourth-proof lightnin’ an’ every lick I make in the woods lets in an acre o’ sunshine. I can out-run, out-jump, out-shoot, out-brag, out-drink, an’ out fight, rough-an’-tumble, no holts barred, any man on both sides the river from Pittsburg to New Orleans an’ back again to St. Louiee. Come on, you flatters, you bargers, you milk-white mechanics, an’ see how tough I am to chaw! I ain’t had a fight for two days an’ I’m spilein’ for exercise. Cock-a-doodle-doo!’
America’s propensity for larger-than-life heroes is well established. As a words man rather than action man I find them charmless and suspect that they erred to the monosyllabic, but I am but a stunted scion of Old Europe and when nostalgics call for better days, those days when ‘when men were men’, these were the men of whom they sing. I do not mock but I do wonder, in every sense.
In my childhood we had Davy Crockett, who like all things exciting came from the States, albeit a century previous, and whose surviving pictures show him as a centre-parted, somewhat dandified senator. This was not the image we sought: our man, and it had to be true since it was enshrined on TV, had a coonskin cap and like many of his kin and when still in short pants, had ‘killed him a bar’. The supply of ‘bars’ was presumably not inexhaustible, though they seem to have survived better than their hunters. The frontiersman has gone, as has the frontier, but at least it was there. Little England could never boast such vastness, nor the exploits that it seemed to conjure forth.
Nor could every growing American claim his own bar. It was simpler to encounter him and his pursuers in print. The primum inter pares of such publications was The Spirit of the Times, further subtitled ‘A Chronicle of the Turf, Agriculture, Field Sports, Literature, and the Stage’ was founded to play a similar role to its London contemporary Bell’s Life in London and to Bell’s successor the Sporting Times. Launched in 1831 by the ex-printer William T. Porter, it was soon established as the leading chronicler of American sport, which meant horse-racing and after that prize-fighting. But Porter’s use of amateur correspondents – since the modern sporting writer had yet to emerge – many of whom lived far from New York, meant that the Spirit became a repository for a wide range of non-standard usages, especially those of the South and West.
Among the terms that the Spirit coined was the bear story, otherwise known as a tall tale. And many of these literally outlandish words were first used by what has been termed the ‘Big Bear’ school of humourists. These included such backwoods anecdotalists as W.C. Hall (author of various tales of ‘Mike Hooter’, usually found tussling with the inevitable ‘Bar’ although equally ready to deal with a panther), George Washington Harris (author among much else of the interestingly titled ‘Knob Dance — a Tennessee Frolic’) perhaps the most talented of the team, and one who would leave the Spirit to pursue his own backwoods character ‘Sut Lovingood’. Not all the contributors were southerners: Francis A. Durivage and George P. Burnham, who co-wrote Stray Subjects Arrested and Bound Over (1846) were Yankees. Anthologies of Spirit sketches came out regularly, the first A Quarter Race in Kentucky in 1846, shortly followed by a successor The Big Bear of Arkansas.
The writers themselves may have been relatively well-off, but their back-country homes were far from the sophisticated east. The stars of their stories, whose real-life equivalents they would have known, were the white trash in embryo that Porter’s biographer Norris Yates has termed ‘one-gallus whites’; they enjoyed hard liquor, practical joking, hunting and rough-housing, with a good deal of bawdy, if unspecified, sex on the side. The hero slaughters anything that moves, downs another jug or two, beats up anyone within reach (usually with much eye-gouging, lip-tearing and knife-work) and calls for more. Their aggressive racism, whether towards Indians or ‘niggers’, is a given. And it was all, at least as presented in the Spirit, one big laugh.
None more so than the riverboatman and trapper Mike Fink, ‘the King of the Keelmen’, known from his youth as ‘Bang-all’ from the carnage he wreaked on a wide spectrum of animal victims. But why stop at animals? Fink professed a number of what even admirers termed ‘queer ways’ – typically involving random potshots at passers-by, the shooting of full cans of whiskey from the heads of his intimates and the beating unconscious of those who failed to laugh at his jokes – that would in our softer times be termed dangerously psychotic. By all accounts – there are many – Fink was best left alone, and indeed lived with what sounds suspiciously like a teenage catamite, in a cave. He was equally fond of a long list of what chroniclers term ‘chère amies’ (two legs presumably good even if four legs less so). Like Crockett he would fall in time to Disneyfication but real life tells of an increased appetite for drinking the whisky as well as puncturing its container. He ended shot dead in contentious circumstances, victim of an erstwhile friend who resented Mike’s perhaps understandable inability to hit the whiskey every time, and therefore his unfortunate (some claimed deliberate) killing of that same young companion. It was Fink who offered the self-analysis printed above. One might not liked very much to have met him, but the hat must be tipped.
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.