The Lexicography of Erotica

Continuing last fortnight’s theme, Mr Slang examines the lexicography of ‘specialist’ book titles, and uncovers a “grim commentary on the tropes of male excitement…”

This is it, I promise. The last one. But pondering the verbose titles of the 19th century pornography, I could but compare them with modernity, or nearly so: the mass-produced paperback equivalents of the late 20th century. The Net is rich with listings. On your behalf I took a look.

We may despise Disney for many things: the xenophobic racism of old Walt’s hiring policies, the ‘family-orientated’ banality of its cartoons, the destruction-cum-dumbing down of as many children’s classics as its millions can buy, but, for those whose reading matter requires but a single hand, its greatest sin is the destruction of 42nd Street, New York City and especially the blocks between 6th and 8th Avenues. Prior to their gelding by the Mouse, what a cornucopia of delight those seedy blocks offered the pornophile. Nowhere more than in the numberless ‘bookshops’, wherein one found piled high and sold cheap the wondrous products of the real-life version of Orwell’s Pornosec, the ranks of what slang terms ‘stroke books’. The heyday of such publications, the 1970s, followed on the liberalization of America’s censorship laws, and for a (literally) fantastic decade the titles rolled from the presses and into the mac pockets of their purchasers. Companion Books, the Rear Window Series, the Kennel Club (so unlike the home life . . . ), the distinctly misplaced Liverpool Library Press (hommage, perhaps, to the Fab Four’s ‘Paperback Writer’) and many others.

Reading, some decades ago, the memoirs of a porn-book hack, it appeared that one sat, as in a schoolroom, at rows of typewriter-laden desks, starting the day by going to the front of the ‘class’ to choose, from an array of Xeroxed piles, a synopsis. The choice was yours. But checking through the titles, they seem distinctly reminiscent of those jokey ‘create your own jargon’ tables, in which nouns and adjectives are listed in columns, open to a pick and mix selection – any trio making a suitable phrase. Thus too Pornosec titling.

Looking at those books, what strikes the lexicographer is how incredibly narrow is the vocabulary of titillation. And, for I speak as one, how grim a commentary on the tropes of male excitement. There were nearly ten thousand titles in all, but the range of words that were set above the obligatory cover drawing, hinting at fantasies within, is very constrained. The taxonomy of Eros, at least for these purposes, is a far from many-splendoured thing.

Top of any list comes the family: some 586 titles (The Family Eats Out, Family Reunion, Coming with the Family, etc.). And its preferred member; Mom, who features some 1008 times (America’s companion staple ‘apple pie’ seems to have escaped). Sister is similarly enthusiastic (428 titles) although brother only makes it to 107. There are 556 daughters (but a mere 99 sons) and while auntie pitches in at 198 appearances, uncle is positively celibate at 27. Dad’s a relative second-rater with 146 as is nephew with a mere ten. Niece, meanwhile, achieves 148, mainly of a painful sort (Bondage Slave Niece, Whipped Young Niece, Leather-bound Niece). At one remove the neighbours are ever-popular, with 257 shots at fame. Wives, brides and newlyweds between them turn up in around 1000 adventures. Virgins, invariably hot, naughty and overwhelmed with eager urges, bid farewell to their hymens on 136 occasions. Nymphos, with no need for restraint, come on the scene 44 times; swappers 48. Incest, bringing all these happy families together, claims 133.

As for proper names, few are specified, but how strenuous are the efforts of Linda (20 titles), Cindy and Candy (11 per head) and Jill (8), to satisfy our lusts. Kelly, Phoebe, Jenny, Jane and Sally do their solo bit. Job descriptions, however, are common. Teacher seems an especial favourite (381 titles), followed by nurse (124), secretary (94), waitress (21) and farmer (19). More surprising, though each unto their own, are the 76 librarians: Line Up for the Librarian, The Angry Librarian, Lash the Librarian!, Chained, Whipped Librarians, The Librarian Licks Big Ones and the pleasingly punful The Overdue Librarian to name a few. Clergymen feature 42 times (The Evangelist’s Wife in Hell, Preacher’s Wife in Bondage and Sex Sated Minister), although nanny, but this is America after all, makes it but half a dozen times. Music teacher (as in Ravaged Music Teacher) and mechanic (Naughty Lady Mechanic) are one-offs.

Erectile adjectives, coded for tumescence, are perhaps most limited of all. Hot adorns some 1029 titles (including hot to trot), while eager and over-eager take in 155 more. Naughty appears 341 times, urge 100, horny 416. Their combinations are endless, often in tandem: Mommy’s Horny Urges, Horny Naughty Nun, Eager Hot Teacher and the like. Open (21), wide (65) and spread (105) leave little to the imagination. Verbs are almost non-existent, other than the ever popular suck, which rates 223 appearances (blow has 20), including the strenuous Sucking, Spanking Family and the tongue – itself 11 mentions – twisting She Sold Suck Jobs. Fetishists get their share: panties and hot pants make 145 front covers, there are 28 golden showers, 127 slaves, 105 bondage (plus 91 chains) and 26 torture. VS Pritchett has observed that all best-sellers operate on the basis of procrastinated rape: these slim vols have no need for procrastination. Heroines are, as ever, asking for it and rape (with its classier synonyms ravage, defile and violate) comes up 215 times. Gangs bang for 45. And then there are pets. Usually dogs (Divorcee’s Doggie, Valley of the Dogs and Dog Show Girl) among whom Great Danes are especially cherished. The traditional affections of girls for horses rates 55 stories, donkeys get nine and goats (Daughter Gets the Goat) four.

Finally the gay scene. On this menu chicken , i.e. an underage boy, is the dish of choice: Whipped Chickens, Chicken Master and Dirt Road Chicken are three of many, while its antithesis, stud, is good for 91. (As for the dirt road, it has its place, e.g. Butting In On Mom.) Buddies are popular, as are cowboys and ranchers, marines and cops (Copsucker). Uncle makes most of his appearances here.

For all the simplicity of its language (like Cleland’s Fanny Hill, these titles, other in the endless double entendres, display barely a smidgeon of obscenity), this was a world of rigid rules. The porn-fans jargon as it were and what you saw was definitely what you got. These titles preach directly to the converted, the cognoscenti. Buttons are pressed, and sex-hungry men, their nasty habits uncontrolled, jump to Pavlov’s tune. They know what they want and, to play a little with H.L. Mencken’s remark in re the masses and democracy, deserved to get it good and hard.

A version of this post appeared on The Dabbler in 2011.

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.

Jonathon Green – Odd Job Man

jonathon green
We are lucky today to feature the one and only Mister Slang – Lexicographer Jonathon Green, late of this parish, who has been so busy since we last saw him that he has managed to produce not one but two new books on his life’s work. Here for your reading pleasure is an exclusive extract from his autobiographical ‘Odd Job Man – Confessions of a slang Lexicographer‘…

As for the alleged death of traditional reference: who says? as we would have put it in the playground. Who says those fat 
dictionaries are good for only propping up tables or holding open
doors? Perhaps we all do. We have fallen prey not merely to the
 market and what for the majority are its cruel economics, but to a great tsunami of propaganda. Because as we have drummed into
 us on the hour and every hour, books are finished; the ‘dead tree’ 
has joined the Dead White European Male in the chamber of
 modern horrors. Digital is all, ebooks are the future and devil take 
the incomputerate. For traditionalists the bad is yet again driving 
out the good. Amazon parades its stats and notes that electronic
 downloads have surpassed paper. It does not note that the change
 does not represent addition, merely substitution. The reading public 
seems to remain as was. Only the list of writers has swelled. The
slush pile has taken wing and flourishes. Some of these have and
 will triumph: naturally, since why should shit cease to float? 
This is not luddism. I have used a computer since 1984 and
 would shudder at a world without my database. Nor is it even 
elitism. My shelves are crammed with titles that, dependent on 
slang, are far from ‘literary’. Pulp fiction of one variety or another. 
I am biased, of course, but many such have style and wit and their
 authors had no choice but to fight for a place in the bookshops. 
Those who wrote them did so for money, to get money it was
necessary to reach a certain standard – otherwise what exactly 
was the point? They could not simply announce themselves as 
authors and demand that the world assume it to be so.

Is this cultural puritanism? Perhaps. The perennial debates inform me 
that I whinge too much. That Canute did not manage to withhold
 the incoming tide. If I make no money I have only myself to 
blame. Do it yourself: throw yourself into the arms of the social 
networks, promote yourself, interface with your readers. I see it 
all around me: authors who, day upon day, tweet their new 
releases and their backlists to a legion of followers. Perhaps, but
 life, surely and especially surely for me, is too short. And, I must 
ask, does this factor in a time for actual work? 
Having used lex as my defence for thirty years – constructing my 
redoubt with every hwd/def/ety/cite – I find that it no longer works.

The bastion has become a Maginot Line, and the new world walks 
confidently round it without even dignifying it with a salvo. It is fine 
to make the rules of the game, in the confident hope that thereby 
you can win – so long as a parallel set have not evolved while you 
weren’t looking. As I keep noting, what matters is not what should
 be but what is – unpalatable though it may be – and ‘what is’ is that 
around twenty years ago I popped out – not for a pack of fags but 
to write a three-volume dictionary of slang – and when, time having
 passed, my hair grown grey and the book finally published, I returned, 
I found the world turned upside down.

 Get your hands on your own copy of Jonathon’s fantastic book by clicking here.

FAREWELL SPECIAL – There Is No Word for ‘Love’ in Slang

Since his very first column for The Dabbler in January 2011, Jonathon Green has barely missed a Thursday post. But now, after some 138 posts and umpteen thousand words, we regret to say that Mr Slang has decided to relinquish his weekly duties.
Everyone at The Dabbler heartily thanks him for his astonishing contribution to the site. It won’t be the same place without him, but we hope he’ll pop up with the occasional missive, so we haven’t necessarily seen the last of Mr Slang.
As a final hurrah, here’s a classic from the archives, in which Jonathon searches for love, and finds only sex and drugs…

I tried to write a musical once. No, you shouldn’t laugh, really. I had lunched well, couldn’t face the database and it served to counterfeit work. It was called – goodness, how did you guess – Slang! I forget the plot – which is always the problem: I can sketch the puppets but can never make them dance – and it came to nothing. I composed, well, doodled, what I laughingly termed some lyrics. There was only one that was passable. It was called ‘There’s No Word for “Love” in Slang’. As I recall, the hero (poor, honest and resolutely foul-mouthed) sang it on his way to meet the heroine (rich, daughter of a grasping, snobbish papa, and forbidden on pain of disinheritance any non-standard syllables). You can see why I didn’t finish it. But the song title was correct. Because there isn’t.

Valentine’s Day will have passed by the time this appears, but no troths will have been plighted on behalf of the counter-language. If one searches for ‘love’ as a headword, one finds several. Though none, I would note, a verb. There is love as in ‘love of a…’ which is a term of praise kindred to duck, as in ‘duck of …’ and tends to apply to small children or else items of clothing: hats, dresses, although Walter, he of My Secret Life, recalls how, on holiday, his hosts offered to ‘get me a love of an Italian boy to bugger.’ And there is the cry of Lord love a duck! which combines them. But it should surprise no-one that love is usually found in compounds, and that in the bulk of those compounds the word is substituting for ‘sex’. Thus these, for the penis, which of which at least some seem to have escaped from heavy metal, or at least a Spinal Tap tribute band: love bone, love dart, love gun, love hammer, love muscle, love pump, love rod, love staff, lovesteak, love stick, love torpedo, love truncheon and love warrior. (Not mention corporal love, which fleshy non-com ‘stands to attention’). If one has one genital than one must have its opposite number. Here it is: the love box, love canal, love crack, love flesh, love glove, love hole, love lane (and thus take a turn on Love Lane and Mount Pleasant, to have sex), lovelips, love’s cabinet, love seat and the love shack which can double as the place a man keeps for seductions and as an object of sexual desire (who can also, lord help them, be a love muffin) and conquest. (The fountain or treasury of love work too).

Nor are we done with the licentious list: love apples, grenades and spuds are Continue reading

Slang in Stereotype

tyrants

What is slang all about? Jonathon muses on stereotypes, in life and in the counter-language that holds up its dark mirror to life…

I am in a cab. The cabbie asks what work I do. I explain that I write dictionaries. Dictionaries, that is, of slang. And the cabbie, who stands for pretty much anyone with whom I have reached this far into such a conversation replies – and I could almost join him in chorus: ‘Oh, slang, eh? Apples and pears and all that.’

Well, at least he passes on the alternative image. But cabbies, however foul-mouthed in private, find it politic not to toss obscenities at the punters. Even me.

The stereotype, a printing process whereby, as the OED informs us,  ‘a solid plate of type-metal, cast from a papier-mâché or plaster mould taken from the surface of a forme of type, is used for printing from instead of the forme itself,’ has existed since 1800, when it was invented by a Frenchman, one Firmin Didot. The word comes from Greek and means ‘solid type’.[1] By 1850 the term had lent itself to abstraction and a second reference to the OED finds the definition ‘Something continued or constantly repeated without change.’ Slang, as we know, disdains abstractions, indeed can barely spell the term, disdaining to find terms for such as truth or beauty. But if there is a truth it is that slang is the prisoner of stereotypes.

This is hardly surprising. If the slang taxonomy, which I must have mentioned if not actually printed here on several occasions, changes with time it is in quantity and not quality. The essentials merely expand: one more word that equates the penis to a weapon pushing to mount the heap that has been piled together by all its predecessors, one phrase more equating sexual intercourse with ‘man hits woman’, elbowing its antecedents aside, one more confection meaning crazy that plays with ‘not all there’ demanding, however temporarily, the number one slot. It is true, in the shadow of changing mores – and call it political correctness if you must – and a reluctance, at least openly, to trumpet the tropes of racist and nationalist strait-jacketing, that certain areas have been down-pedaled of late. There is a backlash, a certain sense that we have been deprived, through our own guilty liberalism, of targets on whom to vent, but that too is muted. Even slang, for once, seems unwilling to bring on new synonyms, though the oldies were probably always the goodies. Or baddies.[2]

But there are other forms of stereotype. Other, that is, than those indulged by slang itself, its mountains of synonyms carefully preserving the same old same old no matter what the topic. The stereotypes, embodied by my generic cabbie, that are imposed on slang by those, fans or otherwise, who stand outside. One sees it in the synonyms: dirty words, swear words, curse words… These are not compliments. None of these phrases works as a synonym for kind words. Nor, cheeringly, do they match up with cruel words – that equation tends to be overlooked, though slang indeed tries to prove the emptiness of the whole ‘and words will never hurt you’ fantasy. They are, one need not argue, stereotypes. And as such, not wholly correct. There, is after all, a canonical list of ‘dirty’ terms. The details are academic, or at least they can be for those like that kind of thing, and as for me I cannot happily equate ‘dirty’ with ‘swear’ or ‘curse’ but I shall let that pass for now. What matters is that there are officially (or there were when such things were last made plain) thirteen of them and, however portentous the number, that statistic hardly registers on the slang count, which is around 125,000 words and phrases.

This makes no difference to perceptions. In 1998 I published a book entitled the Cassell Dictionary of Slang. Buoyed by a positive reception I came up with a range of spin-offs. My ideas were…it no longer matters what they were because my publisher announced that what he would fund would be something called the Big Book of Filth. Channeling fantasies of Morningside ladies and drawing my tweed skirt tight below my en-lisled knees I suggest that I and my beloved lexis might have more to offer. I was rebuffed: filth, I was told, is what slang is all about. I huffed, puffed, refused to put my name on the cover (though signed the introduction) and got on with the job. It sold the best part of 300,000 copies. This is not to boast. Green’s Dictionary of Slang, okay, somewhat pricier but undeniably scholarly, life’s work, that sort of thing, has I am told (though who ever trusts a publisher) achieved around 1,700.

Now we live in digital days. the dream is put the book online. Like all dreams it remains unfulfilled. I work on – how not? – but absent the much-needed patron wonder at times if I am anything beyond a sad old man, keyboarding obscenities onto an electronic wall. Meanwhile, back at the attainable and since as we know all is form and hang the content, the game is re-presentation. I thought up the timelines. Did one on drink. On drinks. On pubs. Put them on line. A few hundred views. Did the penis, did the vagina: 200,000 people have gazed and giggled in the week since ‘publication’. The people, intoned astutely misanthropic Mencken, know what they want and deserve to get it good and hard. The people, it transpires, have no sense of irony. Now I’m doing intercourse. Rogering and ramming, raunch and rapine. Have I no shame? And what has that to do with it? This, I must remember, is what slang’s all about.

 

 


[1] perhaps some Dabbler better versed in the sciences than am I (which means, I assure you, pretty much any Dabbler at all) could explain why the prefix stereo-, still rooted in a word meaning ‘solid’ is used for a variety of technical terms, e.g. stereophonic, that mean, in essence, ‘split into two’?

[2] it always amazes me that despite the creation of new national enemies, slang, at least, does not forget. The past may be another country but we hate it as much as ever. For all the pious denial of Islamophobia and its alleged and ever-expanding iniquities, the nation’s animus against age-old rivals the Dutch, Spanish and French far outweighs the tiny lexis of anti-Muslim terms. Even the Germans, unrivalled qualifiers as bad guys for the 20th century, pall by comparison. German measles hardly cuts it against French disease, not to mention Italian tricks.

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.

Time for a Line

arbor

It’s holiday time, and Mr Slang is spending his summer constructing interactive timelines of popular terms for the penis. You ain’t seen nothing like this before…

It’s August. Holiday time, I gather. I had mine in June but no matter. My short-lived tan has faded and my mind is blank. Slang languishes and words fall silent. Nothing to review. (Well, there’s Patrick Hanks’ Lexical Analysis: Norms and Exploitations which is fascinating and ought to revolutionize all sorts of things linguistic, but if you think I could actually review it…just reading it was seriously demanding. I shall not even consider claiming the word ‘understanding’.)  I have also purchased Captain Francis Grose’s own edition of his 1785 Classical Dictionary of the Vulgar Tongue. (As for the price I can only say that my wife told me that it had, as it were, my name on it, and we talk of it as ‘an investment’). This glorious artifact – a tangible link between myself and one of my most illustrious predecessors – is not merely the dictionary itself, which he amended in manuscript, but includes many extra pages which have been interleaved and on which are found Grose’s own notes and amendments, all of which would go towards the text of the second edition that would appear in 1788. Or not quite all: there is, for instance, a manuscript entry ‘a-se-man: sodomites […] invaders of the back settlements’ which Grose, uncharacteristically prudish, seems to have decided to exclude from future print. There are more of the kind but I have yet to note them down: I am still circling the book, extracting it cautiously from its box, patting it occasionally, opening this page or that, glorying in the one thing I possess that is truly, unarguably, unique.

In addition I have been loaned a pile of books featuring a variety of once potent cops and criminals (whether ghosted or via the memoir of some trench-coated ‘Man Who Knows’ from Fleet Street), all long gone, all of which I must gut in the hope of finding as yet uncharted slang. Among them, the prize volume being ‘On the Beat with P.C. 49, a figure – admittedly fictional – whose command of what he terms ‘the Lawless Language’ never came across in his Eagle days. I am impressed. His colleague Dixon of Dock Green, as I recall, was far less well versed; the phrase ‘bad apple’ being about as metaphorical as he could manage. On the other hand, as a pre-requisite of the role he was to play on TV, Dixon had risen from the dead (a resurrection that took place not three days but five years later), having been shot down by Dirk Bogarde at the end of The Blue Lamp. P.C. 49 showed no such signs of messiah-dom, even surrogate.

But that, literally, is for tomorrow. What I have also been doing, which doing seems imperceptibly but quite unassailably to have taken over the last few days and is due to dominate many more, is the assemblage of timelines. Slang timelines. In other words the listing, via visual presentation, of the entire vocabularies of various popular slang themes. As thing stand these include drinks, drinking, pubs, the penis and, an on-going construction, the vagina. There will be many more to come, and you can work them out: I have, I am sure, already listed slang’s thematic taxonomy too often.

The OED has of course been offering timelines for a while, but they are nugatory things, focusing only on the chronology of a single word. I am looking for something wider-ranging and thus more substantial.

Here is an example:

 line

 

It is a very squashed example of a subset of terms listed under the general rubric of ‘drunk’ and attenuated because I used it as a slide in a recent lecture. The different colours denote ‘drunk’, ‘drunkard’, ‘get drunk’, ‘make drunk’ and ‘hangover’ (there is a legend at top right). The real thing (the real timeline that is) can be displayed with far greater clarity and has the year included at the bottom, thus identifying just what turned up when. It is not foolproof – there are artificial clusters that occur because certain dictionaries have appeared and, despite my best efforts, have listed terms that have hitherto not been noted in print – but it gives a good flavour.

I don’t know whether this appeals but I am going to hope that it does. So here are the links:
Penis http://bit.ly/14hM1V4
Vagina: http://timeglider.com/timeline/07f47d6b843da763
Drunk: http://bit.ly/1dfdrjm
Alcohol: http://bit.ly/1b4ANMW
Pubs and Bars: http://bit.ly/17C9Vwo

When each one loads, you need to zoom out (using the slider on the right) to get a focus on the mass of words, then start playing around from there.

OK. I need to input ‘vagina terms 1701-1800’. You’re on your own.

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.

Godzone Words – Book of New Zealand Words by Dr Diane Bardsley

NZ words

Anyone fancy a ‘curry te Kanawa’? Mr Slang enjoys a new lexicography of New Zealand words, even though it is a little clean for his tastes…

Once upon a time there was the dictionary. It survives, of course, but not as we knew it, and those thick and squarish books are henceforth damned: print being in fast decline, and especially so in the world of reference. No matter, they serve well for holding mis-aligned tables; the OED, properly arranged, can even provide a table of itself. Fortunately, for those who find the primary constituent of the cloud being its insubstantial vapouring, there remain more expertly conceived products. They are smaller, and must sacrifice some of lexicography’s givens (your publicity dept. will term this ‘accessibility’), and they are harder to come by, but when they do, we should be grateful. Such a book is Dr Diane Bardsley’s Book of New Zealand Words (Te Papa Press).

Dr Bardsley was former head of the New Zealand Dictionary Centre and as such inheritor of Harry Orsman’s Oxford-backed New Zealand Dictionary (1997) before in 2012 it was adjudged one of those beans that having been counted back at Great Clarendon Street, was deemed fit only for the bin. It is a relief to see that she remains undaunted and that her work continues.

New Zealand English, being one of those created by white colonial settlers, ranks among what lexicographers term ‘inner circle’ Englishes (outer circle varieties include that of India or Singapore; beyond that lie those countries such as China where English, while not a first language, is increasingly important as a convenient lingua franca). Formerly lumped with that of Australia and thus billed as ‘Australasian’ it is now, as epitomized in the DNZE, acknowledged as something discrete. And like all such Englishes offers localisms, words emerging from the national topography, flora (ponga, a tree fern, the poor man’s orange, a grapefruit) and fauna (Captain Cooker, a wild pig and katipo, a venomous spider) and occupations (notably sheep-farming: which offers 150-plus names for sheep or dogs, among them the less than sympathetic crawler, an old sheep with footrot; the small farmer Australia’s cockatoo, is a ground parrot; the fart tax, a proposal to capitalize upon if not limit animal flatulence, seems to have been rejected), as well as indigenous slang (though it here that there is the greatest overlap with that other country known as Down Under). Local dishes are featured (the station brownie, a form of cake embellished with chocolate and the station stew, a synonym for the olla podrida elsewhere known as hashmagandy; unless I’ve missed it, however, there  is no entry for station tout court, defined as a ‘large grazing property’ in DNZE and good for five columns of compounds), and rugby, the national game, is prolific (e.g. the Ponsonby handshake or Canterbury coathanger, both a punch in the face or throat). It also, and of course uniquely, has absorbed many words and phrases adopted from te reo Maori: the Maori language. It is these last above all, as the author notes, that make New Zealand variety of what originated back in the Old Dart so unique.

This is not, exactly, a conventional dictionary. It lacks – Dr Bardsley explains that the constraints of space and the necessary expenditure of research time has made it impossible – any detailed etymologies. It contains a good leavening of encyclopedic entries. One would not normally encounter a phrase such as baubles of office, which refers specifically to an event during the 2005 election, GRI (guaranteed retirement income) which sounds like tax office jargon, or railway workshops which means, in Enzed as elsewhere, just what it says. Still there is, in the cases of certain nicknames (typically of politicians or sports people) and of terms sparked by historical events, plenty of background information, albeit not linguistic. It is – or is it simply that I am so innately sullied – a very ‘clean’ book. This may have been inspired by a degree of national pride: the publisher is an arm of the Museum of New Zealand –  but then again it is in no way a slang dictionary, even if it contains a variety of examples. Thus Dr Bardsley has chosen to overlook slang’s take on Maori, a selection of predictably negative compounds implying stupidity or laziness and which include Maori P.T., loafing, a Maori roast, fast food or Maori foreplay, the absence thereof. However there is still fun to be had and my personal favourite (setting aside the punning delicacy curry te Kanawa – challenging, albeit belatedly, Australia’s peach Melba), and reflective no doubt of the mindset of the Kiwi bloke (‘regarded,’ as Dr Bardsley puts it in one of her consistently astute and witty definitions, ‘as a retrosexual rather than a metrosexual’) being career girl: a ewe who refuses to mother her lamb.

My own database offers around 1600 words identified as ‘N.Z.’, although some 1000 of these seem to have crossed the Tasman Sea (known like other large expanses of water as the Ditch) and are equally available in Australia. This is not only true of slang, nor is the direction of travel easy to prove: as Dr Bardsley points out, the lexicographers of each country continue to tussle over which population can claim first use for a given term. For instance New Zealand currently edges the (glorying? ironic?) self-attribution of God’s Own Country, first recorded in 1906, whereas Australia holds off until 1908. But research remains fluid and for this and many others the laurels remain contested: the searchable newspaper databases – Papers Past for New Zealand, Trove for Australia – both admirably provided via governmental funding,  will doubtless continue to yield answers.

The conventional dictionary does not require an index – it is arranged, after all, in alphabetical order – but a dictionary based as is this on the tropes of a specific nation, does. I would like, and surely so would other users, the opportunity to have lists, to take a few examples, of terms for farmers, birds and animals, political and other institutions, food and drink, trees, fruit and veg, sports, sheep and their shearers and quite simply slang. The absence is perhaps deliberate? Certainly New Zealand Words thus gives endless opportunities for one of any good dictionary’s often overlooked functions: serendipitous wandering among the pages. It also tells a story: that of the country whose words it hymns.  That the story is inevitably a paraphrase does not matter: the interested reader is constantly drawn to hunting down background information and today such hunts are almost invariably successful.

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.

Slang für Kinder

Progeny in Perspective

In honour of the new Princeling, Mr Slang is talking kids…

I love children, as Nancy Mitford put it so well, especially when they cry: for then someone takes them away. Mitford of course lived in Paris where they have a more robust attitude to those who have yet to acquire a civilized palate and where, only yesterday, a Parisienne, while gurgling with the best of ’em, on hearing that I was English observed, Alors M’sieur, la grande question: qui était le gran’père. Bien sûr, ce n’était pas Charles.

Slang, being among those who demand an article alongside uses of the word ‘baby’, averts its gaze from the current hysteria and finds a suitable representative in Mr S. who, as a diabetic, can only tolerate a limited sickliness. This is not to wish the newborn, who has rocketed straight into the entitlement charts at the number three slot, the slightest ill, but merely to preserve a decent distance.

But slang is nothing if not of the moment, so let us ponder a couple of examples of its infantine terminology. The oldest term, kinchin, springs from cant, the beggar tongue, around 1560. It comes from German Kindchen, a small child, and gives a variety of compounds. The kinchin co (co abbreviating cove, a bloke) is a child who has been brought up to thieving as a profession, an ‘ydle runagate Boy’ says Awdeley, and Harman adds ‘that when he groweth vnto yeres, he is better to hang then to drawe forth’. Grown older he regains his terminal -ve and as kinchin cove becomes a man, albeit short. The kinchin mort, the ever-moralising Harman again, ‘is a little Girle, the Morts their Mothers carries them at their backes in their slates, which is their sheetes, and bryngs them vp sauagely tyll they growe to be ripe, and soone ripe, soone rotten.’ Such a child might not be one’s own, what mattered was the pity it might excite and B.E. noted in 1698 ‘if they have no Children of their own, they borrow or Steal them from others.’ This has not changed: as in many urban rogueries, the modern city illustrates that beggary works with a well-honed repertoire. The 19th century added kinchin prig, a young thief, and the kinchin lay, thus kindly explained to Oliver by Fagin: ‘The kinchins, my dear … is the young children that’s sent on errands by their mothers, with sixpences and shillings; and the lay is just to take their money away.’ Alternative versions included the kid rig (rig: a con-trick) and  to go upon the kid, to steal parcels from foolish errand boys who believed it when you promised to ‘hold on to them while you make another delivery.’ Given the duplicity, the term may be underpinned by the verbal form of kid, to tease, to deceive, which itself stems either from ‘treat like a kid’ or the synonynous cod.

The arrival of kid underlines the fact that by Fagin’s day it had become the dominant word, extending far beyond cant, though it played its role therein. And kid, as we know, is one of slang’s great stayers, elbowing its way into the mainstream long since and effectively replacing what, by implication, has become the middle-class prissiness of child. (Though young royals, even in the most hail-fellow of tabloids, do seem to escape ‘kid’, moving in popular eyes directly from the vaseline-lensed world of Start-rite and Blyton to ‘Randy Andy’ or whatever).

Kid, it appears, comes from the zoological name for a young goat. Middleton and Rowley used it in 1627,  their line bracketing it with brat (and jeering at the impotence of one ‘lank suck-eggs’). By the 18th century it had been scarfed up by cant, and naturally described a youthful thief of either gender, trained up by a kidsman. If the father was already in the business, the infant villain was a kidwy (i.e, kid-wee) or kidling, though the latter came only to mean baby. In 1812 the knowledgable transportee James Hardy Vaux noted how ‘when by his dexterity he has become famous, he is called by his acquaintances the kid so and so, mentioning his sirname’, an ancestral precursor, perhaps, of such monickers as Billy the Kid or The Cisco Kid (though slang’s use for those is simply to rhyme with ‘Yid’. The Milky Bar Kid, however, is an Australian synonym for petty criminal).

The term widened, though faithful to its origins. Meanings came to include a member of a confidence team, a teenager (though that word still was far off), a form of address, and a reference to one’s younger sibling, ‘our kid’. By the late 19th century sex had arrived. The kid had become a catamite, whether as a tramp’s companion (though the main US term was gay-cat, even if for all the possibilities, there is no hard proof that this ‘gay’ was that of modernity) or the prison pretty-boy also known as a punk. A kid fruit, who pursued such company, was a synonym for the modern chicken-hawk.

Sometimes the sex was offered, as by the kid-leather, the young whore (leather meaning skin or more coarsely the vagina, which could be stretched or laboured.) More often it was sought after: by the kid-stretcher or kid stuffer, both of whom, in their paedophiliac obsessions, are known as kid-simple. Such usages predate or parallel the creepily infantilizing alternatives based on kid’s diminutive kiddy, which in such compounds as kiddy-porn or kiddy-fiddler have been around since the 1980s.

The term was launched with no such overtones. Kiddy as in child is in place by 1800; modified by ‘my’ it addressed a friend by 1850. The early 18th century has it as a fashionable, flashy young man, a rake, a pimp or a thief; and compounds it as rolling kiddy, a dandy-cum-thief, or a dandy who dresses like one. His girlfriend, noted Egan during Tom and Jerry’s trip to the East End’s All-Max tavern, was a kiddiess. Around 1850 it denoted a hat, fashionable among small-time but dandified thieves,  featuring a broad ribbon passing through a large buckle at its front.

There are, of course, many more terms than this. To return to the cradle we have cockatrice (a ‘monster born from an egg’), the rhyming basin of gravy, Ireland’s scaldy, which otherwise refers to one who is bald, an ankle biter and a crumb-catcher. I shall leave you with New Zealand’s parcel from Paris. This presumably implies the usual ooh-la-la stereotype but that doesn’t usually extend to procreative intercourse. A parcel, on the other hand, is somewhat more substantial than a French letter.

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.

Heroes of Slang 25: Robert Copland

NPG D24356; Robert Copland after Unknown artist

Jonathon Green introduces a 16th century printer and ‘compiler of cant’ who arguably produced the very first dictionary of slang…

Bokes be not set by: there tymes is past, I gesse;
The dyse and cardes, in drynkynge wyne and ale,
Tables, cayles[1], and balles, they be now sette a sale
Men lete theyr chyldren use all such harlotry
That byenge of bokes they utterly deny.

Robert Copland, in Prologue to Henry Pepwell Castell of Pleasure (1518)

Nothing new beneath the sun, eh? Printing was barely coming up to speed and one of its leading practitioners, ‘the oldest printer in London’ no less, was holding forth and already towels were hitting the canvas. And forget my plaints as regard dictionaries and their parlous future. For this is Robert Copland whose own work, at least as lexicography’s canon runs, was not just a slang dictionary, but the very first.

Well, perhaps not the first – the concept of the ‘beggar-book’ with its descriptions of criminal vagabonds and an appendant glossary of their jargon,  was well entrenched in Europe, and Copland’s brief work was hardly a dictionary, more a long poem into which are interspersed the occasional nuggets of 16th century cant – but absent alternative sources, this is what we have.

Like the language at which he briefly paused, we know very little of the man. (In this too he presupposes the biographies of all too many of his successors in the field). Even his birth-date remains a mystery, but his known professional career as a printer, bookseller and stationer, as well as a collector of cant, covers the years 1508-47 (when he seems to have died). He worked primarily as an assistant to the printer Wynkyn de Worde (d. 1535) who had in turn been William Caxton’s principle assistant from 1476. Copland claimed to have worked for Caxton too, but given their respective dates, this relationship is more likely figurative than factual.

Nor do we have a precise date for the book: it seems to have been composed at some time between 1529-34 and probably published in 1535. The title we do know: Hye Waye to the Spytell-Hous which can be loosely translated as ‘The Road to the Charity Clinic’; a spytell house, synonymous with a lazar house or poor hospital, was a form of charity foundation, dealing specifically with the poor and indigent and especially with those suffering from a variety of foul diseases.

The Hye Waye is a protracted verse dialogue, supposedly conducted  between Copland and the Spytell House Porter. The clinic in question, while un-named by Copland, is generally accepted to have been St Bartholemew’s Hospital, London’s oldest, founded in 1123 near the open space known as Smithfield, once witness to burning martyrs, to the guignol excesses of Bartholomew Fair and latterly London’s central meat market.[2] Trapped in the hospital porch by a snow storm, Copland strikes up a conversation with the Porter, taking as their subject the crowd of beggars  who besiege the Spytell House: ‘Scabby and scurvy, pock-eaten flesh and rind / Lousy and scald, and peeléd like an apes / With scantly a rag for to cover their shapes, / Breechless, barefooted, all stinking with dirt.’ The pair  then discuss why some are allowed in and others rejected. Copland notes and the Porter describes the various categories of beggars and thieves, as well as the tricks and frauds that are their stock in trade. They further note the way folly and vice lead inevitably to poverty and thence disease and finally, willy-nilly, to the Spytell House.

The Hye Way falls into two halves, the first focussing on beggars, the second on fools. Whatever the source of the ‘criminological’ verses, the second half would appear to have been influenced by Robert de Balzac, one of the minor French writers whose work Copland would have known, and author of Le chemin de l’ospital (The Road to the Hospital, 1502). De Balzac’s catalogue of fools does not deal in crime, but it undoubtedly gave the English author his title.

The Hye Way does not offer a separate ‘canting vocabulary’, but  it does provide vivid descriptions of a wide range of what would be known as ‘the canting crew’, ‘diddering and doddering, leaning on their staves, / Saying “Good master, for your mother’s blessing, / Give us a halfpenny’. Some, explains the Porter, are justified in their beggary. Others are not.

By day on stilts or Stooping on crutches
And so dissimule as false loitering flowches,
With bloody clouts all about their leg,
And placers on their skin when they go beg.
Some counterfeit lepry, and other some
Put soap in their mouth to make it scum,
And fall down as Saint Cornelys’ evil.
These deceits they use worse than any devil;
And when they be in their own company,
They be as whole as either you or I.

There are false scholars, and quack doctors, and, inevitably, corrupt clergy, posing as Pardoners. There are those who claim to have escaped French prisons. Once enough money has been earned, explains the Porter, all such ‘nightingales of Newgate’, repair to brothels and taverns, dressing up in far from ragged finery and making ‘gaudy cheer’.

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The text includes 51 examples of cant, here, in only its second printed use, called pedlar’s French. Among them are apple squire,  a pimp; bouse, alcohol and bousy drunken;  callet, a whore;   cove, a man; darkmans, the night; dell, a young female tramp, still perhaps a virgin but seen as an embryonic whore; dock, to have sex, especially to deflower; gan, the mouth; instrument, the penis; jere, excrement; lift, to steal; make a halfpenny; nab-cheat, a hat; nase, drunken; nug, to enjoy sexual foreplay; patrico, a priest, or wandering beggar posing as one; peck, to eat; poke, a wallet or purse; poll, to rob by trickery rather than violence; prancer, a horse-thief; ruffler, a villain, of the ‘first rank of canters’, who posed as a discharged soldier though equally likely might have been a former servant; tour, to spy on and win, a penny.

 


[1] I am defeated by this. The OED has it only as a variant spelling of kale, cabbage. Given its companions a foodstuff seems anomalous here. I grasp at the MED’s calewei, a kind of pear, but remain unconvinced.

[2] but not for long; it is due to close in 2014 and doubtless some architectural Godzilla is even now poring over the plans for its destruction, or worse still, ‘development’. The words ‘piazza’, ‘heritage’ and ‘viable use’ are bruited loud.

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.

Review: Hobson-Jobson by Sir Henry Yule & A.C. Burnell

raj

Jonathon Green reviews a new edition of a groundbreaking work of Anglo-Indian lexicography…

Hobson Jobson A Glossary of Colloquial Anglo-Indian Words and Phrases, and of Kindred Terms, Etymological, Historical, Geographical and Discursive was published in 1886. Its name comes from an Englished pronunciation of ‘Ya Hassan! Ya Hossein!’ as cried at the Shia festival of Muharram. Its authors were the polymath and voracious reader Henry Yule, scion of a family who had served John Company and a long-established ‘old India hand’ in his own right, and A.C. Burnell, a civil servant and specialist in Indian languages. They two had met in 1872 and soon determined to create their glossary. It was not the first of its kind, but the key lies in the term ‘discursive’. No such dictionary, focused on the British raj or otherwise, had ever been quite like it, even in the days when the lexicon was permitted to overstep the bounds of the encyclopedia.

The work took fourteen years and after ten Burnell was dead at just 42. Yule, the exemplar of the ‘gentlemen-officer-scholar’,  survived publication  by three years. The book was revised and expanded in 1903 by William Cooke, another Indian veteran. That edition has been regularly reissued, with a variety of introductions such as those by N.C. Chaudhuri and Anthony Burgess. In 1980 it was apostrophized by an Indian scholar as still ‘the only existing dictionary which closely approximates serious lexical work on Indian English.’ Now, 110 years later, we have a further revision, a ‘selected edition’ edited by Dr Kate Teltscher.

hobson jobson

No dictionary, even such team-created efforts as the OED, stands in isolation: there is always a back-story, usually based on the prejudices and assumptions of its writer. Hobson-Jobson is about many things: notably its role as a linguistic expression of the nature of the raj and the relationships between the occupying British and those they ruled.[1] I have no brief as a historian; I prefer to consider the book in its primary mode; a work of reference.

Dr Teltscher has cut the original text by 50%. Where for instance the run from TEA to TIFFIN included 25 entries, there are now 12. We have lost among others TEE, a form of umbrella, TEHR, the wild goat of the Himalayas, and TIER-CUTTY, a toddy-drawer’s knife, but scholars need only look to the original edition if they require such references. Whether such excisions represent the work’s ‘fat’ is debatable, but the entries which Dr Teltscher has left us are indubitably ‘meat’. Five exhaustive pages on TEA with sub-headings to deal with varieties from Campoy to Young Hyson. Three pages on TEAK and a page-and-a-half on THUG with cites commencing c.1865 (that one in French). Nor has she only chosen the mainstream: we also get THERMANTIDOTE, a form of fan, TICCA, used with a noun, e.g. ticca doctor, to imply that the subject is not permanent but merely on temporary hire, and a disquisition on TIBET. Nor, elsewhere, has she shied from the coarse: here are BANCHOOT and BETECHOOT ‘terms of abuse, which we should hesitate to print if their odious meaning were not obscure to “the general”.’ The ‘general’ is better informed today, the words mean ‘sister-’ and ‘daughter-fucker’, though maderchoot, motherfucker, eluded the compilers.

The headword list deals on the whole in matters practical. We have JUGGERNAUT, as part of a religious procession, but no theocratic jargon, such as kismet or karma, though both were common in contemporary British texts. Nor, as noted by Salman Rushdie, is there wog. But then there wouldn’t be: the word, a sailors’ coinage which apparently landed on the Ratcliffe Highway around 1910, is not recorded until 1929,[2] though BABOO, to which the word supposedly refers, gets a column.

As to the authors’ style, that is left untouched – though the OUP have completely reset the text and what we get is very clean and legible. We are spoilt for choice but the entry for CANDY, in the sense of sugar, gives a good example of both the underlying learning and a style that, for all that Yule (as John Farmer was doing with his slang studies) sent him copies of the proofs, James Murray would never have been permitted at the emerging OED.

(3) CANDY (SUGAR-). This name of crystallized sugar, though it came no doubt to Europe from the P.-Ar. kand (P. also shakar kand, Sp. azucar cande; It. candi and zucchero candito; Fr. sucre candi) is of Indian origin. There is a Skt. root khand, ‘to break,’ whence khanda, ‘broken,’ also applied In various compounds to granulated and candied sugar. But there is also Tam. kar-kunda, kala-kanda, Mai. kandi, kalkandi, and kalkantu, which may have been the direct source of the P. and Ar. adoption of the word, and perhaps its original, from a Dravidian word = ‘lump.’ [The Dravidian terms mean ‘stone-piece.’]

A German writer, long within last century (as we learn from Mahn, quoted in Diez’s Lexicon), appears to derive candy from Cundia, ‘because most of the sugar which the Venetians imported was brought from that island’—a fact probably invented for the nonce. But the writer was the same wiseacre who (in the year 1829) characterised the book of Marco Polo as a ‘clumsily compiled ecclesiastical fiction disguised as a Book of Travels’ (see Introduction to Marco Polo, 2nd ed. pp. 112-113).

This is, I suggest, highly competent lexicography,  and especially etymology. No-one could doubt the breadth of Yule’s reading nor the depth of Burnell’s knowledge. Eight languages are quoted.  The supportive citations, two in Italian, start c.1343. But there is also that dismissive ‘wiseacre’. Our editors are unimpressed and keen to make sure their readers know it. No modern dictionary-maker, except perhaps Partridge, could have dared get away with such subjectivity.

Yule, writing his Introduction, laid out twin intentions: ‘My first endeavour in preparing this work has to make it accurate; my next to make it […] interesting.’ Neither he nor his collaborator would be disappointed in their modern editor. Dr Teltscher, who contributes an informative introduction of her own, plus an appendix of notes on certain foreign terms, does them proud and in so doing displays her own expertise. Deliberately or otherwise Hobson-Jobson, as well as being a unique work of reference to be consulted, was always a book to be read. This new, selected edition makes that reading even more of a pleasure and if we have lost certain terms, then we have hugely gained through the addition of Dr Teltscher’s skills.


[1] one such story is the near-total exclusion of examples from Kipling who might have been seen as a shoo-in and was among the many positive reviewers. Cooke’s 1903 revision managed to slip in 11 cites, but the 1886 had none (in fairness these were relatively early days for the author’s celebrity). However this was not oversight: it appears that Amy Yule, the author’s daughter, disliked him, and he had possibly insulted one of Burnell’s heroes. Thus, believe me, are citations chosen; even now.

[2] F. Bowen Sailor’s Slang: ‘Wogs, lower class Babu shipping clerks on the Indian coast’

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.

Heroes of Slang 24: Nelson Algren

nelson algren

He was the bard of Chicago and he tried to steal Simone de Beauvoir from Satre… Mr Slang introduces the man behind The Man with the Golden Arm…

As Hamlet put it, look here upon this picture. And see before you, dare I attest, a proper writer: specs, work-shirt, hair a little messy, fag on, typewriter, shelves of dictionaries, what looks like an emptied bottle of genever. Or at any rate a proper American writer: none of your epicene devotees of literary nature study here. No dreary solipsistic adulterers waltzing around their Hampstead pinhead. This is a city boy. This is a slang boy. This, because it possible that you were wondering, is Nelson Algren (1909-81), bard of working-class Chicago and best known for The Man with the Golden Arm, the story of the junkie-cum-poker dealer Frankie Machine, published, feted and en-prized in 1949 and butchered into a second-rate Sinatra vehicle by Otto Preminger six years later.

I have been reading a good deal of Nelson Algren recently. I read a good deal of Nelson Algren when I was researching the big dictionary but recently I found that despite what I assumed I had not read all and because a publisher called Seven Stories have been adding to the in-print availability of his work my oft-repeated prayer – why doesn’t the deeply wonderful X, write something new? X having  invariably been long since dead – has for once been answered. There is always a fear with this kind of thing – see for instance some of the posthumously issued works of Roberto Bolano or David Foster Wallace or indeed Jimi Hendrix – that rather than the taut echo of crystalline creativity we shall hear instead the dull scrape reverberating from the depths of the bucket, but while not everything is of the man’s best, it is on the whole pretty good stuff. It may offer some of the pieces he knocked off for the ‘men’s magazines’ (Playboy, Dude, Cavalier) of the 60s – an unregenerate, yet always unaffianced lefty he had fallen foul of the knuckle-dragging Sen. McCarthy and his career suffered accordingly – but even these are not without wit. In any case one gets the feeling that publishers, not to mention Hollywood, would always have found him an awkward, uncompromising cuss. Most important it also gives us the chance to see a sizeable chunk of Entrapment, the unfinished novel – another plunge into the world of the lost – that would probably have been his final triumph. Seven Stories have also put out his literary apologia, Nonconformity, which was written at the height of his fame, but in its excoriation of America, was left unpublished until 1996. The Feds, fearing the possible influence of so celebrated a writer, had leant successfully on his publisher, Doubleday, and all was silence. It still reads well. America, like the rest of us, has not changed that much, other than in its technology.

This is called Heroes of Slang but as I do in many things I pass the responsibility of choice to that abstract doppelganger I call Mr Slang. As for me, I don’t do heroes but if I can allow for one apostate Jew, Lenny Bruce, then I offer another: which other is Algren, born Abraham, and the grandson of a Swede who had voluntarily converted from Lutheranism. I cite him over 1,100 times, which testifies to at least one aspect of his importance. About a quarter had never been recorded before. A man of the margins – his literary reputation among them – he decided early on that recording as accurately as possible the language of the streets  was as near as one could get to the character of those that spoke it, and that those speakers, those who live nearest the gutter, were those most worthy of chronicling. He saw ‘no purpose in writing about people who seem to have won everything. There’s no story there… Why write about happiness? There’s nothing there…no conflict, no catalyst for discovering anything about humanity.’ Instead he wrote of an America that existed ‘behind the billboards and comic strips’, and noted that ‘a thinker who wants to think justly must keep in touch with those who never think at all.’

This was not empty romanticism: the ‘community leaders’ of those he described regularly sought to have his portraits of those they claimed to represent effaced from the public’s eye, and his tales, whether short stories of bums riding the rails, or the junkies, alcoholics, whores and assorted losers of the urban mean streets were uniform only in their lack of any vestige of a happy ending. His own life was difficult: he drank, gambled and whored and like other flawed semi-stars – George Gissing, Patrick Hamilton – he had a problematic relationship with a prostitute, compounded in his case by her heroin addiction. He also tried to take Simone de Beauvoir from Sartre, but she, unsurprisingly, wasn’t about to be ‘taken’ by anyone and made her own choice, which remained bounded by the Left Bank. He favoured the downtrodden but like the slang they used and he faithfully wrote down he seems devoid of conventional morality. As a young man he did time for stealing a typewriter – symbolism if you must – and while devoid of military ardour used World War II to benefit from one of its profitable GI black markets. (Later, writing about Vietnam, he apparently hoped to capitalise on Saigon’s corruption but by now he was too much of an outsider). Given the choice he opted for the circles of which he wrote over those that judged the prize-worthy. He flourished briefly after Man…, granted a brief acknowledgement at the edges of respectability, but faded: his last decade was spent writing for Playboy and other, lesser ‘men’s magazines’, and he knew that in that company one wrote what an audience wanted even if he could never disguise his anger. He failed to complete his last novel, which from what survives suggests that it might have been his best.

Algren remains on the margins. When I mentioned to US pals that I had thought of pitching  a biography they seemed bemused, even contemptuous of so absurd a conceit. There were intermittent acknowledgments but the establishment remained at a distance even if were some prizes towards the end, and after he died fans tried to rename Chicago’s Polonia Triangle, the area of which he wrote, in his honour. The locals said no. I doubt that he would have much cared. It is hard to believe he took such things that seriously. Perhaps because more than most (and again I tip a hat to Vollmann) he walked  as well as talked. Look here upon this picture, requested Hamlet. Then continued: And on this:

nelson algren 2

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.

image ©Gabriel Green