Vulgar Tongues: An Alternative History of English Slang

By Max Decharne

Serpent’s Tail, £14.99, pp388

Vulgar Tongues

In 1950, the legendary postwar crime reporter Percy Hoskins (of the Daily Express) published a book whose title would later be appropriated by a landmark British television series. This book, No Hiding Place, promised to be “the full authentic story of Scotland Yard in action” and it remains a compulsive read to this day, not least for its helpful guide to underworld slang, presented in an appendix “for the benefit of the young detective”. From this we learn such standard slang terms as bracelets for handcuffs, dabs for fingerprints, and milky for cowardly, but also less guessable coinings, such as He did a tray on the Cave-grinder (he got three months’ hard labour), Kybosh (one and sixpence) and On the Jamclout (shoplifting).

At this distance in time, such unlikely stuff probably raises more questions than it answers. For example, why would “on the jamclout” mean shoplifting, when “jamclout” surely means sanitary towel? Was Percy Hoskins being had on? Were unscrupulous criminals shooting him a line? Consulting other, later slang dictionaries I couldn’t find the expression at all, but if we go back to trusty Eric Partridge, in his Dictionary of the Underworld (also 1950), we find him quoting a source from 1933: “One member of a team makes a small purchase and holds the clerk’s attention while the other steals.” Ah ha. You will notice that Partridge doesn’t specify the exact type of small purchase, perhaps out of delicacy, but I think we are finally getting closer to the etymology, if we use our loaves to join the dots.

This is the trouble with books on slang. However exhaustive they are, they always leave you asking “But why?” Max Decharne’s engaging new book on slang, Vulgar Tongues, is truly a spectacular feat, collating information from a mind-boggling range of sources, from jazz lyrics to dime novels, from 18th-century brothel directories to 1960s criminal autobiographies. Take a word like chippie for whore. Decharne duly gives us a couple of quotes from Dashiell Hammett’s Red Harvest (1929) and Raymond Chandler’s The High Window (1943) – which is where you would expect him to find some. But his killer examples are the title of the jazz record “Chasin’ Chippies” by Cootie Williams and His Rug Cutters (1938) and a quote from a 1960 Chester Himes novel set in Harlem, The Big Gold Dream:

 

“I was watching out for my girls,” Dummy replied.

“Your girls?”

“He’s got two chippie whores,” Grave Digger replied. “He’s trying to teach them how to hustle.”

 

In the face of such impressively wide reading, it seems churlish to ask for more. But I find it frustrating that someone so immersed in jive-talk doesn’t ask bigger questions about it. Every chapter – on sex, crime, the police, and so on – is written the same way, and with the same basic purpose: to impress the reader with the variety and colourful nature of historical slang, and to prove through a plethora of examples that words you thought were coined in 1965 had been around (sometimes meaning something else) since the 19th century or at least since the Jazz Age. “Groovy” was not coined by Paul Simon for his 59th Street Bridge Song, for example. Originally it meant what you would assume it to mean: in a groove, boring, square. (Decharne quotes from an 1890 volume called Slang and Its Analogues, “GROOVY, Adj – Settled in habit; limited in mind.”) Slang words often start out as the property of an in-group, and when they escape into the daylight they can either catch on big-time or transform themselves horribly – take the dire fate of “hipster”. Other times, the slang meanings of normal words just die and are forgotten. While reading this book, I heard on Radio 3 the announcement of a “Young Brass” award and actually choked on my teacake (“brass”, in the old days, being yet another word for whore.)

I suppose what I wanted from Decharne was impossible. I wanted him to think about the purpose of slang. I was myself brought up speaking mostly slang, and in most social situations even today, I have to edit my speech, for fear of sounding like Eliza Doolittle in My Fair Lady – speaking in a middle-class accent but saying words such as, “What I say is, them as pinched it, done her in.” Once, as a guest on CNN’s American Morning, I panicked while trying to think of a way of saying “punch their face in” and resorted to “showed them a bunch of fives” – which was considerably more baffling as far as the lovely news anchor Soledad O’Brien was concerned. For me, the slang of my mum’s generation is the default language of my thoughts. Whenever I hear of someone going on exotic trips, I want to say (as my nan would have done), “You get about in your tea half-hour.” When racing upstairs with the dogs, I often exhort them, “Come on, come on, up the apples!”

So for me slang is mainly about belonging (and nostalgia), but it’s also about borrowed wit, which I find very interesting. People pick up slang and use it to make themselves sound more clever and original, but self-evidently it’s not original at all: when you use slang expressions, you are reaching lazily for the pre-existing. This puts a unique pressure on slang: more so than any other branch of language, it has to evolve or die. Decharne never asks the question, but in all the cheap novels he cites in this book, do the authors expect their readers to understand the slang, or to be dazzled (or even worried) by it? Slang seems to operate to its full advantage when it collides with people who have no idea what it means. I was so pleased that Decharne cites the Howard Hawkes film Ball of Fire (1941). Written by Billy Wilder and Charles Brackett, it gives us Gary Cooper (cast against type) as a straight-laced professor of English brought face-to-face with showgirl Sugarpuss O’Shea (Barbara Stanwyck), whose effortless slang expressions include, “Shove in your clutch” (go away) and “What’s buzzin’, cousin?” (what’s occurring?)  – although the best line in the film is given to her mobster boyfriend played by Dana Andrews: “She sulks if she has to wear last year’s ermine.”

The main effect of Vulgar Tongues in my own case is to make me feel inadequate and ill-read. Why have I never even heard of the “classic” hobo memoir by Jack Black, You Can’t Win (1926), or Robin Cook’s “landmark” debut novel The Crust on Its Uppers (1962)? Good heavens, I didn’t even know that Cootie Williams had a band called the Rug Cutters! I would disagree a bit with the book’s sub-title, “An Alternative History of English Slang”, when so much of the slang turns out to be American in origin, and of course I think it’s a shame no one pointed Decharne towards Percy Hoskins’s classic No Hiding Place with its invaluable appendix giving us “On the Rip-Rap” (cadging) and “On the Ear ’Ole” (also cadging).

But you certainly finish this book agreeing with John Simpson, the recently retired chief editor of the Oxford English Dictionary, who campaigned throughout his tenure to gather words from wider sources. His predecessor, Robert Burchfield, famously preferred to wait for words and expressions to be used in respectable quarters, such as the Times newspaper and the literary novel. I’m guessing you could waste a lot of decades waiting for the expression “shove in your clutch” to turn up in the novels of A.S. Byatt. And meanwhile the language would be much the poorer without it.

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