American Slang

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H.L. Mencken published the groundbreaking work, The American Language (1919), considered the most scientific linguistics study of its time. We offer an excerpt here, Chapter IX, "Miscellanea," 2: "American Slang." Mencken went on to update several editions, including its fourth (1938), from which the section "The Nature of Slang" is often studied by high school students today. Our favorite quote from this edition:
"Slang," said Ambrose Bierce fifty years later, "is the speech of him who robs the literary garbage carts on their way to the dumps."

This neglect of the national proverbial philosophy extends to the national slang. There is but one work, so far as I can discover, formally devoted to it, and that work is extremely superficial. Moreover, it has been long out of date, and hence is of little save historical value. There are at least a dozen careful treatises on French slang, half as many on English slang, and a good many on German slang, but American slang, which is probably quite as rich as that of France and a good deal richer than that of any other country, is yet to be studied at length. Nor is there much discussion of it, of any interest or value, in the general philological literature. Fowler and all the other early native students of the language dismissed it with lofty gestures; down to the time of Whitney it was scarcely regarded as a seemly subject for the notice of a man of learning. Lounsbury, less pedantic, viewed its phenomena more hospitably, and even defined it as "the source from which the decaying energies of speech are constantly refreshed," and Brander Matthews, following him, has described its function as that of providing "substitutes for the good words and true which are worn out by hard service." But that is about as far as the investigation has got. Krapp has some judicious paragraphs upon the matter in his "Modern English," there are a few scattered essays upon the underlying psychology, and various uninforming magazine articles, but that is all. The practising authors of the country, like its philologians, have always shown a gingery and suspicious attitude. "The use of slang," said Oliver Wendell Holmes, "is at once a sign and a cause of mental atrophy." "Slang," said Ambrose Bierce fifty years later, "is the speech of him who robs the literary garbage carts on their way to the dumps." Literature in America, as we have seen, remains aloof from the vulgate. Despite the contrary examples of Mark Twain and Howells, all the more pretentious American authors try to write chastely and elegantly; the typical literary product of the country is still a refined essay in the Atlantic Monthly, perhaps gently jocose but never rough—by Emerson, so to speak, out of Charles Lamb—the sort of thing one might look to be done by a somewhat advanced English curate. George Ade, undoubtedly one of the most adept anatomists of the American character and painters of the American scene that the national literature has yet developed, is neglected because his work is grounded firmly upon the national speech—not that he reports it literally, like Lardner and the hacks trailing after Lardner, but that he gets at and exhibits its very essence. It would stagger a candidate for a doctorate in philology, I daresay, to be told off by his professor to investigate the slang of Ade in the way that Bosson, the Swede, has investigated that of Jerome K. Jerome, and yet, until something of the sort is undertaken, American philology will remain out of contact with the American language.

Most of the existing discussions of slang spend themselves upon efforts to define it, and, in particular, upon efforts to differentiate it from idiomatic neologisms of a more legitimate type. This effort is largely in vain; the border-line is too vague and wavering to be accurately mapped; words and phrases are constantly crossing it, and in both directions. There was a time, perhaps, when the familiar American counter-word, proposition, was slang; its use seems to have originated in the world of business, and it was soon afterward adopted by the sporting fraternity. But today it is employed without much feeling that it needs apology, and surely without any feeling that it is low. Nice, as an adjective of all work, was once in slang use only; today no one would question "a nice day," or "a nice time" or "a nice hotel." Awful seems to be going the same route. "Awful sweet" and "awfully dear" still seem slangy and school-girlish, but "awful children," "awful weather" and "an awful job" have entirely sound support, and no one save a pedant would hesitate to use them. Such insidious purifications and consecrations of slang are going on under our noses all the time. The use of some as a general adjective-adverb seems likely to make its way in the same manner. It is constantly forgotten by purists of defective philological equipment that a great many of our most respectable words and phrases originated in the plainest sort of slang. Thus, quandary, despite a fanciful etymology which would identify it with wandreth (=evil), is probably simply a composition form of the French phrase, qu'en dirai-je? Again, to turn to French itself, there is tête, a sound name for the human head for many centuries—though its origin was in the Latin testa (=pot), a favorite slang-word of the soldiers of the decaying empire, analogous to our own block, nut and conch. The word slacker, recently come into good usage in the United States as a designation for an unsuccessful shirker of conscription, is a substantive derived from the English verb to slack, which was born as university slang and remains so to this day. Brander Matthews, so recently as 1901, thought to hold up slang; it is now perfectly good American. The contrary movement of words from the legitimate vocabulary into slang is constantly witnessed. Some one devises a new and intriguing trope or makes use of an old one under circumstances arresting the public attention, and at once it is adopted into slang, given a host of remote significances, and ding-donged ad nauseam. The Rooseveltian phrases, muck-raker, Ananias Club, short and ugly word, nature-faker and big-stick, offer examples. Not one of them was new and not one of them was of much pungency, but Roosevelt's vast talent for delighting the yokelry threw about them a charming air, and so they entered into current slang and were mouthed idiotically for months. Another example is to be found in steam-roller. It was first heard of in June, 1908, when it was applied by Oswald F. Schuette, of the Chicago Inter-Ocean, to the methods employed by the Roosevelt-Taft majority in the Republican National Committee in over-riding the protests against seating Taft delegates from Alabama and Arkansas. At once it struck the popular fancy and was soon heard on all sides. All the usual derivatives appeared, to steam-roller, steam-rollered, and so on. Since then, curiously enough, the term has gradually forced its way back from slang to good usage, and even gone over to England. In the early days of the Great War it actually appeared in the most solemn English reviews, and once or twice, I believe, in state papers. Much of the discussion of slang by popular etymologists is devoted to proofs that this or that locution is not really slang at all—that it is to be found in Shakespeare, in Milton, or in the Revised Version. These scientists, of course, overlook the plain fact that slang, like the folk-song, is not the creation of people in the mass, but of definite individuals, and that its character as slang depends entirely upon its adoption by the ignorant, who use its novelties too assiduously and with too little imagination, and so debase them to the estate of worn-out coins, smooth and valueless. It is this error, often shared by philologists of sounder information, that lies under the doctrine that the plays of Shakespeare are full of slang, and that the Bard showed but a feeble taste in language. Nothing could be more absurd. The business of writing English, in his day, was unharassed by the proscriptions of purists, and so the vocabulary could be enriched more facilely than today, but though Shakespeare and his fellow-dramatists quickly adopted such neologisms as to bustle, to huddle, bump, hubbub and pat, it goes without saying that they exercised a sound discretion and that the slang of the Bankside was full of words and phrases which they were never tempted to use. In our own day the same discrimination is exercised by all writers of sound taste. On the one hand they disregard the senseless prohibitions of school-masters, and on the other hand they draw the line with more or less watchfulness, according as they are of conservative or liberal habit. I find the best of the bunch and joke-smith in Saintsbury; one could scarcely imagine either in Walter Pater. But by the same token one could not imagine chicken (for young girl), aber nit, to come across or to camouflage in Saintsbury.

What slang actually consists of doesn't depend, in truth, upon intrinsic qualities, but upon the surrounding circumstances. It is the user that determines the matter, and particularly the user's habitual way of thinking. If he chooses words carefully, with a full understanding of their meaning and savor, then no word that he uses seriously will belong to slang, but if his speech is made up chiefly of terms poll-parroted, and he has no sense of their shades and limitations, then slang will bulk largely in his vocabulary. In its origin it is nearly always respectable; it is devised not by the stupid populace, but by individuals of wit and ingenuity; as Whitney says, it is a product of an "exuberance of mental activity, and the natural delight of language-making." But when its inventions happen to strike the popular fancy and are adopted by the mob, they are soon worn thread-bare and so lose all piquancy and significance, and, in Whitney's words, become "incapable of expressing anything that is real." This is the history of such slang phrases, often interrogative, as "How'd you like to be the ice-man?" "How's your poor feet?" "Merci pour la langouste," "Have a heart," "This is the life," "Where did you get that hat?" "Would you for fifty cents?" "Let her go, Gallegher," "Shoo-fly, don't bother me," "Don't wake him up" and "Let George do it." The last well exhibits the process. It originated in France, as "Laissez faire à Georges," during the fifteenth century, and at the start had satirical reference to the multiform activities of Cardinal Georges d'Amboise, prime minister to Louis XII. It later became common slang, was translated into English, had a revival during the early days of David Lloyd-George's meteoric career, was adopted into American without any comprehension of either its first or its latest significance, and enjoyed the brief popularity of a year.

Krapp attempts to distinguish between slang and sound idiom by setting up the doctrine that the former is "more expressive than the situation demands." "It is," he says, "a kind of hyperesthesia in the use of language. To laugh in your sleeve is idiom because it arises out of a natural situation; it is a metaphor derived from the picture of one raising his sleeve to his face to hide a smile, a metaphor which arose naturally enough in early periods when sleeves were long and flowing; but to talk through your hat is slang, not only because it is new, but also because it is a grotesque exaggeration of the truth." The theory, unluckily, is combated by many plain facts. To hand it to him, to get away with it and even to hand him a lemon are certainly not metaphors that transcend the practicable and probable, and yet all are undoubtedly slang. On the other hand, there is palpable exaggeration in such phrases as "he is not worth the powder it would take to kill him," in such adjectives as break-bone (fever), and in such compounds as fire-eater, and yet it would be absurd to dismiss them as slang. Between block-head and bone-head there is little to choose, but the former is sound English, whereas the latter is American slang. So with many familiar similes, e. g., like greased lightning, as scarce as hen's teeth; they are grotesque hyperboles, but surely not slang.

The true distinction between slang and more seemly idiom, in so far as any distinction exists at all, is that indicated by Whitney. Slang originates in an effort, always by ingenious individuals, to make the language more vivid and expressive. When in the form of single words it may appear as new metaphors, e. g., bird and peach; as back formations, e. g., beaut and flu; as composition-forms, e. g., whatdyecallem; as picturesque compounds, e. g., booze-foundry; as onomatopes, e. g., biff and zowie; or in any other of the shapes that new terms take. If, by the chances that condition language-making, it acquires a special and limited meaning, not served by any existing locution, it enters into sound idiom and is presently wholly legitimatized; if, on the contrary, it is adopted by the populace as a counter-word and employed with such banal imitativeness that it soon loses any definite significance whatever, then it remains slang and is avoided by the finical. An example of the former process is afforded by Tommy-rot. It first appeared as English school-boy slang, but its obvious utility soon brought it into good usage. In one of Jerome K. Jerome's books, "Paul Kelver," there is the following dialogue:

"The wonderful songs that nobody ever sings, the wonderful pictures that nobody ever paints, and all the rest of it. It's Tommy-rot!" "I wish you wouldn't use slang." "Well, you know what I mean. What is the proper word? Give it to me." "I suppose you mean cant." "No, I don't. Cant is something that you don't believe in yourself. It's Tommy-rot; there isn't any other word."

Nor was there any other word for hubbub and to dwindle in Shakespeare's time; he adopted and dignified them because they met genuine needs. Nor was there any other satisfactory word for graft when it came in, nor for rowdy, nor for boom, nor for joy-ride, nor for omnibus-bill, nor for slacker, nor for trust-buster. Such words often retain a humorous quality; they are used satirically and hence appear but seldom in wholly serious discourse. But they have standing in the language nevertheless, and only a prig would hesitate to use them as Saintsbury used the best of the bunch and joke-smith.

On the other hand, many an apt and ingenious neologism, by falling too quickly into the gaping maw of the proletariat, is spoiled forthwith. Once it becomes, in Oliver Wendell Holmes' phrase, "a cheap generic term, a substitute for differentiated specific expressions," it quickly acquires such flatness that the fastidious flee it as a plague. One recalls many capital verb-phrases, thus ruined by unintelligent appreciation, e. g., to hand him a lemon, to freeze on to, to have the goods, to fall for it, and to get by. One recalls, too, some excellent substantives, e. g., dope and dub, and compounds, e. g., come-on and easy-mark, and verbs, e. g., to vamp. These are all quite as sound in structure as the great majority of our most familiar words, but their adoption by the ignorant and their endless use and misuse in all sorts of situations have left them tattered and obnoxious, and they will probably go the way, as Matthews says, of all the other "temporary phrases which spring up, one scarcely knows how, and flourish unaccountably for a few months, and then disappear forever, leaving no sign." Matthews is wrong in two particulars here. They do not arise by any mysterious parthenogenesis, but come from sources which, in many cases, may be determined. And they last, alas, a good deal more than a month. Shoo-fly afflicted the American people for at least two years, and "I don't think" and aber nit quite as long. Even "good-night" lasted a whole year.

A very large part of our current slang is propagated by the newspapers, and much of it is invented by newspaper writers. One needs but turn to the slang of baseball to find numerous examples. Such phrases as to clout the sphere, the initial sack, to slam the pill and the dexter meadow are obviously not of bleachers manufacture. There is not enough imagination in that depressing army to devise such things; more often than not, there is not even enough intelligence to comprehend them. The true place of their origin is the perch of the newspaper reporters, whose competence and compensation is largely estimated, at least on papers of wide circulation, by their capacity for inventing novelties. The supply is so large that connoisseurship has grown up; an extra-fecund slang-maker on the press has his following. During the summer of 1913 the Chicago Record-Herald, somewhat alarmed by the extravagant fancy of its baseball reporters, asked its readers if they would prefer a return to plain English. Such of them as were literate enough to send in their votes were almost unanimously against a change. As one of them said, "one is nearer the park when Schulte slams the pill than when he merely hits the ball." In all other fields the newspapers originate and propagate slang, particularly in politics. Most of our political slang-terms since the Civil War, from pork-barrel to steam-roller, have been their inventions. The English newspapers, with the exception of a few anomalies such as the Pink-Un, lean in the other direction; their fault is not slanginess, but an otiose ponderosity—in Dean Alford's words, "the insisting on calling common things by uncommon names; changing our ordinary short Saxon nouns and verbs for long words derived from the Latin." The American newspapers, years ago, passed through such a stage of bombast, but since the invention of yellow journalism by the elder James Gordon Bennett—that is, the invention of journalism for the frankly ignorant and vulgar—they have gone to the other extreme. Edmund Clarence Stedman noted the change soon after the Civil War. "The whole country," he wrote to Bayard Taylor in 1873, "owing to the contagion of our newspaper 'exchange' system, is flooded, deluged, swamped beneath a muddy tide of slang." A thousand alarmed watchmen have sought to stay it since, but in vain. The great majority of our newspapers, including all those of large circulation, are chiefly written, as one observer says, "not in English, but in a strange jargon of words that would have made Addison or Milton shudder in despair."


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