The absurd history of English slang

Jonathon Green in Salon:

Shakespeare_slang1Slang’s literary origins are widespread and ever-expanding. Its social roots, however, are narrow and focused: the city. If, as has been suggested, the story of standard English is that of a London language, so too is that of English slang. And the pattern would be repeated elsewhere as colonies became independent and rural settlements became major conurbations. London’s chroniclers had always noted the urban vocabularies, though none before the eighteenth century had rendered their discoveries lexicographical. The pioneer of such investigations, John Stow, laying out Elizabethan London in his Survey of London (1598), had barely touched on language (his text offers gong farmer, a latrine cleaner, night-walker, a thief, and white money, meaning silver coins). In time those who told London’s story would offer a far more central position to the city’s speech, alongside its population and topography. The first of these were the Jacobean city playwrights, but they suborned the language to their plays. For those whose work helped showcase the city’s particular way of speaking, one must look at the turn of the seventeenth century’s Ned Ward and Thomas Brown, and on to their successors.

Ned Ward declared himself ‘The London Spy’, while Tom Brown was a satirist of the city’s ‘Amusements Serious and Comical’. The works of both make clear the extent to which slang was interwoven with the metropolis which both created it and used it as part of daily life. Neither author was remotely canonical. In 1726 the New England puritan Cotton Mather bracketed their works with those of Samuel Butler (author of Hudibras) – all three sold well in the colonies – and enjoined his readership against ‘such Pestilences, and indeed all those worse than Egyptian Toads (the Spawns of a Butler, and a Brown, and a Ward …)’. Lord Macaulay, in his History of England (1849), would sneer at both: of Ward he wrote, ‘I am almost ashamed to quote such nauseous balderdash; but I have been forced to descend even lower, if possible, in search of materials,’ while Brown was ‘An idle man of wit and pleasure, who little thought that his buffoonery would ever be cited to illustrate the history of his times’. He then used them both, as have historians ever since.

More here.