By Jon Black
So, I have a new crush. A new book crush, I should specify. At a second-hand bookstore in San Antonio, I discovered copy the Dictionary of American Slang: With Supplement, edited by Dr. Harold Wentworth and Stuart Berg Flexner (Crowell, c.1967). Since then, I have been utterly enchanted by this look into American slang of precisely half a century ago.
So, rather than starting with some overarching theme, as most of my Literary Archeology posts do, I’m going share some of the thoughts and reflections this book has prompted and see where we go from there.
Revolving around slang, this post explores some of the same themes as my Words, Words, Words post from April. While that post dealt with mainstream language, this focuses on slang. It should be recognized, of course, that there is a revolving door between the two. Many words come into mainstream usage from the slang of some demographic or subculture. Less commonly, a specific population will retain a word (possibly with its original meaning, possibly not) long after it has fallen out of common use.
Slang offers all the advantages and pitfalls for HistFic that period language does in general. It also allows for the representation of specific subcultures or regional or ethnic demographics. A short listing of sources for the words appearing Dictionary of American Slang include “hobos and tramps,” immigrants, jazz musicians, the military, “narcotics addicts,” “show-business workers,” students, and “the underworld.” Interesting how even the names of those categories show the passage of time and evolution of language.
For all slang’s ability to bring sub-groups to life, it can be a double-edged sword. Even more than most period language, overuse of slang can slide into stereotype and caricature (How many books/movies/TV shows have we seen featuring one-dimensional portrayals of characters speaking Cockney, Jive, Valley-Girl, etc. that are a subtle as an iron maul to the brainpan?).
In fairness, the Dictionary of American Slang is not the beginning of my love affair with period slang. It’s something I’ve dabbled with in writing HistFic before.
In my novel Gabriel’s Trumpet (scheduled for release later this year from 18thWall), an entire chapter revolves around a group of Hep-Cat musicians teaching the protagonist the elaborate slang of jazz-age Harlem. It is more than just a colorful interlude or fish out of water moment, the lesson is essential if the protagonist to be able to communicate and make sense of the alien (to him) environment in which he now finds himself.
In another recent project, I found myself dealing with the slang of two different (if often interconnected) subcultures in 1910s Paris: the bohemian set and the criminal underworld.
Most of us know the anecdote about the Inuit/Eskimos have X number of words for snow. Depending on who’s telling the anecdote, the number of words varies. The real point is that each of those words has a slightly different meaning. And that those (to us) relatively trivial differences are worth communicating indicates how important snow, and being able to describe very specific properties of snow, are to the Inuit.
A similar process is at work with slang. Early jazz culture had a seemingly endless number of terms for marijuana and its aficionados. Likewise, I lost count of Montmartre’s euphemisms for prostitutes and places where alcohol was served. And these weren’t synonyms; each term had very specific connotations setting it apart from the others. Likewise, the underworld argot of the ladies and gentlemen of the Parisian milieu used terms that were often frighteningly specific for thieves, murders, etc. (The word for a thief who stole watches was entirely different from one who stole goods from unattended wagons, etc.)
And, because I’ve got a little space left over, I thought I would share some of my favorite discoveries from Dictionary of American Slang.
Beard: an intellectual or egghead; conversely a beat, bohemian, or other “far out” person.
Bug Man: A circus or carnival concessionaire who sells lizards, turtles, or insects.
Ham-And-Egger: an average or dull person, a worker competent only at routine tasks
Know one’s beans/Know the beans: to be well-informed on a subject or skilled in one’s chose field.
Meat Grinder: an automobile (1940s, student slang).
Red-light or Redlight: To push a person out of a moving locomotive, specifically to intentionally kill someone by doing so.
Suffering Cats! A socially acceptable expletive (allegedly in place of Suffering Christ!).
Sunday Thinker: A self-proclaimed genius, an impractical person, or an eccentric.
Yesterday, Today, and Forever: lunch-counter slang for the house hash (implying that the daily leftovers had been added to the same hash pot since the establishment’s opening).