Slang dictionaries have a seductive subversive irresponsibility. Some, especially Australian ones, are dangerously funny and achieve a ribald poetry; others like the canting dictionaries of the renaissance are relics of an alternative universe peopled by rufflers and upright men, jarkmen, bawdy baskets, doxies and kinching morts .
So I have been wallowing in Chambers new Dictionary of Slang; the 1811 Dictionary of the Vulgar Tongue and some Tudor and early Stuart “Rogues Literature” surfacing occasionally to cross check words in the OED or Brewer’s. It’s far too enjoyable to call research.
I’ve come to the unexceptional conclusion that at some stage in the history of English almost every common word has been press ganged from its standard usage to do service as a term for something completely different. In fact, in the wrong place and time, the most innocuous sounding phrase would probably be interpreted as obscene or as evidence of membership of some kind of illegal or secret society.
But while I enjoy slang dictionaries, I remain sceptical. Even the huge Chambers leaves out terms I grew up with. How is standard usage of a slang term established? How many people have to use it and for how long before it gets recorded?
Soon after I came to Australia I read an article in the travel section of a national newspaper which purported to be the results of the journalist’s interest in West Midlands slang. I thought I’d grown up speaking it fairly fluently, or at least playing rugby with people who were experts. So it came as some surprise to learn that in the west midlands a “shag” is a type of bread roll.
The young lady journalist told her readers that if they went into a bakery in the region and asked for a “hot buttered shag” they would be offered a warm bread roll with toasted cheese on top.
So here’s my dilemma about slang dictionaries. Where I grew up, in the west midlands, and where I went to uni, still in the west midlands, if you went into a bakery and asked for a hot buttered shag they would have assumed a) you were nuts, b) into some really weird kind of perversion or c) taking the mickey. But does that mean that nowhere in the wide west midlands this term wasn’t used? Does this mean that somewhere some poor guy was wondering why his girl friend had stopped talking to him after he’d innocently offered her a bread roll?
If you lived in Coventry you knew that people in Wolverhampton spoke a strange and mysterious language. Even the move to Birmingham was fraught with incomprehension. (ok, not so bad as being English and arriving in Australia and hearing the phrase “shag on a rock” or “look at that hunk of spunk over there”..but still enough to make you wary.)
I imagine two codgers in a pub, reluctantly accepting free drinks and earnestly answering the young lady Journalist’s questions. Everyone knows the English are serious unimaginative literal minded people (unlike the Irish) and so they can be trusted to tell the God’s honest. I can also imagine two said codgers pissing themselves when she left having told her to go ask for a hot buttered shag in the local bakers. Maybe things have changed. Maybe there is such a thing, (after all you can go into a shop in Qld and ask for a Gaytime) but in the world I grew up in I’d love to have been there to see the baker’s face, and his customers’, if she did….