Monday, March 18, 2013

Soldiers' Songs and Slang: more joys of slang dictionaries

So I found this after listening to Geoffrey Hill’s lecture on poetry and war:

Like Sir Geoffrey I was fascinated by the observation:

Swearing was so common that "If the Sergeant said: 'Get your ___ rifles!' it was understood as a matter of routine', but "if he said 'Get your Rifles' there was an immediate implication of urgency and danger".

So words mean nothing except in use, and historical slang dictionaries are one way of watching them slithering around.  I didn’t know “fed up” first appeared as WW1 slang. One of the three terrible words the editors dare not write out, “the filthiest in origin’ recently featured in an Australian TV Advertising campaign and while it was obviously totally unacceptable to write ‘bugger’ in the 1930s,  words which make us flinch now could be casually thrown into a definition.

As the editors point out, most of the 600 entries in their glossary are not new words, but words given (sometimes radically) different meanings: two of their examples are ‘Landowner’ (someone who is dead), and ‘Eye wash’ (official deceit or pretentiousness). By the 1960s the latter had become a faintly archaic sounding but politer option for bullshit.

English, they write, is Probably the most imaginative and sensuously exact language of all. It is continually unfolding springs of metaphor within itself.  An English word is never content to do as it is told. Its marriages are not often arranged. It prefers romantic elopements with some other word for which the purists never intended it. ‘Push Up” will couple with the ineligible ‘daisies’, and so form a new phase, a new metaphor, and enrich the English consciousness by an illuminating flash of sardonic humor.

And who are those purists who the words are trying to escape?

The editors foot note a song called “I wore a tunic”…’Note the rough approximations that serve for rhymes-clothes, knows: foe, road-due to the slovenly pronunciation of the working classes’.  It’s the ‘slovenly’ that gives them away.  The idea that a word has a ‘proper’ pronunciation and any variation on this is a falling away, a sign of improper usage, reveals class snobbishness masquerading as linguistics.  For the singers the words rhymed.

I would be the first to agree that historical English slang is far more imaginative than its current American descendant,  but the metaphors are illuminating.  There is no human agency in the section in italics above. Words simply escape the confines of the purists' attempts to define them and go off coupling promiscuously in a way the editors are desperate to suggest no English speaking soldier ever did. ‘Push up” ‘clicks’ with ‘daisies’ for a bit of etymological ‘jig a jig’ (an onomatopoeic word says our editors) and the bastard offspring is the sardonic humor of ‘Pushing up daisies’ (dead). 
While I like the idea of words roaming restlessly, adverbs setting up brief but essentially indecent liaisons with nouns, an adverb and adjective settling down for some quiet hanky-panky, the idea of language as something with a life of its own, in which humans are somehow irrelevant, has become very popular in Theory world, but remains fundamentally idiotic.  And that, considered in terms of the three terrible words the editor dared not print in this 1930 edition, is for later.

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