We have a word for a particular kind of woof in our house.
It is not a loud woof: not yet. Macaulay, the household dog, is getting the range. He is firing a warning shot, so to speak. He knows the fox/cat/neighbour/postman is there and he’s firing off a slick piece of internal communication.
His woof is low. It is full-bodied; and it bubbles up from within.
Thus, we call it a bubblewoof.
There is no such word; but anyone who has heard Macaulay, scourge of trespassers, woofing in this fashion understands, and finds the term a convenient label.
Thus, new words are born and grow. They will not attain their pedigree for decades: yet men use them to express a phenomenon.
Such is slang. My Oxford Dictionary defines slang as words we are using all the time, informally, and often for their sheer picturesqueness, or novelty, or unconventionality.
From its early origins, slang was subversive. While the pictures it painted were unfailingly vivid, they expressed a culture which hadn’t been expressed yet. Often it was the key to a culture which was deliberately secret. A semantic underworld.
Take , for example, Thieves’ Cant.
It is much easier to commit a crime if you can talk freely to your partners without being understood. Around 1530, references began to appear in literature of the day to Thieves’ Cant: a vocabulary all its own, created by thieves for thieves. A jaunty contraband which may have grown out of Romany talk, it was just too colourful to resist, and the theatres of the day embraced it.
Thus, Elizabethan theatre is bursting with the cant of thieves.
Take a look at this fabulous canting dictionary. first published in 1736 by N Bailey. Church is autem; thus, a preacher is an autem-bawler, and an autem-dipper an anabaptist. A meeting house for dissenters was an autem-cackletub.
Or, listen to this irresistible definition for ‘Palliards: PALLIARDS, those whose Fathers were Clapperdogeons, or born Beggars, and who themselves follow the same Trade.
“The Female sort of these Wretches frequently borrow Children if they have none of their own, and planting them about in Straw, draw the greater Pity from the Spectators, screwing their Faces to the moving Postures, and crying at Pleasure, and making the Children also cry by pinching them…”
A window into another world…
It is a not altogether unfamiliar world, though. We have met it before, because one of our favourite playwrights was Elizabethan, and William Shakespeare’s works were full of pithy street talk which much have pulled the punters to the Globe, way back when. We still love those cantish expressions today.
We do not use them; perhaps we should. Lean-witted means poor in intellect, to pribble is to argue pointlessly over nothing. Softly-sprighted is gentle; toad-spotted means infamous. A flatterer is a pick-thank. Four playing cards of a kind were known as ‘pertaunt’.
Picturesque, novel and unconventional.
And useful. Let us not forget Buckley Hall Prison in Rochdale, where sharp-eared prison officers noticed unusual phrases being used in letters and phone calls to loved ones in the outside world.
Members of the travelling community had re-introduced the 400-year old cant to enable drug smuggling on a modest scale, into and out of the prison.
The Ministry of Justice was so worried about the business that in 2009 a security alert was issued to all prison governors.
They’re not just pretty words, you know.
I had a few minutes spare in town yesterday and slipped into my favourite secondhand bookshop. I rarely walk away empty-handed, and today was no exception. For on the reference shelves was a great, neon yellow rebel waiting for me to pick it up and take it home.
It is a dictionary of slang. I paid one pound for it: it was grossly under priced. This one has been celebrated by the Biitish. It is Cassell’s Dictionary of Slang, edited by Jonathon Green, and published in 1998.
I expect it has lost a little ground since its publication. Slang travels fast. But the reading is deeply entertaining. Never, in all my born convent school-educated days, have I heard a penis referred to as a customs officer.
But the book is already having a controversial effect. I told my mother I bought it last night and her tone changed to one of surreptitious interest. We discussed its function, and then I confessed that I had opted to store it, not alongside all my other treasured books, but in a bedside drawer.
Out of harm’s way.
You have to watch these naughty words, you know.
For a extra treat, take a look at this old dictionary of bucking slang and university wit, published in 1811. in which a blow to the face is a ‘dowse in the chops’….
Featured image is from here