The joy of slang
- 26 October 2013
- From the section Magazine
Slang such as ain't, innit and coz has been banned from a school in south London. Author Charles Nevin celebrates modern slang and revisits phrases that have fallen out of fashion. Cor lummy!
Please do not misunderstand me. I love modern slang. It's as colourful, clever, and disguised from outsiders as slang ever was and is supposed to be. Take bare, for example, one of a number of slang terms recently banned by a London school. It means "a lot of", as in "there's bare people here", and is the classic concealing reversal of the accepted meaning that you also find in wicked, bad and cool. Victorian criminals did essentially the same with back slang, reversing words so that boy became yob and so on.
The other banned words are equally interesting. Extra, for example, mischievously stresses the superfluous in its conventional definition, as in "reading the whole book is extra, innit?". And that much disapproved innit? is in fact the n'est-ce pas? English has needed since the Normans forgot to bring it with them.
And who would not admire rinsed for something worn out or overused - chirpsing for flirting, bennin for doubled-up with laughter, or wi-five for an electronically delivered high-five? My bad, being new, sounds more sincere than old, tired, I'm sorry (Sos never quite cut it).
Mouse potato for those who spend too much time on PCs is as striking as salmon and aisle salmon for people who will insist on going against the flow in crowds or supermarket aisles. Manstanding is what husbands and partners typically do while their wives or partners are actually getting on with the shopping. Excellent.
Nor is tradition ignored. Words that have fallen out of fashion are revived - vexed, for example, is angry. Cockney rhyming slang survives well beyond its original inspiration, as in the currently popular marvin for starving hungry, after Hank Marvin of The Shadows, who, without wishing to be unkind, hasn't been that well-known outside his household for a good 25 years. Which, even so, is not as long as it is for a ruby (curry), after Ruby Murray, 1950s pop star.
But (and it was always coming) I do have a sadness to report - the loss of much-loved old friends of phrases that have fallen victim to time, change, and two further factors - first, the current need for brevity in modern communications, and second, the much wider acceptance of words previously considered too uncouth for public exchange.
Being generally opposed to censorship, I've no quibble with the latter, except when it becomes monotonous and repetitious, or even more crucially, when it drives out charm and variety. Consider, for example, this expression of surprise from Jeremy Paxman recently on University Challenge: "Oh my godfathers!". It's a phrase which was clearly devised to disguise the then unacceptable "Oh my God!" and so is equally clearly now redundant. But that's the charm of it, as with lawks a mercy (Lord have mercy), cor lummy (Lord, love me) and other such "minced oaths". I'm fond, too, of Lord luv a duck, whose delightful obscurity has defeated even Michael Quinion's excellent World Wide Words blog but is a splendidly satisfying thing to say. Try it.
Your family must have some similar sayings handed down. My aunt was particularly fond of this, in response to some piece of bad behaviour: "Aren't people the giddy limit?" My grandmother, wishing to discourage the nagging questioning of grandchildren anxious to know what they'd overheard and weren't supposed to, used to say, "Raros to meddlers!".
I'm now lost to know where they came from, although I glean through the magic of the internet that another exasperation-venter, Strewth Meredith can be traced precisely to a music hall sketch, The Bailiffs, first performed by Fred Kitchen in 1907.
Blimey O'Reilly is even earlier, from a song performed by Pat Rooney in the 1880s. My mother's frequent request to slow down, gently Bentley, is much later, from the perhaps equally forgotten Australian comedian, Dick Bentley, in the 1950s. Most marvellously, my grandmother's solicitous greeting, "How's your poor feet?" turns out to be a song written in 1851 in response to the miles people were walking round Crystal Palace at the Great Exhibition.
I don't want us all to start sounding like Dick Van Dyke in Mary Poppins, or indeed, Boris Johnson. Nor do I say all past imprecations were that good. By the cringe, a schoolboy favourite of mine, should be left where also lie swinging and dodgy, 1960s catchphrases of Norman Vaughan, another performer to whom time has been unkind.
But I do think we would be much more interesting to listen to if we put some effort into achieving what Reader's Digest used to call "more picturesque speech".
Modern insult, for example, is terribly thin stuff compared with the master, William Shakespeare. Whole websites are devoted to the staggering range and force of Bardic bad-mouthing. My current favourite is: "You peasant swain! You whoreson malt-horse drudge!"
And if you're concerned to be brief, just initialise, as with OMG. BO'R, for instance, or RTM.
I'm not entirely convinced, though, that we're quite ready for the return of Jimmy Young's TTFN.