October 2003 | Volume 54, Issue 5
This was going to begin with a plea whose tenor, if not its specifics, is all too familiar. It is the tone—hopeful, worried—that tells of the threatened Romanesque railroad station, the superb castiron building that stands in the way of the office tower, the patch of battlefield that will offer future houses sumptuous views of the Shenandoah Valley. In this case the imperiled item is the repository, as yet unfinished, of an American vernacular art as exuberant and significant as jazz.
At the beginning of his interview with J. E. Lighter in this issue, Hugh Rawson tells how 30 years ago the young lexicographer compiled a dictionary of the jargon slung about by the soldiers of the American Expeditionary Force in World War I. From this antique assemblage of archies and whizbangs and cooties grew a life’s calling: a comprehensive dictionary of American slang.
The country has always been a fecund generator of this evanescent commodity, and there were those who appreciated it very early. In 1935 Hemingway wrote scornfully that “Emerson, Hawthorne, Whittier, and Company” were “all very respectable. They did not use the words that people have always used in speech, the words that survive in language. . . .They had minds, yes. Nice, dry, clean minds.”
But Emerson’s biographer Gay Wilson Allen pointed out in our pages some 15 years ago that Emerson’s “feeling for common speech was genuine and as strong as Hemingway’s; and I suggest that he, rather than Mark Twain (as Hemingway thought), discovered the American language.” In 1840 Emerson wrote: “The language of the street is always strong. What can describe the folly & emptiness of scolding like the word jawing ? I feel too the force of the double negative, though clean contrary to our grammar rules. And I confess to some pleasure from the stinging rhetoric of a rattling oath in the mouth of truckmen & teamsters. How laconic & brisk it is by the side of a page of The North American Review .”
Some of the language that Emerson would have heard snapping and sparking amid the traffic on the Cambridge Turnpike right in front of his Concord home would be familiar to us, and much would not. Years ago I read a good deal about the terrible fire that came down like a thunderclap on the lumber town of Hinckley, Minnesota, in September 1894. The local railroad men, behaving with the sort of courage generally associated with Napoleon’s Old Guard, disobeyed orders and ran trains over blazing pine trestles to pull a thousand people to safety. Afterward, speaking of the bravery of a colleague, one engineer said, “He was grit to the handle.”
I’ll bet that nobody living has heard that phrase used, yet you know immediately what it means; and it has clarity and bite.
This is the sort of legacy Dr. Lighter is working to preserve. He has no small job. What was planned as a single book became the Random House Historical Dictionary of American Slang . The first volume ended with the letter G, the second with O. And that was that. Despite universal acclaim (and even utility; according to The Wall Street Journal , John Herr, a California psychologist, “consults the dictionary when the state parolees he counsels use unfamiliar lingo"), Random House bailed out. The project was just too costly.
That’s why this note was going to be one of beseeching. But as Hugh Rawson explains, news has just come through that Oxford University Press is adopting the dictionary. So we’ll be able to proceed on through the alphabet, revisiting the short-lived Valley Girl accolade tubular , and finding out where zap comes from (Lighter believes the word was born when the creator of Buck Rogers tried to represent the sound a ray gun makes).
This is very good news, because our slang is both a pleasure and a treasure—an intimate expression of the national psyche. In the interview, Dr. Lighter says that in some indefinable way it is different from that of our close linguistic cousins the British. H. L. Mencken, I believe, spelled out that difference succinctly by saying in effect that English slang wasn’t slang, it was baby talk (”ciggie,” “brolly"). Too harsh, perhaps, but there is little doubt that, say, Jerry has considerably less punch than Kraut .
Concluding his tribute to our slang, Emerson wrote: “Cut these words & they would bleed; they are vascular & alive; they walk & run.... Always this profane swearing & bar-room wit has salt & fire in it.”
We should all be grateful that the people at Oxford are going to help Dr. Lighter see that the salt keeps its power to sting, and the fire to burn.