Differences in slang used in US, England, France
Posted: 28 June 2007 07:43 AM   [ Ignore ]
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I came across an article in The Times (London) from 1875 comparing the slang of France, England, and America. The main differences according to this article are that English slang is the most forcible and obscure ("unintelligible to the uninitiated"), American slang the most direct and appropriate, and French slang the most clever and witty. Is this still true today?

Favorite quote: “[In America] people have a disagreeable habit of shooting eachother out of their coat-tails pocket occasionally, and not unfrequently are discovered taking the morning air suspended from a convenient limb of a tree.”

Here are the relevant bits of the article:

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Slang

“There are only three nations who use slang to any great extent--viz., France, England, and America. Of these French is by far the wittiest, American the most appropriate, and English the most forcible and obscure. A Parisian gamin is, probably, in his way the most ready-witted person in the world, but his slang is so pointed that it would be entirely lost on an average Briton; even supposing that he understood French, he would be sure to miss the point. English slang is never witty, and in its more general sense is almost unintelligible to the uninitiated. American slang, on the other hand, is so palpable and clear that it can almost be called an art by itself, and a bulky volume might be written on it.

“Some American slang expressions are really admirable in their application. Take, for instance, that one of “You bet your bottom dollar on it.” Why your bottom dollar? Any one who has been in a gambling hell in a mining district knows that the players invariably pile up the gold pieces one over the other, taking one or two off the top as they require the stake. When they get to the bottom coin of course it is their last chance. Nothing could be more applicable. Then, again, the expression “He died with his boots on,” signifying that the gentleman in question did not die peacefully in his bed, but met with a violent and sudden end. Out West people have a disagreeable habit of shooting eachother out of their coat-tails pocket occasionally, and not unfrequently are discovered taking the morning air suspended from a convenient limb of a tree. Volumes could not say more.

“Take the slang phrase “pan out,"--such and such an event will not “pan out,” signifying that it will not come to pass. We [Britons] commonly say “come off,” but this expression is far inferior to the other. It is a mining term; when a miner wishes to know whether a claim is likely to pay or not, he takes up a shovelful of dirty and puts it in his prospecting pan, washing it all away till he gets a grain or two of gold at the bottom of the pan, if there is any in the dirt. In this case the claim is said to “pan out right.” There is no wit or obscurity about it, but nothing could be more perfectly appropriate.

“But where English folk surpass all others is in literary slang, which has grown to such a pitch that it is scarcely possible to take up any modern novel, with few exceptions, without finding its pages disfigured by this detestable fault. If our language was poor this might be excusable, but when we have one of the most descriptive in the world to draw upon, it is unpardonable. Some use the heavy, pompous style, with such expressions as “outcome,” “fearsome,” &c.; if the heroine cries, she “gives vent to bursts of passionate, glorious emotion;” a tall, dark man is “stalwart and swarthy;” the hero never walks, but “strides,” and has an awkward habit of occasionally biting his nether lip till the blood comes. Then there is the ballad style of slang--"Up and spake” Sir Somebody; some one is always doing something “right nobly;” and these writers seem to think that the more obsolete and outlandish their phrase the purer English they are, forgetting or ignoring the fact that a nation’s language grows more or less with its manufactures and customs. Worse even than these are the mild, goody, finicking style of writers, who wish to appear so very innocent and childlike; they have not even a good repertoire, as their stock-in-trade is limited to about a dozen expressions, like “deftly,” “winsome,” “daintie.” They generally put their adjectives after the substantives, and are certain to call a pretty girl a “layde fair;” and a fast horse, a “courser fleet.”

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You can view an image of the full article here.

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Lost for Words

[ Edited: 29 June 2007 10:23 AM by etymolog ]
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Posted: 28 June 2007 09:55 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 1 ]
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That article raises an interesting question on the use of the word slang itself. I don’t think I would describe most of the quoted examples (particularly the Brit ones) as slang - more as stylistic variants. Today slang means “the use of highly informal words and expressions that are not considered standard in the speaker’s dialect or language” (quote from Wikipedia). How has the word’s usage evolved since 1875? According to the on-line etymology dictionary the term started life meaning special vocabulary of tramps and thieves (1756), later extending to “jargon of a particular profession” (1801). By 1818 the sense of “very informal” has crept in. But things like “stalwart and swarthy” for tall and dark are hardly “very informal”, nor are the American metaphors quoted in the Times article.
Perhaps the author of the article in 1875 had his/her own individual interpretation of what constitutes slang.

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Posted: 29 June 2007 05:51 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 2 ]
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The OED2 gives three senses of slang that show the development of the term’s semantics. The first is low and vulgar language. The second is the language of particular group or profession. And the third is the modern sense.

This use fits squarely in the second sense, both in meaning and chronology. The “English slang” described in the article is literary language, which is the language of a particular group--that of writers. A citation from Eliot’s Middlemarch (1872) fits the article’s (1875) sense exactly:

Correct English is the slang of prigs who write history and essays. And the strongest slang of all is the slang of poets.

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Posted: 29 June 2007 08:45 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 3 ]
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“There are only three nations who use slange to any great extent--

If this joker had known more than three languages, he’d never had said that. I’d guess that even Esperanto speakers use slang.

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Posted: 29 June 2007 10:32 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 4 ]
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lionello - 29 June 2007 08:45 AM

“There are only three nations who use slange to any great extent--

If this joker had known more than three languages, he’d never had said that. I’d guess that even Esperanto speakers use slang.

Actually Esperanto wasn’t around yet, but I’m sure you’re probably right about that.

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Posted: 29 June 2007 05:01 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 5 ]
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I haven’t checked any of them out yet but googling lojban slang got me 72,500 hits.  Googling loglan slang got me only 787 but then Loglan is probably a dead language now.

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