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Has any one ever yet considered the spiritual significance of slang? The dictionaries inform us that “slang is a conversational irregularity of a more or less vulgar type;” but that is not all. The prim definition refers merely to words, but I am rather more interested in considering the mental attitude which is indicated by the distortion and loose employment of words, and by the fresh coinages which seem to spring up every hour. I know of no age or nation that has been without its slang, and the study is amongst the most curious that a scholar can take up; but our own age, after all, must be reckoned as the palmy time of slang, for we have gone beyond mere words, and our vulgarizations of language are significant of degradation of soul. The Romans of the decadence had a hideous cant language which fairly matched the grossness of the people, and the Gauls, with their descendants, fairly matched the old conquerors. The frightful old Paris of Francois Villon, with all its bleak show of famine and death, had its constant changes of slang. “Tousjours vieil synge est desplaisant,”says the burglar-poet, and he means that the old buffoon is tiresome; the young man with the newest phases of city slang at his tongue’s end is most acceptable in merry company. Very few people can read Villon’s longer poems at all, for they are almost entirely written in cant language, and the glossary must be in constant requisition. The rascal is a really great writer in his abominable way, but his dialect was that of the lowest resorts, and he lets us see that the copious argot which now puzzles the stranger by its kaleidoscopic changes was just as vivid and changeable in the miserable days of the eleventh Louis. In the Paris of our day the slang varies from hour to hour; every one seems able to follow it, and no one knows who invents the constant new changes. The slang of the boarding-house in Balzac’s “Pere Goriot” is quite different from that of the novels done by the Goncourt brothers; and, though I have not yet mustered courage to finish one of M. Zola’s outrages, I can see that the vulgarisms which he has learned are not at all like any that have been used in bygone days. The corruption of Paris seems to breed verbal distortions rather freely, and the ordinary babble of the city workman is as hard to any Englishman as are the colloquialisms of Burns to the average Cockney.

In England our slang has undergone one transformation after another ever since the time of Chaucer. Shakespeare certainly gives us plenty; then we have the slang of the Great War, and then the unutterable horrors of the Restoration–even the highly proper Mr. Joseph Addison does not disdain to talk of an “old put,” and his wags are given to “smoking” strangers. The eighteenth century–the century of the gallows–gave us a whole crop of queer terms which were first used in thieves’ cellars, and gradually filtered from the racecourse and the cockpit till they took their place in the vulgar tongue. The sweet idyll of “Life in London” is a perfect garden of slang; Tom the Corinthian and Bob Logic lard their phrases with the idiom of the prize-ring, and the author obligingly italicises the knowing words so that one has no chance of missing them. But nowadays we have passed beyond all that, and every social clique, every school of art and literature, every trade–nay, almost every religion–has its peculiar slang; and the results as regards morals, manners, and even conduct in general are too remarkable to be passed over by any one who desires to understand the complex society of our era. The mere patter of thieves or racing-men–the terms are nearly synonymous–counts for nothing. Those who know the byways of life know that there are two kinds of dark language used by our nomad classes and by our human predatory animals. A London thief can talk a dialect which no outsider can possibly understand; for, by common agreement, arbitrary names are applied to every object which the robbers at any time handle, and to every sort of underhand business which they transact. But this gibberish is not exactly an outcome of any moral obliquity; it is employed as a means of securing safety. The gipsy cant is the remnant of a pure and ancient language; we all occasionally use terms taken from this remarkable tongue, and, when we speak of a “cad,” or “making a mull,” or “bosh,” or “shindy,” or “cadger” or “bamboozling,” or “mug,” or “duffer,” or “tool,” or “queer,” or “maunder,” or “loafer,” or “bung,” we are using pure gipsy. No distinct mental process, no process of corruption, is made manifest by the use of these terms; we simply have picked them up unconsciously, and we continue to utter them in the course of familiar conversation.