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PAGE 2

Slang
by [?]

I am concerned with a degradation of language which is of an importance far beyond the trifling corruption caused by the introduction of terms from the gipsy’s caravan, the betting ring, or the thieves’ kitchen; one cannot help being made angry and sad by observing a tendency to belittle all things that are great, to mock all earnestness, to vulgarize all beauty. There is not a quarter where the subtle taint has not crept in, and under its malign influence poetry has all but expired, good conversation has utterly ceased to exist, art is no longer serious, and the intercourse of men is not straightforward. The Englishman will always be emotional in spite of the rigid reserve which he imposes upon himself; he is an enthusiast, and he does truly love earnestness, veracity, and healthy vigour. Take him away from a corrupt and petty society and give him free scope, and he at once lets fall the film of shams from off him like a cast garment, and comes out as a reality. Shut the same Englishman up in an artificial, frivolous, unreal society, and he at once becomes afraid of himself; he fears to exhibit enthusiasm about anything, and he hides his genuine nature behind a cloud of slang. He belittles everything he touches, he is afraid to utter a word from his inner heart, and his talk becomes a mere dropping shower of verbal counters which ring hollow. The superlative degree is abhorrent to him unless he can misuse it for comic purposes; and, like the ridiculous dummy lord in “Nicholas Nickleby,” he is quite capable of calling Shakespeare a “very clayver man.” I have heard of the attitude taken by two flowers of our society in presence of Joachim. Think of it! The unmatched violinist had achieved one of those triumphs which seem to permeate the innermost being of a worthy listener; the soul is entranced, and the magician takes us into a fair world where there is nothing but loveliness and exalted feeling. “Vewy good fellow, that fiddle fellow,” observed the British aristocrat. “Ya-as,” answered his faithful friend. Let any man who is given to speaking words with a view of presenting the truth begin to speak in our faint, super-refined, orthodox society; he will be looked at as if he were some queer object brought from a museum of curiosities and pulled out for exhibition. The shallowest and most impudent being that ever talked fooleries will assume superior airs and treat the man of intellect as an amusing but inferior creature. More than that–earnestness and reality are classed together under the head of “bad form,” the vital word grates on the emasculate brain of the society man, and he compensates himself for his inward consciousness of inferiority by assuming easy airs of insolence. A very brilliant man was once talking in a company which included several of the superfine division; he was witty, vivid, genial, full of knowledge and tact; but he had one dreadful habit–he always said what he thought. The brilliant man left the company, and one sham-languid person said to a sham-aristocratic person, “Who is that?” “Ah, he’s a species of over-educated savage!” Now the gentleman who propounded this pleasant piece of criticism was, according to trustworthy history, the meanest, most useless, and most despicable man of his set; yet he could venture to assume haughty airs towards a man whose shoes he was not fit to black, and he could assume those airs on the strength of his slangy impassivity–his “good form.” When we remember that this same fictitious indifference characterized the typical grand seigneur of old France, and when we also remember that indifference may be rapidly transformed into insolence, and insolence into cruelty, we may well look grave at the symptoms which we can watch around us. The dreary ennui of the heart, ennui that revolts at truth, that is nauseated by earnestness, expresses itself in what we call slang, and slang is the sign of mental disease.