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PAGE 3

Slang
by [?]

I have no fault to find with the broad, racy, slap-dash language of the American frontier, with its picturesque perversions and its droll exaggeration. The inspired person who chose to call a coffin an “eternity box” and whisky “blue ruin” was too innocent to sneer. The slang of Mark Twain’s Mr. Scott when he goes to make arrangements for the funeral of the lamented Buck Fanshawe is excruciatingly funny and totally inoffensive. Then the story of Jim Baker and the jays in “A Tramp Abroad” is told almost entirely in frontier slang, yet it is one of the most exquisite, tender, lovable pieces of work ever set down in our tongue. The grace and fun of the story, the odd effects produced by bad grammar, the gentle humour, all combine to make this decidedly slangy chapter a literary masterpiece. A miner or rancheman will talk to you for an hour and delight you, because his slang somehow fits his peculiar thought accurately; an English sailor will tell a story, and he will use one slang word in every three that come out of his mouth, yet he is delightful, for the simple reason that his distorted dialect enables him to express and not to suppress truth. But the poison that has crept through the minds of our finer folk paralyses their utterance so far as truth is concerned; and society may be fairly caricatured by a figure of the Father of Lies blinking through an immense eyeglass upon God’s universe.

Mr. George Meredith, with his usual magic insight, saw long ago whither our over-refined gentry were tending; and in one of his finest books he shows how a little dexterous slang may dwarf a noble deed. Nevil Beauchamp was under a tremendous fire with his men: he wanted to carry a wounded soldier out of action, but the soldier wished his adored officer to be saved. At the finish the two men arrived safely in their own lines amid the cheers of English, French, and even of the Russian enemy. This is how the votary of slang transfigures the episode; he wishes to make a little fun out of the hero, and he manages it by employing the tongue which it is good form to use. “A long-shanked trooper bearing the name of John Thomas Drew was crawling along under fire of the batteries. Out pops old Nevil, tries to get the man on his back. It won’t do. Nevil insists that it’s exactly one of the cases that ought to be, and they remain arguing about it like a pair of nine-pins while the Moscovites are at work with the bowls. Very well. Let me tell you my story. It’s perfectly true, I give you my word. So Nevil tries to horse Drew, and Drew proposes to horse Nevil, as at school. Then Drew offers a compromise. He would much rather have crawled on, you know, and allowed the shot to pass over his head; but he’s a Briton–old Nevil’s the same; but old Nevil’s peculiarity is that, as you are aware, he hates a compromise–won’t have it–retro Sathanas!–and Drew’s proposal to take his arm instead of being carried pick-a-or piggy-back–I am ignorant how Nevil spells it–disgusts old Nevil. Still it won’t do to stop where they are, like the cocoanut and pincushion of our friends the gipsies on the downs; so they take arms and commence the journey home, resembling the best friends on the evening of a holiday in our native clime–two steps to the right, half a dozen to the left, etc. They were knocked down by the wind of a ball near the battery. ‘Confound it!’ cries Nevil. ‘It’s because I consented to a compromise!'”

Most people know that this passage refers to Rear-Admiral Maxse, yet, well as we may know our man, we have him presented like an awkward, silly, comic puppet from a show. The professor of slang could degrade the conduct of the soldiers on board the Birkenhead; he could make the choruses from Samson Agonistes seem like the Cockney puerilities of a comic news-sheet. It is this high-sniffing, supercilious slang that I attack, for I can see that it is the impudent language of a people to whom nothing is great, nothing beautiful, nothing pure, and nothing worthy of faith.