The book that brought out the Lady Bracknell in me

A review of Language!: 500 Years of the Vulgar Tongue, by Jonathon Green. Julie Burchill thinks you can have too much of a bad thing

3 May 2014

9:00 AM

3 May 2014

9:00 AM

Language!: 500 Years of the Vulgar Tongue Jonathon Green

Atlantic, pp.432, £25, ISBN: 9781848878983

I’ve always said that speech is my second language, so naturally I’m somewhat slang-shy; I love words all written down properly and punctuated to within an inch of their lives. Not so Jonathon Green, who has the same relationship with slang as Jordan does with eating wedding cake in a thong; five books about it published and another one in the pipeline. According to Wikipedia, Green is often referred to as ‘the English-speaking world’s leading lexicographer of slang’, and has even been described as ‘the most acclaimed British lexicographer since Dr Johnson’.

I’ve got a bit of a problem — or ‘beef’ — with people (generally public-school men, like Green) who make a life’s work and a handsome living by taking something vibrant, ephemeral and working-class and turning it into something stodgy, academic and respectable; inevitably, there’s a suspicion that they’re slumming it as surely as any daft deb in 1920s Harlem sniffing crushed aspirin and declaring the jazz band ‘to die for!’ But there is some good stuff here.

For instance, did you know that long before ‘gay’ meant homosexual, it actually meant, when used of a woman, ‘loose’? ‘No gentleman would think of calling a lady of his acquaintance, however hilarious she might be in disposition, a gay woman,’ huffed one Colonel Prideaux way back in 1889. So much for the righteous knicker-twisting of right-wing tabloid tattlers — HANDS OFF OUR INNOCENT G-WORD! — which I remember from the last century.

And the original meaning of ‘tit’ was ‘fool’ rather than ‘breast’, which reminded me that ‘boob’, too, does double duty on this front, as when the Democrat wit remarked upon the election of John Warner, Republican senator and the then Mr Elizabeth Taylor, ‘Looks like Virginia just elected the three biggest boobs in the country!’

There’s so little humour in this book that it makes your eyes cross with sheer molten boredom. I laughed only twice; at the flapper slang ‘cellar smeller’ — one who always turns up where liquor is to be had at no cost (I’ve known a few of those) — and ‘giggle-water’ for hard liquor itself. Towards the end I found myself composing slang-based rhymes in order to ease the monotony — ‘For Pete’s sake/I’d be as happy as Larry/Not to learn more lingo/Of Tom, Dick and Harry!’

As a dirty-minded teenager, furtively looking up the swear words secreted inside the school dictionary, I would have thought it beyond the bounds of delight that one day I’d be paid to read a book basically about cussing, but you really can have too much of a bad thing. I can’t reproduce the lustier lists for such delicate souls as peruse The Spectator, but take the different words for ‘tea’, for example; ‘Betty Lea, dicky lea, George Bohee, glory be, Gypsy Lee, hay lee, Jenny Lea, jimmy lee, Mother Machree, nancy lee, Peter and Lee, river lea, sailors on the sea, split pea, wasp and bee, or you and me.’ Just call it tea, you blithering cretins!

Instead I would have preferred to have read more about the ceaselessly fascinating lost tongue of Polari — the coded speech of then-outlawed gays — and how it managed to captivate a mainstream audience of housewives on Radio 2 in the 1960s. Counter-jumper though I am, I have always had a slight element of the Lady Bracknells about my speech patterns, a tendency towards formality, and by the time I’d finished this 400-pager, I felt ready to strike the first rapscallion who assailed me in a mountebank vernacular. As the cracking actress Jane Wyman said of her ex, Ronnie Reagan, ‘Ask him the time and he’ll tell you how the watch was made.’ Or, in language that Green might better understand, ‘Come, sir, you have delighted us long enough — zip it, can it, cork it, put a sock in it, put a lid on it and shut your pie-hole.’

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  • londonscandie

    The poor dear clearly has no understanding of linguistics, or any form of scholarship — but I suppose that only strengthens her working-class credentials.

  • Jackthesmilingblack

    To lose one parent may be considered unfortunate …