When John le Carre was asked by a British interviewer why he did not immigrate to France or some other country where taxes were less punitive than in the UK, the novelist replied with an anecdote. He had dropped in to his local pub the other evening and heard a customer ask the barman for a “gold watch”, a request which promptly produced a scotch whisky. Where else in the world would that happen? Asked le Carre. In Cockney rhyming slang gold watch stands for ‘scotch’, and the spy fiction writer was underlining the importance of slang as a shibboleth, an undercover code word which immediately established the user’s cultural identity far more convincingly than a tax return form or a passport. Such documents can be faked; slang cannot.
Slang is what happens when language breaks into jazz. Like jazz, slang is demotic, improvisatory and subversive of imposed form to achieve inherent fluency. It is alternate articulation, arising in workingmen’s cafes and canteens, on college campuses, in the subfuse limbo of the underworld, on garishly lit film sets and in the raucous melee of stock exchanges. Slang is what happens when language unbuttons its starched collar, rolls up its sleeves and gets down to the dhandha of telling it as it really is—or should be.
Slang is the grassroots guerrilla fighting a rear-guard action against the occupying army of conventional usage and its cohorts; it is a semantic Sun-Tzu, the skirmisher who ambushes verbal pretentiousness and prudery with shafts of wit. When encircled by its adversary, slang beats a strategic retreat to regain the high ground where it regroups to launch a counter-offensive.
And those who sling the bat (from the Hindustani baat or speech) from Baltimore through Bombay to Brisbane now have their own dialectical manifesto in the form of the Oxford Dictionary of Modern Slang, compiled and edited by John Ayto and John Simpson, which contains over 5,000 slang words and phrases culled from the English speaking world. The entries range from “AC/DC—adjective euphemistic… of a bisexual person… (1974). From the abbreviations A.C. ‘alternating current’ and D.C. ‘direct current’, suggesting contrasting options”, to “zipless f**k” adjective. Denoting a brief and passionate encounter… (Coined by Erica Jong, ‘because when you came together zippers fell away like petals.’),” and include brief etymologies and sources. Though most of the coinages bear the provenance of contemporary mass media, the durability of some slang words is suggested by entries like ‘gob’, meaning mouth, which was first used in 1550 and is extant today.
Thanks to the legacy of empire, many of the terms trace their roots to the east of Suez. But surely ‘wog’ is not an acronym for ‘worthy oriental gentleman’, as the editors would have us believe, but comes from ‘worker on government duty’ and originally referred to mainly Indian indentured labourers working on the Suez Canal. And while poggled, to be drunk, might well owe its origin to the Hindustani paagal, mad, does tickety-boo (all right, in order) really derive from the thik hai affirmative of the koi hai, or old India hand?
Perhaps the editors were right in clearing out, for reasons of space, the antiquated colonial furniture of upper rogers (yuvrajas, princes) and brass knockers (stale food, basi khana, normally given to naukars, servants). But the sub-continental vacuum thus created might profitably have been filled by the post-colonial puppie (or Punjabi yuppie) and the ABCDEFGHIJ (American bred confused desi emigrated from Gujarat, hiding in Jersey). Indian readers however will be interested to note that the original perpetrators of ‘scam’ (1963, Mario Puzo) are still “of unknown origin”.
Even a casual flip-through reveals that an astounding number of words relate to the sexual act, or to variations thereon: poke, poontang, pocketbook, winkle, zatch, yum-yum. A philologist has suggested that the reason why English speaking people use sexual epithets so frequently is because of the neuter gender ‘it’, which makes English a ‘sexless language’ and creates verbal repression requiring the catharsis of lubricious expression. Ingenious though it is, the theory does not explain the ubiquitous use of sexually charged language.
Though Hindi, for example, provides masculine and feminine genders from the cradle (masculine) to the grave (feminine), it is capable of highly graphic invective. Punjabi and Haryanvi are even more so, as anyone who has exchanged words with a Delhi bus driver—or a quondam deputy prime minister whose permanent form of address was BC—knows to his cost. Off-colour language belongs to a cosmopolitan tradition.
Dr Reinhold Aman, a Bavarian with a PhD in mediaeval languages and America’s foremost ‘cursologist’, has put forward a hypothesis. Noting that swearing is a form of displacement behaviour, like the ritualised aggression found in the animal kingdom (the raising of hackles, baring of teeth, etc.) which obviates recourse to actual violence, Dr Aman approvingly quotes Freud who said that the first human to hurl a curse instead of a weapon was the founder of civilisation.