What the Dickens?

Although slang is considered to be the language of the streets, it’s been appearing in great literature for centuries

IN 1807 THOMAS BOWDLER  published The Family Shakespeare, stating in his preface that “nothing is added to the original text, but those words and expressions are omitted which cannot with propriety be read in a Family.” Within thirty years he had been eponymized and “verbified” in one swell swoop, and the Oxford English Dictionary now defines bowdlerize as “to expurgate (a book or writing), by omitting or modifying words or passages considered indelicate or offensive,” including slang.

The OEDs first definition of slang was “the special vocabulary used by any set of persons of a low or disreputable character.” (There is the story, perhaps apocryphal, that after Samuel Johnson’s A Dictionary of the English Language was published in ­­1755, two elderly sisters congratulated the lexicographer on not including “ghastly” words in his tome. Dr. Johnson reportedly replied, “What! My dears! Then you have been looking for them?”)

But returning to Shakespeare: Jonathon Green, in The Stories of Slang, reports that the playwright and poet employed over 500 slang terms in his works, with 277 of them representing the first recorded usage of a word. Green also alludes to comedian Lenny Bruce, who noted that everybody wants what should be, but what should be doesn’t exist; there is only what is. In describing the human condition, Shakespeare described its many unsavoury aspects and used slang effectively in his portrayal of people.

In All’s Well That Ends Well Shakespeare employs the term kickie-wickie to mean wife; pickers and stealers in Hamlet refers to hands; asshead in Twelfth Night refers to a dolt; and “small beer” in Othello replaces trifles. Perhaps intuiting that another great British writer would emerge centuries later, he coined the expression “what the dickens” in Merry Wives of Windsor; “dickens” has been interpreted as a euphemism for the Devil.

Shakespeare created slang terms as required. In Henry IV, Part 2 he invented the word fustilarian to refer to a smelly old person by adding the suffix -larian to “fusty.” In All’s Well That Ends Well, he created the word facinerious to represent something very wicked, adapting the Latin facinus, meaning “bad deed.” And to the chagrin of the Bowdlers of the world, Shakespeare used countless double entendres. For example, an early scene of Hamlet begins with the prince asking Ophelia, “Lady, shall I lie in your lap?,” where “lap” may be a double entendre for the lady’s pudendum.

Many common words have distinct naughty meanings in Shakespeare’s plays. In The Stories of Slang, Green reveals that a nunnery isn’t remotely religious (even if populated by nuns): we are in the world of brothels here. Nor are the low countries even remotely Dutch, but what modernity coyly terms “down there.”

Interestingly, the first citation of the word “slang” appears in 1756 in William Toldervy’s The History of Two Orphans, 140 years after the death of the immortal Bard; and the first English-language dictionary to include slang was A New Dictionary of the Terms Ancient and Modern of the Canting Crew, compiled in 1698 in London by an author known only by the initials B.E. One of Shakespeare’s sources of disreputable words appears to have been his contemporary John Florio’s 1598 Italian-English dictionary A Worlde of Wordes. In it, Florio translated fottere as to jape, to sard, to swive, to occupy, and the unmentionable f-word, while other slang terms he included had been in the English language since at least Chaucer’s time, in the 14th century.

Nor was Shakespeare the only English-language literary great to successfully employ slang. Dickens described many of his characters using such terms, particularly in Oliver Twist, where the Artful Dodger is dubbed a “downy cove,” which Green’s Dictionary of Slang defines as “a knowledgeable, artful, aware, ‘fly’ person”; uber-pickpocket Bill Sykes is called a “swell mobsman”; and Fagin is a “fence,” a receiver of stolen goods. (Sykes asks Fagin in one passage, “What are you up to? Ill-treating the boys, you … insatiable old fence?”). Lady of the streets Nancy is called a “tuppenny upright” due to the vertical position and low compensation for which she may have plied her trade.

In The Stories of Slang, Green relates that James Joyce’s Ulysses, considered by some as the greatest novel ever written, contains almost 1,000 slang terms. Yet stating categorically that a term qualifies as slang may be a fool’s errand. In The State of the Language: English Observed, Philip Howard writes that “one man’s slang is another man’s colloquialism is another man’s vernacular is another man’s everyday speech.”

That being said, slang is a monument to language’s ability to evolve by slicing through its oft pretentious nature
and euphemisms.

Howard Richler’s latest book is Wordplay: Arranged and Deranged Wit.