[A quick note from Pinda before we get to it. I’m still working my way through the book and thoroughly enjoying it. There’s little in historical research that infuriates me quite so much as the erasure of women from certain fields of enquiry when basic critical thought would suggest it’s imposs ible. In something as universally human as the use of slang, ignoring half the population is even more absurd than usual. Much of slang is joyously or aggressively vulgar and sexual, and if you insist that those are exclusively male qualities then everything that follows is male, and the lady vanishes. Jonathon Green starts from the apparently radical assumption that women are people too.]
We love slang in the Bryars household. Hobson-Jobson is pulled from the shelves to settle disputes about colloquial Anglo-Indian words and phrases. The ‘cadger’s map of a begging district‘ (one near Maidstone, Kent) which serves as a frontispiece to John Camden Hotten’s great Victorian slang dictionary was the subject of one of our first blog posts, back in 2011. And we shared a whole a-z of extracts from our 1725 edition of ‘A New Canting Dictionary’ with you on Instagram a few months ago. When she is being poorly behaved, we still call one of our cats ‘an proud minks’.
It was with genuine pleasure, then, that we received an invitation to the launch of Jonathon Green’s latest book on slang, ‘Sounds and Furies’. Jonathon Green has been working in this field for over 40 years, and there can be few people with his depth of knowledge. An excellent foreword has been provided by historian Kate Lister, curator of the online resource Whores of Yore.
The premise of the book is straightforward enough. Green found himself in a heated late night debate with friends (in a Caribbean restaurant in Oxford) making the case for women as users and coiners of slang, rather than simply appearing in slang, mostly in a derogative way as the objects of a ‘male’ gaze. As he said to us at the launch, how do we know that the first person to say ‘fuck’ wasn’t a woman, possibly in the context of ‘fuck off’? The trouble is that it is very hard to find proof, although Green trawls sources from Chaucer to Mumsnet in his quest.
Unfortunately, for much of recorded history, women were discouraged from using slang. It was unfeminine, or unladylike. There may even have been some self-policing [Pinda says: no shit. Women code-switch as much as any social minority, despite not actually constituting one…], especially among the middle classes, but the problems which Green faces are mostly concerned with external censorship. In literature, even if male characters are using slang or cant terms, sympathetic female characters speak standard English. Green gave us the example of Nancy in Oliver Twist, although he also remarked that young Oliver doesn’t sound much like a ‘workhus brat’ either: in both cases slang would have diminished their pull on Victorian heartstrings.
Reformers or social commentators reporting on the speech of real women either cleaned up their language to the same high standards as Dickens or, after much huffing and puffing about how foul their language was, refused to write any of it down. Some, cited by Green, refused to believe that lower class (‘criminal’) women had the wit to devise their own slang terms and, at best, borrowed a few words from male colleagues. Where we are listening to women speaking slang, it is often ventriloquised through a male author. That doesn’t invalidate it – if it had no resonance with a contemporary audience it would have been pointless, and Green finds examples where women were able to put their own stamp on it directly – but it is a significant caveat.
After setting the scene with a chapter on women in slang (for example, as sex objects) Green leads us through a rich and diverse series of milieux, exploring the worlds of scolds, bluestockings, flappers and new women; working girls and the criminal underworld; Billingsgate fish wives and lesbian slang. There’s some great stuff in here, not all of it filthy. Pity the flapper who finds herself on an ankle excursion with a flat wheeler.
All in all, and slipping back to the language of an earlier era, Green has faked it rumbo. In his introduction Green remarks that slang ‘is us at our most human. This should not be confused with admirable’.
Green told us he wanted to call the book ‘bitching’ or ‘bitchin’ – a typically nuanced choice. Yes, it can be used of women gossiping, but when I was growing up it meant that something was ace. By arguing so successfully, with such problematic material, that men and women can be equally vulgar (and are equally human) Green should be congratulated on producing a truly admirable book. Or at least, a bitchin’ hot one.