Language! 500 Years Of The Vulgar Tongue by Jonathon Green (book review).

Whenever I use character dialogue in foreign languages, the first thing I look for are the swear words. Mostly because I’m going to put most of the characters in a stressful situation and so are likely to swear or at least something you wouldn’t see in most tourist translation books. Those of you who read my stories also note that I rarely use swear words anyway but it doesn’t stop me paying attention to what is out there.


With this book, Jonathon Green’s ‘Language! 500 Years Of The Vulgar Tongue’, it is time to embark on how slang and swear words has evolved over the years. Seeing the early versions can open up possibilities for different variants that the average reader might not have seen before. I should point out that this is not a dictionary of swear or slang words. For that, you would need one of Green’s other books but you will see them here and often the turn of phrase that is associated with them out into context. There is also a terminology that you might not have come across before called ‘cant’ which is the vulgar language of secrecy, although ‘vulgar’ here tends to mean the language of the criminal lower classes.

Green is an expert on the subject with a delightful term of phrase that makes you want to read on. As he points out ‘slang’ is literally ‘gutter talk’, holding no link to religion or country. Much of the early slang books were compiled from brigands and writers in looking for the secrets and sometimes exposing the dialogue of con games. Seeing when some of these words were formerly recognised is…er…eye-watering.

There’s a lot of surprising info here. I mean did you know that Geoffrey Chaucer’s ‘The Canterbury Tales’ used a lot of bawdy slang? Oddly, the first time ‘fuck’ is recorded in a dictionary wasn’t entirely English as it was in John Florio’s Italian-English lexicon ‘The New Worlde Of Wordes’. Shakespeare also wasn’t beyond using slang which I suspect will ensure his readers will look down his metaphors with a little more intensity.

Something that comes out of seeing slang develop is the grouping of words per era, which you wouldn’t get in slang dictionaries. It becomes pretty obvious that, a lot of the time, the choice of slang is a metaphor and as Green points out, started off as a cant, secret language amongst the criminal fraternity. Sometimes, it’s to keep religion at bay as explained in the 17th century where ‘ads’ or ‘gads’ is used for ‘god’ as in ‘gadzooks’ to avoid blasphemy. It’s no wonder that a wide range of words became taboo. We would called a ‘hanging’ just that today, mostly because it isn’t done in the UK other than in suicide. Back then, it was called a ‘nubbing’ than be explicit. Incidentally, ‘shag’ for sex, calling someone a ‘slag’ and even ‘the birthday suit’ for being naked all come from the same time period which just goes to show how old such words are and have had longer usage than other old words and the latter even has respectability these days.

In the 19th century, we have ‘doss’ to sleep. If you thought ‘quiddish’ was a new word, it along with ‘rum’, means ‘good-natured’. ‘Tom and Jerry’ was originally a stageplay but its use meant drunken brawls.

When Green moves away from specific history to countries and specific word groups, the tempo of the book changes somewhat. The first looks at Australia. Some of the words I’ve heard of, but having the associated meanings sinks in better here because the examples are grouped together. Considering that much of their population came from the UK from the criminal community, the slang took a different turn to what we have over here, which just goes to show how much the environment and imagination can change things. It’s hardly surprising that with the search for gold, that calling people ‘diggers’ stuck. Calling a woman a ‘shelia’ started in 1832 although not where it was sourced from. Interestingly, comedian Barry Humphries, through ‘Private Eye’ and his stage/TV work, has contributed the most to making Australian slang more widespread even if he created more words along the way. If you think about it, unless slang was spread by people on the stage, much of it would still stay in a localised community. That would explain why the likes of cockney slang stays in London than around the UK. By the way, diggers create more slang than the shelias. I should point out that as you read through the book, a lot of authors having researched slang have either used it extensively or even added their own and it propagates through the population.

When it comes to the names of the sex organs and…well…sex, there are more than enough words to metaphor from. It might be language of love but when it comes down to it, slang for proclivity and keeping it cryptic in polite circles tends to rule until it inadvertently becomes commonplace for all so it is no longer a cant.

The chapter on cockney slang is interesting, although I think Green omitting ‘Minder’ as a TV influence reminding people of the jargon was a mistake. Oddly, even many of us Brits who don’t use or hear cockney on a regular basis, just absorb the TV dialogue without translating what it means when watching and don’t really dwell on it unless it’s a word or out of context we’ve never heard before. I suspect we don’t get the full treatment any more than we do when watching Geordie based dramas so don’t mind the odd word.

With the chapter on American slang, Green points out the various populations with different languages, it’s amazing that English became the standard language although when you consider how much it borrows from other languages then tends to be less surprising. There were some surprises that some slang originated Stateside. ‘Barney’ for a fake fight which we use for a real one over here. We don’t call a ‘booby-hatch’ a police station neither. Mind you, as ‘booby’ is slang for a breast and the real name of a bird in the UK, that’s not surprising. ‘Break a leg’ is a ‘seduction’ there unlike the stage usage for ‘luck’. A ‘bugger’ is a ‘pickpocket’ rather than its use over here meaning sodomy. I’m sure it will surprise Americans today that a ‘bummer’ is actually a scavenger than a tramp, although it has also been used for a bad drug trip.

All parts of the community are covered from gay to African-American, although Jewish slang is only hinted at. With African-American, I was glad to see the late authors Chester Himes and Iceberg Slim getting a mention for slang propagation. Then again, under white American slang, so was author Jim Thompson. All authors I recommend. I didn’t know the term ‘white trash’ hailed from 1822 and that ‘jive talking’ was a kind of ‘pig Latin’.

American campus slang has many of its own variants that have got loose into the community. ‘Bog’ for ‘toilet’ has its place over here now and I heard its use in UK sit-coms in the early 70s. Interestingly, ‘teenage’ started in 1921 although to be said to be ‘in your teens’ was from 1684. That’s a long time for a word to evolve and pass around. In the 60s, the beatnik evolved into the hippy but their slang derived from the African-American. It’s hardly surprising then that American DJs propagated the slang on the radio.

I had a thought about how slang is spread around, especially as the use of the Internet is world-wide. However, much of the communities within it are insular and slang doesn’t jump between them. You might be using some computer terms you wouldn’t have heard of a few decades ago but no one has substituted replacement slang for them yet. Maybe it’s hard enough to remember what these terms really mean and there simply aren’t enough alternative words out there.

It’s hardly surprising that slang was used in wars although Green points out that as things get done more at a distance, this is actually beginning to die out. Even so, Rudyard Kipling was one of the propagators of such slang in his books. One surprise was the original use of the word ‘blighty’, usually means England these days although actually meant a wound serious enough to send you home from France. I can see how it became my country but that clearly wasn’t the intent. The same can be said for ‘nelly’ which means ‘a homosexual or effeminate man’. It’s definitely brings a whole different meaning to the context of ‘not on your nelly’.

As you can tell from the length of this review, I found a lot of things I didn’t know before and the above is only some of them. Seeing the words in context, age and source makes this book more useful than straightforward slang dictionaries which chucks everything in together. Fine, if you want to find out the meaning of a specific word but not with matching it to the appropriate use you might want to use it. I hope Green considers doing a version of his dictionaries sub-sectioning like here as a better reference book. This book is useful for everyone, not just for reference for our own genre. If you want to know what your slang is and comes from then this book is a real eye-opener.

GF Willmetts

April 2014

(pub: Atlantic Books. 419 page hardback. Price: £25.00 (UK). ISBN: 978-1-84887-898-3)

check out websites: www.corvus-books.co.uk and www.atlantic-book.co.uk


Geoff Willmetts has been editor at SFCrowsnest for some 21 plus years now, showing a versatility and knowledge in not only Science Fiction, but also the sciences and arts, all of which has been displayed here through editorials, reviews, articles and stories. With the latter, he has been running a short story series under the title of ‘Psi-Kicks’ If you want to contribute to SFCrowsnest, read the guidelines and show him what you can do. If it isn’t usable, he spends as much time telling you what the problems is as he would with material he accepts. This is largely how he got called an Uncle, as in Dutch Uncle. He’s not actually Dutch but hails from the west country in the UK.

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