BLTC Press Titles

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The Story of Doctor Dolittle

Hugh Lofting

My Man Jeeves

P. G. Wodehouse

The Picture of Dorian Gray

Oscar Wilde

Through the Looking Glass

Lewis Carroll

Les misérables

by Victor Marie Hugo


Slang is the language of those in darkness. Thought is affected in its gloomiest depths, and social philosophy is harassed in its most poignant undulations, in the presence of this enigmatical dialect, which is at once branded and in a state of revolt. There is in this a visible chastisement, and each syllable looks as if it were marked. The words of the common language appear in it, as if branded and hardened by the hangman's redhot irons, and some of them seem to be still smoking; some phrases produce in you the effect of a robber's fleur-de-lysed shoulder suddenly exposed, and ideas almost refuse to let themselves be represented by these convict substantives. The metaphors are at times so daring that you feel that they have worn fetters. Still, in spite of all this, and in consequence of all this, this strange patois has by right its compartment in that great impartial museum, in which there is room for the oxydized sou as well as the gold medal, and which is called toleration. Slang, whether people allow it or no, has its syntax and poetry, and is a language. If, by the deforming of certain vowels, we perceive that it has been chewed by Mandrin, we feel from certain metonyms that Villon spoke it. That exquisite and so celebrated line,

Mais 04 sont les neiges d'antan? is a verse of slang. Antan—ante annum, is a slang word ol Thunes, which signified the past year, and, hy extension, formerly. Five-and-thirty years ago, on the departure of the great chain-gang, in 1827, there might be read in one of the dungeons of Bicetre this maxim, engraved with a nail upon the wall by a king of Thunes condemned to the galleys, " les dabs d'antan trimaient siempre pour la pierre du Coesre," which means, "the kings of former days used always to go to be consecrated." In the thought of that king, the consecration was the galleys. The word decarade, which expresses the departure of a heavy coach at a gallop, is attributed to Villon, and is worthy of him. This word, which strikes fire, contains in a masterly onomatopoeia the whole of Lafontaine's admirable line,

"Six forts chevaux tiraient un coche."

From a purely literary point of view, few studies would be more curious or fertile than that of slang. It is an entire language within a language, a sort of sickly grafting which has produced a vegetation, a parasite which has its roots in the old Gaulish trunk, and whose sinister foliage crawls up the whole of one side of the language. This is what might be called the first or common notion of slang, but to those who study the language as it should be studied, that is to say, as geologists study the earth, slang appears like a real alluvium. According as we dig more or less deeply, we find in slang, beneath the old popular French, Provencal, Spanish, Italian, Levantine, that language of the Mediterranean ports, English, and German, Eomanic, in its three varieties of French, Italian and Eoman, Latin, and finally, Basque, and Celtic. It is a deep and strange formation, a subterranean edifice built up in common by all scoundrels. Each accursed race has deposited its stratum, each suffering has let its stone fall, each heart has given its pebble. A multitude of wicked, low, or irritated souls who passed through life, and have faded away in eternity, are found there almost entire, and to some extent still visible, in the shape of a monstrous word.

Do you want Spanish? the old Gothic slang swarms with it. Thus we have boffette, a box of the ears, which comes from bofeton; vantane, a window (afterwards vanterne), from vantana; gat, a cat, from goto; acite, oil, from aceyte. Do you want Italian? we have spade, a sword, which comes from spada, and carvel, a boat, which comes from caravella. From the English we have bichot, the Bishop, rattle, a spy, from rascal, and pilche, a case, from pitcher, a scabbard. Of German origin are calner, the waiter, from keller, hers, the master, from herzog, or duke. In Latin we find frangir, to break, from frangere, affurer, to steal, from fur, and cadene, a chain, from catena. There is one word which is found in all continental language with a sort of mysterious power and authority, and that is the word magnus: Scotland makes of it, for instance, mac, and slang reduces it to muk, afterwards Meg, that is to say, the Deity. Do you wish for Basque? here is gahisto, the devil, which is derived from gaiztoa, bad, and sorgabon, good-night, which comes from gabon, good-evening. In Celtic we find blavin, a handkerchief, derived from blavet, running water; menesse, a woman (in a bad sense), from meinc, full of stones; barant, a stream, from baranlon, a fountain; goffeur, a locksmith, from goff, a blacksmith; and guedouze, death, which comes from guenn-du, white and black. Lastly, do you wish for a bit of history? Slang calls crowns "the Maltese," in memory of the change which was current aboard the Maltese galleys.

In addition to the philological origins which we have indicated, slang has other and more natural roots, which issue, so to speak, directly from the human mind. In the first place, there is the direct creation of words, for it is the mystery of language to paint with words which have, we know not how or why, faces. This is the primitive foundation of every human language, or what might be called the granite. Slang swarms with words of this nature, immediate words created all of one piece, it is impossible to say when, or by whom, without etymologies, analologies, or derivatives,—solitary, barbarous, and at times hideous words, which have a singular power of expression, and are alive. The executioner, le taule; the forest, le sabri; fear or flight, taf; the footman, le larbin; the general, prefect, or minister, pharos; and the devil, le rabouin. Nothing can be stranger than these words, which form transparent masks: some of them, le rabouin, for instance, are at the same time grotesque and terrible, and produce the effect of a Cyclopean grimace. In the second place, there is metaphor, and it is the peculiarity of a language which wishes to say everything and conceal everything to abound in figures. Metaphor is an enigma in which the robber who is scheming a plot, or the prisoner arranging an escape, takes the refuge, No idiom is more metaphorical than slang; devisser le coco, to twist the neck; tortiller, to eat; etre gerbe, to be tried; un rat, a stealer of bread; il lansquine, it rains—an old striking figure, which bears to some extent its date with it, assimilates the long oblique lines of rain to the serried sloping pikes of the lansquenets, and contains in one word the popular adage, "It is raining halberts." At times, in proportion as slang passes from the first to the second stage, words pass from the savage and primitive state to the metaphorical sense. The devil ceases to be le rabouin, and becomes " the baker," or he who puts in the oven. This is wittier but not so grand, something like Eacine after Corneille, or Euripides after iEschylus. Some slang phrases which belong to both periods, and have at once a barbarous and a metaphorical character, resemble phantasmagorias: Les sorgueurs vont sollicer les gails a la lune (the prowlers are going to steal horses at night). This passes before the mind like a group of spectres, and we know not what we see. Thirdly, there is expediency: slang lives upon the language, uses it as it pleases, and when the necessity arises limits itself to denaturalizing it summarily and coarsely. At times, with the ordinary words thus deformed and complicated with pure slang, picturesque sentences are composed, in which the admission of the two previous elements, direct creation and metaphor, is visible—le cab jaspine, je marronne que la roulette Pantin trime dans le sdbri, the dog barks, I suspect that the Paris diligence is passing through the wood; le dab est sinve, la dabuge est merloussiere, la fee est bative, the master is stupid, the mistress is cunning, and the daughter pretty. Most frequently, in order to throw out listeners, slang confines itself to adding indistinctly to all the words of the language, a species of ignoble tail, a termination in aille, orgue, iergue, or uche. Thus: Vbuziergue trouvaille bonorgue ce gigotmuche? Do you find that leg of mutton good? This was a remark made by Cartouche to a jailer, in order to learn whether the sum offered him for an escape suited him. The termination in mar has been very recently added.

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