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6 Places Where Lexicographers Find Old Slang

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Slang lexicographer Jonathon Green’s massive, three-volume Dictionary of Slang is the most authoritative work on the back roads and byways of the English language. His database of slang contains about 54,000 headwords collected from centuries’ worth of materials. If you include the various phrases and derivations those words participate in, the total number comes up to to 125,000.

Historical slang research is made difficult by the fact that slang comes from the unwritten side of life. Words develop in casual (often criminal) contexts and may never be put into lasting written documents, especially when they are deemed unfit for polite society. Luckily, there are places where slang’s past has been preserved, but they may not be easy to find.

Green’s latest book, The Vulgar Tongue, is a history of slang that explores the places where it flourished and, more importantly, was set down on paper. Here are just a few of the places where the slang of yesterday lives on.


From the 14th to 16th century in Europe, there were many books and pamphlets circulating that purported to warn good people about the tricks that beggars might use to manipulate them. Their popularity, however, was not due to their usefulness as much as their entertainment value. John Awdeley’s The Fraternity of Vagabonds (1561) gives terms like Abraham man (a guy who acts crazy and walks around with a “pack or wool, or a stick with bacon on it, or such like toy”), ruffler (someone who pretends to have fought in the wars to get sympathy), prigman (someone who steals clothes or poultry and then gambles it away at the pub), and ring-faller (trickster with a copper ring who pretends to find a gold ring and then sells it to bystander).


The seedy underworld of London was a favorite subject for 17th century English playwrights, and audiences delighted in dialogue such as the following, from Thomas Middleton’s The Roaring Girlie (1611): “I have, by the salomon, a doxy that carries a kinchin mort in her slate at her back, besides my dell and my dainty wild dell, with whom I’ll tumble this next darkmans in the strommel, and drink ben bouse, and eat a fat gruntling cheat.”


Thinly disguised as moral lessons or deathbed confessions about regrets of ill-lived lives, criminal memoirs both entertained and titillated the respectable readers of the 17th century. They were full of cant and jargon and often came with glossaries. They had great titles such as The Life and Death of Gamaliel Rasey, a Famous thief of England; Ratseis Ghost. Or the second Part of his madde Prankes and Robberies; and Memoirs of the right villainous John Hall, the late famous and notorious robber.


Early 19th century reporting on prize fighting and horse racing was filled with “flash,” the hip, city slang, no longer associated primarily with the underworld, but with the knowing cool kids of various classes. A fighter might get his nozzle barked, his peepers darkened, and hit in the bread basket. Later American sports writing gave us terms like applesauce (nonsense), chin music (talk), and skidoo (go away).


The magazine Down Beat covered the slang-rich world of jazz, and in 1935 they published a glossary titled “The Slanguage of Swing: Terms the ‘Cats’ Use.” It contained still current musical terms like lick, break and jam, as well as gems like dog house (upright bass), moth box (piano), grunt-horn (tuba), rock crusher (accordion), syringe (trombone), woodpile (xylophone), and squeak box (violin).


People have always been fascinated by slang, and have long enjoyed lists of slang terms just for the fun of it. Many books and pamphlets in the above areas contained glossaries along with the text, there have also been full dictionaries of slang since 1699 when B.E. Gent (as in gentleman) compiled A New Dictionary of the Terms, Antient and Modern, of the Canting Crew, in its several Tribes of Gypsies, Beggers [sic], Theives, Cheats, &c.: useful for all sorts of people (especially foreigners) to secure their money and preserve their lives besides very Diverting and Entertaining, being wholly New which is how we know about terms like bear garden discourse (“common filthy, nasty talk”), cacafuego (“shite fire”), and cracker (“a little or low-sounding fart”). In 1785, Francis Grose’s A Classical Dictionary of the Vulgar Tongue recorded birthday suit, gam, shag, and slag. In 1819 James Hardy Vaux, who had been sent to Australia as a punishment for petty crimes, preserved some early Australian terms in his New and Comprehensive Vocabulary of the Flash Language. In 1859 John Hotten gave the etymological treatment to the words in his Modern Slang, Cant, and Vulgar Words, while at the same time the U.S. got its first slang dictionary with Vocabulum: or, the Rogue’s Lexicon, Compiled from the Most Authentic Sources by former New York City police chief George Washington Matsell.

Now we can benefit from the collected wisdom of all these sources in Green’s own 15 pound dictionary. The Vulgar Tongue, which tells the story of those sources, makes a great companion to the dictionary, taking us behind the words to the places where they were born.

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ANTTI T. NISSINEN, Flickr // CC BY 2.0
Big Questions
Why Does Japan Have Blue Traffic Lights Instead of Green?
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ANTTI T. NISSINEN, Flickr // CC BY 2.0

In Japan, a game of Red Light, Green Light might be more like Red Light, Blue Light. Because of a linguistic quirk of Japanese, some of the country’s street lights feature "go" signals that are distinctly more blue than green, as Atlas Obscura alerts us, making the country an outlier in international road design.

Different languages refer to colors very differently. For instance, some languages, like Russian and Japanese, have different words for light blue and dark blue, treating them as two distinct colors. And some languages lump colors English speakers see as distinct together under the same umbrella, using the same word for green and blue, for instance. Again, Japanese is one of those languages. While there are now separate terms for blue and green, in Old Japanese, the word ao was used for both colors—what English-speaking scholars label grue.

In modern Japanese, ao refers to blue, while the word midori means green, but you can see the overlap culturally, including at traffic intersections. Officially, the “go” color in traffic lights is called ao, even though traffic lights used to be a regular green, Reader’s Digest says. This posed a linguistic conundrum: How can bureaucrats call the lights ao in official literature if they're really midori?

Since it was written in 1968, dozens of countries around the world have signed the Vienna Convention on Road Signs and Signals, an international treaty aimed at standardizing traffic signals. Japan hasn’t signed (neither has the U.S.), but the country has nevertheless moved toward more internationalized signals.

They ended up splitting the difference between international law and linguists' outcry. Since 1973, the Japanese government has decreed that traffic lights should be green—but that they be the bluest shade of green. They can still qualify as ao, but they're also green enough to mean go to foreigners. But, as Atlas Obscura points out, when drivers take their licensing test, they have to go through a vision test that includes the ability to distinguish between red, yellow, and blue—not green.

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Using Words Like 'Really' A Lot Could Mean You're Really Stressed
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Are you feeling really exhausted? Or have you noticed that it's incredibly hot out today?

If you recognize the adverbs above as appearing frequently in your own speech, it could be a sign that you're stressed. At least, those are the findings in a recent study published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. As Nature reports, researchers found that peppering our speech with "function words" is a pretty accurate indicator of our anxiety levels.

Function words differ from verbs and nouns in that they don't mean much on their own and mostly serve to clarify the words around them. Included in this group are pronouns, adverbs, and adjectives. A team of American researchers suspected that people use these words more frequently when they're stressed, so to test their hypothesis, they hooked up recording devices to 143 volunteers.

After transcribing and analyzing audio clips recorded periodically over the course of two days, the researchers compared subjects' speech patterns to the gene expressions of certain white blood cells in their bodies that are susceptible to stress. They found that people exhibiting the biological symptoms of stress talked less overall, but when they did speak up they were more likely to use words like really and incredibly.

They also preferred the pronouns me and mine over them and their, possibly indicating their self-absorbed world view when under pressure. The appearance of these trends predicted stress in the volunteers' genes more accurately than their own self-assessments. As study co-author Matthias Mehl told Nature, this could be a reason for doctors to "listen beyond the content" of the symptoms their patients report and pay greater attention "to the way it is expressed" in the future.

One reason function words are such a great indicator of stress is that we often insert them into our sentences unconsciously, while our choice of words like nouns and verbs is more deliberate. Anxiety isn't the only thing that influences our speech without us realizing it. Hearing ideas we agree with also has a way of shaping our syntax.

[h/t Nature]


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