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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.

1. COLLECTIONS OF WORDS USED BY VAGABONDS AND THIEVES

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).

2. THEATER DIALOGUE

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.”

3. CRIMINAL MEMOIRS

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.

4. SPORTS WRITING

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).

5. MUSIC WRITING

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).

6. EARLY SLANG DICTIONARIES

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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The Surprising Link Between Language and Depression
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Skim through the poems of Sylvia Plath, the lyrics of Kurt Cobain, or posts on an internet forum dedicated to depression, and you'll probably start to see some commonalities. That's because there's a particular way that people with clinical depression communicate, whether they're speaking or writing, and psychologists believe they now understand the link between the two.

According to a recent study published in Clinical Psychological Science, there are certain "markers" in a person's parlance that may point to symptoms of clinical depression. Researchers used automated text analysis methods to comb through large quantities of posts in 63 internet forums with more than 6400 members, searching for certain words and phrases. They also noted average sentence length, grammatical patterns, and other factors.

What researchers found was that a person's use (or overuse) of first-person pronouns can provide some insight into the state of their mental health. People with clinical depression tend to use more first-person singular pronouns, such as "I" and "me," and fewer third-person pronouns, like "they," "he," or "she." As Mohammed Al-Mosaiwi, a Ph.D. candidate in psychology at the University of Reading and the head of the study, writes in a post for IFL Science:

"This pattern of pronoun use suggests people with depression are more focused on themselves, and less connected with others. Researchers have reported that pronouns are actually more reliable in identifying depression than negative emotion words."

What remains unclear, though, is whether people who are more focused on themselves tend to depression, or if depression turns a person's focus on themselves. Perhaps unsurprisingly, people with depression also use more negative descriptors, like "lonely" and "miserable."

But, Al-Mosaiwi notes, it's hardly the most important clue when using language to assess clinical depression. Far better indicators, he says, are the presence of "absolutist words" in a person's speech or writing, such as "always," "constantly," and "completely." When overused, they tend to indicate that someone has a "black-and-white view of the world," Al-Mosaiwi says. An analysis of posts on different internet forums found that absolutist words were 50 percent more prevalent on anxiety and depression forums, and 80 percent more prevalent on suicidal ideation forums.

Researchers hope these types of classifications, supported by computerized methods, will prove more and more beneficial in a clinical setting.

[h/t IFL Science]

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Here's the Right Way to Pronounce 'Pulitzer'
Pete Toscano, Flickr // CC BY-SA 2.0
Pete Toscano, Flickr // CC BY-SA 2.0

The Pulitzer Prize has been awarded to top creative and scientific minds for over 100 years. Named after late 19th-century newspaper publisher Joseph Pulitzer, the prize is a household name, yet its pronunciation still tends to trip people up. Is it “pull-itzer” or “pew-litzer”?

Poynter set the record straight just in time for today’s announcement of the 2018 Pulitzer Prize winners. Emily Rauh Pulitzer, wife of the late Joseph Pulitzer Jr., told Poynter, “My husband said that his father told people to say ‘Pull it sir.’”

If you’ve been saying it wrong, don’t feel too bad. Edwin Battistella, a linguist and professor at Southern Oregon University, said he pronounced it “pew-lit-zer” until a friend corrected him. Battistella looked to Joseph Pulitzer’s family history to explain why so many people pronounce it incorrectly. He writes on the Oxford University Press's OUPBlog:

“[Joseph Pulitzer] was born in Hungary, where Pulitzer, or Politzer as it is sometimes spelled, was a common family name derived from a place name in southern Moravia, the village of Pullitz. In the United States, the spelling Pulitzer would have quite naturally been Anglicized as PEW-lit-zer by analogy to the other pu spellings like pure, puritanical, pubic, puce, and so on.”

Ultimately, though, it’s up to the family to decide how they’d like their surname to be pronounced. Here it is, pronounced just how the Pulitzers like it, in a YouTube video:

[h/t Poynter]

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