The word slang has misty origins, but before being used to talk about the jargon of particular professions, social, or regional groups, it originally meant ‘special vocabulary of tramps or thieves’.
Slang still forms an integral part of the criminal subculture, and it only takes me listening to one or two hardcore rap songs to realise it (if I can make it through, of course). Terms for guns, drugs, women, cars – I only know the ones that have become mainstream. And this is sort of the point: slang keeps outsiders from knowing what’s going on. Whether it be police, spies, passersby; if outsiders are in the dark, insiders are safer.
Deirdre Foley-Mendelssohn wrote a post on the New Yorker blog about a book called “The First English Dictionary of Slang, 1699” (originally “A Dictionary of the Beggars and Gypsies Cant”), which, obviously, is a pretty old language resource. Although all the terms mentioned are pretty much incomprehensible these days, the beauty of them is that they were pretty much incomprehensible in their own time, too.
From the article:
You don’t have to know that “fag the bloss” is “bang the wench” to appreciate that it sounds kind of raunchy: we seem to reserve certain sounds for our feelings of disgust. [...] “Academy” was a university, but also a “Bawdy-house.” A “Blunderbuss” was a dunce and a “buffle-head” not far from it (much like “pea-goose”). Just imagine eating scrambled “cackling-farts” for breakfast! Rum, always good in a drink, was an all-around endorsement (good or fine): a “rum-beck” was a justice of the peace, and a “rum-blower” was a handsome mistress. “Blobber-lippd” implied your mouth was bordered by a thick pair, possibly so protuberant that they hung down or turned right over (yuck).
I wonder if a published version of Urban Dictionary will hold the same fascination for future generations?
Full article: The New Yorker.