The word slang reached London, from the north, as it seems, in the second half of the 18th century. The first citation in the Oxford English Dictionary [OED] goes back to 1756. For a few decades it was so little known that the publisher of William Woty’s Fugitive and Original Poems (1786) added a note to the couplet: “Did ever Cicero’s correct harangue/ Rival this flowing eloquence of slang?” He explained: “A cant word for vulgar language.” Jack Slang, the horse doctor, was one of the company at “The Three Pigeons” whom Tony Lumpkin is going to meet in Act I of She Stoops to Conquer. Goldsmith’s comedy was produced on March 15th, 1773. Jack Slang has no lines written for him, but his name probably caused a good deal of mirth. Samuel Johnson may have been unaware of the word, or perhaps he looked upon it as “low” (his favorite epithet). In any case, slang does not appear in his dictionary (1755). Even a professional lawyer, a character in Hugh Kelly’s 1773 comedy The School for Wives, admits that he has never heard about “a little rum language” called slang (the adjective rum was itself a cant word). Throughout the 19th century lexicographers defined slang as vulgar and inelegant. In an excellent 1901 book by two Harvard professors, we read: “Slang is a peculiar kind of vagabond language, always hanging on the outskirts of legitimate speech, but continually straying or forcing its way into the most respectable company.”
To us slang is a highly informal, expressive vocabulary, but it rose to its present day status from the lowest depths; hence the traditional disgust of the “most respectable company.” It is tempting to trace slang to sling or to language, but no one succeeded in drawing a bridge between either of them and slang. The best point of departure is the Scandinavian verbs meaning “walk aimlessly, stroll,” most of which also mean “throw.” Scots slanger “linger, go slowly” seems to belong to that group too. The missing link is English dialectal slang “long narrow piece of land running up between other and larger divisions of ground,” apparently, the territory over which one wandered, the gang’s turf. Slang is a common field name of Scandinavian origin. In southern British English, slang means “border,” and the two meanings (“territory” and “border”) must have interacted centuries before slang “cant” surfaced in London. Hawkers and showmen were constantly “on the slang,” and the OED records slang “a license, especially that of a hawker” and “traveling show; performance.” The path from “hawkers’/showmen’s turf” to “a hawker’s license” and “traveling show” is short. Still another attested meaning of slang is “humbug.” This is a predictable development of peddlers’ activities, for mountebanks cannot be trusted. Hawkers use a special vocabulary and a special intonation when advertising their wares, and many disparaging names characterize their speech. Grose, the author of our first dictionary of slang, defined cant as “pedlars’ (sic) French.”
The earliest meaning of slang “a kind of language” must have been “hawkers’ patter,” and the phrase slang patter “the patter of the slang,” in which slang designated either the area under vendors’ control or the profession of people “on the slang,” has been recorded. Those who knew about the existence of Shelta, the secret language of wandering tinkers (so-called cairds), may have used slang as its derogatory synonym. Slang “abusive language” (another recorded meaning) is the product of a negative attitude toward the language of the lowest strata of the population or the badgers’ (hucksters’) bickering with one another. The word has come a long way from “hawkers’ jargon” to “informal, expressive vocabulary,” but it is still “meaningless prattle” to the uninitiated. One of the etymologies of French patois “vernacular” presupposes the development from “gesticulation of the deaf and mute; dumb show” to “unintelligible speech” and further to “jargon” and “peasant speech.” If this reconstruction is right, it provides a distant parallel to the history of slang, as it has been presented here.
Many researchers suggested parts of the etymology of slang, and elements of their hypotheses can be detected in the picture I have drawn above. But the most amazing thing is that a nearly perfect etymology was once published in a local periodical called Chester Courant and later reprinted in The Cheshire Sheaf (1898). I am afraid that students of word history seldom turn to those journals. I learned about them from a footnote and hoped to get the necessary articles through interlibrary loan. To my great amazement, the entire set of The Cheshire Sheaf turned up at the library of the University of Minnesota. I have no idea who read it before me and how it landed in Minneapolis. Perhaps no one opened the books for a hundred years, or perhaps it is someone’s regular bedtime reading. I read the short article and came to the by now familiar conclusion, namely, that countless pages containing worthwhile ideas on the history of English words lie fallow in our libraries. In 1898, that is, before the OED had reached the letter S, a sagacious scholar offered an excellent etymology of one of the most debatable English words, and no one has taken note of it. People kept knocking on the door that stood unlocked and at most needed a gentle push. What a waste! But I’d rather finish this post on an upbeat note: let us rejoice that the treasure, so well hidden and so carefully preserved, has finally been reclaimed.
Anatoly Liberman is the author of Word Origins…And How We Know Them. His column on word origins, The Oxford Etymologist, appears here each Wednesday. Send your etymology question to email@example.com; he’ll do his best to avoid responding with “origin unknown.”