Reprint: Slang and the Coining of Words

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One of the minor results of the Great War has been the addition to the English tongue of a great number of new and strange words, some of which, ugly and useless, are doomed to die on early death, but others will undoubtedly pass into the currency of the language. Some persons profess to look with considerable displeasure on the coining of words, treating all strange words as slang. There could not be a greater error. Of all the languages of the world, the English has the greatest power of assimalating to and incorporating with itself, all useful words with which it comes into contact. We cannot treat Englisn as we treat Greek and Latin, as a sacred treasure from which nothing must be taken, and to which nothing must be added. English is a living and growing speech, constantly expanding, and always ready to incorporate with itself any useful word. It borrows, it steals, it assimilates, and asks no questions about the origin. It is the only language that does this to any extent, and this indication of immense vitality is probably due to the great success of the British in colonisation, and to their world-wide association with other races. No language has influenced its growth so much as Greek has done, but practically all the languages of the earth have administered to its wants. Just as new worde are being constantly added to the language, so time has taken curious liberties with other words which, classic in the days of Shakespeare, have become obsolete or are regarded as slang. To refer in polite society in these days to a man on a drinking bout as being "on a bender" would be to leave oneself open to the charge of using slang. Yet in the days of Allan Ramsay it was the correct expression. The word "flunkey," as signifying a servile attitude towards somebody in a higher position, is slang, yet it was classical English when used by Thackeray and Carlyle. Thousands of such useful   words have been lost to the language chiefiy because they have been used loosely and incorrectly, and have lost their original meanings. Excepting in our Law Courts, for instance, the word "nice," as indicating a point of keen or fine distinction, is seldom heard in its proper sense, but is loosely used to mean something pleasant.

Quite recently a little book was published by the Lothian Book Publishing Co., Ltd., of Melbourne, entitled "Digger Dialects." Its author, Mr. W. H. Downing, late of the 57th Battalion of the A.I.F., set out to collect all the words of Australian slang that were born during the war, and he has compiled a glossary of probably 1500 words or more. The booklet naturally is interesting to a student of literature, but it certainly must not be taken for what it purports to be, because many of the words are of British origin, many of them were in the argot of the underworld in Australian cities years before the war occurred, and some of them owe their origin to America, which, of all countries in the world, is richest in descriptive slang, and has passed more words than any other English-speaking country into the currency of the language. It is, perhaps, an impossible task to expect anybody to compile a complete glossary of the plundered words that became part of the language of the soldiers. Some of them were, undoubtedly of French descent, but they were so distorted by faulty pronunciation that they have ceased to bear even the remotest likeness to their parents. For instance, the word "napoo" sounds like the name of a character in a Gilbert and Sullivan opera, but it is the English rendering of the French phrase "il n'y a plus," and it is used to express any gradation of lacking from being absent to complete annihilation. "Toot sweet," from the French "toute de suite," betokens extreme urgency. Things that gave pleasure to the soldier linguist were "tray bong," whilst "tray beans" expressed the sense of goodness. ''Dud," in the classical English of two centuries ago, was a useless rag, and in the soldiers' dialect it came to mean something worthless, as, for instance, a shell that had failed to burst. "Stunt" is a particularly ugly word that seems to have crept into the language through American theatrical companies, but it now serves a useful purpose as representing some arduous enterprise or work, or some smart aerial evolution. "Camouflage" is probably the most useful word that has been directly stolen from the French, and it has now passed into every day speech, and especially that of politics, to which it fas no application in its original meaning.  

Perhaps the best compilation of Australian slang is to be found in the poems of C J. Dennis, yet many of his words, such as "clobber," meaning clothes, and "monicker," meaning a name, are well, known in the argot of East London. English slang, as a rule, is not descriptive, and while Australian slang is occasionally expressive it falls far short of those word-pictures which are presented by the really first-class slang of America, such as "high brow" to represent a man of learning, or "you're on the freight train" as a suggestion that one is slow on the "up-take," another useful American term. Turning to "Digger Dialects" we find a cigarette described as "a-coffin nail" or "a consumption stick."   A "deep thinker" is one who was late in enlisting, and a "rainbow"--we believe that is of English origin--represents one who joined the colours at the time of the armistice, or after the storm. To represent the various nuances of the state of drunkenness the "Digger" had several repressions, such as "blithered," "inked, "oiled," "molo," and "stunned," whilst the hard drinker was "a steady lapper," and his orgy was "a beer-up." A. "sin-shifter" was an army chaplain, and probably originated from the American cowboy term of "sin-buster." Unfortunately the origin of the words is not given, and slang falls very flat and unprofitable unless it conveys its own meaning, or its origin is appropriate., We know that an English pound-note is called a Bradbury, because Mr. Bradbury is secretary to the Treasury which issued the notes. But why is a "'Tired Theodore" a long-distance heavy shell? A "bucking horse," as meaning a sovereign, seems plain enough, but why should an Australian shilling be called "a rat and fowl"? The words "brass" and "tin," signifying money, are as old as Dickens, and such words as "dough" and "sugar" are much more typically Australian. "Tinkle-tinkle" for an effeminate man, "treacle-miner" for a man who boasts of his wealth or position, a "washout" representing a failure, and "a wind-bag," to describe a braggart, carry their own meanings, but why should a military cross and a military medal be called "Machonochie"? And why should the Queen's head on a coin be called "Mick,"' or "to take to the tall timber" be used as a term meaning to abscond? The rhyming slang such as "Almond rocks" for socks, or "Babbling brook" for an army cook, is even more absurd and tantalising. There appear also to be many nice distinctions in the slang terms, and some of them, such as "parakeet," meaning a staff-officer, because of the red tabs on the uniform, are expressive. Many of the words will die, and deserve to die, but others will be included in future dictionaries, and will add to the wealth of the richest language in the world, though, certainly, not the easiest to master or the most musical to speak.

First published in The Queenslander, 27 March 1920

Note: you can read C.J. Dennis's glossary of slang here.

[Thanks to the National Library of Australia's newspaper digitisation project for this piece.]

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This page contains a single entry by Perry Middlemiss published on March 30, 2012 12:05 PM.

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