Slang, a burlesque or colloquial form of expression, the language of low humor, or the jargon of thieves and vagrants. Slang is probably as old as human speech. We find traces of it in many of the early writers, particularly the Greek and Roman dramatists; and the works of Aristophanes, Plautus, Terence, and Martial abound with words which the purists of their day would not have recognized. All modern European languages have their vulgar or slang dialects, and some of them more than one; and in several countries the thieves' jargon has been reduced to grammatical rules and has a literature of its own. The language used by the English criminal classes is called more properly cant, but slang and cant have borrowed so many terms from each other that it is almost impossible to distinguish them. It is equally difficult to draw the line between slang and pure language, for very many words, illegitimate in origin, have become classical by prescription. The word slang is supposed to be of gypsy origin, and to have been used as a synonyme of Ro-many or Bohemian, the Zingari or gypsy tongue. Gibberish was used in nearly the same sense. The gypsies probably entered England in the beginning of the 16th century.
They came as conjurers and jugglers, professing the gifts of palmistry and second sight, and speaking a secret language. They met with favor among the lower classes, and speedily found many imitators, who adopted their habits and many words of their language, while the gypsies added to their own vocabulary numerous terms and phrases of English vagabondage. Thus between them was formed a kind of slang' compromise, out of which eventually grew the conglomerate jargon called variously the canting language, peddlers' French, thieves' Latin, and St. Giles's Greek. The earliest collection of English cant words is contained in "A Caueat for commen Cvrsetors vulgarely called Vagabones," by Thomas Harman (4 to, London, 1567). Harman fell into such disrepute with thieves and vagrants for his exposure of their secret tricks, words, and signs, that his name became the cant synonyme for a constable and the stocks. "The Belman of London, bringing to Light the most notorious Villanies now practised in the Kingdome," by Thomas Decker (4to, London, 1608), professes to give an account of the cant of thieves and vagabonds, and contains much curious information.
The civil wars brought into common use many. slang and cant terms, but it was reserved for the court of Charles II., in which coarse wit was the fashion, to bring slang to a perfection before unknown. Lords and ladies talked slang, and much of the literature of the time is filled with it. Butler's "Hudibras," according to a contemporary writer, was the chief entertainment of Charles II., who often quoted it. In the time of George III. and the regency, the current slang was known as "flash," and sometimes as the language of " gig." The most important of the early collections of slang and cant words, and that on which almost all later works have been founded, is Francis Grose's " Classical Dictionary of the Vulgar Tongue" (8vo, London, 1785), containing all the cant and slang of the earlier glossaries, and all the vulgar, flash, and indecent terms of the author's time. It has been several times reprinted; the best edition is by Pierce Egan, with additions (8vo, 1823). A "Slang Dictionary" was published in London in 1860, and a revised edition of it in 1875. The earliest work on American vulgarisms is the Rev. Dr. John Witherspoon's "Essays on Americanisms, Perversions of Language in the United States, Cant Phrases," etc. (Philadelphia, 1801), originally published in a periodical called "The Druid" in 1761. - Slang, considered as the generic term for all illegitimate words and phrases, consists partly of words derived directly from thieves cant and foreign languages, partly of old words with new adaptations, and partly of new words and expressions coined to meet new conditions.
Many of the most common slang words were originally thieves' cant, and have been in use for centuries. Among these are "cove" or "covey," a boy or man; "darbies," handcuffs; "doxy," a strumpet, a tramp's female companion; "duds," clothes; "fence," a receiver of stolen goods; "glim," a light; "mug," the mouth or face; "nob," the head; " swag," booty or property; " tog," a coat; and "wipe," a pocket handkerchief. Of words derived from the gypsies are " bosh," nonsense; "cheese," anything good or genuine; "pal," a friend or accomplice; "rum," good (man or thing); and "snack," a share of plunder. Besides what English slang has drawn from the Celtic, Gaelic, Saxon, and Norman French, it derives many words from other European tongues, including the ancient Greek and Latin, and from several of the eastern languages, notably the various East Indian dialects, the Persian, and the Chinese. Among the words borrowed from the French are: "cahoot" (cohorte), to keep company; "spree" (exprit), a carousal; and "feele" (fille), a girl; from the Spanish : " savvey " (sabe), to know; "vamose" and "mosey" (vamos), to go; and "cavort" (cavar), to caper; from the German: "loafer" (Laufer), an idle fellow; "frow " (Frau), a wife; and "bower" (Bauer), used in right and left bower in cards; and from the Dutch: "boosey" (buizen), drunk; "logy" (log), dull, heavy; "boss" (baas), a master or head; and "landlubber" (landloo-per), a vagabond.
The East Indian tongues contribute "tiffin," breakfast or lunch; "dungaree," poor, motley; and "chit," a letter; and the Chinese, "chop," used in such expressions as "first chop," "second chop"; "koo-too" or "kotow," to cringe to, to flatter; and "pigeon," the Chinese pronunciation of business, used in the expression " pigeon English." The lingua Franca, or bastard Italian, spoken in the Mediterranean seaports, which is a barbarous compound of most of the languages used along the shores of that sea, has also contributed largely to English slang. Of old words invested with new meanings, some of the most common are: "bleed," to pay or lose money; "blow," to vaunt or boast; "bolt," to leave, to run away; "do," to cheat, as "to do one out of his money," etc. The verb "to go" furnishes numerous slang phrases, as " go it strong," "go back on," "go ahead," "go for one," "go through," "go by," "go the whole hog," " great go," " little go," " rum go," " pretty go," a " go " of liquor, etc.; and " let" almost as many, as "let slide," "let rip," "let up," "let on," "let out," "let in," "let drive," "let alone," "let the cat out," etc.
Many of these, although properly slang, have acquired through constant use a right to a place in the language, and may be regarded as good " dialect" English. To this class also belong many of the words usually called Americanisms, which had their origin in this country and have a flavor of our institutions, such as "logrolling," "wire-pulling," " axe - grinding," " pipe - laying," " filibustering," " mudsill," " mean white," " doughface," " jayhawker," "bushwhacker," "copperhead," "carpet-bagger," "shinplaster," "stamp," "greenback," "copper," "nickel," etc. The fashionable affectation too of using French words, with meanings which would not be recognized in Paris, as " on the tapis," "to chaperon," " beau monde," "the dansant," may be relegated to this department of slang. America is responsible also for very many of the new words coined to meet new conditions, such as "caboodle," "calithumps," "contraptions," "high-falutin," "hunkydory," "shenanigan," "spondulicks," "skedaddle," "scalawag," and such corruptions as "slantindicular," "rambump-tious," and " splendiferous." (See Ameeican-isms.) Every business, vocation, and profession has its slang, and every notable civil event and political convulsion furnishes new phrases and words, most of which are ephemeral.
The press and the theatre are prolific coiners, and the university, the army, the exchange (see Stock Exchange), politics, fashion, the prize ring (see Pugilism), and the turf are all responsible for a large share of the current slang of the day. The sea too is no less profuse in illegitimate expressions than the land, and sailors' slang is proverbial. - In France the jargon of the thieves and vagrants, which is called argot, is a comprehensive language, with a grammar and literature of its own. Argot has been traced as far back as the 14th century according to some authors, . but others believe that it originated with the gypsies, who appeared in Paris in the first half of the loth century. One of the earliest works on it is Le jargon, ou langage de l'argot re-forme, etc. (Troyes, 1660). In 1827 a dictionary of argot was published in Paris; but the prosperity of argot literature dates rather from the publication in 1837 of Vidocq's work on thieves, containing the argot dictionary, which he began in 1819. Since then many other works have appeared, of which one of the most valuable is Michel's Etudes de philologie compares sur Vargot, etc. (Paris, 1856). Argot has found a conspicuous place in modern French novels, especially in Sue's Mysteres de Paris; indeed, the language of some of the characters in that work was so difficult to understand that it was found necessary to publish a Dictionnaire complet de l'argot employe dans les Mysteres de Paris. Some of the argot words are very expressive: thus, God is Mec des mecs (Maitre des maitres, Master of masters); the devil, boulanger (baker); prison, college or abbayede sots (college, fools' abbey); the gibbet, veuve (widow); to suffer capital punishment, epouser la veuve (to marry the widow); a cafe, bocard (stamping mill); to eat ,jouer des dominos (to play dominoes); an omnibus, four banal or face d face (parish oven, face to face); the sea, la grande tasse (the big cup); rain, bouillon de chien (dog soup); the moon, moucharde or cafarde (female spy, hypocrite); an Englishman, goddem, rosbif etc. - In Spain the slang language is called germania (Lat. germanus, a full brother, hence faithful, true), from the brotherhoods or associations of thieves who make use of it.
Some, with less probability, refer the name to the German origin of the earliest associations in Spain. Cervantes used some of its terms in "Don Quixote" and others of his works, and some are also to be found in the writings of Quevedo. In 1609 Juan Hidalgo compiled a book on the subject entitled Romances de germania de varios autores, con su vocabulario, & c. In germania a highway robber is called picturesquely ermitano de camino (hermit of the road); death, cierta (the certain); suspicion, espino (a thorn); a person hanged, ra-cimo (bunch of grapes). In Portugal thieves' slang is called calao, perhaps from calar. to conceal. The slang of the Italian vagrants and thieves is called furbesco (from furbo, a quack, knave, rogue), and sometimes gergo, jargon. Some of its expressions are very suggestive : thus, hell is calda casa (hot house); a stone, artone di calcosa (earth bread); the mouth, caverna (cavern); the nose, flauto (flute); the tongue, ingegnosa (cunning); the stomach, fagiana (bean box); the beard, bosco di berlo (face forest). - The thieves' slang of Germany is called Rothwalsch, from roth, a cant term for vagrant, and walsch, foreign. It is called also Kokamloschen, from the Hebrew 'hakham, adroit, ingenious, and lashon, language.
It is composed of Low, High, Jew, and gypsy German, has a grammar and almost a literature of its own, and two dialects, one in North and one in South Germany. Among its words are: custom house officer, Auskat-scher (one who rummages everything); lawyer, Diftler (one who finesses); night, schwarz (black); priest, Schwarzfarbcr (black dyer); gold, Fuchs (fox); sword, Kehrum (face about). One of the earliest and most curious books on Rothwalsch,, entitled Von den falschen Bettlern und Hirer Buberey (Wittenberg, 1528), has a preface by Martin Luther. A vocabulary of it was published in 1661, and since that time many other works have appeared. - In Jutland a slang allied to German cant is much spoken. The Czech thieves' cant is called hantyrka. The slang language of Holland is the bargoens or dieventael. In Norway, Sweden, and Denmark, besides the fantasprog, spoken of in Sund's work, Om Fante eller Landstrygcrfolket y Norge (Christiania, 1850), are used the tater-sproget, or gypsy gibberish, and the skoier-sproget, the jargon of thieves and vagabonds. Russian thieves make use of different slang dialects, and several of the dissenting religious sects have languages peculiar to themselves.
In Albania a slang language made up of a mixture of modern Greek, Wallachian, Italian, and Latin, with a few words of oriental invention, is spoken chiefly by quack doctors. In it the verbs signifying to practise medicine and to cheat are synonymous. Asiatic criminals speak the balaibalan, an artificial language made from the Arab, Persian, and Turkish vocabularies. The Indian Thugs speak the rama-seena language, a vocabulary and history of which appeared in Calcutta in 1836.