Friday, September 30, 2005

Bronx Cheer for the Common Man

Of all of the intellectual lumpenproletarian folkways over which our intellectual petit-bourgeoisie is forever working itself into a fellationary lather, perhaps the most overrated--the least deserving of the obeisance--is slang. Viewed in toto, the slang lexicon of any age testifies not--as its boosters would have us believe--to the fecundity, resourcefulness, and infinite invention of the everyday speakers of the language, but rather to their prevailing indolence, dullness, and incomparable ineptitude. For "everyday speakers" in the last sentence one should of, course, read: pimps, cutpurses, brigands, vandals, losels, loblolly men, louts, molls, trollopes, Tower Wharf maids, rug rats, sandbox slugs, and other such persons of dubious parts--and even more dubious morals--who collectively embody that rich melange of mendacity and mental torpor that alone can engender and sustain a genuinely vital intellectual lumpenproletariat. One knows better than to expect gold filigree from such rude artificers as these; and, accordingly the most pervasive and longstanding neologistic technique in the argotsphere consists in simply and brutally pruning an item in the standard lexicon down to a single syllable (as in the substitution of rep for reputation, of dis for disrespect, of peen for penis). In these cases the truncated word retains its original sense, but transposed into a more street-wise (read: lower) register befitting a speaker who would stab or shoot his interlocutor sooner than be caught saying please or thank you to him. A slightly less common and slightly more subtle stratagem of the slangsmith consists in the catechretic or metonymic displacement of the sphere of denotation of one of these standard-lexical items; and this is a change we witness being rung, for instance, on such stalwart Anglo-Saxon monosyllables as lame, cool, smoke, and bite. In the case of such argotemes as avail themselves of this second stratagem, the extent of the new usage' s transgression of the original sense is often much more slight than the intellectual petit-bourgeois apologist for slang, out of his understandable but my no means forgiveable zeal to be down with whatever is au courant among the kids or the people, would have us believe. The skate-punk's poser is only one letter away from the hoary Gallicism poseur, and as far as I can tell, mutatis habitus mutandi, carries exactly the same meaning; while Joe Average Teenager's secondary acceptation of lame (as in "a lame excuse") can boast of a standard literary English pedigree extending at least as far back as the 14th century.


In all candor, I must admit here that as a youngster, I was intermittently seduced by the blandishments of the trendier slang of my micro-generation. I recall, for instance, falling prey in my high school years to a transient infatuation with dis, a word that, as my first encounter with it fell hard on the heels of a first reading took of Dante, I fancifully conjectured must be some sort of hifalutin synonym for damn. It amused me no end to imagine that in dissing someone you were consigning him to permanent residence in Dis, the capital city of hell. As for props, a word I became acquainted with perhaps a year later, I mistook it for a manifestation of Stratagem No. 2; that is to say, I conceived of it as an arrogation by the moral sphere of the established meaning of prop; viz. "a material, literal support." I supposed that in rendering a person his props you were offering him moral support in the form of verbal approbation. In the case of both of these words, as with practically everything that appeals in this nine-times-reheated world of ours, the charm of the thing susbsisted largely on my sheer will not to look too closely into or for too long at the phenomenon at hand. So long as I abstained from undertaking any subcultural anthropological sallies into the histories of these words, I was free to spin etymological mondegreens around them to my heart's content. But alas! At some point in my early twenties, under the importunate aegis of some by-now-long-forgotten agent (perhaps a radio interview with a self-appointed expert on so-called street language), I came to learn of the true provenance of these words; to learn that they were both manifestations of the all-too-prosaic Stratagem No. 1; to learn that dis was merely a truncation of "disrespect," that props was merely a truncation of "proper respect." These revelations might not have been particulary demoralizing had the root of either word savored ever-so-slightly of the genuinely demimondiale. But neither "disrespect" nor "proper respect" sounded like anything that a genuinely hip person would be caught dead saying; neither sounded, in fact, like anything even a marginally cultivated square person would be caught dead saying. Both, in fact, sounded like the sort of thing an uncultivated person of either hip or square persuasion might say by way of conning his uncultivated brethren into believing that he was cultivated; both are, in fact, exemplars of that pandemic linguistic tic that Kingsley Amis termed the hyper-urbanism, the embodiment "of an indulged desire to be more correct than correct or posher than posh."


Of course, though, hyper-urbanism is hardly the exclusive purview of slanglophones. It is, indeed, preeminently the stomping grounds of that class of morons for whom linguistic gracelessness is a point of professional pride--namely the class comprising the commercial, governmental, and academic bureaucracies. And from hyper-urbanism we are but a throne's stow away officialese, that parallel lexicon the Slang has been called the "common man's art," but it would be more rightly termed the common man's officialese. Contrary to the word on the intellectually petit-bourgeois street, which holds that slang is a kind of ionic chemical force binding the salt of the earth together in one big happy shaker, the aims of slang are largely consubstantial with the aims of the language of bureaucrats; these aims being the coercion, management, and degradation of the individual in the name and interests of the collective; and in the world-bleary eyes of the man of spirit[1] the leading 40-watt-bulbs of the most bureauphilic professions (e.g. [but not i.e.], clinical psychology, public health, and law enforcement) are like to appear as indistinguishable from the leading 40-watt-bulbs of the street. His lamentable confusion of the two types is so extreme as to lead him, in moments when he is caught unawares by an exemplar of one or the other of them to confuse him for one of his counterparts in the other realm; to exclaim "Please don't shoot me!" on being stopped for a traffic violation by a police officer, or "I'm sorry, officer, but my ID has expired!" on being aggressively panhandled by a street person .


From the point of view of the man of spirit, the most demoralizing fact of all about the argotsphere is surely that, inasmuch as it is the habitual haunt of the sorts of people who have absolutely no regard for historical memory, it tends to dredge up, with drying-machine-like rapidity and regularity, the same words over and over again, across not only decades but also centuries, with ever-more-predictable denotations attached to them like so many electrostatically-charged socks or pairs of knickers. Much in the manner of someone stuck at the Laundromat long after his clothes have dried, the man of spirit tends to tire of hanging around such a milieu. Immured in such a wash of tedium, he would fain retire for good to the tranquility and solitude of his chamber, where alone he is afforded sufficient leisure to bone up on his command of the standard English lexicon, a command whose inadequacy is time and again pointed up to him in the course of his diurnal reading schedule, in which scarcely an hour passes without his stumbling over some altogether unfamiliar hard word, often enough in a work by one of those very writers celebrated for the most spartan simplicity and pellucidity of style. But the man of spirit should resist yielding unreservedly to this reclusive impulse; for in so doing he would play directly into the hands of the intellectual petit bourgeois, who is ever on the lookout for opportunities to brand the him a linguisitic luddite, a wanker, or a pretentious fuck. In any composition that should ever perchance meet the optics of this most pretentiously unpretentious of all fucks, the man of spirit should take care to alloy his prevailingly standard formal lexical style with a small proportion of words drawn from the slang lexicon, together with a soupcon of pseudo-slang words of his own coinage. If he judiciously follows this prescription, he will find himself not only generally succeeding in keeping the intellectual petit bourgeois at bay, but also in occasionally managing to throw him off balance, or even to knock him over flat on to his chino-swathed fat ass; he will manage not only consistently to prove to the intellectual petit-bourgeois that he (the MOS) is not, after all, the proverbial guy who has been living in a cave for the past ten years, but also occasionally give him (the IPB) cause to wonder whether he himself has not been getting out enough lately. In musicological terms, the slang lexicon may be likened to the most infantile of instruments--a toy piano. The man of spirit must every now and again take it upon himself to pound out a few fortissimo tone clusters on the keyboard of this instrument, lest his own linguistic perfomances should be drowned out by the billion-strong chorus of toy piano virtuosi feebly essaying their million interchangeable variations on Chopsticks.


Contrary (again) to the word on the intellectually petit-bourgeois street, the overwhelming bulk of lasting additions to the lexicon of English since Norman times have been crafted at the point of a quill not of a shiv; in the coolness of deliberation not the white heat of spontaneity; in the closets of scholars and gentlemen, not on playgrounds or in bawdy houses. Anyone who says otherwise is, of course, welcome to bring the chupa-chupa down on my King Dong.


[1] Man of Spirit: A calque of the German Geistesmensch; not, it must be emphasized, a paraphrase of the English Spiritual Guy (or Dude).


P.S. Did you ever notice, by the way, that slang is an anagram of glans? That's food for thought, in a certain lewdly meta-metaphorical register.

2 comments:

Anonymous said...

What a load of grandiloquent crap, and yes, the pun was intended here unlike in the above article.

Anonymous said...

Who knows where to download XRumer 5.0 Palladium?
Help, please. All recommend this program to effectively advertise on the Internet, this is the best program!