H.L. Mencken (18801956). The American Language. 1921.
joke-smith in Saintsbury;8 one could scarcely imagine either in Walter Pater. But by the same token one could not imagine chicken (for young girl),9aber nit, to come across or to camouflage in Saintsbury.
What slang actually consists of doesnt depend, in truth, upon intrinsic qualities, but upon the surrounding circumstances. It is the user that determines the matter, and particularly the users habitual way of thinking. If he chooses words carefully, with a full understanding of their meaning and savor, then no word that he uses seriously will belong to slang, but if his speech is made up chiefly of terms poll-parroted, and he has no sense of their shades and limitations, then slang will bulk largely in his vocabulary. In its origin it is nearly always respectable; it is devised, not by the stupid populace, but by individuals of wit and ingenuity; as Whitney says, it is a product of an exuberance of mental activity, and the natural delight of language-making. But when its inventions happen to strike the popular fancy and are adopted by the mob, they are soon worn thread-bare and so lose all piquancy and significance, and, in Whitneys words, become incapable of expressing anything that is real.10 This is the history of such slang phrases, often interrogative, as Howd you like to be the ice-man? Hows your poor feet? Merci pour la langouste, Have a heart, This is the life, Where did you get that hat? Would you for fifty cents? Let her go, Gallagher, Shoo-fly, dont bother me, Dont wake him up and Let George do it. The last well exhibits the process. It originated in France, as Laissez faire à Georges, during the fifteenth century, and at the start had satirical reference to the multiform activities of Cardinal Georges dAmboise, prime minister to Louis XII.11 It later became common slang, was translated
Note 8. Cambridge History of English Literature, vol. xii, p. 144. [back]
Note 9. Curiously enough, the American language, usually so fertile in words to express shades of meaning, has no respectable synonym for chicken. In English there is flapper, in French there is ingénue, and in German there is backfisch. Usually either the English or the French word is borrowed. [back]
Note 10. The Life and Growth of Language; New York, 1897, p. 113. [back]
Note 11.Cf. Two Children in Old Paris, by Gertrude Slaughter; New York, 1918, p. 233. Another American popular saying, once embodied in a coon song, may be traced to a sentence in the prayer of the Old Dessauer before the battle of Kesseldorf, Dec. 15, 1745: Or if Thou wilt not help me, dont help those Hundvögte. [back]