Brush up on your eighteenth-century British slang with Strange Vernaculars

SorensenWhile eighteenth-century efforts to standardize the English language have long been studied, less well-known are the era’s popular collections of odd slang, criminal argots, provincial dialects, and nautical jargon. Strange Vernaculars by Janet Sorensen delves into how these published works presented the supposed lexicons of the “common people” and traces the ways that these languages, once shunned and associated with outsiders, became objects of fascination in printed glossaries—from The New Canting Dictionary to Francis Grose’s Classical Dictionary of the Vulgar Tongue—and in novels, poems, and songs. Check out the whiddes below so you can chounter with the best of them; and don’t be alarmed if some of them sound strange to your modern lugg.

 

Idiot pot—the knowledge box, the head

Rantipole—a rude, romping boy or girl, also a gadabout dissipated woman

Coggle—pebble

Rumbo ken—a pawn shop

Bugher—a dog

Hot bak’d wardens—pears

Golden pippins—apples

Crap-merchant—hangman

Coom—come

Nerst—next

Bingo-mort—a female drunkard

Black mouth—foul, malicious railing

Clod-hopper—a ploughman

Conny-catching—cheating the unwary, figured as hapless rabbits, or coneys

Stauling ken—a house that will receive stolen wares

Autem—church

Nab—head

Bite—cheat or cozen

Fencing cully—receiver of stolen goods

Fambles—hands

Cove—a man

Dimber—pretty

Bowse—drink

Darkeman—night

Whiddes—words

Harmanbeck—a constable

Feather-bed-lane—any bad road, but particularly that betwixt Dunchurch and Daintry

Anglers—cheats, petty thieves

Dead-men—empty pots or bottles on a tavern table

Chuck farthing—a Parish-Clerk

Keffal—a horse

Chittiface—a little puny child

Chounter—to talk pertly and sometimes angrily

Pateepan—a little pie or small pastry

Cow-hearted—fearful

Prog—meat

Scowre—to run away

Stag-evil—A disease, a palsy in the jaws

Thirdendeal—a liquid measure containing three pints

Thokes—fish with broken bellies

A parson’s lemon—a whore

Diver—a pickpocket

Rapping—perjury

Cleave—a wanton woman

Leap in the Dark—execution by hanging

Crimps—contractors for unloading coal ships

Cocquets—warrants

Bully-ruffins—highway-men

Night sneak—house burglary

Nimming—thieving

Collaring the coal—laying hold of money

The college—Newgate prison

Fatal tree—the gallows

Leatherhead—“a thick skull’d, Heavy-handed fellow”

Long-Meg—a very tall woman

Lord—a very crooked deformed or ill-shapen person

Malmasey-nose—A jolly red nose

Brick—loaf of bread

 

Janet Sorensen is associate professor of English at the University of California, Berkeley. She is the author of The Grammar of Empire in Eighteenth-Century British Writing.

An interview with Frank Cioffi, author of One Day in the Life of the English Language

This week we had the opportunity to ask Frank Cioffi questions about his new book, One Day in the Life of the English Language, which was recently featured in Inside Higher Ed. Cioffi offers insights on the “ethics” of usage, why grammar is “not just a set of rules”, and why students often readily grasp proper usage in exercises, but struggle with their own prose.

What was the inspiration for this book?Cioffi jacket

FC: Here is what I wrote in my five-year diary on 12/28/08: “millions of sentences are uttered and written. . . Most float off into a void, never to be heard of or recalled again. Most are ‘ungrammatical,’ no doubt unable to pass the scrutiny of a gimlet-eyed grammarian. But these sentences, and those of the previous days, and those of the next ones, make up our lives. They help to form the dense linguistic net of which we are all a part. And this book seeks to both represent that net and to show how you as a writer might well make a small, a human scale, a molecule-level, improvement of it.”

In what way or ways does your handbook differentiate itself from the thousand or so English handbooks already out on the market?

FC: I guess I am trying to persuade readers that Standard Written English (SWE) matters; it’s not just something to be memorized, like how to factor polynomials or the quadratic equation, but has a real impact on how we live and function as human beings. For example, using SWE usually improves one’s capacity for communicating to a wide and varied audience. More people will understand you if you use SWE than if you use, say, a dialect or an argot.

In addition, when you don’t use SWE you run the risk of stigmatizing yourself, of giving your audience the excuse to ignore what you say (“He can’t be saying anything of any importance—he’s clearly uneducated and dumb”). Now that’s not the right response, I know, and I emphasize in my book that we should not stigmatize people because their English is unpolished or somewhat far from the “standard,” but it still happens, so people need to learn SWE in order not to be stigmatized.

For many decades now I’ve been teaching English at the college level, and I have seen a lot of handbooks. None of them, I felt, had a sufficiently human voice. Most books say, “Here it is: learn it.” I say, “Here it is, and here is why it’s important to learn it.” Fred Crews’s Random House Handbook was something of an exception, but it’s now out of print. It is also not a compact book, which mine attempts to be.

Tell us a bit more about the “voice” of a handbook.

FC: Grammar books have multiple voices: the author who is lecturing, the author who is commenting on samples of English, and the sample sentences, often also by the author. I thought there was something wrong with all of these as they exist in current texts. In particular, I wanted the sentences to come from a real world, not the one of “Dick and Jane” books.

Here is the paradox I saw: students could do worksheets or exercises very readily, but their own prose didn’t reflect the lessons of those exercises. For example, my students did a worksheet on comma splices, but comma splices still marred their writing. We did a worksheet on apostrophes, but apostrophes were still a major problem in the formal papers. Why is that?

It seemed to me that maybe in our handbooks, workbooks, and even lectures, we tended to simplify example sentences too much. We tended to make them spare and simple so as to illustrate a grammatical point. But that point is easy to understand with simple sentences. As complexity grows, the capacity for error enlarges.

At the same time, students might think, “Only a total dummy would make a mistake like this sample sentence!” or maybe “That’s not me!”Or they might think, “This book is totally condescending.”

So I wanted sample sentences that were complex.

But the problem here was that making up sentences in the sample sentence genre suddenly grew difficult, since their lack of content becomes much more apparent as they grow in elaborateness. This made me wonder about the “world” depicted in the example sentences. It’s a made-up world. a world of nonevents, a world where nothing scary or awful or threatening or sexy happens. It’s the same world that the Educational Testing Service depicts in the “fairness guidelines” that they give to test preparers, which in some ways makes sense. We don’t want to distract students from the grammatical issue at hand.

Yet the world of these sample sentences has the interesting effect of making grammar somehow disembodied, disconnected from a real world. Its sentences emerge from a world where nothing is really happening, and where nothing really matters. What message does that send to our students or to our readers?

That’s when I decided to go for real-world sentences.

These come from the “one day,” then, of your title?

FC: Yes. I didn’t want to make these the culled variety we see in Strunk and White, or Robert Graves and Alan Hodge’s book The Reader over Your Shoulder. No. I just wanted them to be from a single day, since that would show how we all make mistakes, how language is really tricky even for professionals to get just right.

So I combed magazines and newspapers published on December 29, 2008, and I tried to find examples of good sentences, elegant sentences, let’s say, as well as of sentences whose grammar struck me as “dubious,” as one of my colleagues likes to say. I came up with almost 300 of these sentences, so the book is at once a grammar handbook and a curious snapshot of history, on a day that is not particularly historical. And oddly enough, even though it’s more than six years later now, a lot of the sentences still resonate with current events.

What about the “rules” of Standard Written English: don’t you feel these need to be hammered home?

FC: As far as “learning grammar” goes, I didn’t want to provide just a set of rules, though of course I do emphasize what’s SWE and what is not. I instead argue that students and readers need to internalize the pattern and form of English sentences, really need to get inside them in a profound way, need to become, in a way, linguists themselves, in order to express themselves more fully.

In addition, I wanted to be honest. The rules of English are not apodictic: they are constantly being debated by professors; they are under constant pressure. Think of the problems with pronoun reference. Think of the “acceptable” comma splice. There are borderlands of acceptability in English that are becoming increasingly large.

And too we need to recognize that not all English needs to be SWE. We need to allow our students their own language in many situations, just as editors allowed that in the papers and magazines I looked at. One of the things we want to keep in mind is that so much of the success of one’s English has to do with accurately gauging what’s appropriate to a given situation, with assessing the audience for one’s words.

Your book also emphasizes the “ethics” of usage. Can you elaborate on this?

FC: I also suggest that grammaticality or accuracy is something that has an ethical component, since lives, careers, futures—our future—can hinge on the accuracy of English. At the same time, SWE often allows people to better express their ideas to a wider audience—people can get heard “when it matters,” if they properly gauge their audience and if they are able to be agile enough with their language to move from one register to the next, and to assume SWE when it’s needed and abandon it when it might be counterproductive, when it might sound stilted or stuffy or supercilious to use it.

What surprised you about writing and publishing this book?

FC: I was surprised by how hard it was to get published. It came close to being accepted by a couple of textbook houses, but it didn’t make the grade. One time, after three very positive outside reviews, I thought the book was as good as accepted. I was to meet with the editor soon and we were to work out the details. But then at the last minute the editor canceled our meeting and said the book could not be published by her press.

“Why not?” I wondered. Then it occurred to me that if I am writing a book that challenges the value of standard handbooks, then a publisher that has 100 such handbooks on its list isn’t likely to publish mine! This also clued me in to why it is that all the handbooks out there are so similar.

It’s as if there is a weird monopoly of ideas—we can’t rock the boat too much with new ideas or approaches, since we’re making a ton of money off of the old ones!

When I was teaching in Poland a few years ago, it was communist days, and I was complaining about censorship. One of my colleagues, though, challenged me on this: “You have censorship in America, too, you know, and it’s as repressive of new ideas as ours is, maybe more: books that aren’t deemed salesworthy are simply not published. That silences all sorts of voices.” So a book might be itself salesworthy, but might drag down the sales of the other books published by a press, so that book won’t see print, at least not by them.

So do you think your book might change the way that college writing is taught?

FC: My book attempts to get writing instructors to grapple on an ongoing basis with the complexities of English usage and grammar, and to work with students as they try to plumb these issues together. It’s not a quick fix. It’s a course of instruction in what, for many students, is a new language altogether. If we really want to change the quality of the work our students produce, we need to reimagine how the college composition course is structured, staffed, and funded.

How did you come up with the title of the book, which is a play on Solzhenitsyn’s One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich?

FC: I was going to call it “One Day’s Sentences in America,” but I wasn’t all that happy with that title. One day, though, my wife, Kathleen Cioffi, said, “Hey, why not call the book ‘One Day in the Life of the English Language’?” Bingo.

What are you reading right now?

FC: Right now I am reading a collection of short stories by Alberto Moravia. He is a marvelous and, I think, neglected Italian writer. His stories examine the minutiae of daily life; they explore the psychological menace and poignancy of the ordinary. In some ways they are stories about a lack of communication between people and the effects of that.

What are your next writing projects?

FC: I have several going on right now. Probably I have too many. I have three completed book manuscripts: one is about teaching entitled Beyond Zombie Pedagogy. I’ve also written a biography of my late uncle, the philosopher Frank Cioffi. And I kept a detailed diary of my life in communist Poland. The diary is maybe 700,000 words, though—I kept it for three years—so I need to cut it down and turn it into a narrative/analysis of life in Poland in the waning days of communism. Still waiting for publishers and contracts for these three books—!

I also have a volume of poetry that I’ve culled from the hundreds of poems I’ve written over the last three decades.

Really? Poetry? Perhaps you could give us a short poem?

FC:

Ok, here is a villanelle, “Noisome T. Rex”:

 

Fuse frayed synapses, hurt to reinvent.

Smooth feelings blunt as a plastic doll’s sex,

scrub brain raw of all, all that you repent.

 

Moving ‘midst throngs swarm-clogging the pavement,

lumb’ring dumb-monstrous as noisome T. Rex,

fuse frayed synapses, hurt to reinvent.

 

Pointless to think of her lips or prevent

recall of their blood-damp cling pre/post-X.

Scrub brain raw of all, all that you repent.

 

Don’t look directly—no, keep that gaze bent,

as eyes switchblade your so vulner’ble neck .

Fuse frayed synapses, hurt to reinvent.

 

Its fluid-flow blocked, mind needing a stent

or swift amputation—painless, unvex’d—

scrub brain raw of all, all that you repent.

 

Violate space through some vocal event.

Stall devolution, and fight your thrawn hex.

Scrub brain raw of all, all that you repent.

Fuse frayed synapses, hurt to reinvent.

 

Be sure to read the introduction here.