top of page

Chains of Consequences: The Problem of Incommensurable Slang

By Tom Anderson

Cover of Charles Hindley's annotated version of Tom and jerry

In a previous article, I discussed how the cartoon characters Tom and Jerry ultimately got their name from an 1821 novel by British sports writer Pierce Egan, Life in London, or Days and Nights of Jerry Hawthorne and his elegant friend Corinthian Tom. Better known simply by the first three words, the book’s popularity grew when William Moncrieff adapted it as a stage play titled Tom and Jerry, or Life in London. The adaptation was considerably different to the novel and particularly focused on raucous behaviour, contemporary slang and recognisable figures of high and low society in London at the time (some of whom were even played by themselves!)

I recently lost my Amazon Kindle (other e-readers are available) and had to purchase another, which ironically meant I did not get to read my own recent novel, Well Met By Starlight, until a week after the rest of the civilised world. Upon discovering that Mr Bezos neglects to transfer over all the book files, I therefore spent three hours on a Sunday night re-downloading them from the website, followed by some free ones past their copyright from Project Gutenberg. On that fine site, I happened to discover an interesting work by Charles Hindley entitled The True History of Tom and Jerry; or, The Day and Night Scenes of Life in London. Written at least 65 years after the original (I have yet to find the exact publication date), this appears to have been written in response to a recent revival of the play and public interest in its history.

I always enjoy reading things written by Late Victorians about Early Victorians (or Regency folk), because they show that the inter-generational prejudice of today’s ‘boomers’ and ‘millennials’ is nothing new. I make no apology forquoting the entirety of this sentence (sentence, not paragraph!) from Hindley in full because of its glorious irony:

“But although LIFE IN LONDON, or, TOM AND JERRY did make our grandfathers so very—very! merry in the first quarter of the Nineteenth Century, we are constrained to admit; that it is a terrible dull and tedious work to read through in the present day, and it is on that very account, that we here place before our readers, what we are pleased to term—THE TRUE HISTORY of TOM and JERRY; for the work has a history of its own, and to exemplify the fact, we have in the first place, made numerous selections from the original work, then given the principal scenes of Moncrieff’s dramatic version of the same, the two concluding chapters of Pierce Egan’s continuation of his Life in London which he entitles—THE FINISH TO THE ADVENTURES OF TOM, JERRY, AND LOGIC, in their Pursuits through LIFE IN AND OUT OF LONDON.”

This wonderful exercise of impenetrable Late Victorian purple prose is, if anything, rather more dull and tedious to our eyes than the work it is apologising for. Tastes and fashions change, in language and literature as much as in any other field. It is by recognising and selectively highlighting these changes that the writer of historical fiction can neatly paint a picture of a particular era to a modern reader; much the same skills are useful by the writer of time-travel stories or alternate history—especially in a work focusing on the immediate aftermath of a Point of Divergence. Unlike those who work in visual arts, a writer’s selective choice of language can also produce a deliberately misleading impression of the era in which it is set, with a shock twist for the reader. I did this in one of my contributions to an SLP short story collection; rather than spoil which one, I will instead quote an example from my new book Well Met By Starlight, which does the same thing but with mundanity rather than change of time period. This opening paragraph of a chapter follows a number of chapters which have dealt with European Space Agency spationauts settling in to a long-distance space mission far from Earth, thus leaving the reader with a conditioned frame of mind to expect more of the same:

“Dr Hans Ziegler surveyed the Copernicus with a look that mixed pride with worry. It was a truism that the more advanced the technology, the more there was to go wrong. And, after all, he was about to voyage into what many would regard as a featureless void, far from any human civilisation.

But then, who cared what Berliners thought? Hans was going fishing in the Baltic Sea.”

As you will be able to tell, I enjoy using language in these ways to challenge a reader’s expectations. I have written a number of articles about how an alternate historian can use different terminology to set the scene of a different world, though this is easy to overuse into incomprehensibility. Slang is a particularly difficult topic. Many science fiction writers have tried to come up with their own future slang terms, and they almost always feel inauthentic and instantly dated. (I could have used the word phoney, which to many readers would have subtly given an impression I was talking specifically about science fiction of the 1930s!) Even the relatively successful examples, such as fictional curses like Red Dwarf’s ‘smeg’ or Battlestar Galactica’s ‘frak’, become memetically associated with those programmes rather than standing on their own.

Therefore, it seems rather easier to use past slang to set a work in a period situation. However, there are a number of problems associated with this, as we shall see. As someone who likes to use period terminology to pepper a piece, I was delighted to discover that in the aforementioned work by Charles Hindley, the title page notes that it includes “a Key to the Persons and Places, Together with a Vocabulary and Glossary of the Flash and Slang Terms, occurring in the course of the work.” Of course, that was aimed at explaining 1820s slang to 1880s people, but it can still be useful today. The trick, naturally, is to find slang words whose meaning is sufficiently clear to a modern reader without having to pause and explain them (unless, like rustic Jerry in the original work, we feature a character whom they can be explained to). Knowledge Box for ‘head’ hits the spot of sounding archaic while still being recognisable, and not too dissimilar from the more recent brainbox. A word like scran for ‘food’ can be indicated through context easily enough, and some terms like Charley for pre-Peeler policeman convey an element of their meaning (in this case dismissive) today.

Some terms have survived in more specific contexts than originally intended: ‘crack’ in the 1820s was an all-purpose positive slang word like ‘cool’, but nowadays only survives in terms like ‘a crack shot’ for someone who can aim well. A ‘sharp’, a wise guy who cons ordinary trusting folk (‘flats’), today only survives in the specific form ‘card sharp’ for a cheating gambler running a scam. ‘Ogles’ for eyes now only survives in its verb form. Nonetheless, a skilful writer should be able to both use such terms that are somewhat comprehensible to a modern reader without explanation, yet carry period flavour from being used more often or in different contexts. Neal Stephenson does this quite simply in his Baroque Cycle by using the word ‘divers’ (as in ‘diverse’ spelled without the E) a lot—A LOT—in the narrative, as indeed it was in many books written in the 17th century to mean ‘many, multitudinous’ as well as ‘varied’.

Yet there are also some substantial problems with trying to use period slang. Most obviously, some terms may be simply incomprehensible without explanation, such as ‘Max’ for gin (one of many names for that beverage that was as popular in the 1820s as in Britain today). Conversely, sometimes we run into what the website TvTropes calls ‘Reality is Unrealistic’, in which actual contemporary books seem to use terms that feel far too modern. ‘OK’ was as popular in America a century and a half ago as it is now; its origins are fascinating but a subject for another day. Worldly Tom teaches rustic Jerry the slang terms ‘fly’ and ‘down’ to mean ‘knowing, awake’—just the same as they are today. There is something that provokes a sense of ‘chronausea’, to use a neologism I coined for such things, at the thought that King George IV (the dedicatee of Egan’s book) could probably listen to the 1998 song Pretty Fly (For a White Guy) and understand exactly what was meant by the term. The term wide-awake was popular in the 19th century, and was used by a youth faction of the Republican Party in the US; it is probably little surprise that it has recently been reborn in the related form woke.

There are actually many such cases of terms in history, sometimes falling out of favour with one part of society to be reintroduced by another. Dukes as slang for hands was considered a rural archaicism in Britain, but was then reintroduced by American movies featuring gangsters saying: “Put up your dooks!” A recent reintroduction is the term ‘person of colour’ as a preferred politically correct term for non-white people; while this may sound like a neologism, it is actually found (albeit more usually as ‘man/woman/gentleman/lady of colour’) in books from both ends of the Victorian era. Indeed, Hindley’s 1820s slang dictionary includes a term now considered racist (let us say it starts with D and rhymes with the surname of the current junior Senator from Massachusetts) and defines it as ‘Night, also a man of colour.’ ‘Women of colour’ is also used in an excerpt from the play, which features a number of black characters, most notably the violinist Billy Waters (a real person, who played himself in the play).

This is an interesting contrast to what can often be our assumptions about how language changes, that terms necessarily evolve. Yet, while we have gone through many generational-specific terms for ‘cool’ (such as ‘cunning’, ‘bully’, ‘ripping’, ‘funky’, ‘radical’, ‘wicked’, ‘mint’, ‘epic’, etc.) ‘cool’ itself still feels as relevant as it did in the 1930s when it was first popularised. ‘Awesome’, after a period of feeling dated and evocative of the 1990s, also seems to be coming back into more common use.

There remains one other major problem, and it is the one I have titled this article after. The philosopher of science Thomas Kuhn coined the term ‘incommensurable’ to describe cases where using the same term for different things can provoke confusion; he argued that using ‘gravity’ to describe the very different theoretical frameworks of both Newton and Einstein impaired understanding of either. Much the same argument can be made about certain slang terms, where a word re-enters the language but morphs to a completely different meaning. At best this can cause confusion when reading older works; at worst, it creates unintentional ridicule and makes it hard for a modern author to emulate that style of writing. Probably the single most prominent example is the word gay, which nowadays almost exclusively is used to mean homosexual, but for over a century was used to mean ‘happy, outgoing, lover of life, upbeat’, etc. In fact it’s quite hard to define exactly what it meant, because (like ‘cool’) it’s so obvious that the people using it had a very precise state in mind which no other word quite fits. And one of the biggest problems with period writing is how frequently this word is used, often in the sense of ‘people really like this word, let’s put it into the title of literally everything’. A particular issue is that it was often applied to successful heterosexual casanovas like Zorro the Gay Blade; Hindley’s book defines the origins of the term ‘lothario’ as: “A gay libertine, a seducer of female modesty, a debauchee. The character is from “The Fair Penitent,” by Nicholas Rowe, 1673-1718. ‘Is this that haughty gallant, gay Lothario? Act v., Sc. 1.’”

It is therefore very difficult for a modern reader, even if they can avoid perpetual chortling of the GCSE English class variety, to read sentences like that without getting confused on the meaning. Essentially this is like the phenomenon of ‘false friends’ when learning a foreign language, except the language is your own. But then, ‘the past is a foreign country; they do things differently there’ (L. P. Hartley, The Go-Between, 1953). One gets the impression that certain words have an attractive sound to them as a slang term and keep coming up, yet can often have different meanings when they do. Groovy started in the nineteenth century as a term to mean ‘boring, dull, in a rut’ (as in ‘stuck in a groove’) but its meaning inverted when the phonograph was invented, and suddenly the grooves on a record evoked popular new youth music. The youth of the mid-twentieth century might call those who eschewed such music ‘squares’, a term which descends from the more positive term ‘on the square’, meaning fair and honest (as in Teddy Roosevelt’s Square Deal); Hindley’s dictionary notes the contrast with ‘on the cross’, a now vanished term meaning earning one’s living dishonestly.

Let’s finish with another term that provokes chortles in period works: boner. Today it seems hard for people to realise that this could have ever meant anything other than the erect male member, but of course there’s never been any shortage of slang terms for that since language began. Hindley’s dictionary only contains boner in the sense of thief (‘to bone’ something, to steal it, still just barely exists in near-modern English). In one of those examples that looks too silly to be a real coincidence, specifically the dictionary mentions a type of thief called a boner of stiff ones, meaning a resurrection man (someone who steals corpses out of graveyards for illegal dissections by medical students). Slightly better known is the use of boner in the early-to-mid twentieth century, in which it meant ‘embarrassing mistake; faux pas’. Periodically an old Batman comic circulates through the internet in which the Joker makes a boner in one of his plans and decides to start a new crime spree themed around boners. Stories by writers like Edgar Wallace and R. Austin Freeman include phrases like ‘anyone can pull a boner’.

Even J. R. R. Tolkien uses the term in The Lord of the Rings, in the song The Stone-Troll. Christopher Tolkien mentions (in The History of Middle-earth, volume 6) that his father was extremely fond of the song and was determined to work it into the book. Originally it was going to be what Frodo (then called Bingo) sang in The Prancing Pony (then called The White Horse) before meeting Strider (then called Trotter; have I mentioned that Tolkien liked changing names in drafts a lot?) Later it became an in-universe composition by Sam Gamgee. However, the song’s real-world origins predate The Lord of the Rings; it comes from an informal 1920s collaboration at the University of Leeds between Tolkien and his colleague and fellow professor E. V. Gordon. Titled Songs for the Philologists (which to my mind brings to mind one of those compilation albums that Ryan and Colin have Wayne sing from on Whose Line Is It Anyway?) this short humorous work includes poems in Gothic, Icelandic, Old, Middle and Modern English, Latin, and combinations of them all and more.

Of these songs, The Root of the Boot a.k.a. The Stone-Troll is one of the more conventional, being written in Modern English (albeit a slightly Yorkshire form of it), but it has an interesting rhyming scheme in which half-nonsense words are sang in the antepenultimate line to rhyme with the preceding line. The subject is of a man named Tom who attempts to retrieve a shinbone of his deceased uncle Tim that a troll has dug up and is knawing on. His plan fails due to his attempt to kick the troll up the backside only results in breaking his foot. In the poem’s closing lines Tolkien, with typical philological punnery, uses two meanings of the word boner:

Tom's leg is game, since home he came, And his bootless foot is lasting lame; But Troll don't care, and he's still there With the bone he boned from its owner. Doner! Boner! Troll's old seat is still the same, And the bone he boned from its owner!

The rhyme uses the contemporary 1920s slang of ‘boner’ as in Tom’s mistake, while the final line uses ‘to bone’ in the older sense of ‘to steal’ as used by Tom and Jerry a century earlier. (Some editions even explain this with a footnote).

Sadly, this bit of wordplay may be lost on a modern audience that felt we didn’t already have enough terms for blood-filled male genitalia. And so, as writers of historical fiction, time travel and alternate history, sometimes we have to reluctantly compromise on realism and not risk writing about gay lotharios pulling boners.



bottom of page