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Word Nerd: What the Dickens? Slang in Shakespeare?

In 1807, Thomas Bowdler published The Family Shakespeare stating in his preface that “nothing is added to the original text, but those words and expressions are omitted which cannot with propriety be read in a Family.” Within 30 years he had been eponymized and verbified in one swell swoop and the OED defines bowdlerize as “to expurgate (a book or writing), by omitting or modifying words or passages considered indelicate or offensive.”

Actually, the lexicographic recording of slang is a relatively recent phenomenon. The first dictionaries only dealt with “difficult words” that were relatively new to the lexicon and only centuries later did they become more comprehensive in nature.

There is the story, perhaps apocryphal, that after Samuel Johnson wrote A Dictionary of the English Language in 1755, two elderly sisters congratulated the lexicographer for not including “ghastly” words in his tome. To which, Dr Johnson reputedly replied, “What! My dears! Then you have been looking for them?”

But returning to Shakespeare, Jonathon Green in The Stories of Slang reports that Shakespeare employed over 500 slang terms in his works with 277 of them representing the first recorded usage of the word. Green mentions that comedian Lenny Bruce noted that everybody yearns for what “should be” but what should be doesn’t exist, there is only what “is” and in describing the human condition, Shakespeare described the many unsavoury aspects of our characters often using slang terms effectively in his portrayal of people.

For example, in All’s Well That Ends Well, the term kickie-wickie is used to mean wife; pickers and stealers in Hamlet refers to hands; asshead in Twelfth Night refers to a dolt, and small beer in Othello replaces trifles. Perhaps intuiting that another great British writer would emerge centuries later, he created the expression what the dickens in Merry Wives of Windsor. (Dickens is a euphemism for Devil).

Many common words have distinct naughty meaning in Shakespeare’s plays. In The Stories of Slang, Green reveals that a nunnery isn’t remotely religious (even if populated by nuns); rather we are in the world of brothels; nor are the low countries connected to Holland but what modernity coyly terms ‘down there.’ ”

Interestingly, the first OED citation of the word “slang” is only in 1756 in William Toldervy’s The History of Two Orphans, so what disreputable language was Shakespeare using, seeing that he died 140 years before the term slang was ever used? The first dictionary that included what we would call slang terms was titled A New Dictionary of the Terms Ancient and Modern of the Canting Crew was compiled in 1698 London and we only know the author by the initials B.E. So while Shakespeare has been dubbed the“immortal Bard,” even he could not access a tome written over 80 years after his demise. One of Shakespeare’s major sources of disreputable words seems to derive from his contemporary John Florio’s 598 Italian-English dictionary The Worlde of Words. For example, in it, Florio translated fottere as to jape, to sard, to swive, to occupy and the unmentionable f-word.

Shakespeare is hardly the only English language literary great to successfully employ slang. Dickens describes many of his characters slangily, and particularly in Oliver Twist. The Artful Dodger is dubbed a “downy cove,” which Green’s Dictionary of Slang defines as “a knowledgeable, artful, aware, ‘fly’ person.” Uber-pickpocketer Bill Sykes is called a “swell mobsman” and Fagin is a “fence,” a receiver of stolen goods and Sykes says to him in one passage “What are you up to? “ill-treating the boys… you insatiable old fence.” Lady of the street Nancy is called a tuppenny uprighter due to the oft horizontal nature of her profession.

Stating categorically, however, whether a specific term qualifies as slang is often a fool’s errand. In The State of the Language Phillip Howard states that “one man’s slang is another man’s colloquialism is another man’s vernacular is another man’s everyday speech.”

That being said, slang is a monument to language’s ability to evolve by slicing through its oft pretentious and euphemistic nature.

Richler’s latest book is Wordplay: Arranged and Deranged Wit.

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