This article has been transcribed from a copy of the Cardiff Times in the online collection of scanned Welsh newspapers 1804-1919 in the National Library of Wales, with grateful recognition of the free access accorded to all readers. Paragraph breaks have been introduced for easier reading.

Explantory Notes

The text of this article focusses mainly on the linguistic usage of the relatively well-to-do, some of it in imitation of fashionable, upper-class slang. Samuel is particularly irritated by people who should know better, and he oscillates between annoyance at those who have insufficient education and those who neglect the education they have undergone. His desire for ‘correctness’ is now dated, though it persisted in almost exactly these terms well into the second half of the twentieth century. He is not a linguist, but knows what he likes and thinks is correct. The result is that he approves of some slang usages and condemns others.

The opening illustration shows Samuel either amused at or annoyed at the cab-driver’s language (it is impossible to guess which). So many anecdotes are found of interaction between a cabbie and his passengers one must assume that this was the most frequent situation which exposed well-to-do people with the language of the working classes, in circumstances in which they found themselves under the control of the driver, however much they asserted command, from, as they saw it, a socially superior position. The habitual use of the name ‘Jehu’ for driver derives from 2 Kings 9:20: ‘the driving is like the driving of Jehu the son of Nimshi; for he driveth furiously’.

The images of the Newnhamite and the absurdly stereotyped American young woman are signs of alarm at change felt by many traditionalists.

The phrase ‘sweetness and light’ comes from book Jonathan Swift’s The Battle of the Books (1708), and was given currency by Matthew Arnold in his Culture and Anarchy (text) to convey the beauty and intelligence which he believed to be the key components in an excellent culture.

‘Language was given us to conceal our thoughts’ is a misinterpretation of Charles Maurice de Talleyrand-Périgord (1754-38) who said that ‘speech was given to man to disguise his thoughts’. Language was not under attack but many speech acts were untrustworthy. (Samuel exemplifies the lax thinking of the English-speaker. No French-speaker would make this mistake.)

In his book Dictionary of the English Language, Samuel Johnson established a methodology for dictionary-makers, and shaped the attitudes of educationalists for many years. For all his dislike of Johnson’s emphasis on lexical correctness, Samuel loosely imitates the same set of normative values.

To ‘fribble’ was to act in a foolish or frivolous manner. —David Skilton

A master of the art of slang. Hear him engaging in amenities with a rival Jehu, and go home and make your will.

R EDITOR, sir, there is an immense amount of nonsense written and talked about ‘slang,’ and especially by mincing humbugs of the ‘fine’ writer and ‘superior’ person schools who can't speak the Queen's English (I don't quite see why the Queen's English should be any better than anybody else's English) themselves as it ought to be spoken; and indeed, sir[,] even in the supposedly educated classes, I boldly aver that at least nine-hundred-and-ninety men out of a thousand do not speak their native tongue properly by any means, and, as for their vocabulary, it is indeed limited. Our ‘mashers,’ having about as limited an amount of words at their command as they have brains, chop and mince their words like their little sisters, and content themselves, when they want to be emphatic, with the adjectives ‘awful’ or ‘beastly.’ A great many members of the clergy, educated men though they are, either pronounce their words like big babies or school misses, or mumble up their sentences so that you can scarcely tell in what language they are speaking.

Samuel fully expects the learned Newnham girls will soon be coming to this. They are said to have ‘taken to slang’ already.

I have heard hundreds of barristers speak, and they are almost invariably either very slipshod as to their grammar or positively and grossly ungrammatical. They, every day, drop the ‘g’ in recognisances, they call an ‘ac-cessory after the fact’ an ‘access-ory’ after that same, and they commonly ask such questions as ‘Who were you with?’ Taking them all round, actors, with all their faults, speak as well as any class of men of this day, though I am bound to say that a great many even of the most popular of them (men, too, who pretend to go in for ‘culchah’ and ‘sweetness and light’ and all that sort of thing) cannot spell, as I am prepared to prove at any time from scores of letters in my possession. This, no doubt, arises from the fact that their start in life is usually a humble one. But they do speak well, for they pick up an army of good words from better men than themselves – the authors who supply them with their parts. Well, sir, I am coming round to ‘slang’ in a minute or two.

La belle Americaine. The ‘guessing’ and ‘calculating’ miss.

As I say, English is not universally well spoken now-a-days; the art of conversation, as understood by our forefathers, is going out: we all live in too big a hurry to polish our periods and round our sentences; we want to say what we have to say and have done with it, and in my judgment it is a consequence of that fact that slang has come to be so universally in vogue, even in quarters where it might least be looked for. The cynical aphorism that ‘language was given us to conceal our thoughts’ apart, there is no doubt, of course, that we are gifted with tongues in order that we may convey our ideas to others, and I should hold that the man who can do so in the most succinct and intelligible manner speaks the best English, whether the words he uses are contained in the dictionaries or in the works of our native classics or not. In this regard I am of course supposing that the slang term employed shall not be of unpleasantly suggestive origin or coarse in itself. A fig for that old bore Johnson and all the other bibliophiles, say I, as long as a word conveys my meaning to others. If it comes to that, all our language is made up of ‘slang’ – that is, words that have become universally accepted, gradually tagged on to it; words created by the exigencies of some particular time or by the progress of some specific movement.

Isn’t the style of ‘this’ clangy? Rather! ‘Bloomin’ toff,’ doncherknow.

There is a lot of force in ‘slang,’ sir, that is if it be artistically employed. What would be more forcible and suggestive now than such a word as ‘mug’? If you called a man a ‘dupe’ or a ‘gull,’ either of these terms might imply that in all other transactions except some particular one in which he has been ‘had’ (another most excusable slang term) he was a fairly sensible or even a wise man, but if you call him a ‘mug’ you imply a whole world of credulity and gullibility without exactly stigmatising the man as an ‘ass’ or a ‘fool,’ and were you on fairly intimate terms with the man, you might even venture to call him a ‘mug,’ whereas did you employ either of the two other terms I have just used, he might be expected to ‘floor’ you. I like the American slang term which describes a man as being made to ‘sit up.’ If I want to wreak vengeance of a mild type on a man, why should I not from quite as legitimate a point of view threaten to make him ‘sit up’ as you give him to understand that I will make him ‘jump’ or make him ‘skip?’ The expression ‘sit up’ is both more suggestive and less indicative of the doing of bodily harm.

Why is it that to talk of a man with a ‘swagger’ coat is held by some superfine fiddle-fuddling snobs to be vulgar and ‘slangy?’ Is not the term sufficiently expressive of a coat that is brought out not so much for its usefulness as a garment as for the effect it is likely to produce upon the beholder? Can any of the superfine people invent a more pertinent word[?] Had the same word, in the same juxtaposition, been handed down to us from the last century, it would have been belauded to the skies by the very word merchants who now condemn it. Why is the word ‘seedy,’ which is absolutely full of meaning as to its origin, accounted slang? When a man does not feel quite himself, when he feels limp and out of sorts, and yet does not quite know what is the matter with him, what term could better express his state of body than ‘seedy?’

It must be recollected that in talking of ‘slang’ of this kind, I am speaking of the slang which is of universal application, and not that which belongs to any particular class or body. This latter (especially the latter portion of it relating to the stage) is often quite meaningless and inexpressive, though even it is not without its defensible qualities. Why should we not talk freely of a ‘put up’ affair, and be as correct as though we spoke of a preconcerted affair? – It is much more direct and Saxon. Why should the word ‘masher’ be quoted as a slang expression? Is it not every bit as orthodox as the ‘fribble’ of our ancestors? Does it not exactly describe the sort of young man who fancies that he can overcome and overawe everybody by the potency of his attractions? Most so-called slang terms owe their origin to some development of the times, to the progress of some existing movement or to the invention of some particular thing, and as such they are valuable as showing the adaptability of human expression to human invention. Most of them have a sort of rough and ready applicability about them to the objects in connection with which they are used, as may easily be realised by repeating over all those terms which the railway system has brought into existence, and to speak of the ‘slang’ wholesale in terms of unmitigated condemnation, as is done every day by pedantic nobodies, is simply ridiculous.

Last modified 15 May 2022