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Keeping up with the chavs at Christmas


Using the latest catch-phrase or - even more importantly - knowing when to stop using it, can help you to be accepted as one of the in-crowd. Getting it wrong will dismiss you as a sad case.

The word ‘chav’ may well be a case in point. Currently on everyone’s lips, it could disappear completely before very long.

The pitfalls of popular language are just as true historically as they are now. For those researching for books or films with a historical flavour, it may seem obvious that a contemporary dictionary will help you to capture the language of the times.

However, the information you find there may not be accurate, as even professional film and book researchers have found to their cost. Getting it wrong in that instance can be very public. Such reference books can have their dangers, as Dr Julie Coleman, at the University of Leicester Department of English revealed.

Cant and slang - the language of thieves, beggars, soldiers, schoolchildren, fashionable society and minority groups - has been a subject of fascination for centuries. We use language to show that we belong to social groups, and to exclude those who do not belong.

Just as popular are the dictionaries that have attempted to unlock the secrets of slang, whether as a warning against the wiles of criminals, to give a flavour of a particular century, or to provide a specialist look at social history.
“You have to be careful in using these dictionaries,” Dr Coleman pointed out. “Words often develop and change, but two or three centuries later may still be presented in a dictionary as if they were in current use.

“Slang in literature and films taken from these sources, is not always reliable. In the film, Gangs of New York, for instance there is quite a lot of anachronistic slang. Although the slang works within the context of the film, it is supposed to be 19th century and American, where in fact some of it is 16th century English cant.

“Some slang dictionaries are written by members of the group. They say: ‘This is the way we talk and we are proud of it. It is different from how other people talk and that is a good thing.’ Others were written by outsiders, often a single individual.

“The earliest of these was published in 1567 and is a 200-word list of beggars’ cant. The same list has been subsequently copied and presented as the language of thieves and gypsies, though there is very little evidence beyond the existence of dictionaries that the language was ever really used like this.”

More modern dictionaries of slang include those pertaining to particular ethnic or race groups, which appeared first at the time of the equal rights movement, and ‘Gay slang’, which were first published in the 1970s. There are also dictionaries of playground slang, rhyming slang, drug slang and even Buffy the Vampire Slayer slang.

“It is quite noticeable, I think, that First World War slang dictionaries are stark and revealing, almost as though it would have dishonoured the memory of fallen comrades if the way they spoke were not accurately documented. The Second World War, on the other hand, produced slang dictionaries that aimed to keep up morale. They were more light-hearted, and didn’t dwell on death and injury,” said Dr Coleman.

She feels that dictionaries of cant and slang are language books that appeal to the widest audience. Nobody, she says, is intimidated by them. Often costing as little as £2, they may be presented as humour or for entertainment, and because they are ephemeral they are often reflective of social trends. They often appear just in time for the Christmas gift market.

Dr Coleman commented: “A lot of slang is a short-lived generational trend, a group of in-jokes that you might have learned in the school playground. Once you stop mixing with that single age group you stop using the slang. Part of its intention is to make sure that people outside the group, particularly authority figures, don’t understand you. It also proves that you are in the know and people can recognise you as a member of this group.”

Dr Coleman is studying the many dictionaries of cant and slang that exist, and her book, A History of Cant and Slang Dictionaries, 1567-1784, Volume 1, was published by Oxford University Press in January 2004. Volume 2, 1785-1858, will be published by OUP shortly.

Ather Mirza | alfa
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