Reference > H.W. Fowler > The King’s English, 2nd ed.

H.W. Fowler (1858–1933).  The King’s English, 2nd ed.  1908.

Chapter I. Vocabulary


THE place of slang is in real life. There, an occasional indulgence in it is an almost necessary concession to our gregarious humanity; he who declines altogether to let his speech be influenced by his neighbours' tricks, and takes counsel only of pure reason, is setting up for more than man. Awfully nice is an expression than which few could be sillier; but to have succeeded in going through life without saying it a certain number of times is as bad as to have no redeeming vice. Further, the writer who deals in conversation may sometimes find it necessary, by way of characterizing his speakers, to put slang in their mouths; if he is wise he will make the least possible use of this resource; and to interlard the non-conversational parts of a book or article with slang, quotation marks or no quotation marks, is as bad as interlarding with French. Foreign words and slang are, as spurious ornaments, on the same level. The italics, but not the quotation marks, in these examples are ours:

When the madness motif was being treated on the stage, Shakespeare (as was the custom of his theatre) treated it 'for all it was worth', careless of the boundaries between feigning and reality.—Times.

But even this situation 'peters out', the wife being sent away with her fate undecided, and the husband, represented as a 'forcible-feeble' person by the dramatist and as a feeble person, tout court, by the actor....—Times.

M. Baron the younger is amusing as the 'bounder' Olivier.—Times.

Asking ourselves this question about Mr. Thurston's play, we find that it has given us a ha'porth of pleasure to an intolerable deal of boredom. With its primary postulate, 'steep' as it is, we will not quarrel.—Times.

They will find no subtlety in it, no literary art, no profundity of feeling; but they will assuredly find breadth, colour, and strength. It is a play that hits you, as the children say, 'bang in the eye'.—Times.

They derive no advantage from schemes of land settlement from which the man who has broken the land in gets 'the boot', the voter gets the land, the Government gets the vote, and the London labour market gets the risk.—Times.

The effect of using quotation marks with slang is merely to convert a mental into a moral weakness. When they are not used, we may mercifully assume that the writer does not know the difference between slang and good English, and sins in ignorance: when they are, he is telling us, I know it is naughty, but then it is nice. Most of us would rather be taken for knaves than for fools; and so the quotation marks are usually there.

With this advice—never to use slang except in dialogue, and there as little as may be—we might leave the subject, except that the suggestion we have made about the unconscious use of slang seems to require justifying. To justify it, we must attempt some analysis, however slight, of different sorts of slang.

To the ordinary man, of average intelligence and middle-class position, slang comes from every direction, from above, from below, and from all sides, as well as from the centre. What comes from some directions he will know for slang, what comes from others he may not. He may be expected to recognize words from below. Some of these are shortenings, by the lower classes, of words whose full form conveys no clear meaning, and is therefore useless, to them. An antiquated example is mob, for mobile vulgus. That was once slang, and is now good English. A modern one is bike, which will very likely be good English also in time. But though its brevity is a strong recommendation, and its uncouthness probably no more than subjective and transitory, it is as yet slang. Such words should not be used in print till they have become so familiar that there is not the slightest temptation to dress them up in quotation marks. Though they are the most easily detected, they are also the best slang; when the time comes, they take their place in the language as words that will last, and not, like many of the more highly descended words, die away uselessly after a brief popularity.

Another set of words that may be said to come from below, since it owes its existence to the vast number of people who are incapable of appreciating fine shades of meaning, is exemplified by nice, awful, blooming. Words of this class fortunately never make their way, in their slang senses, into literature (except, of course, dialogue). The abuse of nice has gone on at any rate for over a century; the curious reader may find an interesting page upon it in the fourteenth chapter of Northanger Abbey (1803). But even now we do not talk in books of a nice day, only of a nice distinction. On the other hand, the slang use makes us shy in different degrees of writing the words in their legitimate sense: a nice distinction we write almost without qualms; an awful storm we think twice about; and as to a blooming girl, we hardly venture it nowadays. The most recent sufferer of this sort is perhaps chronic. It has been adopted by the masses, as far apart at least as in Yorkshire and in London, for a mere intensive, in the sense of remarkable. The next step is for it to be taken up in parody by people who know better; after which it may be expected to succeed awful.

So much for the slang from below; the ordinary man can detect it. He is not so infallible about what comes to him from above. We are by no means sure that we shall be correct in our particular attribution of the half-dozen words now to be mentioned; but it is safe to say that they are all at present enjoying some vogue as slang, and that they all come from regions that to most of us are overhead. Phenomenal, soon, we hope, to perish unregretted, is (at least indirectly, through the abuse of phenomenon) from Metaphysics; immanence, a word often met in singular company, from Comparative Theology; epochmaking perhaps from the Philosophic Historian; true inwardness from Literary Criticism; cad (which is, it appears, Etonian for cadet) from the Upper Classes; psychological moment from Science; thrasonical and cryptic from Academic Circles; philistine from the region of culture. Among these the one that will be most generally allowed to be slang—cad—is in fact the least so; it has by this time, like mob, passed its probation and taken its place as an orthodox word, so that all who do not find adequate expression for their feelings in the orthodox have turned away to bounder and other forms that still admit the emphasis of quotation marks. As for the rest of them, they are being subjected to that use, at once over-frequent and inaccurate, which produces one kind of slang. But the average man, seeing from what exalted quarters they come, is dazzled into admiration and hardly knows them for what they are.

By the slang that comes from different sides or from the centre we mean especially the many words taken originally from particular professions, pursuits, or games, but extended beyond them. Among these a man is naturally less critical of what comes from his own daily concerns, that is, in his view, from the centre. Frontispiece, for face, perhaps originated in the desire of prize-ring reporters to vary the words in their descriptive flights. Negotiate (a difficulty, &c.) possibly comes from the hunting-field; people whose conversation runs much upon a limited subject feel the need of new phrases for the too familiar things. And both these words, as well as individual, which must be treated more at length in the next section, are illustrations of a tendency that we have called polysyllabic humour and discussed in the Chapter Airs and Graces. We now add a short list of slang phrases or words that can most of them be referred with more or less of certainty to particular occupations. Whether they are recognized as slang will certainly depend in part on whether the occupation is familiar, though sometimes the familiarity will disguise, and sometimes it will conceal the slanginess.

To hedge, the double event (turf); frontal attack (war); play the game, stumped (cricket); to run—the show, &c.—(engine-driving); knock out, take it lying down (prize ring); log-rolling, slating, birrelling (literature); to tackle—a problem, &c.—(football); to take a back seat (coaching?); bedrock, to exploit, how it pans out (mining); whole-hogging, world policy (politics); floored (1. prize ring; 2. school); the under dog (dog-fighting); up to date (advertising); record—time, &c.—(athletics); euchred, going one better, going Nap. (cards); to corner—a thing—(commerce)—a person—(ratting); chic (society journalism); on your own, of sorts, climb down, globetrotter, to laze (perhaps not assignable).

Good and sufficient occasions will arise—rarely—for using most of these phrases and the rest of the slang vocabulary. To those, however, who desire that what they write may endure it is suggested that, as style is the great antiseptic, so slang is the great corrupting matter; it is perishable itself, and infects what is round it—the catchwords that delight one generation stink in the nostrils of the next; individual, which almost made the fortune of many a Victorian humorist, is one of the modern editor's shibboleths for detecting the unfit. And even those who regard only the present will do well to remember that in literature as elsewhere there are as many conservatives as progressives, as many who expect their writers to say things a little better than they could do themselves as who are flattered by the proof that one man is no better than another.

'Skepsey did come back to London with rather a damaged frontispiece', Victor said.—Meredith.

Henson, however, once negotiated a sprint down his wing, and put in a fine dropping shot to Aubert, who saved.—Guernsey Evening Press.

Passengers, the guild add, usually arrive at the last moment before sailing, when the master must concentrate his mind upon negotiating a safe passage.—Times.

To deal with these extensive and purely local breeding grounds in the manner suggested by Major Ross would be a very tall order.—Times.

In about twenty minutes he returned, accompanied by a highly intelligent-looking individual, dressed in blue and black, with a particularly white cravat, and without a hat on his head; this individual, whom I should have mistaken for a gentleman but for the intelligence depicted in his face, he introduced to me as the master of the inn.—Borrow.

A Sèvres vase sold yesterday at Christie's realized what is believed to be the record price of 4,000 guineas.—Times.

You could not, if you had tried, have made so perfect a place for two girls to lounge in, to laze in, to read silly novels in, or to go to sleep in on drowsy afternoons.—Crockett.

Mr. Balfour's somewhat thrasonical eulogies.—Spectator.

A quarrelsome, somewhat thrasonical fighting man.—Spectator.

The true inwardness of this statement is...—Times.

We do not know what inwardness there may be in the order of his discourses, though each of them has some articulate link with that which precedes.—Times.

Such a departure from etiquette at the psychological moment shows tact and discretion.—Times.

He asserts that about four years ago there was quite an Argentine boom in New Zealand.—Times.

No treatment of slang, however short, should omit the reminder that slang and idiom are hard to distinguish, and yet, in literature, slang is bad, and idiom good. We said that slang was perishable; the fact is that most of it perishes; but some survives and is given the idiomatic franchise; 'when it doth prosper, none dare call it' slang. The idiomatic writer differs chiefly from the slangy in using what was slang and is now idiom; of what is still slang he chooses only that part which his insight assures him has the sort of merit that will preserve it. In a small part of their vocabulary the idiomatic and the slangy will coincide, and be therefore confused by the undiscerning. The only advice that can be given to novices uncertain of their own discrimination is to keep carefully off the debatable ground. Full idiom and full slang are as far apart as virtue and vice; and yet

They oft so mix, the difference is too nice
Where ends the virtue, or begins the vice.

Any one who can confidently assign each of the following phrases to its own territory may feel that he is not in much danger:

Outrun the constable, the man in the street, kicking your heels, between two stools, cutting a loss, riding for a fall, not seeing the wood for the trees, minding your Ps and Qs, crossing the ts, begging the question, special pleading, a bone to pick, half seas over, tooth and nail, bluff, maffick, a tall order, it has come to stay.


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