Frank Vizetelly (1864-1938) created a large body of work in the fields of etymology and lexicography, and maintained an attitude that might be best described as correctivist, not uncommon for the time – Wikipedia quotes his words “Slovenly speech is as clearly an indication of slovenly thought as profanity is of a degraded mind.” Equally a quick run through his titles stocked by the British Library show a mind attuned to the idea that language was a field of pitfalls to be avoided or corrected: A desk-book of twenty-five thousand words frequently mispronounced (1910), A Desk-book of Errors in English : Including Notes on Colloquialisms and Slang to be Avoided in Conversation (1920), Words We Misspell In Business : Ten Thousand Terms, Showing Their Correct Forms and Divisions as Used in Printing and Writing, with Rules Governing the Orthography of English Words (1921). Vizetelly’s approach in A Desk-book of Errors in English is based on observation of language practice, including observation of what he sees as misdirected advice, for example the statement that ‘Some writers assert that desert is used only “of causes or persons but not of things.” This is erroneous. There is ample evidence of its correct application to things; as the soldier deserts his colours; the sailor deserts his ship.’ It could be argued here that ‘colours’ and ‘ship’ are causes as much as things, but no great matter. Or ‘Discriminate carefully between these terms [as far as, so far as]. As far as expresses distance; so far as expresses limitation, as of one’s knowledge. Therefore, “so far as I know” is preferable to “as far as I know”.’ Without laying out arguments for and against this approach, it is clear from the title that this was intended, and no doubt often very useful, as a referral guide for writers, rather than a slap-down for speech in practice.
Vizetelly’s subtitle for this book is ‘Including Notes on Colloquialisms and Slang to be Avoided in Conversation’, implying that there is slang which does not have to be avoided. From the Introduction: ‘The one besetting sin of the English-speaking people is a tendency to use colloquial inelegancies, slang, and vulgarisms, and against these, as against the illiteracies of the street, it is our duty to guard, nowadays more so than at any other time, since what is learnt in the schoolroom is soon forgotten or displaced by association with illiterate playfellows, or by occasionally hearing words misused at home.’ But a few sentences later he writes, ‘The English language is the most flexible language in the world. Indeed, it is so flexible that some of its idioms are positively startling.’ How then might speakers, or in this case writers, of English steer a safe passage between flexible idioms and colloquial inelegancies? There are a few tell-tale signs that class is a determinant here: the expressions ‘sucker’, ‘no flies on him’, ‘go off at half-cock’, and others are described as ‘not used by persons accustomed to refined diction’, or even ‘to be avoided by all persons with pretentions to refined diction’, a phrase reminiscent of John Walker’s campaign that linked the alteration of speech patterns to social aspiration. Vizetelly lays out his position on slang in the penultimate paragraph of the Introduction: ‘Of slang no less eminent a writer of English than Richard Grant White has said, “Slang is a vocabulary of genuine words or unmeaning jargon, used always with an arbitrary and conventional signification,” and because “it is mostly coarse, low, and foolish,” certain slang terms and phrases have been included in the following pages, together with a few undesirable colloquialisms. These are included because the indiscriminate use of slang leads to slovenliness in speech. Not all slang is slovenly, incorrect, or vicious; much of it is virile, expressive, and picturesque. It is against the spread of that part of slang which is slovenly, incorrect, foolish, or vicious, that one should guard.’ Richard Grant White (1822-85) may command less reverence now than in his heyday, despite his robust facial hair, but the sense that there is ‘good slang’ and ‘bad slang’ persisted, certainly in the minds of some commentators, to 1914, when the army slang derived from colonial soldiering was meeting the urban slang of the new armies.
Some of the slang built up during the first three years of the war was presented to American soldiers through Lorenzo Smith’s Lingo of No Man’s Land (1918), a soldiers’ slang glossary, the need for which, in the writer’s words, ‘was impressed upon me while on recruiting duty for the British-Canadian Recruiting Mission’. This was thus a case of soldier slang being part of the attraction for potential recruits, in this case targeting British and Canadian men living in the US. Just as the unwary speaker needed to be educated away from slang, the recruit had to be educated towards it.
What then is the approach applied in Vizetelly’s The Soldier’s Service Dictionary of English and French Terms of 1918, in particular with regard to how this book might deal with slang expressions? None of the expressions listed in A Desk-book of Errors in English appears in The Soldier’s Service Dictionary, but he does provide space for soldier slang. The lengthy text on the title page, reminiscent of language manuals of the previous century, indicates that we are in a world of social education, not for class aspiration, but for the battlefield, the rest camp, map-reading, transport, and the management of horses; there is a refreshing absence of residual tourist phrasebook requests for baths, the repair of shoes, and directions to the zoo. He gives us expressions which might be expected to have designations as slang – ‘frigo’ (French slang for frozen meat) and Jack Johnson;
Others are designated as slang: ‘funk-hole’, ‘cootie’ ‘(a louse: soldiers’ slang)’, ‘gippo’ ‘[soldiers’ slang], ‘“cushy” (Soldiers’ slang for comfortable)’, ‘“mack” (Mackintosh (soldiers’ slang), ‘grousing’ (Grumbling: discontent.: soldiers’ slang.). What is noticeable is the lack of consistency in these – italics, shapes of brackets, inverted commas, all seems quite arbitrary; ‘cushy’, ‘Wipers’ and ‘mack’, with double inverted commas, omit any reference to French, breaking with the rationale of the book entirely – the double inverted commas seem to indicate that this is an essential slang word needing definition rather than translation, but nowhere is this explained; and ‘grousing’ has only single inverted commas. It is as if slang by its very nature breaks up the rules.
Vizetelly, like all commentators on language, holds up a magnifying glass to the language and society of his time; in A Desk-book of Errors we see that the slang expressions ‘fakement’, ‘skidoo’ and ‘rubber-neck’ are current, and for Vizetelly undesirable, while ‘flub-dub’ and a ‘jollier’ are acceptable slang terms. He is non-committal with regard to the occasional expression: ‘twenty-three: A slang term used as the equivalent of “fade away” in theatrical and sporting circles: a recent expression the origin of which has been variously explained.’ And there is an interesting aspect of ‘push’: while in The Soldier’s Service Dictionary ‘the Big Push’ is given as ‘The battle of the Somme: British soldiers’ name’, A Desk-book of Errors states that ‘In English slang “push” is used for “crowd” probably from the proverbial restlessness and crushing in which English crowds usually indulge.’ The Soldiers’ Service Dictionary provides for the expectations of the American Expeditionary Force’s wide engagement in the campaign, from technical and officialese terms, such as ‘ecchymosis’, ‘empennage’ and ‘goniometer’, to ‘Boche’, ‘mate’ and ‘dugout’. Only one of the slang expressions appears in both texts: ‘half-cock’, though with startlingly different results. In The Soldier’s Service Dictionary ‘at half cock’ is translated as ‘au cran de repos’ (at rest), while A Desk-book of Errors gives ‘half-cock, to go off at: A colloquial phrase denoting “to speak before one is ready”’. Naturally, it is ‘not used by persons accustomed to refined diction.’