Dead Slang

         Many years ago, in the late 1950s, there was a magazine published in Paris called The Evergreen Review, which was full of advanced thinking and serious prose, which was why I got it, and also avant-garde erotica, which is why I really got it, but they also had cartoons, and one day they had a cartoon which showed two jazz musicians walking along. You knew they were jazz musicians because they wore dark glasses and had saxophone cases. And one was saying to the other: ‘You mean, you drink tea?’ Which was wholly incomprehensible to me then, as it is to you now, because I didn't realise at the time that "tea" was a common American slang word for cannabis. I don't think anyone has called it "tea" for a long time, so any historian who comes across that cartoon now will find it fairly baffling. He will also find it not funny.
         But that's one of the hazards of being in the humour business. You try to be up to date, you try to use the latest phrases and slang novelties, and a few years later not only are you out of date because all the modern phrases have gone out of use, but nobody knows what you meant in the first place. There was a series of jokes in the 1950s called hippy jokes, which made fun of the hippy, druggy, laid-back attitude of the followers of the Beat Generation. One of them, I remember, was about two hippies who were driving across the endless Californian desert in a car, when the passenger noticed that one of the back doors wasn't quite closed, leant back and slammed it tight shut. Ten miles later the hippy who was driving said, ‘Who was that just got in?’
         That's to introduce you to the genre. Now here's the hippy joke that's badly past its sell-by date, verbally. A hippy goes into a butcher's shop and says: ‘I'd like a meat pie, man’. ‘Sorry,’ says the butcher, ‘pies are all gone’. ‘Crazy,’ says the hippy; ‘I'll take two.’
         The joke there is that way back in those far-off days "gone" meant "really great". Before it was hippy jargon, it was black talk. The black singer Nellie Lutcher had a hit song at the end of the 1940s called "Real Gone Guy", with the recurring line "He's a real gone guy and I love him, deed I do", and any black American would have known that "gone" was a term of praise. In fact, it's interesting that when they came to replace "gone" with something more up to date, as often as not it was another phrase meaning "gone". "Way out" they said in the 1960s, or "out of sight" or "far out", all meaning roughly the same thing and all now discarded into the ruthless recycling plant of fashion.
         Perhaps the cleverest thing a humorist can do is not use current slang and jargon but make fun of it. Occasionally, when a particular phrase or formula gets on Private Eye's nerve, they mount a campaign against it. They did this years ago with the formula "In a something something situation", when people used to say, not that someone was out of a job, but that he was in an unemployment situation. Private Eye reprinted every example they could find and sooner or later the fashion vanished, though as it would have vanished in exactly the same way without the Eye's help, it's hard to say what the effect was.
         But when S J Perelman investigated pulp crime fiction over seventy years ago, and was amazed by what he found in a piece called "Somewhere a Roscoe... ", he may have been making fun of the language but he liked the flavour of it too, and his research still has all the fascination of freshly dug archaeology, even though these are all dead words he's digging up. And what fascinates Perelman is that wherever he digs in the magazine called Spicy Detective, he comes up with more or less the same artefacts.
         Take this.
         "From behind me a roscoe belched 'Chow-chow!' A pair of slugs buzzed past my left ear, almost nicked my cranium. Mrs Brantham sagged back against the pillow of the lounge ... She was as dead as an iced catfish."
         Or this, from a quite different issue:
         "From a bedroom a roscoe said, 'Whr-rang !' and a lead pill split the ozone past my noggin..... Kane Fewster was on the floor. There was a bullet hole through his think tank. He was as dead as a fried oyster."
         And Perelman's eagle eye spotted another similar passage, from another issue of Spicy Detective:
         "And then from an open window beyond the bed, a roscoe coughed 'Ka-chow!' ... I said, 'What the hell!' - and hit the floor with my smeller. A brunette jane was lying there, half out of the mussed covers. She was as dead as vaudeville."
         You've probably guessed by now that a roscoe is a gun, which sometimes goes Chow-chow, sometimes Ka-chow, and sometimes Whr-rang!  Your brain is your think-tank, or your noggin, or, when things are playful, your cranium. Your nose is your smeller and your...
         But this is all history now, and we don't need to know about such things any more. All we need to know is that everything we say today will one day seem as dated, and that in ten years time when we say "You are the weakest link" or "hip hop" or "big brother", nobody will understand what we're on about. All you've got to do is keep an eye on the past and make sure you don't repeat it unwittingly, because perhaps if J K Rowling had known that in the 1920s and 30s "muggles" were another name for joints or spliffs, she might not have chosen that name for her characters. And there again, as nobody remembers that muggles were reefers, apart from a few pathetic jazz fans like me, does it even matter?

BBC Radio Four 2003

Miles on Air
Radio Television
Beginnings and Endings
Wife of Bath
Patpong Road
Memorable Verse
Barbed Wire Ballads
Dying Words
How to tell a Funny Story
A Handbag
Dead Slang
Letter from a Magpie
Choosing Baby's Name
Letter from a Cuckoo
Hunchback of Notre Dame meets Richard III
Scar Head
Wonderland World Cup
Bunter in Hamlet