Torea Frey

Editor, writer, photographer, observer on the street.

On slang

I'm about two-thirds through Victor Hugo's Les Misérables, and it has been at times a test of will to keep reading. But the more pages I progress through, the more I am rewarded. Today brought a book on the way we use language:

Slang ... as it is always seeking concealment, as soon as it feels that it is understood, it changes its form. ... Thus slang is in constant process of decomposition and recomposition; an obscure and rapid work which never pauses. It passes over more ground in ten years than a language in ten centuries.

Although Hugo argues that argot "is the language of misery," it's interesting to see it discussed at such length (I can only imagine that a contemporary publisher would relegate meanderings such as this to the cutting-room floor). For me, slang is one of the most exciting elements of the written and spoken word; is it correct, in every medium, at all times? No, certainly not. But I get a strange thrill seeing inventive, novel turns of phrase; it inspires a delight in me that is almost embarrassingly girlish. 

Oddly enough, just before the section on slang, Hugo parrots street lingo from the 1830s that came back into fashion in the late 20th century:

"Gracious, replied the child, "we have no lodging."

"Bother!" retorted Gavroche, "you don't say 'lodgings,' you say 'crib.'"