River Wissey Lovell Fuller

Notes from a newcomer

September 2005

Marion discusses the variations in language, particularly slang that separate the generations

"Slang is dead language," my English teacher used to tell us sternly, red biro poised to strike the offending words from our essays. Dead it might be, but what offers a more fascinating reflection of changing times?

It seems incredible now that anyone ever actually exclaimed 'Golly!' or 'Gosh!' unless they were characters in an Enid Blyton story, but anyone over 40 can compile a list of once familiar terms that are heard no more. Back in the 50s, American slang was the thing; it was hip to say 'Gee' or, even more embarrassingly, 'Gee Whiz!'. Then in the 60s the Beatles introduced us to Liverpudlian argot and youngsters who had never been north of Watford called their friends 'whacker' and ate 'butties' instead of sandwiches. We wore trendy gear and went to fab happenings.

As much as clothes, language is the surest indicator of the generation gap. I'm about as likely to wear low-slung jeans with a cropped top as to use the word 'cool' to describe anything other than the temperature. Nor will you hear me say something is well wicked when I mean it is really very good. But I love the story of the Queen Mother surprising her family by demanding 'Respect!". I would never have put her down as a rapper but, you never know, perhaps she was a secret Eminem fan.

If he was tired, my father would never have used the term knackered, instead he claimed he was 'Harry Flakers'*. I don't know whether that came from his London roots or if it was RAF slang, which our family used quite a lot. If the car wasn't working it was U.S. (unserviceable), if it was in a crash it was pranged. I'm not convinced that anyone other than Biggles and his pals ever described anything as a 'wizard show' but we did say that someone was as dim as a NAAFI candle or, alternatively, a Toc H lamp; two pressions that would require explanatory footnotes if they were used now.

The great joy of the English language is that it is insatiably greedy for new words and, like a child with too many toys, it plays with new ones for a while before discarding them. Some slang survives to become a permanent part of our language while other words last only until the novelty wears off.

I suppose that my English teacher did have a point because slang inevitably dies with the generation that used it. I once had a very old dictionary that contained the 'pozziewallah', which in the days of the Raj was a term used to describe someone 'who is inordinately fond of jam'. How cool is that?

* If anyone knows the origin of Harry Flakers, I'd love to hear it.

Marion Clarke

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