"Saint-Denis," Book Seven: Chapter II
Slang is the tongue of those who sit in darkness.
Thought is moved in its most sombre depths, social philosophy is bidden to its most poignant meditations, in the presence of that enigmatic dialect at once so blighted and rebellious. Therein lies chastisement made visible. Every syllable has an air of being marked. The words of the vulgar tongue appear therein wrinkled and shrivelled, as it were, beneath the hot iron of the executioner. Some seem to be still smoking. Such and such a phrase produces upon you the effect of the shoulder of a thief branded with the fleur-de-lys, which has suddenly been laid bare. Ideas almost refuse to be expressed in these substantives which are fugitives from justice. Metaphor is sometimes so shameless, that one feels that it has worn the iron neck-fetter.
Moreover, in spite of all this, and because of all this, this strange dialect has by rights, its own compartment in that great impartial case of pigeon-holes where there is room for the rusty farthing as well as for the gold medal, and which is called literature. Slang, whether the public admit the fact or not has its syntax and its poetry. It is a language. Yes, by the deformity of certain terms, we recognize the fact that it was chewed by Mandrin, and by the splendor of certain metonymies, we feel that Villon spoke it.
That exquisite and celebrated verse—
Mais où sont les neiges d'antan? But where are the snows of years gone by?
is a verse of slang. Antan—ante annum—is a word of Thunes slang, which signified the past year, and by extension, formerly. Thirty-five years ago, at the epoch of the departure of the great chain-gang, there could be read in one of the cells at Bicêtre, this maxim engraved with a nail on the wall by a king of Thunes condemned to the galleys: Les dabs d'antan trimaient siempre pour la pierre du Coësre. This means Kings in days gone by always went and had themselves anointed. In the opinion of that king, anointment meant the galleys.
The word décarade, which expresses the departure of heavy vehicles at a gallop, is attributed to Villon, and it is worthy of him. This word, which strikes fire with all four of its feet, sums up in a masterly onomatopœia the whole of La Fontaine's admirable verse:—
Six forts chevaux tiraient un coche. Six stout horses drew a coach.
From a purely literary point of view, few studies would prove more curious and fruitful than the study of slang. It is a whole language within a language, a sort of sickly excrescence, an unhealthy graft which has produced a vegetation, a parasite which has its roots in the old Gallic trunk, and whose sinister foliage crawls all over one side of the language. This is what may be called the first, the vulgar aspect of slang. But, for those who study the tongue as it should be studied, that is to say, as geologists study the earth, slang appears like a veritable alluvial deposit. According as one digs a longer or shorter distance into it, one finds in slang, below the old popular French, Provençal, Spanish, Italian, Levantine, that language of the Mediterranean ports, English and German, the Romance language in its three varieties, French, Italian, and Romance Romance, Latin, and finally Basque and Celtic. A profound and unique formation. A subterranean edifice erected in common by all the miserable. Each accursed race has deposited its layer, each suffering has dropped its stone there, each heart has contributed its pebble. A throng of evil, base, or irritated souls, who have traversed life and have vanished into eternity, linger there almost entirely visible still beneath the form of some monstrous word.
Do you want Spanish? The old Gothic slang abounded in it. Here is boffete, a box on the ear, which is derived from bofeton; vantane, window (later on vanterne), which comes from vantana; gat, cat, which comes from gato; acite, oil, which comes from aceyte. Do you want Italian? Here is spade, sword, which comes from spada; carvel, boat, which comes from caravella. Do you want English? Here is bichot, which comes from bishop; raille, spy, which comes from rascal, rascalion; pilche, a case, which comes from pilcher, a sheath. Do you want German? Here is the caleur, the waiter, kellner; the hers, the master, herzog (duke). Do you want Latin? Here is frangir, to break, frangere; affurer, to steal, fur; cadene, chain, catena. There is one word which crops up in every language of the continent, with a sort of mysterious power and authority. It is the word magnus; the Scotchman makes of it his mac, which designates the chief of the clan; Mac-Farlane, Mac-Callumore, the great Farlane, the great Callumore ; slang turns it into meck and later le meg, that is to say, God. Would you like Basque? Here is gahisto, the devil, which comes from gaïztoa, evil; sorgabon, good night, which comes from gabon, good evening. Do you want Celtic? Here is blavin, a handkerchief, which comes from blavet, gushing water; ménesse, a woman (in a bad sense), which comes from meinec, full of stones; barant, brook, from baranton, fountain; goffeur, locksmith, from goff, blacksmith; guedouze, death, which comes from guenn-du, black-white. Finally, would you like history? Slang calls crowns les maltèses, a souvenir of the coin in circulation on the galleys of Malta.
In addition to the philological origins just indicated, slang possesses other and still more natural roots, which spring, so to speak, from the mind of man itself.
In the first place, the direct creation of words. Therein lies the mystery of tongues. To paint with words, which contains figures one knows not how or why, is the primitive foundation of all human languages, what may be called their granite.
Slang abounds in words of this description, immediate words, words created instantaneously no one knows either where or by whom, without etymology, without analogies, without derivatives, solitary, barbarous, sometimes hideous words, which at times possess a singular power of expression and which live. The executioner, le taule; the forest, le sabri; fear, flight, taf; the lackey, le larbin; the mineral, the prefect, the minister, pharos; the devil, le rabouin. Nothing is stranger than these words which both mask and reveal. Some, le rabouin, for example, are at the same time grotesque and terrible, and produce on you the effect of a cyclopean grimace.
In the second place, metaphor. The peculiarity of a language which is desirous of saying all yet concealing all is that it is rich in figures. Metaphor is an enigma, wherein the thief who is plotting a stroke, the prisoner who is arranging an escape, take refuge. No idiom is more metaphorical than slang: dévisser le coco (to unscrew the nut), to twist the neck; tortiller (to wriggle), to eat; être gerbé, to be tried; a rat, a bread thief; il lansquine, it rains, a striking, ancient figure which partly bears its date about it, which assimilates long oblique lines of rain, with the dense and slanting pikes of the lancers, and which compresses into a single word the popular expression: it rains halberds. Sometimes, in proportion as slang progresses from the first epoch to the second, words pass from the primitive and savage sense to the metaphorical sense. The devil ceases to be le rabouin, and becomes le boulanger (the baker), who puts the bread into the oven. This is more witty, but less grand, something like Racine after Corneille, like Euripides after Æschylus. Certain slang phrases which participate in the two epochs and have at once the barbaric character and the metaphorical character resemble phantasmagories. Les sorgueuers vont solliciter des gails à la lune—the prowlers are going to steal horses by night,—this passes before the mind like a group of spectres. One knows not what one sees.
In the third place, the expedient. Slang lives on the language. It uses it in accordance with its fancy, it dips into it hap-hazard, and it often confines itself, when occasion arises, to alter it in a gross and summary fashion. Occasionally, with the ordinary words thus deformed and complicated with words of pure slang, picturesque phrases are formed, in which there can be felt the mixture of the two preceding elements, the direct creation and the metaphor: le cab jaspine, je marronne que la roulotte de Pantin trime dans le sabri, the dog is barking, I suspect that the diligence for Paris is passing through the woods. Le dab est sinve, la dabuge est merloussière, la fée est bative, the bourgeois is stupid, the bourgeoise is cunning, the daughter is pretty. Generally, to throw listeners off the track, slang confines itself to adding to all the words of the language without distinction, an ignoble tail, a termination in aille, in orgue, in iergue, or in uche. Thus: Vousiergue trouvaille bonorgue ce gigotmuche? Do you think that leg of mutton good? A phrase addressed by Cartouche to a turnkey in order to find out whether the sum offered for his escape suited him.
The termination in mar has been added recently.
Slang, being the dialect of corruption, quickly becomes corrupted itself. Besides this, as it is always seeking concealment, as soon as it feels that it is understood, it changes its form. Contrary to what happens with every other vegetation, every ray of light which falls upon it kills whatever it touches. 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. Thus le larton (bread) becomes le lartif; le gail (horse) becomes le gaye; la fertanche (straw) becomes la fertille; le momignard (brat), le momacque; les fiques (duds), frusques; la chique (the church), l'égrugeoir; le colabre (neck), le colas. The devil is at first, gahisto, then le rabouin, then the baker; the priest is a ratichon, then the boar (le sanglier); the dagger is le vingt-deux (twenty-two), then le surin, then le lingre; the police are railles, then roussins, then rousses, then marchands de lacets (dealers in stay-laces), then coquers, then cognes; the executioner is le taule, then Charlot, l'atigeur, then le becquillard. In the seventeenth century, to fight was "to give each other snuff"; in the nineteenth it is "to chew each other's throats." There have been twenty different phrases between these two extremes. Cartouche's talk would have been Hebrew to Lacenaire. All the words of this language are perpetually engaged in flight like the men who utter them.
Still, from time to time, and in consequence of this very movement, the ancient slang crops up again and becomes new once more. It has its headquarters where it maintains its sway. The Temple preserved the slang of the seventeenth century; Bicêtre, when it was a prison, preserved the slang of Thunes. There one could hear the termination in anche of the old Thuneurs. Boyanches-tu (bois-tu), do you drink? But perpetual movement remains its law, nevertheless.
If the philosopher succeeds in fixing, for a moment, for purposes of observation, this language which is incessantly evaporating, he falls into doleful and useful meditation. No study is more efficacious and more fecund in instruction. There is not a metaphor, not an analogy, in slang, which does not contain a lesson. Among these men, to beat means to feign; one beats a malady; ruse is their strength.
For them, the idea of the man is not separated from the idea of darkness. The night is called la sorgue; man, l'orgue. Man is a derivative of the night.
They have taken up the practice of considering society in the light of an atmosphere which kills them, of a fatal force, and they speak of their liberty as one would speak of his health. A man under arrest is a sick man; one who is condemned is a dead man.
The most terrible thing for the prisoner within the four walls in which he is buried, is a sort of glacial chastity, and he calls the dungeon the castus. In that funereal place, life outside always presents itself under its most smiling aspect. The prisoner has irons on his feet; you think, perhaps, that his thought is that it is with the feet that one walks? No; he is thinking that it is with the feet that one dances; so, when he has succeeded in severing his fetters, his first idea is that now he can dance, and he calls the saw the bastringue (public-house ball).—A name is a centre; profound assimilation.—The ruffian has two heads, one of which reasons out his actions and leads him all his life long, and the other which he has upon his shoulders on the day of his death; he calls the head which counsels him in crime la sorbonne, and the head which expiates it la tronche.—When a man has no longer anything but rags upon his body and vices in his heart, when he has arrived at that double moral and material degradation which the word blackguard characterizes in its two acceptations, he is ripe for crime; he is like a well-whetted knife; he has two cutting edges, his distress and his malice; so slang does not say a blackguard, it says un réguisé.—What are the galleys? A brazier of damnation, a hell. The convict calls himself a fagot.—And finally, what name do malefactors give to their prison? The college. A whole penitentiary system can be evolved from that word.
Does the reader wish to know where the majority of the songs of the galleys, those refrains called in the special vocabulary lirlonfa, have had their birth?
Let him listen to what follows:—
There existed at the Châtelet in Paris a large and long cellar. This cellar was eight feet below the level of the Seine. It had neither windows nor air-holes, its only aperture was the door; men could enter there, air could not. This vault had for ceiling a vault of stone, and for floor ten inches of mud. It was flagged; but the pavement had rotted and cracked under the oozing of the water. Eight feet above the floor, a long and massive beam traversed this subterranean excavation from side to side; from this beam hung, at short distances apart, chains three feet long, and at the end of these chains there were rings for the neck. In this vault, men who had been condemned to the galleys were incarcerated until the day of their departure for Toulon. They were thrust under this beam, where each one found his fetters swinging in the darkness and waiting for him.
The chains, those pendant arms, and the necklets, those open hands, caught the unhappy wretches by the throat. They were rivetted and left there. As the chain was too short, they could not lie down. They remained motionless in that cavern, in that night, beneath that beam, almost hanging, forced to unheard-of efforts to reach their bread, jug, or their vault overhead, mud even to mid-leg, filth flowing to their very calves, broken asunder with fatigue, with thighs and knees giving way, clinging fast to the chain with their hands in order to obtain some rest, unable to sleep except when standing erect, and awakened every moment by the strangling of the collar; some woke no more. In order to eat, they pushed the bread, which was flung to them in the mud, along their leg with their heel until it reached their hand.
How long did they remain thus? One month, two months, six months sometimes; one stayed a year. It was the antechamber of the galleys. Men were put there for stealing a hare from the king. In this sepulchre-hell, what did they do? What man can do in a sepulchre, they went through the agonies of death, and what can man do in hell, they sang; for song lingers where there is no longer any hope. In the waters of Malta, when a galley was approaching, the song could be heard before the sound of the oars. Poor Survincent, the poacher, who had gone through the prison-cellar of the Châtelet, said: "It was the rhymes that kept me up." Uselessness of poetry. What is the good of rhyme?
It is in this cellar that nearly all the slang songs had their birth. It is from the dungeon of the Grand-Châtelet of Paris that comes the melancholy refrain of the Montgomery galley: "Timaloumisaine, timaloumison." The majority of these songs are melancholy; some are gay; one is tender:—
Icicaille est la theatre Here is the theatre Du petit dardant. Of the little archer (Cupid).
Do what you will, you cannot annihilate that eternal relic in the heart of man, love.
In this world of dismal deeds, people keep their secrets. The secret is the thing above all others. The secret, in the eyes of these wretches, is unity which serves as a base of union. To betray a secret is to tear from each member of this fierce community something of his own personality. To inform against, in the energetic slang dialect, is called: "to eat the bit." As though the informer drew to himself a little of the substance of all and nourished himself on a bit of each one's flesh.
What does it signify to receive a box on the ear? Commonplace metaphor replies: "It is to see thirty-six candles." Here slang intervenes and takes it up: Candle, camoufle. Thereupon, the ordinary tongue gives camouflet as the synonym for soufflet. Thus, by a sort of infiltration from below upwards, with the aid of metaphor, that incalculable, trajectory slang mounts from the cavern to the Academy; and Poulailler saying: "I light my camoufle," causes Voltaire to write: "Langleviel La Beaumelle deserves a hundred camouflets."
Researches in slang mean discoveries at every step. Study and investigation of this strange idiom lead to the mysterious point of intersection of regular society with society which is accursed.
The thief also has his food for cannon, stealable matter, you, I, whoever passes by; le pantre. (Pan, everybody.)
Slang is language turned convict.
That the thinking principle of man be thrust down ever so low, that it can be dragged and pinioned there by obscure tyrannies of fatality, that it can be bound by no one knows what fetters in that abyss, is sufficient to create consternation.
Oh, poor thought of miserable wretches!
Alas! will no one come to the succor of the human soul in that darkness? Is it her destiny there to await forever the mind, the liberator, the immense rider of Pegasi and hippogriffs, the combatant of heroes of the dawn who shall descend from the azure between two wings, the radiant knight of the future? Will she forever summon in vain to her assistance the lance of light of the ideal? Is she condemned to hear the fearful approach of Evil through the density of the gulf, and to catch glimpses, nearer and nearer at hand, beneath the hideous water of that dragon's head, that maw streaked with foam, and that writhing undulation of claws, swellings, and rings? Must it remain there, without a gleam of light, without hope, given over to that terrible approach, vaguely scented out by the monster, shuddering, dishevelled, wringing its arms, forever chained to the rock of night, a sombre Andromeda white and naked amid the shadows!