Books by Irving Lewis Allen

Released: Jan. 1, 1993

A professor goes slumming through the dives and byways of Gotham, Ö la Henry Higgins, to hear what people have to say and to tell us what it means. Allen (Sociology/University of Connecticut, Storrs) approaches his subject from a historical rather than a linguistic point of view. ``Most historical slang,'' he maintains, ``can be associated with urbanization...and more directly with urbanism—the distinctive culture that emerges from this social form.'' The prodigious growth of N.Y.C. during the second half of the 19th century, Allen explains, created a city of immense complexity and harshness, one whose impersonality could only be broken down through the development of distinct social categories and an argot that succinctly described the new patterns of daily life. Colloquial speech thus became a kind of specialized code that sorted every fresh experience into a set of recognizable categories. Allen organizes these expressions according to subject (``The Bright Lights''; ``Mean Streets''; ``The Sporting Life,'' etc.) and provides etymologies and background information for each. He succeeds nicely, for the most part, in shading in the picture of the city that these expressions sketch, but his etymologies are frequently wide of the mark and poorly documented, and his knowledge of present-day New York seems quite limited. Fortunately for the reader, however, the scholarship is inconspicuous enough not to detract from the history, which is anecdotal and very rich. A good read that puts on airs: Allen should have dropped the philology and stuck to his chronicle of the urban scene. (Six halftones, 12 line drawings.) Read full book review >