VULGAR TONGUES by Max Décharné


An Alternative History of English Slang
Email this review


From 17th-century cant to modern-day music slang, an erudite miscellany that tracks centuries of playful mutations endured by the English language.

Chapters divide the book thematically with each covering one morsel of the slang lexicon, such as the Shakespearean “Beast with Two Backs” and its other naughty euphemisms. Décharné (Capital Crimes: Seven Centuries of London Life and Murder, 2012, etc.) boasts an impressive library of sources, such as Francis Grose’s Classical Dictionary of the Vulgar Tongue (1785), and devotes the majority of his efforts to pinpointing the first printed occurrences of various words. These publications are valuable but inherently problematic, as a word’s popular usage may not always line up with its first printed date. As the author writes, “the trouble with slang, and language generally, is that it doesn’t stay still; meanings shift and mutate with the passing of time or the coming of new associations, and yesterday’s plain speech can become today’s double entendre.” From Grose to Samuel Johnson, Décharné arranges a rich array of Georgian and Victorian vulgarity. Regarding the modern era, the author cedes a large portion of the book to popular music and its associated lingo, from the Beatles to N.W.A. These are some of the most inspired moments of the book, but they outweigh the historical sections and suggest that most slang as it is currently known began in a recording studio. While it's interesting to learn about the origins of band names like the Pogues and the Buzzcocks, one can't help but feel Décharné’s career as a music writer seeping through as he inadvertently shows how thin the line is between etymological history and pop-culture trivia. The author sticks to his role as archivist and rarely gives his own thoughts on why people are drawn to slang: sociological analysis is often glossed over in an effort to delight with more strange words for R-rated things. His exhaustive research is at times exhausting and frequently reduced to mere lists of words and their definitions.

Bawdy and jive, well-researched but underanalyzed.

Pub Date: June 6th, 2017
ISBN: 978-1-68177-464-0
Page count: 400pp
Publisher: Pegasus
Review Posted Online:
Kirkus Reviews Issue: April 1st, 2017


NonfictionIN PRAISE OF PROFANITY by Michael Adams
by Michael Adams
NonfictionHOLY SH*T by Melissa  Mohr
by Melissa Mohr
NonfictionTHE VULGAR TONGUE by Jonathon Green
by Jonathon Green