Commentary

Selected Criticism

Title:
"Slang in America" (1885)
Author:
Dressman, Michael R.
Print source:
J.R. LeMaster and Donald D. Kummings, eds., Walt Whitman: An Encyclopedia (New York: Garland Publishing, 1998), reproduced by permission.

This essay by Walt Whitman is his last prose statement published during his lifetime on the topic of language. It represents the final fruits of a career of collecting, annotating, and synthesizing materials on language in general and the English language in particular. "Slang in America" is approximately eighteen hundred words long and first appeared as an article in the North American Review in November of 1885. It was later reprinted, with some editorial revisions, in November Boughs (1888).

The working title among Whitman's manuscript notes for much of the linguistic material he collected was "Names and Slang in America." Whitman told Horace Traubel in 1888 that the editors of the North American Review had approached him and asked for "a piece—anything." He claimed that all he had at hand were some collected observations on slang, so he submitted "Slang in America," with some assurance, remarking that slang was "one of my specialties" (Traubel 462).

In this piece, Whitman calls "slang" the "lawless germinal element, below all words and sentences, and behind all poetry," and he connects the language-refreshing, omnivorous nature of slang to what he sees as the essential genius of the United States's "most precious possession"—the English language (572).

One of his major points is that the creative element in language, its ability to adapt and develop, is as alive today with just as much fervor and intensity as it was at any point in the past. Whitman cites his characteristic favorites—working people at their labors, using their special jargon—as his chief examples: on city horsecars, the conductor is called a "snatcher" because it is his job "to constantly pull or snatch the bell-strap, to stop or go on" (575).

Under the heading of slang, Whitman includes semantic change and other dynamic aspects of language, and most especially metaphor itself as a source for common words: "many of the oldest and solidest words we use, were originally generated from the daring and license of slang" (573).

Whitman celebrates neologisms, both English-based terms and those from Native American languages. He likes the Tennessee term "barefoot whiskey" for an undiluted drink, and he quotes several pieces of New York restaurant lingo: "stars and stripes" (ham and beans), "sleeve-buttons" (codfish balls), and "mystery" (hash) (575). He favors native names, such as "Oklahoma," for new territories.

Reflecting the original working title, the essay has as much about names as about slang. There are extensive lists and several quotations exhibiting American western place names (such as "Squaw Flat," "Shirttail Bend," and "Toenail Lake") and names of newspapers (such as "The Solid Muldoon, of Ouray" and "The Jimplecute, of Texas"). There is also a list of striking or unusual American Indian names, including "Two-feathers-of-honor" and "Spiritual woman" (576).

Whitman praises and cites examples of aptness in nicknames (e.g., "Uncle Billy" Sherman [574]) and lists the nicknames of citizens of the various states. Some of these are common and still current, such as Indiana "Hoosiers" or Vermont "Green Mountain Boys." Others are less immediately identifiable, such as Rhode Island "Gun Flints" and South Carolina "Weasels" (575).

Whitman calls language "the grandest triumph of the human intellect" (574). He demonstrates his awareness of British and German studies in comparative philology, and he identifies the scientific examination of language with other sciences, such as geology (because of the strata in languages) or biology (because of the organic nature of language).

In his presentation of etymologies, Whitman actually quotes without acknowledgment from Ralph Waldo Emerson's Nature. For example, Whitman has "the term right means literally only straight. Wrong primarily meant twisted" (573). Emerson has "Right originally meant straight; wrong means twisted" (18). Such borrowing was, however, far from casual or random. Whitman's notions of the place and importance of language appear to be drawn from or are, at least, parallel to Emerson's seminal essay, especially the fourth chapter.

In "Slang in America" Whitman gives his readers and admirers additional encouragement to see his poetry and his attitude toward language as exemplifying a cause. America is the inheritor of all that has come before. English, America's language, is the heir and absorber of all human languages before it. Walt Whitman, America's poet and master of a dynamic slang-filled American English, speaks for America and all of humankind.

Bibliography

Dressman, Michael R. "Another Whitman Debt to Emerson." Notes and Queries ns 26 (1979): 305–306.

Emerson, Ralph Waldo. "Nature." The Collected Works of Ralph Waldo Emerson. Ed. Alfred R. Ferguson. Vol. 1. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard UP, 1971. 3–45.

Nathanson, Tenney. Whitman's Presence: Body, Voice, and Writing in "Leaves of Grass." New York: New York UP, 1992.

Traubel, Horace. With Walt Whitman in Camden. Vol. 1. Boston: Small, Maynard, 1906.

Warren, James Perrin. Walt Whitman's Language Experiment. University Park: Pennsylvania State UP, 1990.

Whitman, Walt. "Slang in America." Prose Works 1892. Ed. Floyd Stovall. Vol. 2. New York: New York UP, 1964. 572–577.


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