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Slang in America, by Walt Whitman

"Language in the largest sense . . . is really the greatest of studies"

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Slang in America, by Walt Whitman

Walt Whitman (1819-1892)

Influenced by the 19th-century journalist and philologist William Swinton, poet Walt Whitman celebrated the emergence of a distinctively American language--one that introduced new words (and found new uses for old words) to convey the unique qualities of American life. Here, in an essay first published in 1885, Whitman offers many examples of slang expressions and "luxuriant" place names--all representative of "the wholesome fermentation or eructation of those processes eternally active in language."

Compare Whitman's observations on language to those offered by Gelett Burgess in "A Defense of Slang."

Slang in America

by Walt Whitman (1819-1892)

View'd freely, the English language is the accretion and growth of every dialect, race, and range of time, and is both the free and compacted composition of all. From this point of view, it stands for Language in the largest sense, and is really the greatest of studies. It involves so much; is indeed a sort of universal absorber, combiner, and conqueror. The scope of its etymologies is the scope not only of man and civilization, but the history of Nature in all departments, and of the organic Universe, brought up to date; for all are comprehended in words, and their backgrounds. This is when words become vitaliz’d, and stand for things, as they unerringly and soon come to do, in the mind that enters on their study with fitting spirit, grasp, and appreciation.

Slang, profoundly consider’d, is the lawless germinal element, below all words and sentences, and behind all poetry, and proves a certain perennial rankness and protestantism in speech. As the United States inherit by far their most precious possession--the language they talk and write--from the Old World, under and out of its feudal institutes, I will allow myself to borrow a simile even of those forms farthest removed from American Democracy. Considering Language then as some mighty potentate, into the majestic audience-hall of the monarch ever enters a personage like one of Shakspere’s clowns, and takes position there, and plays a part even in the stateliest ceremonies. Such is Slang, or indirection, an attempt of common humanity to escape from bald literalism, and express itself illimitably, which in highest walks produces poets and poems, and doubtless in pre-historic times gave the start to, and perfected, the whole immense tangle of the old mythologies. For, curious as it may appear, it is strictly the same impulse-source, the same thing. Slang, too, is the wholesome fermentation or eructation of those processes eternally active in language, by which froth and specks are thrown up, mostly to pass away; though occasionally to settle and permanently chrystallize.

To make it plainer, it is certain that many of the oldest and solidest words we use, were originally generated from the daring and license of slang. In the processes of word-formation, myriads die, but here and there the attempt attracts superior meanings, becomes valuable and indispensable, and lives forever. Thus the term right means literally only straight. Wrong primarily meant twisted, distorted. Integrity meant oneness. Spirit meant breath, or flame. A supercilious person was one who rais’d his eyebrows. To insult was to leap against. If you influenc’d a man, you but flow’d into him. The Hebrew word which is translated prophesy meant to bubble up and pour forth as a fountain. The enthusiast bubbles up with the Spirit of God within him, and it pours forth from him like a fountain. The word prophecy is misunderstood. Many suppose that it is limited to mere prediction; that is but the lesser portion of prophecy. The greater work is to reveal God. Every true religious enthusiast is a prophet.

Language, be it remember’d, is not an abstract construction of the learn’d, or of dictionary-makers, but is something arising out of the work, needs, ties, joys, affections, tastes, of long generations of humanity, and has its bases broad and low, close to the ground. Its final decisions are made by the masses, people nearest the concrete, having most to do with actual land and sea. It impermeates all, the Past as well as the Present, and is the grandest triumph of the human intellect. "Those mighty works of art," says Addington Symonds, "which we call languages, in the construction of which whole peoples unconsciously co-operated, the forms of which were determin’d not by individual genius, but by the instincts of successive generations, acting to one end, inherent in the nature of the race--Those poems of pure thought and fancy, cadenced not in words, but in living imagery, fountainheads of inspiration, mirrors of the mind of nascent nations, which we call Mythologies--these surely are more marvellous in their infantine spontaneity than any more mature production of the races which evolv’d them. Yet we are utterly ignorant of their embryology; the true science of Origins is yet in its cradle."

Continued on page two

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