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Lilly Library

Sunday School Slang

Roy L. Smith (1887–1963) served as a Methodist minister for 32 years, toiled for eight years as editor of The Christian Advocate, and wrote syndicated columns titled “Sidewalk Sermons” and “Weekly Sunday School Lessons.” At some point, Madeline added his Don’t Kid Yourself! Spiritual Truths from Slang Expressions (1957) to her collection. 

It’s impossible to describe the book better than its own preface does, so it’s worth sharing a largish section of it here: 

The idioms of a language are among its most interesting forms of speech for the single reason that they represent the efforts of plain people to express their ideas effectively, unrestrained by the purists. A discerning listener soon discovers that some very profound wisdom goes about in the disguise of slang. 

A brief excursion into the dictionary discloses the fact that much of the slang of yesterday, or even the day before, has become the accepted speech of today. Soon after the turn of the century, for instance the word “skiddoo” was on the lips of the people as a popular way of saying “Begone!” Now it appears in the best dictionaries and, in defining its meaning, another slang word still older is used — “vamoose!” 

Slang, which some call slanguage, is the growing edge of the language. Someone with a genius for graphic expression coins a phrase and tosses it into the hopper of common conversation. There it gets attention, is repeated thousands of times, and in the process takes on a polish that invests it with the authority of common approval. Because it is a convenient wrapping for a widely accepted opinion, it gains currency and perhaps something approaching dignity. 

The original phrase may have been the result of a clever effort to express an elusive idea, or it may have represented a highly concentrated bit of conversation; but once it has caught on, it is used as a timesaver by those who are in a hurry, or perhaps as a substitute for original thinking on the part of those who only reflect other people’s opinions. 

Slang represents a more or less honest effort to express oneself by means of prefabricated phrases. In employing slang millions of otherwise independent people who would not, under any circumstances, stoop to wearing second-hand clothes, nevertheless resort to second-hand conversation. Unthinking slang has the effect of denuding clever expressions of their meanings, so that otherwise meaningful sayings ripple off our tongues in the form of almost completely unconsidered remarks. This means that they may actually become substitutes for intelligent conversation. 

Front and back of dust jacket of Roy L. Smith's Don’t Kid Yourself! Spiritual Truths from Slang Expressions (1957)

As a longtime student of slang, I think that’s a pretty insightful summary from an old guy. Indeed, slang may often result from clever efforts to express elusive ideas, and criticism of slang often turns on critics not grasping or valuing ideas or their elusiveness, because the idea requiring a special means of expression occurs to those without much social authority — teenagers, for instance. 

I enjoy some details of the preface: skiddoo was current when Smith was a teenager — the smallest bit of autobiography there, I suspect — though I only know begone from Good Witch of the North Glinda’s “Begone! Before somebody drops a house on you, too.” One wonders whether begone was ever everyday English. The wit who introduced slanguage couldn’t be the compiler of the Dobie Gillis: Teenage Slanguage Dictionary (1962), because that booklet, the subject of a previous post on this blog, appeared after Don’t Kid Yourself! Still, they’re contemporaries. 

As the author of a book titled Slang: The People’s Poetry (2009), I’m delighted at this promotion of slang as important language of the people. Phrases like “profound wisdom” and “currency and perhaps something approaching dignity” warm my heart — they concede that a language belongs to its speakers and that language is expressive. Well done, Dr. Smith. 

Smith isn’t a purist: he accepts slang as a worthy part of a language. But he finally does echo the usual concerns that slang is “a substitute for original thinking” and that slang is about lexical semantics, about the meanings of the words we utter. It isn’t. It’s about sociability — see Connie Eble’s Slang and Sociability (1996) — and it’s “language with attitude” — see Slang: The People’s Poetry. Dr. Smith was one of those people who thinks that words are meant to mean in a way that dictionaries would define them. One can easily see why those assumptions about meaning and dictionaries — proposed in the preface as I’ve quoted it — caught Madeline’s attention. Repeating conventional criticisms of slang reads like second-hand conversation to me. 

Don’t Kid Yourself! is only 126 pages long, so each chapter runs to about twelve pages, which is a slightly elaborated sermon. I suspect that the chapters were first delivered from a pulpit, and slang was less a subject than an opportunity, a somewhat predictable attempt to connect with young people and the times by a minister who caught the direction of cultural winds, in a sense, from the same motive that prompted the Dobie Gillis dictionary — in the late 1950s, everyone started marketing everything to teens, from television and its advertisements to Christian faith and its version of the moral life. 

You may be surprised, however, at what Smith considers slang, so a list of the chapters will prove enlightening: 

  1. Who do you think you are? 
  2. What’s going on here? 
  3. Make mine the same. 
  4. How are you doing? 
  5. Where’s the fire? 
  6. Where do you think you’re going? 
  7. So what? 
  8. Do you think you own the earth? 
  9. Don’t kid yourself. 
  10. What’s the big idea? 

In my world, none of that really counts as slang, but I’m not from the generation to which Smith preached, nor was I born in the nineteenth century, appearances notwithstanding. I translate “What’s going on here?” to “What’s the buzz? Tell me what’s a-happening,” which is much slangier. 

Smith’s readers probably thought that slang is exotic, but Madeline probably thought of Smith’s attempt at slang exegesis as the more exotic artifact. 

Beginning of Chapter 1, titled Who do you think you are?

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