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Lilly Library

A Chinful of Slang

You Chirped a Chinful! Including Private Bill’s Dictionary of Service Men’s Chin Chatter [1943] is a bit of World War II ephemera, and we’re lucky that Madeline Kripke preserved it. “This entire book [was] created, compiled and produced by Harry ‘A’ Chesler,” a pioneer of the comic book medium in the 1930s and 1940s, who guessed that GIs would prove an eager audience for his comics. You Chirped a Chinful! is just sixty-four pages long, with thirty-six full color cartoons, more or less on every other page — the cartoon total includes covers and end papers. The pseudonymous “Bill O. Lading” (bill o’lading/bill of lading) provided a preface. Lading was also responsible for First Class Male: The Private Letters of Bill O. Lading (1943), which does not appear in Madeline’s incomplete catalogue, but which we may eventually discover as we unpack her collection, nonetheless.

An extensive quotation, in this case from Lading’s preface, explains a lot of what we need to know:

During every historical crisis in the life of a country — many things are inevitably reborn — Political structure, Art, Music, the Advancement of Science — are but a few in the reconstruction of Society. One element rarely thought of in conjunction with the upheaval — is the birth of language. The Armed Forces of the United States of America since their inception, have created thousands of slang expressions that have become part and parcel of our everyday lives. Some of these expressions have long been laugh producers in the Army, Navy, Air and Marine Corps — others have been added since Pearl Harbor. When   our “Boys” take over Rome — the Romans will be “saying I” the American Way. That goes for Berlin and Tokyo too. To date, this book represents the American Serviceman’s creation of U. S. Slanguage.

Putting the predictable jingoism aside, one notices how often the term slanguage comes up in works discussed in this blog — in other words, there’s a history of the word slanguage as well as a history of slang scattered throughout the 1500 or so boxes that currently contain Madeline’s collection.

You Chirped a Chinful! accounts for some servicemen’s slang and illuminates overlooked corners of military and, indeed, American culture of the time, as Lading argues. The slang, however, belonged to men in the service, and the comic’s so-called humor appealed primarily to those men. With hindsight, You Chirped a Chinful! is unpleasantly revealing. In the dictionary part, we learn in the subject section “GIRLS” (rather than WOMEN) that Alcatraz bait means “A girl under legal age limit” and Article of War is another term for “Soldier’s wife.” Not very flattering, nor is Baby Blimp for a “Jolly fat girl” — why “jolly,” I’ve asked myself. Besides the insults, there are objectifying terms, such as Bumper, which can characterize the “Upper front or lower back of [a] girl.” Hairpin just means “Woman,” but the dictionary provides Frail and Bag as synonyms. What is the Infantry’s objective? “Blondes,” who distract the soldiers from their duties. When they meet their objective, infantrymen utter a Wolf call: “Hi Ya Babe”!

Those who fought in the war or provided for the homeland then are often called the Greatest Generation. I don’t want to discount what they did or question its value, but the Greatest Generation was obviously misogynistic: some of the vocabulary in You Chirped Chinful! is far from benign, and indulging it isn’t innocent either. When we say that dictionaries are windows onto culture we don’t mean — can’t mean — that they open only onto pleasant views. Opening the window reveals the good, the bad, and the ugly. Slang like that found in You Chirped a Chinful! is ugly in hindsight, however acceptable it may have seemed in the 1940s, and I doubt very much that it was acceptable to all even then.

Colorful cover featuring scowling sergeant and soldiers in comic book panels.
You Chirped a Chinful! Including Private Bill’s Dictionary of Service Men’s Chin Chatter (1946)

Understanding the past, the ways in which people used to think and talk, informs our current conversations about language ideologies, and language ideologies are always part and parcel of the other ideologies — political, cultural — that shape our experience and to which we respond with change. Change doesn’t mean much if we can’t identify what made it necessary in the first place. I’m afraid that You Chirped a Chinful! identifies the motive for change all too clearly, and that’s by no means unique to the comic in question or to any other dictionary — all dictionaries are ideological, both in their making and their reading. Madeline enjoyed comics and knew about their role in twentieth-century American culture. She loved slang, too, and collected it in dictionaries big and small, ambitious and ephemeral. She also resisted what we’ve come to call the patriarchy. The motives behind her collecting were thus complex and reflected a balance of interests, sometimes competing or inconsistent interests.

But Madeline also knew that works like You Chirped a Chinful!, flawed as they are, provide evidence for other, more serious dictionaries. Jonathon Green enters Alcatraz bait in Green’s Dictionary of Slang with a cross reference to jailbait, and in that entry, Alcatraz bait is illustrated by the very definition from the Chinful! Alcatraz bait isn’t the only cousin of jailbait to end up in GDoS — there’s a quotation illustrating penitentiary bait, as well — but Chinful! may be the only source of Alcatraz bait, which means it should be in Madeline’s collection and the Lilly Library, so that the foundations on which other dictionaries are built doesn’t disappear from our historical view. Chinful! also appears as the earliest recorded use of bumper ‘breast’ or any other part of women’s bodies, as the earliest quotation in support of wolf call, and it also provides a quotation to Green’s entry for hairpin.

Chinful! made it into the GDoS bibliography, which means that it provided at least five quotations of chin chatter to the dictionary. GDoS includes well over 400,000 quotations, so Chinful! yields less chatter than many other texts, but its marginal status justifies Madeline’s impulse to collect it — we need her dictionaries, but we also need the sources underlying those dictionaries.

1 Comment

  • Paget Creelman says:

    Amazing. This is presumably public domain? Most of Cheslers other publications seems to be. Hopefully a scan of this will be available at some point.

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