Tag Archives: comic

Clang Consciousness – Part II

Furthering the connections between sound, humor and class is this fairly accedental detail found in J. C. Hotten’s 1860 book,  A Dictionary of Modern Slang, Cant, and Vulgar Words during a discussion of “long and windy slang words:”

Sound contributes to many Slang words – a source that etymologists too frequently overlook. Nothing pleases an ignorant person more than a high-sounding term ‘full of fury.’ How melodious and drum-like are those vulgar coruscations RUMBUMTIOUS, SLANTINGDICULAR, SLENDIFEROUS, RUMBUSTIOUS, and FERRICADOUZER. What a ‘pull’ the sharp-nosed lodging-house keeper thinks she has over her victims if she can but hurl such testimonies of a liberal education at them when they are disbuting her charges and threatening to ABSQUATULATE! In the United States the vulgar-genteel even excel the poor ‘stuck-up’ Cockneys in their formation of a native fashionable tongue. How charming to a refined ear are ABSKIZE, CATAWAMPOUSLY, EXFLUNCTIFY, OBSCUTE, KESLOSH, KESOUSE, KESWOLLOP, and KEWHOLLUX!  Vulgar words representing action and brisk movement often owe their origin to sound. (56-57)

Hotten’s text is remembered for deciphering “Mendicant Hieroglyphics”  – coded chicken-scratch that English vagabonds marked on bricks and signposts to indicate where there were choice homes to loot and whether or not there was any danger. But the curious element here (and in the book elsewhere) is the author’s none-too-shy approach to writing about class distinction and race distinction. I call it accidental because you honestly cannot tell if he takes the civilized/uncivilized distinction utterly for granted as capital-tee-truth, or if he’s observing  just how wordplay and the symbolic universe of language uncovers the false ideology of gentlemen vs. barbarians that reigned high during Victoria.

First he used the term “ignorant” to describe people who construct slang “full of fury.” What does he mean? Does he mean that an uneducated person can see the value in a word that sounds useful despite its being gibberish because he doesn’t understand the difference? Or does he mean that because ignorant people are not educated they therefore have to invent words that sound educated? Both tracts of reason, despite the author’s possible view on class, seem to refute the most racists of beliefs (pointedly those against ‘The Egyptians,’ or Gypsies) by pointing out that invention of language, or seeing a word for what it has yet to become, is far more skillful than the mere usage of pre-existing vocabulary.

Second, there’s this comical scenario involving a “lodging-house keeper” (curiously a woman in the story) who’s so stupefied by fake words that she’s rendered mute, and by mute I mean absquatulated.

Both of these examples detail the possibility that physical sounds, in the form of spoken gibberish, can allow for the breaking open of the critical space needed to perceive exploitative social practices that normally go unspoken – an attractive premise from which to reengage the wordplay in Shakespeare, The Marx Brothers, or Preston Sturges.

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Monkey Business

It would be easy to over-intellectualize the following images, to perform a kind of existentialist, Hamlet-looking-at-the-skull kind of observation about the life of comedy, specifically the life of a comic. But I think that this is the danger. That is to say, this is the monkey, for that is what the monkey is: danger. See for yourself:

 

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