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Old-Timey Slang: 'Polking' Was A Vulgar Word

"All slang words are detestable from the lips of ladies," Eliza Leslie said in 1867. She was the author of the Behavior Book, a 19th century etiquette manual published in Philadelphia.

How times have changed. Men and women in contemporary America sling slang around like hash — or like weed. From txt msgs to the Twitterverse, the jargon can be jarring.

Even the president of the United States traffics in informal discourse: "Let's give it up for Buzz and the Georgia Tech Band," Obama told an Atlanta audience recently, "for getting us fired up."

And in a speech to a high school group a while back Obama said about clean energy: "We can't go from shock to trance, rushing the proposed action when gas prices rise and then hitting the snooze button when they go back down."

Arguably, there is so much slang in the language in 2015 — including many words and phrases that Miss Leslie found detestable — the very idea of "slang" is passe.

Polking Like A Beast

But in the mid-19th century, there were strict rules for speaking in the drawing room.

Snooze -- sorry, Mr. President — was one of the words that made Leslie wince. "There is no wit," she said, according to the National Republican newspaper in Washington, D.C., on April 15, 1867, "in a lady to speak of taking a 'snooze' instead of a nap, in calling pantaloons 'pants' or gentlemen 'gents.' "

Leslie also inveighed against women saying that an out-of-fashion man looks "seedy" or that "an amusing anecdote or a diverting incident ... is 'rich.' "

And, she opined: "We are always sorry to hear a young lady use the word 'polking,' " when that young lady talked about doing the polka. In fact, the dance was so controversial when first introduced in England, Queen Victoria "prohibited the polka from being danced in her presence."

Leslie asked: "How can a genteel girl bring herself to say 'Last night I was polking with Mr. Bell.' Its coarse and ill-sounding name is worthy of the dance."

She also bristled when someone "talked of a certain great vocalist 'singing like a beast.' "

That's right. Like a beast has been around a long time.

Auld Slang Lines

Slang bumfuzzled Eliza Leslie. She wondered about slang-speakers: "Where do they get it? How do they pick it up? From low newspapers or vulgar books?"

She observed, "We have little tolerance for young ladies, who, having in reality neither wit nor humor, set up for both, and having nothing of the right stock to go upon, substitute coarseness and impertinence, (not to say impudence), and try to excite laughter, and attract the attention of gentlemen, by talking slang."

The National Republican reported other intolerable slang words and phrases:

  • A "drunk" bonnet for an improperly worn bonnet
  • "Floored" when disconcerted, as in, "That floored me."
  • "Brought to scratch," meaning doing something reluctantly
  • "On the sly" instead of surreptitiously
  • We checked out an 1859 edition of Leslie's Behavior Book: A Guide and Manual for Ladies. "The word 'slump,' " she wrote, "has too coarse a sound to be used by a lady."

    She counseled women that "it is wrong to talk of loving any thing that is eatable. They may like terrapins, oysters, chicken-salad, or ice-cream; but they need not love terrapins or oysters or love chicken-salad."

    Slang Today

    So 150 years later, there are obscenities and hate words that people cannot say, but are there slang words?

    Some linguists don't approve of the very concept of slang, says Michael Paul Adams. An English professor at Indiana University, Adams is also editor of American Speech, president of the Dictionary Society of North America and an all-around historian of English language.

    "Slang depends on bending and repurposing language we already have," Adams says, "so, these linguists say, it's not a thing in itself but just language used in certain circumstances in a certain register. On the other hand, lots of people believe in slang, and I incline to think that if speakers insist there's something different about slang, there probably is."

    And is there such a thing as slang anymore? "Yes," Adams says. "Slang helps us consolidate group identity, and it allows us to express ourselves in dissent from whatever is conventional and dominant and doesn't condone what we want to say or how we want to say it."

    Dang straight.

    Follow me @NPRHistoryDept; lead me by writing

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    Linton Weeks joined NPR in the summer of 2008, as its national correspondent for Digital News. He immediately hit the campaign trail, covering the Democratic and Republican National Conventions; fact-checking the debates; and exploring the candidates, the issues and the electorate.