How big are your vocabularies? No, that’s not a misprint. Each of us has at least two vocabularies: one of words that we actually use (disregarding, for now, the possibility that some of the words being used are not understood by their users), and one of words we don’t use but know the meaning of if someone else does use them. I leave aside the specialist vocabularies, more properly called jargon, in use between professional people such as accountants, lawyers and scientists, because I am looking for universal principles in the way we use our language, and bar the odd word that escapes from these rarefied confines, professional jargon is too restricted to be relevant. In passing, I might note that escapees are invariably misused in their new surroundings. A good example is the legal word ‘alibi’, which in general circulation is often mistakenly used as a synonym for ‘excuse’.
I was prompted to think about the subject that I’m about to discuss by my friend Barry, who invariably says “Toodle pip” when leaving. Now, I do know what he means, but I’d never dream of using the expression myself. I usually say “See you”, or simply “’Bye”. However, there are quite a few others that are part of my secondary vocabulary, none of which I’ve ever used as a valedictory, although I might write ‘he said farewell to…’. And if you’ve read French Letters, you’ll know why I don’t say adieu or au revoir. As for ciao, how did the Italians get in on the act?
In straightforward descriptive language, we happily interchange ‘big’ and ‘large’ or ‘small’ and ‘little’, occasionally slipping in a more unusual alternative such as ‘colossal’ or ‘minuscule’. However, when it comes to naming everyday objects or institutions, we may know of quite a few different options, but (I’m speculating here) invariably we use only one. To test my theory, I’ll start in the toilet.
Actually, I only ever use the word ‘toilet’ when I feel that I’m in polite company. My preferred option is ‘the bogs’ and has been ever since I learned a word for ‘an installation designed to facilitate the comfortable and convenient performance of essential bodily functions’. English DJ John Peel championed a punk band called Bogshed in the mid-1980s, but perhaps the band made an error with its choice of name, because its fame was strictly ephemeral, like a fart.
There are many others: WC or water closet, lavatory and convenience are neutral words that can be used in any social situation, while ‘the gents’ and ‘the ladies’ are reflective of the once ubiquitous signs indicating a public convenience in the UK. On the other hand, if I were to find myself lost somewhere in an American city and ‘highly desirous of a snakes’, to quote Barry McKenzie, I think it would be prudent to enquire about the whereabouts of the nearest john, on the grounds that the more genteel alternatives may not be understood, and the risk of misunderstanding in such circumstances doesn’t bear thinking about. The same logic would impel me to ask whether a dunnee was suitably adjacent, should I ever find myself in a similar predicament down under.
The point to note here is that these are all euphemisms. It is as if we are ashamed. And the most egregious of all is that hideous genteelism ‘loo’. And if, as I suspect, it is a portmanteau word derived from ‘lavatory’ and ‘poo’, then I am even more scornful. And don’t mention ‘latrine’, unless you’re a military man and can use the word to describe a domestic privy while keeping a straight face.
Let us move on to something altogether more enticing: money. ‘Money’ may be the formal name for the stuff, but there are a surprising number of informal or slang terms with reasonably wide currency. Here’s a selection: bread, cash, dosh, dough, loot, lucre, moolah, the necessary, readies (banknotes, but mainly used as a generic word for money), simoleons, spondulicks, wad, the wherewithal. I use none of these; instead I would refer to ‘lure’, which is part of the local dialect in my home town, the point again being that I know many but use only one.
And what about the police? The definitive name for a law enforcement agency tends to be used mostly in formal contexts, otherwise its employees are variously bears, cops, coppers, the filth, the heat, pigs, rozzers or the Old Bill. Some of these are downright insulting, which obviously reflects the status of the police in some sections of society. Others, such as ‘bobby’ and ‘peeler’, are almost as dead as the man who inspired these terms, although the chairman of the Cumbria Police Authority when I was a member in the mid-1990s consistently used the first.
Me? I prefer ‘copper’, which doesn’t make any value judgements and has the clear advantage of being an agent noun (one who cops, or arrests), which makes it etymologically more dignified. On the other hand, if I want to be facetious, I’ve taken to referring to the local constabulary, collectively, as ‘Mr Plod’, after the policeman in the Noddy in Toytown books by Enid Blyton.
We move merrily on to the condition of being intoxicated by alcohol; there are several words for this that appear to be in use only around my home town, the current favourite being ‘gassed’. And it’s worth noting that some terms are clearly genteel euphemisms—merry, tiddly, tipsy—reflecting perhaps the strength of the temperance movement in Victorian Britain. There are even formal similes, such as ‘drunk as a lord’ (perhaps at one time only the aristocracy could afford to get really pissed), and poetic phrases such as ‘three sheets to the wind’, which will mean something to you only if you also know what it is to splice the mainbrace.
So these are my contentions: (1) we may know several slang terms for something, but we habitually use only one, or at most two; and (2) the number of slang terms for something is directly proportional to the importance we attach to that thing. As supporting evidence for the second claim, I present the following list of words, some of which betray a kind of naive arrogance when used self-referentially (with apologies to my female readers, who may not use any of them; I wouldn’t expect them to regard the object they describe as that important anyway): beef bayonet, cock, dick, dong, hampton, John Thomas, knob, mutton dagger, one-eyed trouser snake, pecker, Percy, prick, privy member, pork sword, sausage surprise, todger, wedding tackle, whang, wife’s best friend…. To quote Wellington: “Ipso fatso, my case rests.”