Monday, May 3, 2010

The Slanguage of George Ade

I’m sure you think it’s “cool” to talk in slang or jargon. After all, the totally radical and awesome way in which each generation speaks will always mean something to them. So don’t be a square.

But we start off the Treasury of Laughter Blog with a word of warning, brought to you in one of Grandpa Simpson’s more lucid moments:

“I used to be with it. But then they changed what “it” was. What I was with wasn’t it, and what was it was new and scary. It’ll happen to you!”

And thus is the “slanguage” art of one George Ade, Hoosier, dramatist, lauded by Carl Van Doren as a vernacular philosopher, a “continuer of the old wisdom and the inventor of a new idiom.”

Hidy-ho, neighbor!

So why file him in the Abraham Simpson column of comically outdated vernacular? Because, as you’ll see through these excerpts from Ade’s “The Fable of the Spotlighters and the Spotter,” slang marches on. Onions fixed firmly to belts, please:

Once a Traveller arrived at a Cure where the Water of the Healing Springs smelled so awful that the Management felt justified in asking $10 a Day.

This Traveller was a City Yap, which is worse than being a Begosher, because the R.F.D. Boob usually knows that he is below Par.

The City Yap is a Vertebrate with Shiny Hair, living under the dominion of the Traffic Cops.

He will stand in front of a Window, with others of his Kind, for an Hour at a time, watching a powerful Blonde demonstrate a Fireless Cooker.

You know, it’s almost like we’re watching a YouTube video with their comically inept closed captioning going full face freckles. Some of what Ade writes here has survived – at least some of us today still talk about people operating “below par,” but as for the rest of it, the slanguage used falls into two categories: The Somewhat Decipherable, just as calling a city slicker a city yap, to the What The . . . , as in what the world is a begosher? I’m sure it has something to do with Midwestern or maybe rube Minnesotan denizens of the more bucolic portions of the nation, but I can’t be sure.

Writing in vernacular, or slang, or via accent is risky business, because you either pull it off successfully or you don’t. Ade’s writings may have worked in the day, but because slang is at best a slippery beast, that his fables are now mired in obscurity is easily understandable. I don’t mind writers who use occasional slang, but it had better be slang that’s stood the test of time, else that writer is going to look as Ade would probably put it, “like a Vessel Unloader who had put on a Mail Order Suit in order to attend a Clam Bake.”

Ade, of course, isn't the only one to write in slang or vernacular. Though I'm a fan, for example, of Rhciard Adams' books Watership Down, Shardik, and others, I cannot for the life of me get through Traveller, which he wrote from the point of view of the horse of Robert E. Lee, general of the Confederacy. That in of itself is fine. But Adams is fascinated, unfortunately, with the southern dialect. And southern slang at Civil War time. So that's how the horse "speaks." An interesting linguisitc adventure, to be sure. But a painful read.

Another example: Louis Dargaud. One fo these days I will make it through the French -- the original -- version of his novel The Button War, but it's not going to happen until I can learn the slang and vernacular of French children of the 19th century. So authors, please, choose your slang carefully, or your readers won't live to regret it.

For a good example of how painful slang can appear, go here.

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