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Slangwhanger

When this went out of fashion, the English language lost one of its more flamboyant words. Its early days, in the first decades of the nineteenth century, are marked by association with two distinguished American men of letters, Washington Irving and John Pickering.

Irving started a satirical magazine in New York in 1807 with the whimsical title of Salmagundi; or The Whim-whams and Opinions of Launcelot Langstaff, Esq. & Others. Salmagundi was a popular salad of the time whose many constituents led to its name being borrowed for a miscellaneous collection.

A slangwhanger was what we would now call a newspaper columnist, a writer who was free to express his personal opinions, which he often did with great energy and notorious political partisanship. Irving wrote with heavy irony of them in one issue:

In this country every man adopts some particular slang-whanger as the standard of his judgment, and reads everything he writes, if he reads nothing else; which is doubtless the reason why the people of this logocracy are so marvellously enlightened.

John Pickering was a lawyer, philologist and scholar, an authority on North American Indian languages and compiler of one of the earliest lexicons of classical Greek. In 1816, he compiled the first collection of Americanisms, under the ponderous title, typical of the age: Vocabulary, or a Collection of Words and Phrases Which Have Been Supposed to be Peculiar to the United States of America. He wrote of slangwhanger:

This word, which is of very recent origin in America, does not denote merely a “writer;” It means also a noisy talker, who makes use of that sort of political or other cant, which amuses the rabble, and is called by the vulgar name of slang. It is hardly necessary to add, that this term (as well as slang-whanging) is never admitted into the higher kinds of writing; but, like other cant words, is confined to that familiar style, which is allowed only in works of humour.

Pickering wasn’t a fan of slang or the evolving American dialect but sought to preserve the purity of the English language in America. He wrote Vocabulary to warn his countrymen against using the words he listed in it because they would be thought provincial barbarians by British scholars. He would have been saddened to learn that slangwhanger retained a place in the language throughout the century, though he might have been comforted by this:

A “slang-whanger” is a noisy, turbulent fellow, whose language is not of the best, and slang itself is generally considered disreputable.

Bucks County Gazette (Pennsylvania) 24 Sep. 1891.

By then, the word could mean a political orator, bar-room pundit, hell-fire preacher or bullying court lawyer. It could at times also mean something written by a newspaper slangwhanger or a violent political harangue.

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Copyright © Michael Quinion, 1996–. All rights reserved.
Page created 3 Aug. 2013

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The English language is forever changing. New words appear; old ones fall out of use or alter their meanings. World Wide Words tries to record at least a part of this shifting wordscape by featuring new words, word histories, words in the news, and the curiosities of native English speech.

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Last modified: 3 August 2013.