Page:Popular Science Monthly Volume 50.djvu/854

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832
POPULAR SCIENCE MONTHLY.

Many authors have found it analogous to the elementary language of primitive peoples, and the frequent onomatopes give some apparent solidity to this theory. The describing of a subject by one of its attributes is characteristic of all early races and even to-day of children. The child who describes a dog as a "bow-wow" is following a primitive instinct. The infant may call a train a "poo-poo," an onomatopoetic expression for its puffing; the thief calls a train a rattler. The analogy is not complete but suggestive. Its very incompleteness illustrates exactly the objection to the theory stated above. The child creates, but the thief adapts. The slang of the criminal is not a creation of a primitive language ; it is the attempt to reduce a matured language to an elementary stage. It is a destructive and not a creative process.

Notwithstanding the able arguments of the theorists referred to, the observer can not but remark the very serious difficulties that arise when we attempt to consider the argot of the thief as a primitive language, tongues "which are always serious, never ironical, never mirthful, never seeking to sully the object of the thought, simple in their metaphor, abundant in grammatical forms." Every language has a syntax peculiar to itself, but in the patois of the criminal no attempt is made of changing anything but the lexicon. It bears the same resemblance to the parent language that a pile of cogwheels does to a watch. They are not a watch, but neither are they a new machine. Thus we must regard the argot only as a dialect in which debased terms replace the words of the parent tongue, in which the innate laziness of the criminal has effaced all words of any length and has simplified the pronunciation wherever the correct form requires anything but an elementary combination of sounds.

Let us examine some of these transformations and synonyms.

The general tendency of the criminal to reduce the abstract to the concrete, to denote the substantive by one of its attributes, is shown very clearly in his synecdochical phraseology. Thus a purse is a leather; a street car is a short, comparing its length with a railroad car; a handkerchief is a wipe; and a pair of shoes a pair of kicks.

Again, some of the terms appear to be purely arbitrary, and, were it not that the creative power is absent in criminals as in women, I should not hesitate to state it as a fact. But it seems wiser to conclude merely that the origin of these terms has become obscured. To suppose that they were created would be in too distinct contradiction to all obtainable evidence, indirect though it may be. Such expressions are to kip, meaning to sleep; to spiel, to make a speech; jerve, a waistcoat pocket; thimble, a watch; to do a lam, meaning to run.