Popular Science Monthly/Volume 50/April 1897/The Language of Crime

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THE language of criminals—the argot of Paris, the "patter" of London—has been carefully investigated by numerous writers, with very variant results.

Its origin is difficult to explain. Criminals, say many authors, have found it necessary to adopt a technical language for their own protection, that they may be able to converse in public without being understood. "They have been forced to do this, and have made a language as sinister and as vile as themselves." This theory can not be admitted. Certainly the argot is sinister and vile and thoroughly representative of the class that uses it, but further than this we can not go.

The theory that the use of this dialect is of any assistance to the criminal is inadmissible. Most policemen and all prison officers know this slang, sometimes better than the thieves. To speak it in the hearing of a detective is to invite arrest; to speak it in the presence of the general public would arouse suspicion and attract attention—two things which are especially to be avoided. Why, then, does it exist? Dr. Laurent, of the Santé prison in Paris, has given an explanation which has at least nothing to contradict it: The persons engaged in every trade form a species of dialect or technical phraseology which is spoken and understood only by themselves. Criminals, who practice a trade as old as any, have gradually acquired a language more adapted to their wants, more in keeping with their ideas and thoughts. Miserable, heartless, engaged in a perpetual struggle against morality, law, and decency, they have acquired a language of debased words and cynical metaphors, a language of abbreviated expressions and obscene synonyms.

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.

Some of the expressions are very descriptive. To run from a police officer is to do a hotfoot. A person who is always listening to other people's conversation is called a rubber-neck. The word push, meaning a crowd, is occasionally seen in the newspapers. To be arrested is to be pinched; to be convicted is to fall. To refuse a person's appeal is to give him the marble heart. Such expressions require no explanation.

There is a disposition among all uneducated people to use a single verb both in a transitive and an intransitive sense. The verb "to learn" is used very commonly for "to teach." "To set" is used for "to sit," and "lay" for "lie." In the argot the same rule applies. The verbs to kill and to die are both expressed by the one term "to croak," and the grim humor of the class appears in the word croaker, which means doctor. The argot has no syntax; in the verbs there is scarcely any distinction of tense. The present tense is used for the imperfect and for the past. "I win a dollar" may mean I am winning a dollar, but it is equally probable that it means I won a dollar or I have won a dollar. There seems to be an effort to eliminate everything possible from the language, to reduce its vocabulary to the minimum. It is a natural endeavor for a listless and enervated people. In some cases there may be an attempt to use the past form of the verb, but the formation is very apt to be incorrect, although regular. Thus the grotesque terms used by children as "bringed," "catched," and even strange plurals and comparatives as "foots" and "worser," are very commonly found.

This dialect has, as we have been shown, mutilated the mother tongue; it has also borrowed liberally from other languages, but without method or etymology. Criminals are not grammarians. Neither are they linguists, and at first sight it would seem strange that they should import words from other countries. We will find, however, that in any prison the percentage of inmates of foreign -birth will be large; in America it is about fifteen per cent. A foreign expression which seems apt or an improvement on the one in present use is rapidly diffused through the prison. In cases where it is especially descriptive it may become permanent, but its life is usually short. The argot of the crime class changes materially every two or three years. It is ephemeral, as shifting as its users. Victor Hugo exaggerates only slightly when he says, "The argot changes more in ten years than the language does in ten centuries."

This mutability is common to all languages, but recognized tongues change more slowly—in a generation, not in a year. Words are born, live, and die as we do. They have their youth, their virility, their old age, and their second childhood. They have a reason, there is an element of reflection which precedes their introduction, while in the argot the birth of a new word is a chance. Thus in the last three years there have been three different words for watch—super, thimble, and yellow and white—each of which was, in its turn, the only term used.

Every writer on the subject has noticed that the argot is very rich in expressions to denote certain common actions. This is a peculiarity shared by all primitive languages, the only difference being in the selection of the common acts. Thus in Sanskrit there are nearly one hundred roots which express the idea of killing or wounding, without counting secondary derivations. Some of these roots are embodied in our language to-day. In the dialect of the thieves there are nearly one hundred expressions to signify theft. It was necessary for the pickpocket to describe the various pockets in a man's clothing and in a woman's dress. The average man does not often need to specify a particular pocket; when he does, he lays his hand on it to assist the poverty of his language; the thief has a separate name for each separate pocket.

It is a curious and instructive study, full of interest to the metaphysician, the philosopher, or the scientist.

But in spite of this richness in synonyms, which is in itself a very marked sign of degeneracy, for the tendency of a language is to eliminate its synonyms, giving to each a different shade of meaning, the argot is a poor language. It has not a single expression for abstract emotion; to attempt to render a philosophic thought, a moral emotion, a synthetic or æsthetic idea into the dialect of the thief would be like attempting to translate "electricity" or "steam engine" into Latin. It is impossible, because the words do not exist. They are not needed. The criminal has no more conception of abstract emotion than a blind man has of color.

A fact which does seem to ally the argot to a primitive language is its ability to form additional words from its own resources, a power of self-development which we find in the old Anglo-Saxon and especially in the German of to-day. This trait is the more striking, as it seems in direct contradiction to the impotence of the English language in this respect. The English has little formative power; it relies on the Greek and Latin languages for the extension of its vocabulary.

Dr. Laurent states, in his work on the French criminal, that some authors have claimed that the slang of the criminal was a kind of international language for thieves, a Volapük of crime. It is unfortunate that the names of these authors were not given. Were it not for the reputation of the learned doctor it might be suspected that he was creating men of straw that he might with demolish them. The claim is almost too absurd to discuss. Even in different parts of the same country the dialect of the local criminals will differ very materially, while in all cases it would be totally incomprehensible to a foreign thief.