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The Language of Those in the Know

Alice Becker-Ho

Digraphe (1995)

Translated by John McHale (London, 2001)
We had several points of resemblance with those other devotees of the dangerous life who had spent their time, exactly five hundred years before us, in the same city and on the same side of the river. Obviously, I cannot be compared to anyone who has mastered his art like François Villon. And I was not as irremediably engaged as he in organized crime; after all, I had not studied so hard at university. But there had been that “noble man” among my friends who was the complete equal of Régnier de Montigny, as well as many other rebels destined for bad ends; and there were the pleasures and splendour of those lost young hoodlum girls who kept us such good company in our dives and could not have been that different from the girls others had known under the names of Marion l’Idole or Catherine, Biétrix and Bellet.
— Guy Debord, Panegyric

ONLY WITH THE CREATION of a new language did the criminals of the fifteenth century effectively organize an independent and unified practice. The term argot (brotherhood of rogues1), the name they gave to themselves, became fused later on with their language.

This language is not simply discreet and defensive. It theorizes what is about to be done: it already is a project. It never talks for the sake of talking. For those who can understand this language, every aspect of it carries the permanent confirmation of their vision of the world. Slang is not a mere specialized jargon, nor is it a language grafted on to conventional speech. It is precisely the manifestation, as I have shown in L’Essence du Jargon2, of an outlook exclusive to the so-called dangerous classes. If indeed “We speak as we judge, and we judge as we feel” (Alfredo Niceforo, Le Génie de l’argot, 1912), then the dangerous classes enjoy the superiority over ordinary people of having created out of nothing a speech which is artificial in form, but not arbitrary, and in which the meaning of words is divorced from the sound and image commonly attached to meaning by those languages in current use. In this way the so-called dangerous classes put both themselves and their language firmly “in the picture” [affranchi3 in French]. The language of slang is essentially the enemy’s vernacular turned upside down, then disguised. When speech ceases to be the individual exercise of resolve and intelligence, it becomes the mere instrument of a higher power. Speech represents this power and is represented by it. Anyone then speaking this language comes to identify with it; they will talk the way it does. Thus it was only when they came into contact with those dangerous classes making their way out of the European old world that most American blacks stopped speaking the enemy’s language that, along with slavery itself, they had been learning. Slang is the complete opposite of a language spoken by slaves: it is therefore alien to all forms of ideology. Authorities everywhere know this only too well, and dread the thought of it.

Being the true speech of those in the know because they “have caught on”, slang is also the only language that names and defines itself: it goes just as well by the names of jobelin, argot, bigorne, cant, Jenish, javanais, pidgin, sabir [ex Spanish saber (to know)], or lingua franca, ladino, langue verte, etc.4 It is in short the sum total of every criminal argot5 whose terms, linked to the “special” skills of each “corporation”, came to enrich accordingly the body of slang in general use, by proceeding in the same frame of mind. "One slang is like another, for in slang there is a unity of thought. It merely translates the same words."6 To talk slang is above all to be recognized by one’s own kind: in Spain the term Germanía (Spanish thieves’ cant) conveys this fraternity very precisely; moreover the Latin for brother germanus gives us the Spanish hermano.

The dangerous classes and the representation of the executioner

In the period which first saw the emergence of the dangerous classes and their language, the executioner did not speak, he merely got on with his work. In accordance with the nature of the crime, he was the individual who variously branded, lashed, cut off the hand [poe, in medieval French], or the ear [ance], but more often than not the one who carried out the hanging [romp le suc]. In marked contrast to what subsequently obtained down through the ages, there was at first no one single executioner. Instead there were as many as were required in order to deal with the whole array of jurisdictions7 and the numbers of people sentenced. From the very beginning the figure of the executioner was well understood as a mere executor [exécuteur des Hautes Œuvres]; this is why both the vocabulary and the spirit characteristic of slang tend to dismiss the executioner as a mere underling. He appears as the matchmaker [marieux] who organizes the marriage ceremony - the hanging - between the person condemned and the death [la camarde8] they are to meet with, after which the gallows, and later on the guillotine, is left a widow [Veuve]. This conventional image of death draws its inspiration from the medieval “Danse macabre”. “Être de noce” [lit. to be invited to a wedding], thereafter “baiser la Veuve” [lit. to kiss the widow] both mean to be hanged. The other theme relating to death can clearly be found in the rotwelsch (German thieves’ cant) terms bebaisse gehen or baiern meaning to die or to be under sentence of death, which carry the literal meaning of “to go back home”, and are based on the Hebrew words ba’yis/ba’yit [house, home]. Out of these elements French argot would then go on to create basir [to kill], bazisseur [killer], and sbire [henchman], in addition to butte [killing] and the verb butter [to kill], the former to be found in the expressions gerbé à la butte [sentenced to death], and monter à la butte [to be guillotined].

One could compare this almost cheerful, verging on the relaxed, conception of death to an end game where on the whole the losers graciously accept defeat; thereby marking the brutal end of a life of adventure. Only with the coming of the French Revolution and the unfolding of its aftermath did loss of freedom become a punishment whose length “had to be commensurate with the gravity of the crime or offence. Dating also from this period we come across the first reformatories intended for children under the age of sixteen and for those juveniles arrested and detained at their parents’ request.” (Abbé Moreau, “Souvenirs de la Petite et de la Grande Roquette”). From that time on, the “Penitentiary” would nearly always take the place of the executioner. What the crook gained in longevity however, he lost many times over in happiness, with the “Maximum Security Wing” seeing to all that! Escape from the slammer and the “break-out” are thus abiding dreams. “At that time argot held sway over the steep little streets of Montmartre. You picked it up quickly from the rough bits of songs that managed to lend a certain mystique to military prisons and which conferred on that sombre piece of slaughterhouse equipment known as the guillotine a kind of social poetry that was very nurture to some youths … It was for having lived in just such an unreal and sensual world however that the poet François Villon nearly consigned his worthless body to the gibbet.” (Pierre Mac Orlan, “Villes”, 1927)

Totally cleaned out: the lot of the modern mug

Those who, having demonstrated all-round zero understanding, doubtless remain oblivious to the fact that they have lost everything, are merely the latest historical incarnation of the sucker or mug [le cave, in French]. To outlaws’ way of thinking these same mugs had always been hopeless dupes. But in times gone by the world they inhabited was a more unified and more coherent place that afforded them protection from what they feared the most: those social classes dubbed dangerous. The figure of the executioner had been conjured up for their benefit and served to reassure them. Nowadays modern governments are hoping to reassure them with nothing more than the magic of words. The mere mention of democracy begets the “rule of law”. Through the agency of slang, communication took place all along at the expense of the gull and his armed representatives. By re-using slang’s methods to fit its own agenda, government plays those who still had faith in it for fools. One category amongst the dangerous classes, one moreover that in former times supplied the authorities with their executioners, has thus changed sides. Victimized anew and as submissive as ever, there is at present nobody left for mugs to turn to for protection. Those who in the past had clung so tenaciously to masters, to gallows, to high walls, to religious, academic, or scientific guarantees, in a word to solid bearings, have ended up in a shambles that has to be seen to be believed. At every turn they come up against the ever more complex machines that have replaced the guillotines [“les bois de justice”] of yore. They are baffled: such is their longing to believe in progress. For the moment however, it is these machines that conduct the business of passing judgment, chopping off, and executing. Their mission hardly stops there though: machines establish, or for that matter just as quickly modify, any amount of criteria in line with the economic and political opportunities of the moment. They get to raise or lower the thresholds of tolerance to poisons, whether in the form of alcohol or drugs, food additives, toxic gases, or other industrial flotsam. They get to count up too the number of "dead souls" in order to trumpet increases in “life expectancy”; they programme one demolition to carry out a rebuilding somewhere else, only to end up tearing it down again. We are talking about machines here that call their own blunders "natural catastrophes” and their all too modern genocides “ethnic strife”. They provide the punter with a grounding in how to speak in “politically correct” wise, how to be a “computer-assisted “ reader, or how to fuck “rubbered-up”. Questions asked by machines are met with answers they themselves have devised. “By sowing doubts and then pruning them back they make the world produce abundant crops of uncertainties and quarrels … All I can say is that you can feel from experience that so many interpretations dissipate the truth and break it up.” (Montaigne, “Essays”, Book III, chapter 13)

Forever “let down”, the mug had all the same dreamt of better days, if not heaven. He opined that fairer consideration was his due and that rewards would ever and always be showered upon him in return for no end of submission and ingenuousness. Poor sucker [daim9].

For their part, having had “the devil and long habit as their teachers”10, few have had to grasp quicker than outlaws the danger of a language wielded by a government and backed up by its slaves. For my own part, argot is the only thing that has enabled me with any assurance to hit upon not only the etymologies but also the exact meaning of certain words derived from argot which have passed into ordinary language in such numbers. To achieve this, all I had to do was proceed and think like the dangerous classes: with distrust and lucidity. If, as seems to be the case, a wholesale reform of slang is currently underway, it will re-emerge naturally from the process as the language of those in the know. Take it that the latter will move to denounce the sham and confusion that come with machine language, not swallow them. Given that these machines have zero knowledge of reality and regularly blow the fuses in circuits overloaded with contradictory bits of information, it will scarcely be a difficult task. As for the specialists who handle them, they will finish up the “machine’s cuckolds”, just as the executioner was at one time called the “Widow’s cuckold”.

Alice Becker-Ho has written extensively on the origins and etymology of European slang. See Jonathon Green's article, Romany Rise, for more information.

1 ach denotes brother in Hebrew and guit, rogue in Dutch - the latter derived from the German term gauner, itself a borrowing from the Hebrew ganaw [a thief].
2 Éditions Gallimard, 1994. Translated as The Essence of Jargon by John McHale (unpublished).
3 ex affranchir: to free, emancipate, to put s.o. in the picture, to give s.o. the low-down, to put s.o. in the know, to tip s.o. off, hence un(e) affranchi(e): a sussed individual.
4 The meaning of each of these words along with their etymologies can be found in my L'Essence du Jargon.
5 The history of these different forms of argot, as well as the impact they have had over time, will be the subject of a forthcoming book.
6 Alice Becker-Ho, Les Princes du Jargon, Gallimard, 1993. Translated as The Princes of Jargon by John McHale (unpublished).
7 The French word abbaye (used variously in the French slang expressions abbaye des cinq-pierres [lit. five rocks abbey] or abbaye de Saint-Pierre [Saint Peter's abbey], as well as abbaye de monte-à-rebours [up backwards abbey] or abbaye à-regret) meaning place of execution is a reference to Basilica, which originally denoted a building or seat of justice, upon whose sites churches were later erected: "Thou art Peter, and upon this rock I will build my church".
8 The Gypsy language verb mar means to punish or to kill; cam, to seduce or to love.
9 ex rotwelsch damian [dumm in German]: silly, stupid.
10 Cervantes, Exemplary Stories.