I’ve been reading Mark Twain’s Roughing It.  I’ll have more of a review later, but I was struck by a chapter in which Twain revels in the slang of 1860s Nevada.  Here’s an extended sample– a man contracting with a clergy for his friend’s funeral.

“Obs’quies is good.  Yes.  That’s it– that’s our little game.  We are going to get the thing up regardless, you know.  He was always nifty himself, and so you bet you his funeral ain’t going to be no slouch– solid silver door-plate on his coffin, six plumes on the hearse, and a nigger on the box in a biled shirt and a plug hat– how’s that for high?  And we’ll take care of you, pard.   We’ll fix you all right.  There’ll be a kerridge for you, and whatever you want, you just ‘scape out and we’ll tend to it.  We’ve got a shebang fixed up for you to stand behind, in No. 1’s house, and don’t you be afraid.   Just go in and toot your horn, if you don’t sell a clam.  Put Buck through as bully as you can, pard, for anybody that knowed him will tell you that he was one of the whitest men that was ever in the mines.  You can’t draw it too strong.  He’s done more to make this town quiet and peaceable than any man in it.  I’ve seen him lick four Greasers in eleven minutes, myself.  If a thing wanted regulating, he warn’t a man to go browsing around after somebody to do it, but he would prance in and regulate it himself.  He wasn’t a Catholic.  Scasely.  He was down on ’em.  His word was, ‘No Irish need apply!’  But it didn’t make no difference about that when it came down to what a man’s rights was– and so, when some roughs jumped the Catholic bone-yard and started in to stake out town lots in it he went for ’em!  And he cleaned ’em, too!  I was there, pard, and I seen it myself.”

Twain represents the parson as an erudite Easterner, for contrast; from his portrayal, educated speech was not given to contractions.  Most of the specific bits of slang Twain quotes are outdated (though some survived in Western movies), but it’s fun to see a few bits that are still current.  Another lesson for conlangers: some slang changes every generation; other bits stay alive for decades, even a century, without entirely gaining respectability.

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