Leatherneck [Was: antedating: jarhead]

Robin Hamilton robin.hamilton2 at BTINTERNET.COM
Tue Feb 23 21:25:09 UTC 2010

Part-way through the composition of this excessively long post, I realised
that it was profoundly misdirected, and that the "Victor Steinbok" to whom
it seemed to be addressed and against whom it was patterned was a lay figure
of my own creation.  The reason for this lies partly in my admiration for
almost the entirety of Victor's original post, not simply in the material it
discovers and deploys around the term "leatherneck", but because of the
methodological implications of Victor's writing there.   These seem to me to
quite legitimately to both challenge the usual restrictions of the
dictionary elucidation of words, in drawing attention to the manner in which
a knowledge of miltary history is necessary to even begin to understand
"leatherneck", and to evince a profound scepticism about the way in which
dictionaries are used *within dictionaries.

Somehow, despite sharing this common ground with Victor, I seem to have
managed to fasten onto the relatively small area of disagreement, a
disagreement which could even be seen as the mirror-image of Victor's own
approach, extract two passages from his second post in reply to mine, and
use this to launch what then emerged as a quite irrelevant discourse on
apparently only marginally related topics.

I could, and perhaps should, simply abandon my post at this point.  My only
excuse for continuing is that I think the issues I pursue are in some way,
if this isn't too immodest on my part, related to those in Victor's own
post, and that these are issues worth addressing.

(In a sense, the question of the problematics of dictionary entries, and how
to employ a dictionary, could even be seen as implicit in the beginnings of
Jonathan Lighter's entry on "leatherneck" in HDAS with which I began my own
response to Victor's original post.  There, Jon starts with a citation of
Fenimore Cooper's _The Pilot_, a passage which fails to contain the word
"leatherneck" itself.  How apparently alien to what a dictionary normally
does -- and equally, how admirable and essential in context this is.  My own
extension of Jon's citation to greater length was made possible by the
freedom of the internet, in that there was no publisher breathing down my
neck, insisting that I truncate material to the limit to save space and
reduce publication costs.  If this is recognised as a factor in the
production of virtually any reference text, then it should become almost
standard practice to return to the context of any citation, and expand it.
Thus doth google and cyberspace enable us all.)

That said, and with a reiterated apology to that Victor who is a member of
this list (and to the list itself, both those members of it who may have the
patience to continue with me in this post, and those who may already have
deserted my verbosity), I will now return to my over-impassioned dialogue
with a "Victor Steinbok" largely of my own creation ...


> And I did come across the Farmer entry, but ignored it--not so much
> because it was contrary to my theory, but because it simply followed the
> entry in the 1890 slang dictionary that I did cite, and because, as you
> say, it appeared rather brusque. (In fact, Farmer also lists
> "leatherneck" as a synonym for soldier, along with a dozen other terms,
> including "mudcrusher" and "fly-slicer", under that entry.) Given the
> incestuous relationship between many of these dictionaries, I've also
> made clear my suspicion that the OED entry was also mistakenly based on
> Barere/Leland and Farmer.
> I am also now more inclined to distrust Farmer and other period
> dictionaries--particularly when they are in conflict with earlier sources.

I'm inclined to agree with much of what's contained in the above two
excerpts from your post, Victor, but I'd state the conclusions to be drawn
in a totally different way.

What does it mean to say that there is an "incestuous relationship between
many of these dictionaries," other than that Farmer and Henley draw on
Grose, and that their work is in turn drawn on by Partridge, a relationship
exhaustively studied by Julie Coleman in her (to date) three volumes of an
ongoing history of cant and slang dictionaries?  How is this different to
the situation with regard to English lexicography in general before the
first edition of the OED appeared, and one which won't be remedied by
fiddling at the edges of the current incarnation, a work not after all
intended to be a dictionary of cant or slang, but awaits the appearance of
the first fully-cited dictionary of slang, with regard to the United
Kingdom, at least.

Dismissing these texts because they show an "incestuous relationship" is all
too easy, and can manage to obscure what's important in the differences.  It
would be possible, and even correct, to characterise the relationship
between Head's _Canting Academy_ (1673), _The New Canting Dictionary_
(1725), and _Bacchus and Venus_  (1737) in this fashion, but this would
obscure the manner in which, while drawing on Head's text, _The New Canting
Dictionary_ also extends it in quite significant ways, while _Bacchus and
Venus_ is not simply *indebted to _The New Canting Dictionary_  but
corresponds exactly to the original typeset pages of the earlier work, and
as a result has an evidential value of exactly zero.

Even the execrable _The Slang Dictionary of New York, London, and Paris_ of
1881, which carries its debt to Matsell's _Vocabulum, or, The rogue's
lexicon_ of 1859 well into the realms of what even in the late nineteenth
century would have been considered plagiarism, has its moment of
significance -- why does the author of that work feel it necessary to
perform, among one of his few changes, a toning down of a tale Matsell tells
in cant in order to obscure the way in which a police officer takes a bribe?
Had standards of conduct changed between 1859 and 1881?  Or was Matsell more
prepared to make compromises over the conduct of his officers than we might
expect?  (Not *directly a linguistic point, but Matsell the man inevitably
intersects with Matsell the lexicographer.)

I think, to come back to Farmer, it's partly to do with the double status of
the text.  As a dictionary, _Slang and Its Analogues_ should be treated with
a proper degree of scepticism (though put beside his _Musa Pedestris_, it's
almost a model of scholarly decorum!), but it also exists as a text, and as
such shows that Farmer, in the late nineteenth century, a civilian drawing
presumably on a restricted knowledge of written sources, possibly even a
recently-issued dictionary, took "leatherneck" to mean "a soldier".
Approaching Farmer in this way may seem to be special pleading on my part --
but when it comes down to it, Farmer *isn't just a Joe-Bloggs-in-the-street
of his time, but has some kind of authority -- as did Grose before him.

Once dictionaries are considered as texts in themselves, the very aspect of
them which Victor quite rightly draws attention to, their interdependence,
becomes a positive aspect.  The five editions of Grose, in 1785, 1788, 1796,
1811, and 1823, show the increasing prominence of the term "blowen" (meaning
among other things "someone's particular wench") across the stretch of
texts.  Subordinate to its earlier variant of "blowing" in the 1785 edition,
"blowen" gradually becomes more prominent in the course of the three texts
edited by Grose himself, before virtually exploding in the first edition not
to be directly edited by Grose, that of 1811, both as a headword and more
especially as an element of illustrative quotations to other headwords.
(Though it has to be said that Grose, in his character as poet rather than
dictionary-maker, is more innovative in practice than precept, opting firmly
to use "blowen" rather than "blowing" in a poem published postumously in
_The olio_ of 1792.)  Even the thoroughly derivative edition by Pierce Egan
in 1823 has its part here -- one of Egan's few innovations is to note the
term "blone", a Scottish variant of the word which Egan took from the text
and glossary of David Haggart's _Life_ published only two years before,
shortly after young David had been hanged at Edinburgh.  Egan is thus seen
to be sharper than he is sometimes given credit for, and the distribution of
Haggart's _Life_ instanced.

A dictionary citing *from a dictionary is performing a very different act
from a dictionary citing from any other text.   All too often, as Victor
points out, such a thing can be an instance of parasitism, but this need not
always be so.  On the simplest level, really a commonplace, a dictionary
most probably records already existing usage, and this should be taken into
account.  Earlier dictionary makers may also be more obviously
self-interested that is commonly the case today.  James Hardy Vaux glossing
"blowen" as a prostitute in 1809 or 1812 introduced an wholly false stress
on the term, even as it was used in his own time.  Whether Vaux's attempt to
present himself in his _Memoirs_ as a *reformed criminal, and thus emerge as
holier-than-thou in his treatment  many of the terms he glosses, should be
treated as a flaw, or an example of how words are used by Vaux, is of course
open to argument.

The failure of a present day dictionary to include the term "leatherneck"
would rightly be considered a failure by omission; the absence of
"leatherneck" in Hobson-Dobson should be considered a datum.

As to the OED's reliance on previous dictionaries when it comes to slang and
cant terminology, I am inclined to say, "Would that they had done so more!"
The OED's coverage in this area could be improved at a stroke by replacing
whatever dependence it shows on Partridge's _Dictionary of Slang and
Unconventional English_ by reference to his later _Dictionary of the
Underworld_.  I have long since passed the point of bafflement as to why
there is an almost religious reverence for Partridge's earlier work, and an
unnerving avoidance of even admitting that the later, more fully cited text
even exists.  Perhaps it has something to do with the title -- A Dictionary
of Slang and Unconventional English sounds almost respectable, whereas a
Dictionary of the Underworld ...  Criminals as the Undeserving Poor of the
verbal otherworld, wandering beggars and cheerful vagabonds inhabiting an
idyllic rural neverwhere, who are acceptable when pickpockets and cutpurses
are shunned.

Why am I not surprised?

I realise, Victor, that part of what has happened with this email is that,
if it's not too presumptuous of me to say so, I agree with 95% of what you
said in your original post, and was deeply impressed by both the content and
some of the methodological implications you raise there -- distrust of
dictionaries and extension of dictionaries among these.

What I seem to have done is take that 95% of agreement as if it were read,
and focus on the 5% where I diverge from you.  I should have begun by saying
how much I enjoyed, appreciated, and was enlightened by your post on
"leatherneck".  If I didn't start with that observation, at least I can end
with it.


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