Pigritia is a terrible word.
It engenders a whole world, la pegre, for which read theft,
and a hell, la pegrenne, for which read hunger.
Thus, idleness is the mother.
She has a son, theft, and a daughter, hunger.
Where are we at this moment? In the land of slang.
What is slang? It is at one and the same time, a nation and a dialect;
it is theft in its two kinds; people and language.
When, four and thirty years ago, the narrator of this grave
and sombre history introduced into a work written with the same
aim as this a thief who talked argot, there arose amazement
and clamor.--"What! How! Argot! Why, argot is horrible!
It is the language of prisons, galleys, convicts, of everything
that is most abominable in society!" etc., etc.
 The Last Day of a Condemned Man.
We have never understood this sort of objections.
Since that time, two powerful romancers, one of whom is a profound
observer of the human heart, the other an intrepid friend of
the people, Balzac and Eugene Sue, having represented their ruffians
as talking their natural language, as the author of The Last Day
of a Condemned Man did in 1828, the same objections have been raised.
People repeated: "What do authors mean by that revolting dialect?
Slang is odious! Slang makes one shudder!"
Who denies that? Of course it does.
When it is a question of probing a wound, a gulf, a society,
since when has it been considered wrong to go too far? to go
to the bottom? We have always thought that it was sometimes a
courageous act, and, at least, a simple and useful deed, worthy of
the sympathetic attention which duty accepted and fulfilled merits.
Why should one not explore everything, and study everything?
Why should one halt on the way? The halt is a matter depending
on the sounding-line, and not on the leadsman.
Certainly, too, it is neither an attractive nor an easy task to
undertake an investigation into the lowest depths of the social order,
where terra firma comes to an end and where mud begins, to rummage
in those vague, murky waves, to follow up, to seize and to fling,
still quivering, upon the pavement that abject dialect which is dripping
with filth when thus brought to the light, that pustulous vocabulary
each word of which seems an unclean ring from a monster of the mire
and the shadows. Nothing is more lugubrious than the contemplation
thus in its nudity, in the broad light of thought, of the horrible
swarming of slang. It seems, in fact, to be a sort of horrible beast
made for the night which has just been torn from its cesspool.
One thinks one beholds a frightful, living, and bristling thicket
which quivers, rustles, wavers, returns to shadow, threatens and glares.
One word resembles a claw, another an extinguished and bleeding eye,
such and such a phrase seems to move like the claw of a crab.
All this is alive with the hideous vitality of things which have been
organized out of disorganization.
Now, when has horror ever excluded study? Since when has malady
banished medicine? Can one imagine a naturalist refusing to study
the viper, the bat, the scorpion, the centipede, the tarantula,
and one who would cast them back into their darkness, saying: "Oh! how
ugly that is!" The thinker who should turn aside from slang would
resemble a surgeon who should avert his face from an ulcer or a wart.
He would be like a philologist refusing to examine a fact in language,
a philosopher hesitating to scrutinize a fact in humanity.
For, it must be stated to those who are ignorant of the case,
that argot is both a literary phenomenon and a social result.
What is slang, properly speaking? It is the language of wretchedness.
We may be stopped; the fact may be put to us in general terms,
which is one way of attenuating it; we may be told, that all trades,
professions, it may be added, all the accidents of the social
hierarchy and all forms of intelligence, have their own slang.
The merchant who says: "Montpellier not active, Marseilles fine quality,"
the broker on 'change who says: "Assets at end of current month,"
the gambler who says: "Tiers et tout, refait de pique," the sheriff
of the Norman Isles who says: The holder in fee reverting to his landed
estate cannot claim the fruits of that estate during the hereditary
seizure of the real estate by the mortgagor," the playwright who says:
"The piece was hissed," the comedian who says: "I've made a hit,"
the philosopher who says: "Phenomenal triplicity," the huntsman
who says: "Voileci allais, Voileci fuyant," the phrenologist
who says: "Amativeness, combativeness, secretiveness," the infantry
soldier who says: "My shooting-iron," the cavalry-man who says:
"My turkey-cock," the fencing-master who says: "Tierce, quarte, break,"
the printer who says: "My shooting-stick and galley,"--all, printer,
fencing-master, cavalry dragoon, infantry-man, phrenologist,
huntsman, philosopher, comedian, playwright, sheriff, gambler,
stock-broker, and merchant, speak slang. The painter who says:
"My grinder," the notary who says: "My Skip-the-Gutter,"
the hairdresser who says: "My mealyback," the cobbler who says:
"My cub," talks slang. Strictly speaking, if one absolutely insists on
the point, all the different fashions of saying the right and the left,
the sailor's port and starboard, the scene-shifter's court-side, and
garden-side, the beadle's Gospel-side and Epistle-side, are slang.
There is the slang of the affected lady as well as of the precieuses.
The Hotel Rambouillet nearly adjoins the Cour des Miracles. There is
a slang of duchesses, witness this phrase contained in a love-letter
from a very great lady and a very pretty woman of the Restoration:
"You will find in this gossip a fultitude of reasons why I should
libertize." Diplomatic ciphers are slang; the pontifical
chancellery by using 26 for Rome, grkztntgzyal for despatch,
and abfxustgrnogrkzu tu XI. for the Due de Modena, speaks slang.
The physicians of the Middle Ages who, for carrot, radish, and turnip,
said Opoponach, perfroschinum, reptitalmus, dracatholicum, angelorum,
postmegorum, talked slang. The sugar-manufacturer who says:
"Loaf, clarified, lumps, bastard, common, burnt,"--this honest
manufacturer talks slang. A certain school of criticism twenty years ago,
which used to say: "Half of the works of Shakespeare consists of plays
upon words and puns,"--talked slang. The poet, and the artist who,
with profound understanding, would designate M. de Montmorency
as "a bourgeois," if he were not a judge of verses and statues,
speak slang. The classic Academician who calls flowers "Flora," fruits,
"Pomona," the sea, "Neptune," love, "fires," beauty, "charms," a horse,
"a courser," the white or tricolored cockade, "the rose of Bellona,"
the three-cornered hat, "Mars' triangle,"--that classical Academician
talks slang. Algebra, medicine, botany, have each their slang.
The tongue which is employed on board ship, that wonderful language
of the sea, which is so complete and so picturesque, which was spoken
by Jean Bart, Duquesne, Suffren, and Duperre, which mingles with
the whistling of the rigging, the sound of the speaking-trumpets,
the shock of the boarding-irons, the roll of the sea, the wind,
the gale, the cannon, is wholly a heroic and dazzling slang, which
is to the fierce slang of the thieves what the lion is to the jackal.
 "Vous trouverez dans ces potains-la, une foultitude de raisons
pour que je me libertise."
No doubt. But say what we will, this manner of understanding
the word slang is an extension which every one will not admit.
For our part, we reserve to the word its ancient and precise,
circumscribed and determined significance, and we restrict slang
to slang. The veritable slang and the slang that is pre-eminently
slang, if the two words can be coupled thus, the slang immemorial
which was a kingdom, is nothing else, we repeat, than the homely,
uneasy, crafty, treacherous, venomous, cruel, equivocal, vile, profound,
fatal tongue of wretchedness. There exists, at the extremity of all
abasement and all misfortunes, a last misery which revolts and makes
up its mind to enter into conflict with the whole mass of fortunate
facts and reigning rights; a fearful conflict, where, now cunning,
now violent, unhealthy and ferocious at one and the same time,
it attacks the social order with pin-pricks through vice, and with
club-blows through crime. To meet the needs of this conflict,
wretchedness has invented a language of combat, which is slang.
To keep afloat and to rescue from oblivion, to hold above the gulf,
were it but a fragment of some language which man has spoken and
which would, otherwise, be lost, that is to say, one of the elements,
good or bad, of which civilization is composed, or by which it
is complicated, to extend the records of social observation;
is to serve civilization itself. This service Plautus rendered,
consciously or unconsciously, by making two Carthaginian soldiers
talk Phoenician; that service Moliere rendered, by making so many
of his characters talk Levantine and all sorts of dialects.
Here objections spring up afresh. Phoenician, very good!
Levantine, quite right! Even dialect, let that pass! They are
tongues which have belonged to nations or provinces; but slang!
What is the use of preserving slang? What is the good of assisting
slang "to survive"?
To this we reply in one word, only. Assuredly, if the tongue
which a nation or a province has spoken is worthy of interest,
the language which has been spoken by a misery is still more worthy
of attention and study.
It is the language which has been spoken, in France, for example,
for more than four centuries, not only by a misery, but by every
possible human misery.
And then, we insist upon it, the study of social deformities
and infirmities, and the task of pointing them out with a view
to remedy, is not a business in which choice is permitted.
The historian of manners and ideas has no less austere a mission than
the historian of events. The latter has the surface of civilization,
the conflicts of crowns, the births of princes, the marriages of kings,
battles, assemblages, great public men, revolutions in the daylight,
everything on the exterior; the other historian has the interior,
the depths, the people who toil, suffer, wait, the oppressed woman,
the agonizing child, the secret war between man and man,
obscure ferocities, prejudices, plotted iniquities, the subterranean,
the indistinct tremors of multitudes, the die-of-hunger,
the counter-blows of the law, the secret evolution of souls,
the go-bare-foot, the bare-armed, the disinherited, the orphans,
the unhappy, and the infamous, all the forms which roam through
the darkness. He must descend with his heart full of charity,
and severity at the same time, as a brother and as a judge, to those
impenetrable casemates where crawl, pell-mell, those who bleed
and those who deal the blow, those who weep and those who curse,
those who fast and those who devour, those who endure evil and those
who inflict it. Have these historians of hearts and souls duties
at all inferior to the historians of external facts? Does any one
think that Alighieri has any fewer things to say than Machiavelli?
Is the under side of civilization any less important than the upper
side merely because it is deeper and more sombre? Do we really
know the mountain well when we are not acquainted with the cavern?
Let us say, moreover, parenthetically, that from a few words
of what precedes a marked separation might be inferred between
the two classes of historians which does not exist in our mind.
No one is a good historian of the patent, visible, striking,
and public life of peoples, if he is not, at the same time,
in a certain measure, the historian of their deep and hidden life;
and no one is a good historian of the interior unless he
understands how, at need, to be the historian of the exterior also.
The history of manners and ideas permeates the history of events,
and this is true reciprocally. They constitute two different orders
of facts which correspond to each other, which are always interlaced,
and which often bring forth results. All the lineaments which
providence traces on the surface of a nation have their parallels,
sombre but distinct, in their depths, and all convulsions of the
depths produce ebullitions on the surface. True history being
a mixture of all things, the true historian mingles in everything.
Man is not a circle with a single centre; he is an ellipse with
a double focus. Facts form one of these, and ideas the other.
Slang is nothing but a dressing-room where the tongue having some
bad action to perform, disguises itself. There it clothes itself
in word-masks, in metaphor-rags. In this guise it becomes horrible.
One finds it difficult to recognize. Is it really the French tongue,
the great human tongue? Behold it ready to step upon the stage
and to retort upon crime, and prepared for all the employments
of the repertory of evil. It no longer walks, it hobbles; it limps
on the crutch of the Court of Miracles, a crutch metamorphosable
into a club; it is called vagrancy; every sort of spectre,
its dressers, have painted its face, it crawls and rears, the double
gait of the reptile. Henceforth, it is apt at all roles, it is made
suspicious by the counterfeiter, covered with verdigris by the forger,
blacked by the soot of the incendiary; and the murderer applies its rouge.
When one listens, by the side of honest men, at the portals of society,
one overhears the dialogues of those who are on the outside.
One distinguishes questions and replies. One perceives, without
understanding it, a hideous murmur, sounding almost like human accents,
but more nearly resembling a howl than an articulate word.
It is slang. The words are misshapen and stamped with an indescribable
and fantastic bestiality. One thinks one hears hydras talking.
It is unintelligible in the dark. It gnashes and whispers,
completing the gloom with mystery. It is black in misfortune,
it is blacker still in crime; these two blacknesses amalgamated,
compose slang. Obscurity in the atmosphere, obscurity in acts,
obscurity in voices. Terrible, toad-like tongue which goes
and comes, leaps, crawls, slobbers, and stirs about in monstrous
wise in that immense gray fog composed of rain and night, of hunger,
of vice, of falsehood, of injustice, of nudity, of suffocation,
and of winter, the high noonday of the miserable.
Let us have compassion on the chastised. Alas! Who are we ourselves?
Who am I who now address you? Who are you who are listening to me?
And are you very sure that we have done nothing before we were born?
The earth is not devoid of resemblance to a jail. Who knows
whether man is not a recaptured offender against divine justice?
Look closely at life. It is so made, that everywhere we feel the sense
Are you what is called a happy man? Well! you are sad every day.
Each day has its own great grief or its little care. Yesterday you
were trembling for a health that is dear to you, to-day you fear
for your own; to-morrow it will be anxiety about money, the day
after to-morrow the diatribe of a slanderer, the day after that,
the misfortune of some friend; then the prevailing weather, then something
that has been broken or lost, then a pleasure with which your
conscience and your vertebral column reproach you; again, the course
of public affairs. This without reckoning in the pains of the heart.
And so it goes on. One cloud is dispelled, another forms.
There is hardly one day out of a hundred which is wholly joyous
and sunny. And you belong to that small class who are happy!
As for the rest of mankind, stagnating night rests upon them.
Thoughtful minds make but little use of the phrase: the fortunate
and the unfortunate. In this world, evidently the vestibule
of another, there are no fortunate.
The real human division is this: the luminous and the shady.
To diminish the number of the shady, to augment the number
of the luminous,--that is the object. That is why we cry:
Education! science! To teach reading, means to light the fire;
every syllable spelled out sparkles.
However, he who says light does not, necessarily, say joy.
People suffer in the light; excess burns. The flame is the enemy
of the wing. To burn without ceasing to fly,--therein lies the
marvel of genius.
When you shall have learned to know, and to love, you will
still suffer. The day is born in tears. The luminous weep,
if only over those in darkness.