by PETER BESAS
The emergence of slanguage was essentially a phenomenon of the 1920s. In the early decades of VARIETY’s existence, Sime Silverman and most of his staff simply wrote as they spoke, using the speech of the street, but without straying too much from proper English.
However, with the upheavals endemic to the 1920s, post World War I society cast off conventions and constraints, including the written word, and plunged recklessly into the Flapper Age. And with it came not only the transformation of the written language, but the acceptance of that patois which heretofore was considered ill-suited for anything other than genre literature.
It was then that VARIETY’s slanguage erupted like a linguistic Vesuvius, pouring its verbal lava into every journalistic interstice of the paper.
Perhaps it was just part of the transformation of America that occurred after the breakdown of traditional structures. But the change in mores spawned word slingers like Damon Runyon, George Ade, Walter Winchell and other practitioners of the vernacular, creating a style that pleased readers already familiar with it in the street.
Slang had always existed, but its popular proliferation and flowering in the 1920s is unparalleled in earlier and later decades. VARIETY’s slanguage in essence was the slang of Broadway enhanced and given one or two further fillips.
In the 1920s some of the paper’s most formative staff was added. And it was largely they – Conway, Pulaski, Greason, Green and Sime – who kneaded the slanguage and made it the trademark of VARIETY.
Before long we start getting heads such as “Variety Goes Chump for Flaps Who Have But One Life to Five M.C.’s”.
By 1929, the slanguage had evolved to such a degree as to be almost cryptic to outsiders. One story read, “Legs Minus That S.A. – N.G. Dancer Stagers; Fiends on Gams. Chorines Sifted by Stems – Class Femme Steps High – Doorknob Knees Mean Floppo.” (S.A. – sex appeal; N.G. – no good; stems and gams for legs, and floppo for failure)
In a 1930 article in the Bookman, the author wonders, “What, for example, can the uninitiated make out of this headline? ‘Pash Slaps M.C. Fan Clubs Rated Worthless to Theatres as B.O. Gag'”. The author renders it into the King’s English as: It has been ascertained that organized theatre parties of young girls who have a sentimental admiration for the actors who function as masters of ceremonies at motion picture theatres are worthless so far as increasing box office receipts goes.”
One of the earliest practitioners of slanguage on the sheet was Jack Conway (Con) who for 15 years before and during the Depression impishly filled VARIETY with an indelible jumble of scintillating metaphors, mother wit, wisecracks and street slang. Conway slung slang more adeptly than a cook in a diner slung hash.
Conway penned a piece for the 21st Anniverary issue, entitled, “Why I Write Slang”. He began by explaining that at an early age he picked up a “three-a-day habit against food.” And then: “Although I have tried all the known cures including a prejudice against work, I’m still an addict. No craving for expression motivated me when I hung up the finger glove and sliding pads in favor of socking a typewriter. A crossed ligament in the right soup bone had more to do with the assault than all the inhibitions outside of the Observation Ward at Bellevue (hospital).
“As one apt critic put it, ‘Without slang he would be dumb’ and he might have added, hungry. Slang, in addition to providing me with seven flops weekly and three scoffs daily, has saved me from night school and made it possible for me to get the pennies without making weight for the erudite word slingers who are big leaguers in the three-syllable racket. I had sense enough to know that with my 50-word vocabulary, I’d be a busher in that company . . .”
Abel Green also was a famous slang slinger, and used to speak the way the paper read. When prestigous man-of-letters Bennett Cerf met Abel the first time, Green’s partiing remark was, “Stay with ’em, boy. I think you’ve got B.O.!” When Green noted the horrified expression on Cerf’s face, who thought VARIETY’s editor was accusing him of having body odor, Abel explained, “Box office, boy, box office!” Besa
Copies of VARIETY were likely to turn up in the most unexpected places. Random House editor Bennet Cerf once found one in George Bernard Shaw’s apartment in 1938. Cerf’s mission was to persuade Shaw to let him include Saint Joan in a Theatre Guild Anthology. But Shaw declined. Cerf noticed a copy of VARIETY on his desk and when the editor expressed surprise, Shaw told him he wouldn’t be without it.
“I thought I knew the English language,” he said, “until one day I saw VARIETY in a friend’s home. Upon my soul, I didn’t understand a word of it. I subscribed at once”.
This led to a long discussion of the sheet’s history, and a marked unbending on the part of Shaw. Finally, he gave permission to use the play, upon payment of exactly twice the amount Cerf had paid any other contributor.
/// In 1933, W.J. Funk of the Funk and Wagnalls Company, which published the Standard Dictionary and the Literary Digest, drew up a list of the ten most fecund makers of American slang then current. Sime Silverman was among them.