"This Departure From the Nature of the Words": Matsell's Attempt to Un-Babelize New York

Matt Lidstone

Abstract


This essay examines and unravels the ties between criminal behaviour and the cant dialect in nineteenth-century New York, as sketched by George W. Matsells Vocabulum. By deploying a theoretical framework rooted in Jacques Derrida's exploration of the Babel myth, I expose how Matsells supposed documentation of a total language is meritless. Examining literature published contemporaneously with the Vocabulum, I highlight the recurring linkage of working-class dialects and crime, noting how Matsells specious lexicon played upon bourgeois prejudices that linked poverty and delinquency. By strategically distorting recognizable phrases and slang, Matsells attempt to expose the criminal underbelly of New York documents actual language, but language that has been narrowed in scope and heavily manipulated in an attempt to represent criminals as a particular class of people with a particular common language.

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