"This Departure From the Nature of the Words": Matsell's Attempt to Un-Babelize New York
Keywords:George Washington Matsell, Vocabulum, Babel, Rogue’s Lexicon, cant, slang, Flash, nineteenth-century New York, Jacques Derrida, “Des tours de Babel”
AbstractThis essay examines and unravels the ties between criminal behaviour and the cant dialect in nineteenth-century New York, as sketched by George W. Matsell’s Vocabulum. By deploying a theoretical framework rooted in Jacques Derrida's exploration of the Babel myth, I expose how Matsell’s 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 Matsell’s specious lexicon played upon bourgeois prejudices that linked poverty and delinquency. By strategically distorting recognizable phrases and slang, Matsell’s 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.
LicenseAuthors who publish with this journal agree to the following terms:
- Authors retain copyright and grant the journal right of first publication with the work simultaneously licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution License that allows others to share the work with an acknowledgement of the work's authorship and initial publication in this journal.
- Authors are able to enter into separate, additional contractual arrangements for the non-exclusive distribution of the journal's published version of the work (e.g., post it to an institutional repository or publish it in a book), with an acknowledgement of its initial publication in this journal.
- Authors are permitted and encouraged to post their work online (e.g., in institutional repositories or on their website) prior to and during the submission process, as it can lead to productive exchanges, as well as earlier and greater citation of published work (See The Effect of Open Access).