What Happens When Words Disappear? Part One

One of Scott Fitzgerald’s early stories is called “The Jelly-Bean”. The collection naturally explained this as ancient slang, I think even Confederacy, for “idler”. The Wiki page, after describing the confectionery, makes no mention of Confederate idiom but summarises the Jelly-Bean as a Gilded-Age term for “a young man who dressed stylishly but had little else to recommend him”, more or less equivalent to “dandy” and “fop”. There is an illustration, from sheet music of the era.

Not only is “Jelly-Bean” quite unknown to Brits of my age, but I am not sure whether Modern Youf would know the word “dandy”, let alone “fop”. A character in Hamlet is listed in the Dramatis Personae as “Osip, a Fop”, as if no more need be said, as of course it doesn’t. But who remembers Shakespeare nowadays?

There are similar vanished terms, this time from my side of the Atlantic. I well remember the “lounge-lizard” and have heard of the “parlour-snake”. The “boulevardier” at least walks, perhaps picking up women on the way as well as exhibiting what Dickens’ Mr Turveydrop would call his Deportment, but the lounge-lizard does not even do that. He expects to be admired on the sofa, and perhaps get picked up from there. That is where Bertie Wooster remains while waiting for his aunts to leave him money. Now, what any women actually saw in Jelly-Beans and Lounge-Lizards remains a mystery to me; the only explanation would seem to be that a certain subspecies, being quite unable to see beyond their own clothes, cannot see beyond a male’s either.

I have not researched it by asking a sample of wired kids, but I have a terrible suspicion that “idler” is almost equally defunct as “fop”.

We should observe at once that an idler is not at all the same thing as a young man without anything to do because society has afforded him nothing to do and no income on which to do it. It may suit the book of the plutocrats and their sycophants to pretend otherwise, but the old-school “idler” was always well-off. According to Baudelaire, the equally prosperous “flâneur” and “boulevardier” were not doing nothing, but exerting keen powers of observation of the urban scene – the birdwatchers of the bourgeoisie.

No, the true “idler” probably maintained the décadent pose of being too sophisticated to lower himself to anything useful – which is not too far from what we now call “cool” – but it was equally likely that he was, and is, merely stupid and lazy.

But this brings us to the point of my whole projected series on vanished words. It is hardly possible any more to call a person “lazy”, because that will invoke long ages of plutocratic contempt for the poor and so insult and traumatise the poor fellow – if he can be bothered. The word “lazy” nevertheless still exists, although “shiftless” is under pressure, being redolent of the old distinction between the deserving and undeserving poor. Not everybody wants us to have the concept of personal irresponsibility. “Loafer” is hanging on by its fingernails, while “fop” has simply disappeared. “Idler” will, I think, soon follow it.
The principle I shall be advancing in this series is that the disappearance of a word does not mean that the thing no longer exists; rather the contrary, it means that we may no longer object to it. The omissions become a protected species. Cui bono? Who benefits from our no longer having a word for the well-off young man with nothing better to do but wear clothes? Surely the character best served by our not being able to call anyone an idler, or a fop, or a lounge-lizard, or a Jelly-Bean, is – drumroll! The Fop.

A case can be made that “fop” and its ancient synonyms perfectly well cover social media influencers and their vast audiences. On the other hand, at least some of these influencers do things, while the aforementioned sheet-music picture of the Jelly-Bean shows an overdressed young man holding his cane and cigarette just so while three rich ladies in the distance look inclined to approach him. If he is doing anything it all, it is being a sexual object for the latter, and hoping to profit from their female gaze. Now that we have both social media and more sexually assertive females, we should be able to call this the Great Age of Foppery. But we can’t.

Posted on November 18, 2021 at 12:15 by Hugo Grinebiter · Permalink
In: CULTURAL ODDS AND ENDS, Some Notes On Language

Leave a Reply