An English Translation of “The Princess of Jargon” by Alice Becker-Ho Translated by John McHale

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From French to English

This groundbreaking, comparative study of dangerous-class slangs in use across ten countries, from Europe to the Americas, brings to light the common influences that have helped to shape them over the last five hundred years. The author begins by examining the social, political and linguistic impact that the coming of the Gypsies had on fifteenth-century Europe. Quotations from a variety of authors show the continuing interaction down the centuries between Gypsies and all kinds of social strata including the criminal or ‘dangerous’ classes. It is the author’s clearly stated aim to build and expand upon the pioneering analysis of slang etymology begun by Marcel Schwob and Georges Guieysse in the 1890s, and to distinguish between argot and the forms of ‘media speak’ that nowadays masquerade as slangs. Central to the work is an extensive glossary of French argot terms, their Gypsy stems and other European slang cognates. The appended ‘Supplement’ finds the author expanding on related themes such as the significance of the French term affranchi and the role of Yiddish, which along with Gypsy, emerge as the mother tongues of European slangs.


“One of the most challenging and rewarding achievements for the etymologist and/or lexicographer is to discover a new origin for an old word. ….The etymologies of slang words are without doubt the most slippery of lexical eels to catch and hold on to: associations, metaphors, deformations and importations all muddy the water. And so it is a pleasure to follow Alice Becker-Ho in her etymological meanderings through the influence of Romani on the jargon of dangerous classes.” – (From the Preface) Malcolm Offord, University of Nottingham

“While it has long been acknowledged that among the sources of slang, especially cant or criminal slang, Romani, the Gypsy tongue, had a role to play, that role has never yet been properly explored. Now, in the Princes of Jargon, Alice Becker-Ho has created a groundbreaking and illuminating remedy to this omission. Romani, to her, is not just a contributor; it is the very ‘mother tongue’ of European canting. As readers will find, Ms Becker-Ho is a welcome rarity among most of those who write on slang: she not only understands the language, she admits to appreciating it. ….Becker-Ho revels in her gypsy coiners: it is to his credit that John McHale, in translating her work, has ensured that those who enjoy slang and its stories may now revel in her work.” – Jonathon Green, Author of Cassell Dictionary of Slang

“It is always controversial to challenge the minimalist view of borrowings from one language to another, and even more so when the challenge comes from someone outside academia. In The Princes of Jargon, Alice Becker-Ho argues that the mere twenty acknowledged borrowings from Romani to French argot should be expanded by one hundred or so, and if any of her suggestions turn out to be valid, her work will have value for both Romani and French argot studies. John McHale has performed a service by making Becker-Ho’s book accessible to an English-reading audience. I welcome its publication.” Professor Gerald Cohen, University of Missouri-Rolla

Table of Contents

Preface to the second French edition
The Princes of Jargon

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