Charles Dickens was born February 7, 1812. In celebration of his bicentenary, Masterpiece Theatre on PBS recently featured The Old Curiosity Shop.
Although this BBC version focused only on Little Nell and her grandfather, as in so much of Dickens, the atrocious conditions of the Victorian era poor were highlighted.
In the 1840 book, Dickens described a London slum: “On every side, as far as the eye could see into the heavy distance; tall chimneys crowding on each other ... poured out their plague of smoke, obscured the light, and made foul the melancholy air ... Men, women, children, wan in their looks and ragged in attire ... begged upon the road, or scowled half-naked from the doorless houses.”
The slum-dweller best remembered by most people who’ve read Dickens is Jo, the crossing sweeper (Bleak House, 1852).
Dickens wrote: “Jo lives — that is to say, Jo has not yet died — in a ruinous place, known to the like of him by the name of Tom-all-Alone’s. It is a black, dilapidated street, avoided by all decent people ... These tumbling tenements contain, by night, a swarm of misery ... These ruined shelters have bred a crowd of foul existence that crawls in and out of gaps in walls and board; and coils itself to sleep, in maggot numbers, where the rain drops in ... fetching and carrying fever and sowing more evil in its every footprint.”
London’s slums grew out of the Industrial Revolution, a period beginning about 1712 and continuing to this day. When factories sprang up in cities, rural people were drawn to the city to work. But pay was poor, hours long, workplaces unspeakably bad and housing scarce. Dickens decried these terrible conditions.
Lucinda Hawksley, Dickens’s great-great-great-granddaughter, says Victorian social ills that concerned Dickens persist today. She noted, “Imagine how different our societies could be today (if we shared Dickens’s) belief that those with money, power and influence need to take responsibility for those who are disenfranchised” (Times Literary Supplement).
Oxford defines slum as 1) A room; 2) street, alley, court, etc., in a crowded district, inhabited by low-class people or the very poor.
Slum, of unknown etymology, appears to have its origins in 1812 cant.
Cant has almost 30 meanings, ranging from, “a squared log,” to, “to tilt,” to, “a share,” to “the secret peculiar language of a class or sect.”
American Heritage refines this definition, saying cant is the vocabulary peculiar to members of groups on the fringe of society, e.g., thieves.
Cant probably arose from the Norman French cant (singing, jargon), which originated in the Latin canter (to sing; tell).
Dickens’s name has also spawned several words — the first, Dickensian, coined in 1842. This was quickly followed by Dickenesque (1856), Dickensy (1859), Dickensiana (1870).
Dickens, a shortening of Dickinson, means, “son of Dick.”
Words like “slumber” and “slump” are unrelated to slum.
“Slums and bums,” U.S. campus slang (1970) means, “a course in urban local government.”