I came across an article in The Times (London) from 1875 comparing the slang of France, England, and America. The main differences according to this article are that English slang is the most "forcible and obscure", American slang the most direct and appropriate, and French slang the most clever and witty. Is this still true today? Scroll down for an interesting read...
Favorite quote: "[In America] people have a disagreeable habit of shooting eachother out of their coat-tails pocket occasionally, and not unfrequently are discovered taking the morning air suspended from a convenient limb of a tree."
"There are only three nations who use slang to any great extent--viz., France, England, and America. Of these French is by far the wittiest, American the most appropriate, and English the most forcible and obscure. A Parisian gamin is, probably, in his way the most ready-witted person in the world, but his slang is so pointed that it would be entirely lost on an average Briton; even supposing that he understood French, he would be sure to miss the point. English slang is never witty, and in its more general sense is almost unintelligible to the uninitiated. American slang, on the other hand, is so palpable and clear that it can almost be called an art by itself, and a bulky volume might be written on it.
"Some American slang expressions are really admirable in their application. Take, for instance, that one of "You bet your bottom dollar on it." Why your bottom dollar? Any one who has been in a gambling hell in a mining district knows that the players invariably pile up the gold pieces one over the other, taking one or two off the top as they require the stake. When they get to the bottom coin of course it is their last chance. Nothing could be more applicable. Then, again, the expression "He died with his boots on," signifying that the gentleman in question did not die peacefully in his bed, but met with a violent and sudden end. Out West people have a disagreeable habit of shooting eachother out of their coat-tails pocket occasionally, and not unfrequently are discovered taking the morning air suspended from a convenient limb of a tree. Volumes could not say more.
"Take the slang phrase "pan out,"--such and such an event will not "pan out," signifying that it will not come to pass. We [Britons] commonly say "come off," but this expression is far inferior to the other. It is a mining term; when a miner wishes to know whether a claim is likely to pay or not, he takes up a shovelful of dirty and puts it in his prospecting pan, washing it all away till he gets a grain or two of gold at the bottom of the pan, if there is any in the dirt. In this case the claim is said to "pan out right." There is no wit or obscurity about it, but nothing could be more perfectly appropriate.
"But where English folk surpass all others is in literary slang, which has grown to such a pitch that it is scarcely possible to take up any modern novel, with few exceptions, without finding its pages disfigured by this detestable fault. If our language was poor this might be excusable, but when we have one of the most descriptive in the world to draw upon, it is unpardonable. Some use the heavy, pompous style, with such expressions as "outcome," "fearsome," &c.; if the heroine cries, she "gives vent to bursts of passionate, glorious emotion;" a tall, dark man is "stalwart and swarthy;" the hero never walks, but "strides," and has an awkward habit of occasionally biting his nether lip till the blood comes. Then there is the ballad style of slang--"Up and spake" Sir Somebody; some one is always doing something "right nobly;" and these writers seem to think that the more obsolete and outlandish their phrase the purer English they are, forgetting or ignoring the fact that a nation's language grows more or less with its manufactures and customs. Worse even than these are the mild, goody, finicking style of writers, who wish to appear so very innocent and childlike; they have not even a good repertoire, as their stock-in-trade is limited to about a dozen expressions, like "deftly," "winsome," "daintie." They generally put their adjectives after the substantives, and are certain to call a pretty girl a "layde fair;" and a fast horse, a "courser fleet."
The article continues with general grievances and complaints about slang used in art criticism, sports-writing, and in general. The author calls the use of slang "the surest test of weakness in a writer, as simplicity is the truest test of excellence." The full article can be viewed from this site.
Source: "Slang," The Times, Tuesday, Mar 30, 1875; pg. 11; Issue 28276; col B.