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Writing the Prizefight

Pierce Egan’s "Boxiana" World

David Snowdon

This book won the Lord Aberdare Literary Prize for Sports History (2013)

This book focuses on the literary contribution made by the pugilistic writing of Pierce Egan (c. 1772-1849), identifying the elements that rendered Egan’s style distinctive and examining the ways his writing invigorated the sporting narrative. In particular, the author analyses Egan’s blend of inventive imagery and linguistic exuberance within the commentaries of the Boxiana series (1812-29). The book explores the metropolitan and sporting jargon used by the diverse range of characters that inhabited Egan’s ‘Pugilistic Hemisphere’ and looks at Egan’s exploitation of prizefighting’s theatricality. Another significant theme is the role of pugilistic reporting in perpetuating stereotypical notions relating to British national identity, military readiness and morality. Consideration of Egan’s metropolitan rambles is complemented by discussion of the heterogeneity, spectacle and social dynamics of the prize ring and its reportage. The book traces Egan’s impact during the nineteenth century and, importantly, evaluates his influence on the subsequent development of sporting journalism.


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Chapter 2 Flash!: The Language of the Metropolis and the Prize Ring


It may be useful to consider this modern view of the linguistic categories that feature heavily in the works under discussion: Slang is usually short-lived, and often belongs to a specific age group or social clique. It is used, like fashion, to define in-groups and out-groups. Jargon is the specialized language of an occupational or interest group, and functions as often to exclude as to include. Cant is the secret language of thieves and beggars, and is used for deception and concealment. Flash is used with specific reference to the fashionable slang of London’s eighteenth- and nineteenth-century demi-monde. The boundaries between these types of language cannot be clearly defined, and individual terms move easily between categories.1 Flash is associated with the ‘demi-monde’, emphasising the term’s rather dubious connotations. Presumably, the upper-class individuals who embraced the f lash style would not share that particular perception, but Egan’s tales about low-life escapades of disguised corinthian impostors imply that they did, intermittently, form part of this underworld com- munity. Egan’s Grose (1823) yoked the ‘showy, ostentatious’ sense of ‘f lash’ with the ‘shrewd’ or ‘stylish’ one, whilst Bee’s Sportsman’s Slang (1825) sug- gested a ‘Flash-man’ may have originally been a ‘highwayman’, and that he was now ‘the favourite, or protector, of a prostitute’. Perhaps the definition that most severely undercuts the desired ideal of ‘f lashness’ is delivered, presumably inadvertently, by its champion himself: ‘to appear a knowing person: to be f ly, down, or awake; one not to be had’ (Egan’s Grose)...

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