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I recollect vaguely a line found in some piece of poetry by Dylan Thomas, and it suggests a question in many ways puzzling that I could hardly answer. I have not been able to find the poem and I cannot remember where I heard this line, whether it was in a piece of literary criticism on the BBC or in a book. The occasional reader familiar with this author will possibly be able to identify it, but this identification cannot be the object of my question, evidently. Here is what I can remember of it.

…he spoke (knew?) two languages: RP and saloon

"Saloon" becomes metonymically a language (rather a "minor" dialect), and, I surmise, only so in the poetry of Dylan Thomas; the SOED or other dictionaries (online) give no such definition. Again, I have no certitude, but I suspect that the particular definition of "saloon" that gives rise to this term is the drinking place, where alcoholic beverages are served, otherwise called "saloon bar".

Is there in British English, or perhaps in regional British English, in particular in the English spoken in Wales, a lexical unit of that sort, referring to a type of English one might hear in drinking places, or is it most likely the case that the term "saloon" is purely a creation of Dylan Thomas, an exaggeration meant to highlight a certain state of affairs?

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  • Is this a quotation from Thomas, or a comment about him? Dec 2, 2022 at 10:39
  • Not to rain on the parade, but I read the line as a dark joke, a humorous scathing criticism of heavy drink. He spoke crisply ... when not slurring. He spoke the King's English and Scotch. Dec 2, 2022 at 16:36
  • @KateBunting It is a line in one of his poems, that is certain; however I can't remember the exact words, nor the title of the poem.
    – LPH
    Dec 2, 2022 at 20:51
  • @FumbleFingers Your comments bring much light on this question; they deserve, it seems to me, to be turned into an answer. Yes, I am sure my source was British, but the source wouldndn't matter since the term is actually in one of Thomas' line of poetry.
    – LPH
    Dec 2, 2022 at 20:56
  • @FumbleFingers I am quite certain those are Dylan Thomas' words in one of his works; I might err somewhat and instead it could be found in some other type of work of his, such as for instance, Under Milkwood, which might not be poetry, and was written for the radio before being turn into a play.
    – LPH
    Dec 2, 2022 at 21:20

2 Answers 2

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There is a mention of "dialect of the saloon" in one of the citations of saloon (n.) in OED:

1860    G. P. Marsh Lect. Eng. Lang. xx. 440    The aim of a numerous class of popular writers is..to make books..speak the dialect of the saloon.

It is mentioned as a way of speech that English writers are trying to reflect in their written work. Here is the full paragraph from the Lectures on the English Language (by George Perkins Marsh):

The aim of a numerous class of popular writers is to reproduce, in permanent forms, the tone of light and easy conversation, to make books and journals speak the dialect of the saloon, and hence pungency of expression, innuendo, verbal wit, irony, banter, and raillery, trifling with serious interests, are the characteristics of what we call popular literature, and our language must have a vocabulary which accommodates itself to the taste of those whom such qualities of diction alone attract.

There are also mentions of "saloon lingo" where some terms like bum's rush come from this lingo:

Interestingly, the phrase “bum’s rush” comes from early 20th century saloon lingo. As Green’s Dictionary of Slang explains, “the bum’s rush” is what would happen if a vagrant entered a saloon, hoping to take advantage of “the sometimes sumptuous free lunch counters, which were meant for drinkers only.” The freeloader would be forcibly removed from the premises. (Wall Street Journal 8.22.14) - goodspiritsnews.wordpress.com

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  • In the quote, RP is the language of posh people (or the ruling class), and the language of the saloon is that of the rest (the ruled, the ordinary person). I can find plenty of examples of similar phrases like the man in the pub.
    – Stuart F
    Dec 2, 2022 at 10:51
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    @StuartF: But you won't very often come across the man in the saloon in BrE material. Dec 2, 2022 at 11:55
  • I won't keep on about saloon being American rather than English, British, or Welsh. But I must point out that George Perkins Marsh and bum's rush are also American. The only element I've seen so far on this page that's primarily British rather than American is RP (I don't think I've ever seen/heard an American use the term). Dec 2, 2022 at 21:17
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…he spoke (knew?) two languages: RP and saloon

This should be understood as “RP English and saloon English”

The verb to speak is literal in the sense of “to address someone verbally” and “to know” is not appropriate.

The construction “NP1/Adj + NP2” gives “NP2 associated [contextually] with NP1/substantivised adjective”.

The example is thus no different from

…he spoke (knew?) two languages: the English that was spoken in RP and the English that was spoken in saloons.

Without knowing the type of English used by the writer/speaker or when he was speaking, but knowing that Dylan Thomas was not opposed to the odd pint of beer, it is a fair assumption to understand that “saloon” meant the saloon bar of pubs.

Without having to be too precise about all the possible linguistic variants of the language spoken in saloon bars, the writer is also assuming that we all know the difference between the common language of the reasonably educated working man and RP.

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