The Origin of 'Slum' as a Trans-Class Concept

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Abstract

The 'slum' concept originated as a descriptor for trans-class, or urban majority, environments in and around which people of different social levels lived in close proximity to each other. This article reappraises the concept’s emergence in physically aging neighborhoods of London between the City of London and Westminster from the 1820s to the 1850s, within which a stage of rediscovery and reapplication of the word after the late 1830s has so far been overlooked. It focuses on a discursive shift in which a word borrowed from low-life slang became part of the accepted vocabulary for urban areas judged undesirable. Early identifications of sites labeled as slums in the St Giles district of London were by writers and visual artists who themselves lived and worked nearby. Several alternative words including 'rookery', 'court', and 'Alsatia' were used in the effort to label a place zone previously unrecognized. The article traces these lexical changes with their consequences for how urban semantics became fixed through case studies from journalistic and political rhetoric, and from the imaginative fiction of Charles Dickens and William Makepeace Thackeray which in the 1840s and 1850s viewed the area of the word’s coinage with a degree of nostalgia.
Original languageEnglish
Number of pages13
JournalJournal of Urban History
DOIs
Publication statusPublished - 1 Dec 2022
MoE publication typeA1 Journal article-refereed

Keywords

  • London
  • London in literature
  • Dickens, Charles
  • Thackeray, William Makepeace

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