If you watch fish through a layer of water - I was running out of ways to amuse myself during lockdown - you will see them remaining absolutely still for a long time, for no particular reason, judging by their glassy eyes. And then, with a slight twitch of their fins, they dart away so that they can do nothing again, somewhere else.
"Are you gazing at those fish again?" asks my better half, and I dart quickly back to my writing desk/kitchen table.
A fish tank, I hope you don't know this already, is slang for a section of a prison for newly arrived inmates. As slang goes, a fairly unimaginative example. Not as precise as a 'chinwag', nor as entertaining as referring to shoplifting as a 'five-finger discount'.
Slang is often a simple way of saying something more complex. I was once informed in Honolulu that the expression "da kine" was the most versatile phrase on the planet. Apparently it is a verb, an adjective, an adverb, and an all-purpose noun capable of referring to objects, events, and people. "What does it mean?" I asked, all agog, and was told it meant 'Aloha'. I said goodbye and left Hawaii. Where exactly is the end of one's tether?
Slang words have arrived in English from all directions, originating in many different cultures and brought home by soldiers and empire builders. 'Decko' is from the Hindi 'dekho', meaning 'look', and in WWI, 'backsheesh' became 'buckshee', free of charge. Naval parlance has given us swinging the lead, talking bilge and a loose cannon. They sound like a scurvy crew, these sailors.
Some slang sounds quite poetic. In wet Washington, rain is called 'liquid sunshine', and I suspect 'the cat's pyjamas' won't be returning to popular vernacular any time soon, so you might as well take them back to the pet shop. Which saddens me, because as slang phrases go, I felt it was, well, the cat's whiskers. Not everyone likes cats: a chaplain visiting a prison cell remarked,"No room to swing a cat in here," to which the prisoner replied, "Yes, there is that to be said for it."
Inevitably, new words have emerged because of Covid-19, corona coinages, I suppose we should call them. A covidiot is a moronavirus who ignores vaccination advice; a coronacut is a self-administered hair disaster; a quarantini is something you drink during virtual happy hour, which probably leads to an unspecified 'Blursday' the morning after.
I gather our vile acquaintance is now sometimes dubbed 'Rona', which has transmogrified - yes! - from a decent Scottish girl's name into a companion that would ruin any date. Bad enough, you might think, but pity the singer Miley Cyrus, whose name rhymes with.... um, I think I'll go back to staring at my goldfish. I enjoy taking a butcher's at them every so often.