Green’s Dictionary of Slang (GDoS) was published by Chambers in 2010, in a traditional print format in three massive volumes. This work superseded several earlier slang dictionaries by the same author and represented the culmination of a lifetime’s work studying the English slang vocabulary, from earliest times to the present day. Despite the fact that slang is primarily a spoken-language phenomenon, by 2010 Green had assembled around 400,000 citations for slang vocabulary words and phrases, through assiduous and indefatigable research relying largely on printed sources, especially surviving early broadsheets and (later) newspapers. Dictionary publishers have fallen on hard times in recent years. The business model for print publication of dictionaries has collapsed. Readers now prefer to search on-line sources for information about words, facts, usage, and meaning. Some people would say now, with the benefit of hindsight, that the traditional printed book was never the right medium for such a massive work of lexicographic scholarship. Comprehensive reference books are cumbersome, heavy things. Recognizing the inevitable, the lexicographer Jonathon Green very sensibly decided a few years ago to retrieve control of the rights (no mean achievement) and publish his magnum opus on line under his own auspices, through a company which he set up and called Abecedary Limited, with the assistance of a canny young database engineer, David Kendal. By the time you read this review, Green’s citation collection will have grown to nearly 500,000 items. In October 2016 the dictionary was published on line. It contains explanations of and citations for over 130,000 words and phrases, arranged under 55,000 headwords, and we are told that regularly updated versions are planned for as often as three times a year. This is an astonishing achievement. Among other things it establishes a new model for reference publication, from which it behoves other reference publishers, most of whom are, alas, stuck in the mud of traditional book-format publishing, to learn. The database is a model of its kind, with excellent browsing and searching facilities, together with hypertext access to Green’s scholarly introduction and his blogs and list of other publications. The bibliography alone contains an astonishing 8000 references, listing source documents from every part of the English-speaking world, mostly Britain, Australia, and America, but also including such gems as Gautam Malkani’s Londonstani (2006), which is one of several sources cited at the entry for the West Indian term raasclat, literally ‘arse cloth’, widely used in Jamaica and elsewhere as a general negative epithet or term of abuse. It is to be hoped that future editions of this splendid website will be augmented with hypertext links between the list of works consulted and the citations in the dictionary itself, so that the reader will be able to see at a glance all the quotations culled from any given author, while also being able to rapidly track down bibliographical details for particular citations. Green’s energy and undimmed enthusiasm for his subject, after all these years, are amazing. He is without doubt the leading authority on slang in the English language, but his output also includes a blog or podcast of topical journalism, not all of it related to slang, and some hefty tomes on his favourite subjects, English slang and English lexicography. But when all is said and done, what is slang? The editors of Merriam Webster’s Third New International Dictionary (MWIII, 1961), innocent of any conception of linguistic register, did not use ‘Slang’ or any other register labels, though that did not stop them including plenty of American slang words (unlabelled) in their dictionary. Jess Stein, in his preface to the first edition of the Random House Dictionary (RHD, 1966), one of several dictionaries that were published as an attempt to capitalize on what was perceived as MWIII’s failure, commented: ‘Since language is a social institution, the lexicographer must give the user an adequate indication of the attitudes of society towards particular words or expressions. … We have used usage labels to guide the reader to effective and appropriate use of words.’ However, Slang is not one of these usage labels. RHD does not distinguish between ‘slang’ and ‘informal’ words. The American lexicologist Michael Adams (2009, p. 49) offers a counsel of despair: ’Slang is what it is. You’ll know it when you hear it.’ This is not much help to anyone seeking a definition or characterization. The Oxford English Dictionary (OED) offers four subsenses, three of which are helpful: The special vocabulary used by any set of persons of a low or disreputable character; language of a low and vulgar type. The special vocabulary or phraseology of a particular calling or profession; the cant or jargon of a certain class or period. Language of a highly colloquial type, considered as below the level of standard educated speech, and consisting either of new words or of current words employed in some special sense. Abuse, impertinence. The first of these subsenses seems to me to capture the normal modern meaning of the word, which is also its oldest sense. Slang is vocabulary and phraseology used by an in-group, often (but not necessarily) with the purpose of being incomprehensible to outsiders. For this reason, it is a characteristically urban phenomenon, typically (but not necessarily) associated with thieves, swindlers, prostitutes, and other ’persons of a low or disreputable character’. The etymology of the word slang has been the subject of much scholarly discussion, too extensive to summarize well here. Useful contributions can be found in Skeat (1882), Liberman (2008, 2016), and Green (2014, 2016). It seems clear that it is of Scandinavian origin (cf. the Swedish verb slanger ‘to gossip’), but no English citations have been found before the mid 18th century and the semantic development is unclear. For a case study, I took a selection of words and phrases from Very Good, Jeeves (1930), a collection of stories by P. G. Wodehouse. Wodehouse’s narrator, Bertie Wooster, is a rich, idle, rather brainless young man, whose principal activities are playing practical jokes on and with fellow members of the Drones Club, helping fellow club members in their love lives and other social activities, and avoiding getting too deeply entangled himself. The relevance of Wooster here is that he and his friends use a distinctive vocabulary, which can only be described as slang – the in-group vocabulary of idle rich young Englishmen of the 1920s. I was studying the stylistics of Wodehouse when I found myself wondering to what extent GDoS would help to illuminate Wodehouse’s vocabulary choices. In these stories three distinctive registers are apparent. They are: Plain factual narrative and conversation. I shall call this Style 1. Not being a vehicle for or source of wit or humour, it is generally kept in the background. Style 2: an exaggeratedly formal style, in which are couched the utterances of a cabinet minister, a businessman, a retired headmaster, and a psychiatrist, among others. Style 3: the third and most pervasive (and most exuberant) style is the period slang of the 1920s used by Bertie and his friends, some of which was invented by Wodehouse himself. Wodehouse’s characters normally use a distinctive style within one of the above three genres. Bertie’s Aunt Agatha, of whom he is inordinately frightened, typically uses Style 2 in deadly earnest. Jeeves, Bertie’s valet and factotum, uses an exaggerated version — verging on parody — of Style 2. Users of Style 2 are portrayed as humourless, whereas Jeeves has a sense of humour, although it is usually carefully disguised. Jeeves, the perfect manservant, is careful not to express an opinion when it has not been asked for. ‘Well, sir’ is the nearest he comes to voicing dissent. He says things like: ‘I endeavour to give satisfaction, sir’ (passim) and ‘I have already attended to the matter, sir.’ (p. 39) ‘I think, therefore, that should Miss Bellinger be a witness of Mr Glossop appearing to disadvantage in public, she would cease to entertain affection for him.’ (p. 99) Bertie translates: ‘You mean, if he gets the bird, all will be off.’ Bertie typically refers to people, not as people or men and women, but rather as blighters, coves, birds, crumbs, and even exhibits. The psychiatrist Sir Roderick Glossop is a ‘formidable old bird’ (p. 65) and an ‘old crumb’ (p. 79), while his daughter Honoria is ‘a ghastly dynamic exhibit who reads Nietzsche’ (p. 65). Jeeves, having temporarily displeased Bertie, is a blighter (p. 71). An amorous young man refers to himself as ‘the old egg’ (p. 92). Part of the function of these expressions seems to be the expression of nonchalant disrespect, or at any rate nonchalance. They are mostly established conventional slang terms. What does GDoS have to say about them? A cove, according to GDoS, is a man; Green agrees with OED that the earliest known citations of the word in this sense are Scottish. However, he also agrees with Collins English Dictionary (Hanks 1979) that it is of Romany origin (cova). The rich history from the 16th century to the present day of bird as a slang term for a person is clearly set out in GDoS, whose entry complements that of OED with additional explanations and many additional citations. One of several surprising facts about this word, used to denote a human being, is that it has been used even-handedly to denote both men and women, according to context. An old bird in Bertie Wooster’s English, however, is always male. Crumb is defined in GDoS as ‘a filthy person, an objectionable, worthless or insignificant person.’ It was also a slang term for a louse. This may seem to some people to be too strong a disparagement for a reference to an eminent psychiatrist, but it seems appropriate in view of Bertie’s uneasy relationship with Sir Roderick. Blighter is a derogatory slang term for a human being. It is in GDoS with no less than 18 citations, the earliest of which is Australian, dating from 1894. But this citation reads as if the word was already a well-established slang term (at least in Australia) at that date: ‘Old Jabez Spencer Balfour, blighter blighted / At last is really to be extradited.’ Green tells us that it may be a euphemism for bugger. Exhibit is not in GDoS in this or any other sense. No doubt it is a creative exploitation by Wodehouse of the standard meaning of the word. Verbs of movement in these stories are an equally rich collection of slang, in each case resonating metaphorically with the non-slang primary meaning of the word, evidently chosen for appropriateness to the different characters or their moods. Here are a few examples: ‘Jeeves shimmered out’ (p. 16). When he is not shimmering, Jeeves oozes. ‘He oozed out, leaving me to play the sparkling host.’ This secondary sense of ooze is in GDoS, but the parallel sense of shimmer is not. Is it a coinage by Wodehouse, rather than a conventional slang term of the period? Bertie himself oils round [to somewhere]. GDoS records a slang meaning of oil as a verb of movement: ‘to move quietly, stealthily, or in an underhand, surreptitious manner.’ ‘In trickled young Bingo’ (p. 22). This seems to be Bingo’s characteristic method of movement. Over two hundred pages later, he is still at it: ‘Bingo trickled in.’ (p.278). This verb of movement is not in GDoS. Should it be? Wodehouse uses many other slang verbs of movement in the Jeeves stories, but that’s enough for now. Here are some other slang words in Very Good, Jeeves, with comments on their treatment in GDoS: Scaly: ‘the scaliest visit I have ever experienced’ (p. 22) and ‘about as scaly a platoon of aunts as was ever assembled’ (p. 94). GDoS offers ‘unpleasant’ as sense 5 of scaly, which is the sense here. On the other hand, the figurative use of platoon is not in GDoS, probably rightly so, as it seems to be nothing more than a one-off exploitation by Wodehouse of a standard sense of the word (‘a group of people acting together’). soup-and-fish [= dinner jacket and black tie]: ‘I was in my room listlessly donning the soup-and-fish’ (p. 22). This strange expression is in GDoS with a dozen citations dating from 1911 to 1979, including one that shows it being exploited to mean ‘in an upper-class manner’. lemon: ‘I put up a hand and felt the lemon’ (p. 62). This is sense 3a of lemon in GDoS: ‘a person’s head’. If you have bad luck, ‘Fate goes out of its way to snooter you’ (p. 77). On p. 94, Bertie, in his journey through life, feels that he is snootered by his aunts. On p. 118, one of Bertie’s friends gets snootered. According to GDoS, this word, meaning ‘to cause trouble for someone’, is probably a Wodehouse coinage, perhaps derived from snoot ‘nose’, in the sense ‘shove one’s nose in’. ‘this young plugugly’ (p. 200). The character in question is a boy, not otherwise described as ugly, to whom Bertie has taken a dislike. GDoS shows clearly that this slang word is of American origin, with an interesting history of sense development before Wodehouse picked it up. Many more examples could be mentioned, but this will suffice to illustrate the value of GDoS as a resource for stylistic and semantic analysis of particular texts. But it is not only that: it is also a browser’s delight, hard to lay aside once entered. One further point should be mentioned. Many slang expressions are phraseological idioms rather than isolatable as individual words. This can pose challenges for lexicographers, especially those who still cling, as most do, to the Leibnizian tradition of lexical isolation, which has been rather unkindly described as ‘the Lego-set theory of meaning’. Examples from the Jeeves stories include a singer who, having displeased her audience, gets the bird (pp. 92, 111); a girl whose boyfriend is neglecting her being off her oats (= has lost her appetite) (p. 95); digging in at the trough (p. 91), meaning nothing more complicated than ‘eating’; and ‘the information that we were not going to Monte Carlo had got in amongst him’ (i.e. had upset him, namely Jeeves]).” (p. 66). How does GDoS deal with these challenges? get the bird is listed in GDoS, with several variants, as an idiomatic phrase under bird, defined as ‘esp. theatrical use, to be jeered, mocked etc.’ Green reminds us of the parallel between ‘the image of the hissing noise that geese and an unappreciative audience can make’. off one’s oats is an idiomatic phrase in GDoS under oats, defined as ‘feeling unwell, esp. if this diminishes one’s appetite’. digging in at the trough is not in GDoS, although trough is there, defined as ‘the place at which one eats’. There is no doubt in my mind that get in amongst someone is a slang expression, although the syntax is puzzling. (Surely the preposition amongst requires a plural noun?). Anyway, I did not find it in GDoS, and I must confess that I have no idea where, in an alphabetical reference work, such an idiom should or could be placed. To summarize: GDoS is a work of huge scope. It is, in the words of Julie Coleman (2012), ‘the best historical dictionary of English slang that there has ever been … or is ever likely to be’. Serious readers and scholars will use it alongside OED. Green’s wide reading in the lower depths of English literature provides hundreds, possibly thousands, of antedatings compared with OED, as well as many words and senses that are not in OED at all. To take just one example, the word prat is now in common use in the sense ‘a fool, an idiot’. GDoS has a citation for this from 1940, fifteen years earlier than OED’s earliest citation for this sense of the word. According to Green’s press release, the main categories covered in GDoS (with the number of terms in each category) are: Crime and Criminals 5012; Drink, Drinking and Drunks 4589; Drugs 3976; Money 3342; Women (almost invariably considered negatively or at best sexually) 2968; Fools and Foolishness 2403; Men (of various descriptions, not invariably, but often self-aggrandizing) 2183; Sexual Intercourse 1740; Penis: 1351; Homosexuals/-ity 1238; Prostitute/-ion 1185; Vagina 1180; Policeman / Policing 1034; Terms of Racial or National Abuse: 1000; Masturbate/-ion 945; Die, Death, Dead 831; Beat or Hit 728; Mad 776; Anus or Buttocks 634; Defecate/-ion & Urinate/-ion 540; Kill or Murder 521; Promiscuous / Promiscuity 347; Unattractive 279; Fat 247; Oral Sex 240; Vomiting 219; Anal Sex 180; STDs 65. If these categories are reminiscent of those in Jorge Luis Borges’ (fictitious) Chinese Celestial Emporium of Benevolent Knowledge, Green can hardly be blamed: perhaps this is telling us something about the irresistible urge of human beings to invent categories, an urge to which lexicographers are peculiarly susceptible. Readers will recall that, according to Borges, ‘In those remote pages it is written that animals are divided into: (a) those that belong to the emperor, (b) embalmed ones, (c) those that are trained, (d) suckling pigs, (e) mermaids, (f) fabulous ones, (g) stray dogs, (h) those that are included in this classification, (i) those that tremble as if they were mad, (j) innumerable, (k) those drawn with a very fine camel-hair brush, (l) others, (m) those that have just broken a flower vase, (n) those that resemble flies from a distance.’ References Gove Philip B. (ed.). 1969 . Webster’s Third New International Dictionary . Springfield, MA : G. & C. Merriam. (MWIII ) Hanks Patrick (ed.). 1979 . The Collins English Dictionary . London and Glasgow : Collins . Libermann Anatoly. 2008 . Analytical Dictionary of English Etymology . University of Minnesota Press . The Oxford English Dictionary Online. Accessed on 28 December 2016 . http://www.oed.com. (OED) Skeat Walter. 1882 . Etymological Dictionary of the English Language . Oxford : Oxford University Press Stein Jess Urdang Laurence (eds). 1966 . The Random House Dictionary of the English Language Unabridged . New York: Random House. (RHD ) Adams Michael. 2009 . Slang: The People’s Poetry . Oxford University Press Coleman Julie. 2012 . Review of Green’s Dictionary of Slang (Chambers edition) in English Language & Linguistics 16:1 , pp. 193 – 99 Google Scholar CrossRef Search ADS Green Jonathon. 2014 . Language! 500 Years of the Vulgar Tongue . Atlantic Books , London . Green Jonathon. 2016 . Slang: a Very Short Introduction . Oxford University Press Libermann Anatoly. 2016 . ‘The origin of the word “slang” is known!’ OUP blog, September 28, 2016. Accessed on 28 December 2016. http://blog.oup.com/2016/09/slang-word-origin/ Luis Borges Jorge. 1954 . ‘The Analytical Language of John Wilkins’ [original title ‘El idioma analítico de John Wilkins’, translated by Ruth L. C. Simmons], in Other Inquisitions, 1937-1952. Simon and Schuster. Malkani Gautam. 2006 . Londonstani . Penguin Press . Wodehouse P. G. 1930 . Very Good, Jeeves . New York : Doubleday . © 2017 Oxford University Press. All rights reserved. For permissions, please email: firstname.lastname@example.org
International Journal of Lexicography – Oxford University Press
Published: Feb 8, 2017
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