Taking Slang Seriously I

December 28th, 2010

This is a lecture I gave recently as part of the British Library’s Evolving English program. To accommodate its length I have broken it down into this introduction, and three further parts.

Slang. In the words of the late, and indubitably great Ian Dury: ‘Arseholes, bastards, fucking, cunts and pricks’.  That’s right: ‘Dirty words’. ‘Bad language’. That is, is it not, the popular view. And the popular view is half right. Slang is not ‘bad’ but it is language. It is language as much as is standard English, as much as is jargon, as much as is technicality.  As much as is any of the variant registers that make up English. Or for that matter, and in local context, that make up French, Spanish, Italian, German and so many more.

The book I have just seen published, the three-volume Green’s Dictionary of Slang, was seventeen years in the making. The entirety of my work on slang goes back another ten, to the researches for a far slimmer lexicon, the Dictionary of Contemporary Slang. The entirety of the headwords in that book, some 11,500, would fit easily into those now on offer in just the letter S. The big book was born in 1993 when I started putting together the single-volume Cassell Dictionary of Slang. No citations allowed, but once it appeared, in 1998, I was commissioned to create the larger work , to be compiled ‘on historical principles’ which means including usage examples. We had the Cassell material as a core. All we had to do, thereafter, was pick up some citations. We picked up around 575,000, of which 415,000 have been used in the book. But if the Cassell material remains the core, it is a very different work. There was a good deal more work to do.

We have drawn on an infinity of sources, and were I to try, it would be quite impossible to reverse engineer what is now in print. In this case I say ‘we’ because if my name is on the cover, I have depended vastly on the dedication and the skills of others. Did this cite come from some research by my partner, Susie Ford, who spent a decade truffling out material from libraries in London and New York. A veritable ratte de bibliothèque. Or was this one a gift from Google Book Search, that useful however  poorly edited source, which renders hypocrites of all of us who use it: simultaneously claiming that Messrs Page and Brin are only thieves, stealing our copyrights as they pretend to enrich the world, as we in turn grab for the material they offer. Or from my peerless editor Sarah Chatwin, demanding that I cannot simply offer a headword, but must trace some proof of its existence. Or plagiarized, or at least borrowed, from my predecessor Eric Partridge, or from the OED, or from some other abecedary which has found what I cannot. Or simply from the 6000-plus books that have been read, the hundreds of newspapers and magazines, the ballads and broadsides, the websites, blogs, lyrics, scripts and all the rest? I can no longer remember.

2 Responses to “Taking Slang Seriously I”

  1. Hazel Cox says:

    I was just reading the article on the 19 May 2014 on the BBC and related to ‘Yard of Pump Water. My mum used to say to me as a child ‘you look like a yard of pump water (pronounced waater) tied up ugly’. Which meant that I was looking dishevelled or messy). This came from Kingston upon Hull.

  2. Michelle King says:

    Dear Jonathon,

    At the age of 54, I am attempting to write a fantasy novel for children (11 upwards) set in Manchester and Lancaster between 1939-1941. I have searched the internet for slang words and dialects that would lend some authenticity to my tale; there are plenty of references for American words but I have turned up very little for northern England. Could you point me in the right direction? Any help you can offer would be most gratefully received.

    Best wishes
    Michelle King

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