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Taking Slang Seriously (IV)

December 28th, 2010

Lexicography might be represented as the great jigsaw puzzle. Constantly turning the bits until one fits another and gradually, so gradually, the picture emerges.

And like the accumulation of money for the very rich, who no longer need it, the amassing of a slang dictionary is no more than a means of ‘keeping score’. Or if one seeks an alternative image, slang lexicography – perhaps all lexicography – is an attempt to map a territory that remains fluid, shifting and in the end un-mappable. The lack of full and/or accessible records ensures that we must leave blank spaces on our maps. ‘Here Be Dragons’ or anthropophagi – or at least we hope so. But the ‘game’ will continue whether or not the score is maintained; the territory exists, mapped or otherwise. The interested world requires its guides.

But the slang dictionary, that shifting, unfinished scorecard, that map that can never fill in every territory, is inadequate in almost every way.

It stands as an authority, it displays itself as concrete, but it is clay from top to toe. It is made, after all, by human beings. It is incomplete – how else can it be when slang is in constant evolution? – it takes as its starting point an arbitrary date based on circumstances beyond lexicographical control. Its definitions may be correct but its dating almost invariably is not or at least very well may not be – governed as it has to be by the essential serendipity of research, however devotedly pursued. Its etymologies aim for pertinence, but are too often leaps in the dark, however inspired, and there is, there has to be at times, an admission (perhaps tacit) of guesswork. Its orthography, since of all languages slang remains the most resolutely oral, can be equally debatable. And despite that orality, a guide to its pronunciation is never even attempted. What the lexicographer knows and attempts to pass on to the reader exists only in the shadow of just how much he or she does not know.

None of which, however, in any way invalidates the dictionary’s supremely necessary existence. Nor that of the dictionary-maker’s job. But one must never forget that the great river it attempts to tame would and does flow on quite regardless.

So I wonder, who are we, myself and my fellow slang lexicographers? Not many, that’s for sure. If I look at the canonical list, the primary collectors since 1535 when the first glossary appeared, what do I see? In the first place they all have a day job. Two printers, a magistrate, one dissolute playwright, one known only as a ‘Gent.’; one antiquary-cum-militia captain, one best-selling sporting journalist, one ‘beastly bloated booby’, as the corrupt chief of police in question was known, one publisher whose list combined pirated editions and flagellation pornography. A teacher of  French to Sandhurst cadets, one poet who derived his laughs from German immigrant mispronunciation and another  who gave us ‘The Boy Stood on the Burning Deck’. And his co-author whose main interest was ectoplasm and the allied phenomena of spiritualism. A prison chaplain and his team of lifers. Not until 1937, in Eric Partridge, did a professional join the party.  And even he had really meant to be a publisher.

For all these lexicographers, usually male, middle aged, middle class, it is the great escape. Sex and drugs and rock ‘n’ roll and never leave your desk. Even easier with the Internet. Anatomists of the underbelly cutting not into ripe cadavers but into riper language.  Dr Frankensteins sewing together our monster dictionaries and setting them free to wander in the name of our study-bound, data-dominated lives. Voyeurs of other people’s dramas. Flâneurs, to be kinder, in the thronging streets – some lit brightly, some less so – of slang’s vocabulary.

Nor are we merely voyeurs upon the sensational. Disinterested, unmoved,  we are heartless; we have no human interest. Nor human interest stories. Just words, words, words. The beggar is whipped, the whore has a back-story, the junkie dies. We do not care. Only if frustratingly, impudently, they remain mute.

We neither prescribe nor proscribe. We describe. The guilty appeasement of political correctness holds no sway.  We lay out the stall. It is up to the buyer to assess what they desire. We do not suggest, we do not advise.

But enough negatives. We are also craftsmen. Craftsman: a maker,  an artificer, inventor or contriver. One writes a dictionary, thus the direct translation of ‘lexicographer’, but one also makes it. The word is also synonymous with artist, when ‘artist’ implies a general sense of being skilled. I am one who has no physical skills, for whom the term cack-handed might well have been invented;  cooking aside, the plastic arts defeat me. Yet, and this is doubtless overly romantic, as I work on the dictionary I see invisible tools. A scalpel, to slice out extraneous matter, pliers to tug a miss-positioned citation and set it down in its proper place, files and planes to smooth the definitions, sandpaper to put on the finishing touches. The perfect lemma – the entirety of a single headword and all that pertains to it – should display the same elegance as a perfect item of furniture. I would not dare suggest that all my efforts are so successful, but sometimes, especially with a ‘big’ word, such as hot with its 40 columns of definitions, of sub-definitions, of derivations, compounds and phrases, there is a sense of having made something not just of words, but in some way a physical, tangible and most important of all, a useable object.

So is it absurd to be, as of course I am, so proud of something so generally disdained, or worse: rarely even noticed but for its least important content.

I began or almost so, with Freud. Since among the next books I want to write is one that deals with French as well as English slang, let me end with a somewhat free translation of a French authority. The veteran lexicographer Alain Rey.

On croit que l’on maîtrise les mots, mais ce sont les mots qui nous maîtrisent.

As lexicographers believe that we master the words. We are wrong. It is the words that master us.

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