‘We lexicographers think that we have mastered the words; but it is the words that have mastered us.’
Alain Rey

What Is Slang

Slang is the language that says no. Born in the street it resists the niceties of the respectable. It is impertinent, mocking, unconvinced by rules, regulations and ideologies. It is a subset of language that since its earliest appearance has been linked to the lower depths, the criminal, the marginal, the unwanted or even persecuted members of society. It has been censored, ignored, shoved to one side and into the gutter from where it is widely believed to take its inspiration and in which it and its users have a home. It remains something apart, and for many that is where it should stay.

Yet if such negatives are true, then they are imposed from the outside. From the prejudiced, the ignorant, the fearful. The reality of the language is that it is vibrant, creative, witty, and open to seemingly infinite re-invention. It is voyeuristic, amoral, libertarian and libertine. It is vicious. It is cruel. It is self-indulgent. It is funny. It is fun. Its dictionaries offer an oral history of marginality and rebellion, of dispossession and frustration. They list the words that have evolved to challenge those states. It is supremely human.

It subscribes to nothing but itself – no belief systems, no true believers, no faith, no religion, no politics, no party. It is the linguistic version of Freud’s id, defined by him in 1933 as ‘the dark, inaccessible part of our personality […] It is filled with energy reaching it from the instincts, but it has no organisation, produces no collective will, but only a striving to bring about the satisfaction of the instinctual needs subject to the observance of the pleasure principle.’ It is hardly surprising that in English slang it, translating id from the Latin and the original German, can mean sex or either of the bodily parts it requires for consummation. So be it.

Excluded from the standard world the slang user rejects standard language and substitutes a code within which he/she feels secure and which serves to define him/herself. Of course no-one exists purely in slang-world. It is feasible, perhaps, in a closed society such as a prison, but rarely elsewhere. One must discard slang to enter ‘real life’ just as one discards casual clothes to go to work. Otherwise it plays a vital role. It offers articulacy to the otherwise inarticulate, or at least those who lack the mastery of standard usage. And like beauty, articulacy is wholly relative.

The Word ‘Slang’

The definition of slang is elusive. Even the word’s etymology resists attempts to set down an unimpeachable source. The received version for much of the 20th century saw a link to various Scandinavian roots suggesting language that is ‘slung’, i.e. thrown. Current etymologists have abandoned it but offer no sound alternative. As for linguists, the answer may best be seen in an academic essay of 1978 which asked ‘Is Slang a Word for Linguists?’ and concluded that thanks to its resolute refusal to provide the kind of consistent evidence that linguists require, the answer was most probably ‘No.’

For purposes of labelling the OED currently classifies a slang word as ‘an alternative to a more formal word, typically used by a subset of the speech population, and a colloquial term as ‘an informal term used widely in the speech community.’ Its unrevised definition, first set down in 1915, defines the word as ‘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’. Chambers (11th edn, 2008) offers ‘words or usages not forming part of standard language, only used very informally, especially in speech.’ The most elaborate explanation is that of Webster’s 3rd New International (1961): ‘a non-standard vocabulary composed of words and senses characterized primarily by connotations of extreme informality and usu. a currency […] composed typically of coinages or arbitrarily changed words, clipped or shortened forms, extravagant, forced or facetious figures of speech, or verbal novelties usu. experiencing quick popularity and relatively rapid decline into disuse.’

My own favourite comes from my predecessor, John Camden Hotten, writing in his own Slang Dictionary of 1859: ‘SLANG represents that evanescent, vulgar language, ever changing with fashion and taste,… spoken by persons in every grade of life, rich and poor, honest and dishonest.. .Slang is indulged in from a desire to appear familiar with life, gaiety, town-humour and with the transient nick names and street jokes of the day… SLANG is the language of street humour, of fast, high and low life… Slang is as old as speech and the congregating together of people in cities. It is the result of crowding, and excitement, and artificial life.’

What I Do

This is what I do. What I have done for at least 25 years and what I intend to do, audience and body willing until on some unspecified day I crash forward into the keyboard – or whatever equivalent technology throws up in its place. Retirement is not a term in any of my dictionaries..

What I do is to sit alone in a room with a screen in front of me, a book more than likely to my left, held open by the weight of a discarded piece of chain, and on my right a wall full of more books which are not just books but also tools and at the same time both extensions of and bastions for my existence. Some of them I have even made myself. With this screen and books and book-shaped tools I chase down words. And by placing these words in alphabetical order and by naming and defining and providing a word-based background for their existence and more words that illustrate examples of their use I create yet another book which is designated more than any other type to be a tool in its turn. A work of reference which is based in hard work and scholarship and even a degree of serendipity and which provides information which at its best and must utile is both trustworthy and authoritative.

Tools of the Trade

If I look at my shelves, on which, between London and Paris there stands the best part of 5000 books, what is there to see?

A good thousand are tools of my trade. Dictionaries. From the facsimile versions of the earliest 16th century glossaries of criminal ‘cant’, to lovingly collected first editions of the 18th century and beyond, through to my own latest effort. (The rest of my publications being in boxes or cupboards). There are some titles produced by the one or two friends who, like me, are ‘in the business’. And alongside all these, several dozen more that for me at least exist only via the Xerox machines of the British Library or its New York Public equivalent behind the lions on 42nd Street.

And alongside dictionaries? Books on words, books of words, books specifically of slang, books from which slang comes, books on cities where slang is bred, books on prisons and on crime, the worlds in which it is most regularly used. Shelves of background reference books left over from a world before wikipedia and its more focussed online peers. Twelve volumes of the 1933 OED plus its supplement, plus the four successors that appeared after 1972, plus the three of ‘annotations’ that followed them. I grabbed the CD version on day one, now I crank up the online. I also contribute to it. Neither OUP nor I shall be seeing the hard copy again.

They are not in perfect condition. I do treasure the first editions, and try to keep them from harm, but first and foremost I use them. And some, especially the modern ones which, in a pinch, could even be replaced, are as beaten and weathered and scarred as a craftsmen’s tools. And just as valuable to their user.

Then, since it would be very foolish to overlook this most central of contemporary tools, there is my computer, The first machine arrived on my desk in late 1983. The earliest IBM PC. It ran at 4.77 megahertz, sported a 14” monochrome screen and gloried in the fearsomely expensive bonus of an external 20 megabyte hard disk. Otherwise it had slots for 5.25 floppies, that strange word that we had no sooner accustomed ourselves to throwing off with glorious insouciance before it vanished, almost overnight. Replaced by the ‘hard-bodied’ 3.5” disk, then the CD ROMs that host most of today’s software – or that which has not, as is now almost invariable, been downloaded from the net. And storage has moved on to terabytes. Total cost, £7,000. Seven grand: I could barely find enough kit to spend even one on today.

And beyond my office? I am not a great user of libraries. Not, that is, to work in. My partner has despoiled the slangy riches of the British and New York Public Libraries among others – and the database is underpinned by 6000 print titles, plus movie and TV scripts, lyrics from every age and genre of music, and the ever-expanding riches of the internet. Meanwhile I yearn for, and maintain my solitude. I hate the lack of privacy, even if, having exhausted the potential of the shelves that surround me, I bemoan the lack of material. Now the web, especially google book search, salves that conscience. Only the London Library calls for my allegiance. It offers many things, not least the terrible mementi mori of the lines of shelves, literally thick with dust, upon which reside, untouched, the rows of three-volume volumes – hell, those Victorians were so prolific – that each represent a best-seller who might, for all that we register them today, never have been. M.E. Braddon, Henry Kingsley, […] all gone and quite frankly forgotten. Except by me, who has found their tales so useful as sources.

The Craft of Lexicography

Although in the broadest sense – ‘any occupation by which a person regularly earns a living’ – lexicography is a profession, it would not have been such according to the way in which the term was once defined: the law or the church, an establishment duopoly that could be extended to the army. Nor, in my case and I believe that of all my predecessors, can it qualify ‘especially’ as an occupation ‘that involves prolonged training and a formal qualification’. There are university courses in dictionary-making, but I am not sure how many of their graduates are now employed as professionals. The original OED team, under James Murray, assumed that they were bound to teach new recruits what to do from scratch, although they capitalized wherever possible on such experience that came with the novices, for instance Murray’s own philological skills. The main qualification thus seems to be practice. It may not make perfect – perfection is not available to a dictionary – but one does improve with age. I tell myself on occasion that I could have done what I do now at 21, or at least 31, rather than my current 61 (and since such occasions tend to the self-lacerative, ask why in hell if that were the case I hadn’t done so, and moved on to something more useful or at least lucrative), but experience shows me otherwise. The effort of my late thirties, my first essay at a slang dictionary, is a very limited thing. I can tell myself I simply didn’t work hard enough, but in fairness, I don’t think I had much of an idea what to do.

I have used the term ‘tools of the trade’ to categorize the reference books and sources from which I work, as well as the computer wherein resides the database, but I don’t see lexicography as a trade. (Even if ‘the trade’ was once shorthand for the world of publishers and booksellers.) Like profession, trade offers a wide definition based around earning any form of living and that can allow for lexicography too, but trade implies some form of trade-ing, of buying and selling and lexicographers do not do either.

Which leaves what? The vote seems to go to craftsman: a maker, an artificer, inventor or contriver. Obsolete, states the OED in its unrevised 1989 version, but surely not. Because that is what one does. 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. Hence, no doubt, Eric Partridge’s 1963 work: The Gentle Art of Lexicography. I am one who has no physical skills, for whom the term cack-handed might well have been invented. I can cook with a some amateur skill, and certainly enthusiasm, but the plastic arts defeat me. I have never driven, I indulge in no sport, and if I were to take exercise it would be in running as fast as possible from the tiniest suggestion that I might involve myself in any activity that might fit under the rubric of ‘DIY’. I am words man, not action man. Yet, and this is doubtless overly romantic, but as I work on the dictionary, I see invisible tools, and not just books, as extensions of my hands. 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 that offers a multiplicity 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 above all useable object