Slang Dictionaries
[ Issue 25 ]

Emily Bronto is without doubt an admirer of Slang Dictionaries

Bikwil celebrates Slang Dictionaries

Slang Dictionaries

Harlish Goop here presents a few more of his favourite dictionaries — this time they're devoted to slang.

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A Word in Your Pink Shell-like — Harlish Goop


Reader interest in the question of English slang, perhaps reawakened in part by my piece on the word Buckley’s (Issue 21, September 2000), has prompted me to introduce you to a few of my favourite dictionaries devoted to the subject.

First, a little on what slang might actually be, but let’s forget the linguist’s slippery quibbles about “slang” versus “colloquialism” — it just ain’t worth the hassle. We all know what slang is, anyway, don’t we?

Just in case you want a definition or two to be going on with, a nice short one can be extracted from R.L Trask’s Key Concepts in Language and Linguistics (1999, ISBN 0 415 15742 0), namely “informal and often ephemeral . . . colourful words and expressions”. That’ll do us for now, provided we heed the admonition Trask is careful to append to his article:

Priggish critics have for generations tried to dismiss slang as a kind of disease of the language, but it is nothing of the sort: its presence is evidence of the vitality of a language.

That point, of course, is most important, and over the years has been commented on in various ways. In 1872, in her Middlemarch, George Eliot ironically wrote:

Correct English is the slang of prigs who write history and essays. And the strongest slang of all is the slang of poets.

A century later, Australian slang was receiving the respect in England it had so long been denied (vide on the latter score the belligerent comments in 1911 on the use of language in the Antipodes by Valerie Desmond in her The Awful Australian: “unintelligible . . . jarring . . . no humour . . . drawn from the lowliest sources . . . the imagery of primitive people”). The following affirmative 1976 quotation is from an article in the Times Literary Supplement of 30 April:

In Australia, slang simply has a quite different status from slang in England. It is a part of “standard English” there, not outside “Standard English”. Slang words are used informally, casually and naturally by all Australians regardless of class or education.

For myself, I’m especially partial to U.S. poet Carl Sandburg’s description of slang as “language which takes off its coat, spits on its hands — and goes to work”.

So, having ascertained that we know where we are and that it’s a healthy, democratic and hard-working neighbourhood, let’s get cracking.

My subject today is not slang itself, however, but dictionaries of slang. You will have gathered long ago that I love dictionaries — be they general ones like the OED, or specialised volumes of catchphrases, clichés, foreign phrases, idioms, insults, obscure words, place names, quotations . . . Well let me tell you now: as far as slang goes, there has been quite a spate of information published over the last 70 years, and some of these books, the dictionaries especially, are definitely well worth owning by word enthusiasts.

(Speaking of the OED, a not disagreeable duty we must regularly observe in this column, if only so as to avoid losing the faith, did you know that even this heroic work hasn’t yet pinned down the source of that word “slang”? The oldest use it records in English goes back a quarter of a millennium, so I dare say on age grounds alone the concept has a venerable pedigree, even if it lacks a definite derivation. “A word of cant origin”, suggests the OED quietly, “the ultimate source of which is not apparent”. In other words, “slang” itself is a word of jargonish slang origin.)

Dictionaries of slang, then, but where to begin?

I suppose the granddaddy of modern slang dictionaries (and probably the greatest) is Eric Partridge’s Dictionary of Slang and Unconventional English, a work whose first edition Partridge worked on for 13 years. The author of numerous works on language, Eric Honeywood Partridge is most famous for his still helpful Usage and Abusage, a Guide to Good English (1947) and hardly known at all for his delightfully subtitled The “Shaggy Dog” Story, Its Origin, Development and Nature, with Many Seemly Examples (1953).

Born in 1894 in New Zealand, Partridge and his family moved to Australia in 1907. After seeing service in World War I both at Gallipoli and the Somme, he acquired a B.A. in Australia, followed by an M.A. at Oxford. Having settled in England, first as a teacher, then as a book publisher, in which capacity he founded the ill-fated Scholartis Press in 1927, finally in 1931 he decided to spend his life as a freelance man-of-letters, compiling dictionaries and other books on language. He died in 1979.

Truly, he may be said to have been a bit of an obsessive when it came to slang, for he authored, edited or published no less than eight books relevant to the subject that I’m aware of (the Dictionary of Slang running in his lifetime to seven editions, and is still being revised, the latest I know coming out in 1984) — a type of fixation for which, predictably, the dictionary-making world has long been grateful:

Songs and Slang of the British Soldier (edited by Partridge and John Brophy in 1930)
Godfrey Irwin’s American Tramp and Underworld Slang (British edition published by Partridge’s Scholartis Press in 1930)
Francis Grose’s 1785 A Classical Dictionary of the Vulgar Tongue (edited by Partridge in 1931)
Slang Today and Yesterday, a History and a Study (1933)
A Dictionary of Slang and Unconventional English (1937)
Shakespeare’s Bawdy, a Study and a Glossary (1947)
A Dictionary of the Underworld, British and American (1949)
Chamber of Horrors, a Glossary of Official Jargon (1952, under the pseudonym Vigilans”)

Partridge’s principle with regard to the difficult matter of the derivation of a slang word was simple and direct: when none can be determined, make a guess. This approach contrasts unmistakably with that of James Murray, who usually wrote something like “etymology unknown”. On the other hand, Murray & Co. had paid limited regard to slang anyway, so despite some of its suspect etymologies Partridge’s book filled a large lexicographical gap. Responding to the increasing worldwide interest in slang that his work had generated, Partridge in later editions added hundreds of thousands of words, all annotated with meticulous care with regard to their social, historical and geographical applicability.

As for the question of vulgarisms, Partridge included them all, despite his own distaste:

My rule, in the matter of unpleasant terms, has been to deal with them as briefly, as astringently, as aseptically as was consistent with clarity and adequacy; in a few instances, I had to force myself to overcome an instinctive repugnance.

Partridge’s sensitivity was echoed in many libraries, where for many years the Dictionary of Slang was relegated to the restricted access category.

Attitudes of this sort are not surprising, nor, given the social milieu of the 1930s, is the fact that Partridge showed no such prudishness towards racist language. Thus insulting words like nigger and kike were given meanings by him without comment.

According to dictionary maker and historian of dictionary making Jonathon Green, Partridge was “the Platonic lexicographer: outside mainstream academe, . . . prolific, dedicated, above all an enthusiast”.

Here at Bikwil we can’t say fairer than that.

I want now to move to Australian slang books. The ones with which I am most familiar were all published by Australians in Australia — a decided advantage, I hear you say.

Except for Partridge’s own efforts in this direction, the detailed study of Australian slang is recent. The one most often cited is Gerald Alfred Wilkes’ Dictionary of Australian Colloquialisms (my own copy — ISBN 0 00 635719 9 — is a 1985 reprint of 1978), although earlier lists had certainly appeared, those of the 19th century being mainly devoted to the language of the underworld. (In fact, the earliest dictionary of any sort to surface in Australia was one of such slang: convict James Hardy Vaux’ Vocabulary of the Flash Language, 1819). In the 20th century the most notable precursors of Wilkes’ work were the various books by Sidney J. Baker (1941, 1943, 1953, 1959, 1966).

Like Partridge, Wilkes was educated at Sydney and Oxford Unis. But unlike Partridge, Wilkes was a career academic — at one time Foundation Professor of Australian Literature at Sydney University, then Challis Professor of English Literature at the same institution. His approach in his Dictionary was scholarly and well researched, but nevertheless cautious. So, like the OED, Wilkes’ book was, in his own words, “planned, in a modest way, on historical principles”, where “[t]he citations are the most important part of the dictionary, as the evidence on which it rests”. At the same time he was careful to write: “All dictionaries are tentative, and a colloquial dictionary is most tentative of all”.

[ This article will be concluded in the next issue. ]

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