Exploring Language With Slang ...

dictionary of slang

Today brings the second part of the series with lexicographer Jonathon Green.

Yesterday, Jonathon discussed the chase behind slang which he noted “far outweighs the kill.”

While one doesn’t typically associate entertainment with dictionaries, I was struck by the storytelling in his writing.

I asked Jonathon about this.

Q: I can see through various articles that your writing brings freshness, wit and even levity to the dictionary. Yet, it doesn’t seem realistic to craft a story for 110,000 words and phrases. How do you bring the tenets of storytelling to your Dictionary of Slang? Are you striving to entertain as well as educate?

A: This to me is a fascinating question, and one which I have considered, although I doubt that many would see the need. It comes down to the fact that dictionaries remain human endeavours. If one looks, typically, at that work of Johnson and of Webster, both of whom were very strong and self-assertive personalities, they both imprint that personality on their work. They are recounting ‘stories’, albeit those of philosophy rather than fiction. Johnson, a Tory and Anglican and indeed a patriotic Englishman, offers a dictionary where the definitions for such words as liberty, religion, and the parties Whig and Tory are very much influenced by his socio-political views. As for Webster, may I quote from my own Chasing the Sun (1996):

As a citizen of a new nation which based its society on a written Constitution, Webster could not fail to appreciate the over-riding importance of words. It was vital that they should be defined properly. As early as 1788 he was calling for studies that would ‘show how far truth and accuracy are concerned in a clear understanding of words’. Only by refining the language, by purifying it of its many errors and corruptions could the status quo be sustained. As Mencken noted, Webster’s main concern ‘was not to celebrate American life or to expand independence [but] to counteract social disruption and re-establish the deferential world order that he believed was disintegrating.’ To misunderstand the true meaning of a word was to pave the way to social disorder.  Thus the dictionary takes especial care with such key terms as free, equal, democrat, republican, love and laws. Freedom, other than in subjection to divine laws, was absurd; it is seen as ‘violation of the rules of decorum’ and ‘license’. Like Johnson’s defining of Whig and Tory, Webster equated a Democrat with ‘a person who attempts an undue opposition or influence over government by means of private clubs, secret intrigues or by public popular meetings which are extraneous to the Constitution’. Republicans, on the other hand, were ‘friends of our representative Governments…’ As for love, ‘the love of God is the first duty of man…’ Laws existed simply to ‘enjoin the duties of piety and morality’. Duty, as might be presumed, is highly valued: do what you are told and ask no questions might have been Webster’s credo. As for education, it was a concept that in Webster’s world had no relation to learning; education was ‘instruction and discipline’, it would fit the young for their future stations.

This story-telling aspect of lexicography is true of all dictionaries made by individuals. The original OED is undoubtedly the product of the personalities of those who made it. The words that go in, the ones that are excluded, the biases (against, for instance, the citing of female authors), the down-playing of technology and of slang. Some is based on cultural norms, some on personal peccadilloes. My predecessor in slang, Eric Partridge, could define ‘nigger’ without any suggestion that it might be highly pejorative; he would not have printed ‘c*nt’ as actually found. This was the world (the 1930s) in which his dictionary came out. Mine, of course, holds almost diametrically opposite standards, and so do I.

I have written elsewhere that it might be possible to reconstruct me from the headwords I have included and equally so, the citations that I have chosen to illustrate them. And of course the way in which I define senses. Slang is by its nature the lexis of the concrete, and one can only define, say, the verb fuck, as ‘to have sexual intercourse’, plus of course its figurative senses. It cannot mean anything else. But in my choice of reading I have made conscious choices, opting for writers I admire and excluding those I do not.  In this I resemble Johnson, who would only admit ‘great writers’; mine are not great in that sense, but they are slang’s pantheon, whether they be James Joyce (1000 citations) or Robert L Bellem (500 citations), a long-forgotten but magnificently slangy hack for the pulps.

Johnson was clear: a dictionary is written, not edited, not compiled. I agree. And if one writes one overlays (or perhaps underpins) that writing with oneself. I have not done it consciously, there were far too many more pressing considerations, but it is there. Seek, dare I suggest, and you can find.

Educate as well as entertain? My aim focuses on neither. But they are doubtless there. Seems to indicate the seek/find trail again. What I do is collect slang and explicate it as accurately as possibly. What I aim for is authority. Or, to use a softer synonym, trustworthiness. That to the best of my ability what people look up in my work is correct. If one takes Johnson’s famous, but surely tongue-in-cheek- definition, the lexicographer may indeed be a ‘harmless drudge’ while putting the dictionary together =-  however much I enjoy it there are inevitably longeurs – but when the book is published and becomes a tool for its users, then he/she is rendered a (very minor) deity. People believe what you offer. The important thing is to get as accurate as possible. We must publish and hope not to be damned.

I’d say that covers it.

I’ll publish the final question and Jonathon’s answer tomorrow.

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