Slang is a language that rolls up its sleeves, spits on its hands, and goes to work. Carl Sandburg
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 remains something apart. And for many, that is where it should stay. Jonathon Green, Lexicographer
Jonathon Green is a man on a mission. His quest is to track English slang from all the corners of the world, taking in Britain, Ireland, the United States, Australia, New Zealand, and the Caribbean. The product of this magnificent obsession is Green’s Dictionary of Slang. This three-volume 6,000-page magnum opus, which came out in 2010, was conceived and produced by one man. Actually, that is an oversimplification – he was helped by a number of paid collaborators. All this effort does not come cheap; buying the three volumes will set you back $500 on Amazon. When it was commissioned by Hodder & Stoughton in 1997 print was still typical for reference works. It is difficult to imagine such a project being financed now.
This is not Green’s only work. He has recently published a memoir, Odd Job Man: Some Confessions of a Slang Lexicographer, and a history of slang, Language! 500 Years of the Vulgar Tongue. It is this prodigious output that led Martin Amis to dub him Mr Slang. He is undoubtedly the premier English slang lexicographer of his generation, the heir to Eric Partridge, who was born in 1894 in New Zealand.
Before I continue it is necessary to establish what slang is. Merriam-Webster defines it as “words that are not considered part of the standard vocabulary of a language and that are used very informally in speech especially by a particular group of people.” Slang comes from, criminal language. Criminals wanted to be able to communicate in secrecy – they didn’t want the public, or more importantly the authorities to know what they were talking about. It was their language which was the first slang to be collected. Slang’s etymology is somewhat confused. Different sources have been attributed. The Online Etymology Dictionary mentions Norwegian slengenamn “nickname”, slengja kjeften “to abuse with words” and an old slang word meaning “narrow piece of land”, itself of obscure origin.
Green is a 67-year old writing about slang, which he describes as a perpetual 16-year old boy. And this 16-year old is definitely not respectable. He likes talking about crime, race, drink, drugs and of course sex. There is no room for niceties here. Women are sex objects. The words for sexual intercourse are highly physical – screw, shag, bang, shaft, etc. are most definitely not taking a sophisticated view of sex. On Green’s website you can find a Timeline for Slang terms for Sexual Intercourse: part 1 The Basics, created from his dictionary. It really is a wonderful tool.
The task of following all the new coinages is a quixotic one. You will always be behind the times. It is like chasing the sun, the title of another of Green’s books, which dealt with the craft of the lexicographer. Green likens it to scooping out a granite mountain with a plastic spoon The impossibility of the task was satirised in the Blackadder the Third episode about Dr Johnson’s dictionary:
Green can be seen on TV debating a ban on slang in a London school – the Harris Academy of Croydon. This crackdown is part of a recurring moral panic. The school in question wanted words such as coz, innit and ain’t banned, both in the classroom and in the corridors. As a descriptivist I find the ban absurd. What children do need is to be able to switch codes. It is necessary to know what kind of language can be spoken where. We do need to improve the way English is taught in schools. But banning slang, which most definitely is English, is not the way.