Meet Mr Slang

November 9, 2014

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.

The worst opening lines

November 9, 2014

I often mention prizes on my blog. Until now I had not mentioned the Bulwer-Lytton Prize. This award, inspired by novelist and playwright Edward George Bulwer-Lytton’s famous “it was a dark and stormy night” opening line, asks writers to submit an opening sentence for an imaginary “worst of all possible novels”. Bulwer-Lytton’s full opening from his 1830 novel Paul Clifford line was:

It was a dark and stormy night; the rain fell in torrents, except at occasional intervals, when it was checked by a violent gust of wind which swept up the streets (for it is in London that our scene lies), rattling along the housetops, and fiercely agitating the scanty flame of the lamps that struggled against the darkness.

This year’s winner was:

When the dead moose floated into view the famished crew cheered – this had to mean land! – but Captain Walgrove, flinty-eyed and clear headed thanks to the starvation cleanse in progress, gave fateful orders to remain on the original course and await the appearance of a second and confirming moose. — Elizabeth (Betsy) Dorfman,

Here are some others I found online:

Cheryl’s mind turned like the vanes of a wind-powered turbine, chopping her sparrow-like thoughts into bloody pieces that fell onto a growing pile of forgotten memories. Sue Fondrie

Hard-boiled private dick Harrison Bogart couldn’t tell if it was the third big glass of cheap whiskey he’d just finished, or the way the rain-moistened blouse clung so tightly to the perfect figure of the dame who just appeared panting in his office doorway, but he was certain of one thing … he had the hottest mother-in-law in the world. Carl Turney

The Mushroom Men of Knarf were silently advancing on the unsuspecting earthlings, and their thin milky blood ran colder when they smelled spores from fungal toenail infections rising from many of the invaders’ feet, for to them it was a wondrous and shocking scent of kinship, homeland, and asexual reproduction. David S. Nelson

She strutted into my office wearing a dress that clung to her like Saran Wrap to a sloppily butchered pork knuckle, bone and sinew jutting and lurching asymmetrically beneath its folds, the tightness exaggerating the granularity of the suet and causing what little palatable meat there was to sweat, its transparency the thief of imagination. Chris Wieloch

As he strolled among the Kenthellians, through the wide parndamets along the River Elinionenin, thrimbening his tometoria and his Almagister’s scrollix, he thought to himself, “Wow, it is sure convenient there’s a glossary for made-up fantasy words on page 1048.” Stephen Young

Betty had eyes that said come here, lips that said kiss me, arms and torso that said hold me all night long, but the rest of her body said, “Fillet me, cover me in cornmeal, and fry me in peanut oil”; romance wasn’t easy for a mermaid. Jordan Kaderli

For the first month of Ricardo and Felicity’s affair, they greeted one another at every stolen rendezvous with a kiss — a lengthy, ravenous kiss, Ricardo lapping and sucking at Felicity’s mouth as if she were a giant cage-mounted water bottle and he were the world’s thirstiest gerbil. Molly Ringle

On reflection, Angela perceived that her relationship with Tom had always been rocky, not quite a roller-coaster ride but more like when the toilet-paper roll gets a little squashed so it hangs crooked and every time you pull some off you can hear the rest going bumpity-bumpity in its holder until you go nuts and push it back into shape, a degree of annoyance that Angela had now almost attained. Rephah Berg

As he told her that he loved her she gazed into his eyes, wondering, as she noted the infestation of eyelash mites, the tiny deodicids burrowing into his follicles to eat the greasy sebum therein, each female laying up to 25 eggs in a single follicle, causing inflammation, whether the eyes are truly the windows of the soul; and, if so, his soul needed regrouting. Cathy Bryant

His ex-wife’s personality was like chocolate – not the smoky, tangy, exquisitely rich and full-bodied type, but the over-sweet, tooth-cracking, factory-processed, made-with-vegetable-oil kind that leaves one with diabetes and an aneurysm the size of a grape. Shalom Chung