We're rarely lost for words while tromboning
The Cassell Dictionary of Slang by Jonathon Green Cassell pounds 25
Sunday 27 December 1998
With dictionaries of contemporary slang, you can simply omit anything that is not current. Jonathon Green made his name in that area, having produced such a dictionary as long ago as 1984, but here he has greater ambitions. Green's is the first new dictionary of the entire range of slang, current and historical, since Eric Partridge's Dictionary of Slang and Unconventional English, first published in 1937. But in some ways he goes further. Green not only reconsiders the historical material, dating back to the 16th century, but he brings in more American slang and contemporary vocabulary from areas of life Partridge could not have imagined.
One of the most famous definitions of slang comes from Carl Sandburg, the American poet. He called it "language which takes off its coat, spits on its hands ... and goes to work". This is an attractive image, but misleading. Work is the last place slang goes. More often, it goes to the bookie's, or the boozer, or to the football or the knocking-shop. As children, we hear the word only in terms of disapproval. And while we all use slang as adults, we are careful to match it to our circumstances: among friends, but not in a job application.
Green's introduction makes a good, but romantic, case for slang. It is, he says "the counter-language", used by "the rebel, the outlaw, the despised, the marginal, the young". It is "hugely enriching, the spice in the greater linguistic dish, enhancing quotidian ingredients with its brash new flavours". And yet, even this strong defence admits of slang's dark side. It is often the raw material for insult, offence or worse.
This is a 1,300-page book, but to keep it manageable Green has made a number of decisions. The first is to dump a lot of Sandburg's type of slang, the language of occupations. This Green redefines as jargon, and in doing so frees himself to dump Partridge's military slang, public school and Varsity language, and the minutiae of criminal cant. On the other hand, he reveals his Sixties counter-culture past by bringing in a great deal of the lore of drugs. After "a" for arse, the book's second entry describes "a" for amphetamine. It then lists 107 cross-references and synonyms, from "aimies" to "whites". But drugs are only one factor pumping up the slang lexicon. Green also brings in the slang of the world's other Englishes, increasingly common to us through global media, entertainment and the Internet.
With such pressure on space, Green has regretfully decided to do without citations for his sources. To have included them would have placed this dictionary on a higher plane of academic authority: on the other hand, it would have made it vast, expensive and slow to emerge.
So he opts for accessibility, with a book that, though not as physically robust as it might be - those 1,300 pages strain the limit of perfect- binding, and the paper is thin - is admirably useable. Entries are straightforwardly set out and clearly typeset. They are also alphabetical, unremarkable in a dictionary, but worth mentioning in the light of Oxford's baffling decision to present its own new slang work thematically. Green gives each word an approximate date, an attempted etymology, cross-references and a definition.
Green is a one-man band, and his definitions are stylish, slyly amusing and pleasantly idiosyncratic. "Got your eye full?", for instance is "Addressed to someone who is staring, with the undoubted suggestion that they should stop at once; it can be followed with `Want a picture?'". On the same page we learn that "gouda" is an unappealing person on American campuses; that to "go to the moon" is a 1930s Ulster expression for "to lose one's temper"; and to "go tromboning" is to have sexual intercourse.
Of course, if Green really wanted to save space, he could remove anything offensive: but then he'd hardly have a book left. In his introduction he touches on the problems facing the modern lexicographer, at a time when some US dictionaries are, for instance, expunging racially offensive terms. He notes that while Partridge would not spell out "dirty words" in early editions of his dictionary, he included a plethora of racial insults without indicating their derogatory nature. Sixty years on, the slang lexicographer can include any sexual language, but race is much more tricky. The upshot is that this dictionary, like the most recent edition of the OED, indicates that certain terms are insulting. In his introduction, Green briefly wonders why this should apply only to racial terms, rather than to those referring to homosexuals, the disabled, the stupid and so on. But having brandished the opener to the can of worms, he puts it back in the drawer.
A passing reference to Lenny Bruce, who sincerely, idealistically and quite erroneously believed that bandying around the word "nigger" would destroy its evil force, perhaps hints at Green's own liberal instincts. As it must, the dictionary finds room for more than a page of terms derived from the "n-word", mostly American. Here we begin to see why slang brings disapproval. If the racial terms are abhorrent, so too are many of the sexual words. The misogyny in some of these terms still shocks, even as the inventiveness of others raises a smile.
It's a cliche of reviewing to say that every page of a book includes something of interest, but here the word "interest" is barely adequate. Every page here includes something fascinating. Just as in the OED, every page introduces us to different cultures, different times, different classes and professions and different ways of life. This dictionary is strongly recommended, whether for reference or simple entertainment. Only a wazzock, a wiffle-woffle or a woojang could possibly disagree.
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