Language Evolution: The Windows Approach addresses the question: "How can we unravel the evolution of language, given that there is no direct evidence about it?"
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AUTHOR: Jonathon Green TITLE: Green’s Dictionary of Slang PUBLISHER: Oxford University Press YEAR: 2011
Amy Coker, Archaeology, Classics & Egyptology, University of Liverpool UK
SUMMARY This award-winning three-volume work is a dictionary of English slang. It purports – and indeed appears to be – the most comprehensive account of such language available, encompassing many varieties of English as spoken around the world and traces as far as possible the origins of each slang word included. One example of a short entry follows, to give an idea of the kind of information this dictionary contains and how it is presented (typography simplified):
BUDMASH n. [Hind. badmash, a rascal] (orig. Ind. army) a villain, a rascal. 1888 KIPLING ‘The Three Musketeers’ in Plain Tales from the Hills 67: Says the driver, ‘Decoits! Wot decoits? That’s Buldoo the budmash.’ 1925 (con. WWI) FRASER & GIBBONS Soldier and Sailor Words 38: Budmash: (Hind. –badmash). A rascal. A thief.
Green thus gives the etymology of each word as far as possible, a usage label (e.g. ‘con. WWI’ = context First World War), a definition in ‘standard’ English, and dated citations for the appearance of the headword. Alternative spellings are given at the start of the entry. Some words are of course much more complex: for example, DINGBAT as a noun is split into seven distinct lemmata according to meaning (a strong drink; a ball of dung on the buttocks of sheep or cattle; a coin, pl. money; one of various types of muffin or biscuit; a term of admiration; anything for which one cannot specify the proper name; a fool, an idiot) and DOG as noun or verb extends over several pages, with each split into uses in compounds, in phrases, in exclamations and derivatives (we find among many others STROKE THE DOG, DOGWAYS and DOG-BOOBY). Some phrases or sayings are indexed alphabetically by their first word, e.g. ARRESTED BY THE BALIFF OF MARSHLAND (stricken with ague/malaria) is under A. Full use is also made of the witness of historical dictionaries of slang or cant. As one might expect, a great number of entries refer to sex acts of various kinds and the reproductive organs, excretion, insult, alcohol and drugs. However, it remains difficult to review a dictionary, even one as engaging as Green; reference works like this belong to a class of books which are rarely read from start to finish and thus any comments made about the contents will necessarily be selective. This review therefore has the modest aim of describing the work and its background, and offers a small amount of comment on the reviewer’s experience of the work.
EVALUATION First of all, this is a work of enormous size; the dictionary is in three volumes with more than 6000 pages in total and - in its pleasingly green hardcovers (visual pun surely intended) – it weighs in at just over a hefty 6.8kg. It represents the fruits of seventeen years of work, and according to the preface contains around 110,000 words and phrases, with 53,000 headwords. The dictionary was compiled from a database of 575,000 citations, of which 415,000 are included. The work covers the Englishes of the United Kingdom, America, Australia, New Zealand, Ireland, South Africa and the Anglophone Caribbean. Its focus is ‘slang’, defined by Green as ‘subversion of the norm’ (Vol. I, p. xiii). This is work is not, of course, the outcome of the labours of a single man, but one man’s determination is behind the work’s existence, and thus the dictionary bears his name, Jonathan Green. Green is a present-day celebrity lexicographer (http://jonathangreen.co.uk), with his nickname ‘Mr Slang’ apparently acquired from no lesser figure than Martin Amis. Likewise, it is remarkable and at the same time very pleasing that a book which is fundamentally a specialist dictionary of English has also been deemed interesting enough to the general public to be reviewed in several leading UK daily newspapers, including ‘The Guardian’ (http://www.guardian.co.uk/books/2010/dec/18/dictionary-slang-guardian-style-review). This reviewer believes that we are lucky to be living in an age when we can study subversive language within the discipline of linguistics for its own sake – slang may be ‘bad language’, but it is language nonetheless. The roots of this interest can be charted through classics such as Hughes (1991), through to recent works on linguistic impoliteness such as Culpeper (2011), and in the UK at least there are at present several projects underway charting the history of English slang and cant. This work has caught the imagination too of Oxford University Press; readers who want to test their slang knowledge can take the Green-inspired quiz in the OUP blog (http://blog.oup.com/2012/04/know-your-slang-quiz/).
Taking the plunge and dipping in to this work, in addition to the examples given at the beginning of this review one discovers the recent New Zealand compound, LUG-PUNCH (a friendly chat), that MUTTON was used of women or prostitutes as far back as the early sixteenth century, and that the wonderful adjective HORNIFIED was an equivalent for ‘cuckolded’. On this last word, note that despite claims that this is not a dictionary of historical slang (Vol. 1, p. xv), obsolete words are often included; at least, ‘hornified’ is obsolete in my vernacular. Similarly, there are some points with which one might wish to quibble in the introduction (for example, I am not sure I would agree that ‘without cities there is no slang’, p. xiii, and xiv) but these points notwithstanding, this work is a mammoth achievement. Coverage will always be a problem in particular for a dictionary of slang: the problem being that slang is created so quickly that is virtually impossible for print to keep up, especially with the advent of the internet and the mass production of written slang it spawns. There is simply so much slang that it cannot be recorded in a single place; Green himself is humble on this point, and begs the readers’ pardon.
So, who is this treasure trove of a dictionary for? There are plenty of publications on contemporary slang(s) circulating in non-academic circles, ‘Roger’s Profanisaurus’ for example, or www.urbandictionary.com (perhaps not for the faint hearted), and this genre of publications has a long history, charted in full by the work of Professor Julie Coleman (Coleman 2004-2010). Green’s preface states that the work is aimed primarily at ‘scholars of literature and history’ and that it ‘should also be of use to creative writers’ (p. xv) but also hits the nail on the head when he says that it is a work for anyone who is curious enough to open it. Despite the huge size of ‘Green’s Dictionary’, because it is a dictionary it is fundamentally accessible, with each lemma more or less free standing: the reader can spend two minutes with the work, or all day, and still get something from it. Given the journalistic interest in this work (a couple of examples of which are given above), there are surely plenty such curious readers out there: however, given the price tag which comes with this book (currently advertised at £295/$625), this is not a work which will be appearing on the coffee table of every arm-chair linguist. The preface indicates intention to make the material available online, and it has now indeed appeared at www.greensdictionary.com; although this will undoubtedly be of immense use to historical linguists, the casual observer is barred if he does not have a subscription (and indeed my own institution does not yet subscribe).
Dipping in and out of these three volumes has been a genuine treat, and a subversive corollary to the Oxford English Dictionary’s Word of the Day (recommended to anyone who does not already subscribe); through this process I have definitely increased my vocabulary, although some of my colleagues may suggest not for the better. However, joking aside and despite the fun which can be had with this work, ‘Green’s Dictionary’ is not a frivolous book but a heavyweight of scholarship. The final word is given to Green himself, who with a characteristically naughty wink to the reader summarises what he thinks of those who compile and read these works: ‘[I]f the reader is a voyeur, then so too is the lexicographer, usually male, middle-aged, middle-class. The lexis undoubtedly leans to pimping and prostitution, crime and imprisonment, violence and cruelty, drugged and drunken debauches, but the lexicographer is neither whore nor thief, thug nor prisoner, addict nor drunkard. Or at least not professionally.’ (Vol. 1, p. xiii) I would encourage us all to become voyeurs.
REFERENCES Coleman, Julie. 2004-2010. A History of Cant and Slang Dictionaries. 4 Volumes. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Culpeper, Jonathan. 2011. Impoliteness. Using language to cause offence. Studies in Interactional Sociolinguistics 28. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Hughes, Geoffrey. 1991. Swearing. A Social history of foul language, oaths and profanity in English. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
ABOUT THE REVIEWER
ABOUT THE REVIEWER:
Amy Coker teaches Latin, Greek and Classical literature at the University
of Liverpool, UK. Her research is in the area of Classical Greek
linguistics, and she is interested in language variation and the
methodologies of studying and applying linguistic theory to ancient
languages. Her PhD thesis (Manchester, 2010) was on grammatical gender
variation in ancient Greek, and she is starting a new project on the
sociolinguistics and vocabulary of offence, specifically in ancient Greek
literature, graffiti and private letters.