LINGUIST List 23.3481

Tue Aug 21 2012

Review: Lexicography; Sociolinguistics: Green (2011)

Editor for this issue: Joseph Salmons <>

Date: 21-Aug-2012
From: Amy Coker <>
Subject: Green’s Dictionary of Slang
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AUTHOR: Jonathon GreenTITLE: Green's Dictionary of SlangPUBLISHER: Oxford University PressYEAR: 2011

Amy Coker, Archaeology, Classics & Egyptology, University of Liverpool UK

SUMMARYThis award-winning three-volume work is a dictionary of English slang. Itpurports - and indeed appears to be - the most comprehensive account of suchlanguage available, encompassing many varieties of English as spoken around theworld and traces as far as possible the origins of each slang word included. Oneexample of a short entry follows, to give an idea of the kind of informationthis dictionary contains and how it is presented (typography simplified):

BUDMASH n. [Hind. badmash, a rascal] (orig. Ind. army) a villain, a rascal. 1888KIPLING 'The Three Musketeers' in Plain Tales from the Hills 67: Says thedriver, 'Decoits! Wot decoits? That's Buldoo the budmash.' 1925 (con. WWI)FRASER & GIBBONS Soldier and Sailor Words 38: Budmash: (Hind. -badmash). Arascal. 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 spellingsare 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 tomeaning (a strong drink; a ball of dung on the buttocks of sheep or cattle; acoin, pl. money; one of various types of muffin or biscuit; a term ofadmiration; anything for which one cannot specify the proper name; a fool, anidiot) and DOG as noun or verb extends over several pages, with each split intouses in compounds, in phrases, in exclamations and derivatives (we find amongmany others STROKE THE DOG, DOGWAYS and DOG-BOOBY). Some phrases or sayings areindexed alphabetically by their first word, e.g. ARRESTED BY THE BALIFF OFMARSHLAND (stricken with ague/malaria) is under A. Full use is also made of thewitness of historical dictionaries of slang or cant. As one might expect, agreat number of entries refer to sex acts of various kinds and the reproductiveorgans, excretion, insult, alcohol and drugs. However, it remains difficult toreview a dictionary, even one as engaging as Green; reference works like thisbelong to a class of books which are rarely read from start to finish and thusany comments made about the contents will necessarily be selective. This reviewtherefore has the modest aim of describing the work and its background, andoffers a small amount of comment on the reviewer's experience of the work.

EVALUATIONFirst of all, this is a work of enormous size; the dictionary is in threevolumes with more than 6000 pages in total and - in its pleasingly greenhardcovers (visual pun surely intended) - it weighs in at just over a hefty6.8kg. It represents the fruits of seventeen years of work, and according to thepreface contains around 110,000 words and phrases, with 53,000 headwords. Thedictionary was compiled from a database of 575,000 citations, of which 415,000are included. The work covers the Englishes of the United Kingdom, America,Australia, New Zealand, Ireland, South Africa and the Anglophone Caribbean. Itsfocus 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 singleman, but one man's determination is behind the work's existence, and thus thedictionary bears his name, Jonathan Green. Green is a present-day celebritylexicographer (, with his nickname 'Mr Slang'apparently acquired from no lesser figure than Martin Amis. Likewise, it isremarkable and at the same time very pleasing that a book which is fundamentallya specialist dictionary of English has also been deemed interesting enough tothe general public to be reviewed in several leading UK daily newspapers,including 'The Guardian'( reviewer believes that we are lucky to be living in an age when we canstudy subversive language within the discipline of linguistics for its own sake- slang may be 'bad language', but it is language nonetheless. The roots of thisinterest can be charted through classics such as Hughes (1991), through torecent works on linguistic impoliteness such as Culpeper (2011), and in the UKat least there are at present several projects underway charting the history ofEnglish slang and cant. This work has caught the imagination too of OxfordUniversity Press; readers who want to test their slang knowledge can take theGreen-inspired quiz in the OUP blog(

Taking the plunge and dipping in to this work, in addition to the examples givenat 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 farback as the early sixteenth century, and that the wonderful adjective HORNIFIEDwas an equivalent for 'cuckolded'. On this last word, note that despite claimsthat this is not a dictionary of historical slang (Vol. 1, p. xv), obsoletewords are often included; at least, 'hornified' is obsolete in my vernacular.Similarly, there are some points with which one might wish to quibble in theintroduction (for example, I am not sure I would agree that 'without citiesthere is no slang', p. xiii, and xiv) but these points notwithstanding, thiswork is a mammoth achievement. Coverage will always be a problem in particularfor a dictionary of slang: the problem being that slang is created so quicklythat is virtually impossible for print to keep up, especially with the advent ofthe internet and the mass production of written slang it spawns. There is simplyso much slang that it cannot be recorded in a single place; Green himself ishumble on this point, and begs the readers' pardon.

So, who is this treasure trove of a dictionary for? There are plenty ofpublications on contemporary slang(s) circulating in non-academic circles,'Roger's Profanisaurus' for example, or (perhaps not forthe faint hearted), and this genre of publications has a long history, chartedin full by the work of Professor Julie Coleman (Coleman 2004-2010). Green'spreface states that the work is aimed primarily at 'scholars of literature andhistory' and that it 'should also be of use to creative writers' (p. xv) butalso hits the nail on the head when he says that it is a work for anyone who iscurious enough to open it. Despite the huge size of 'Green's Dictionary',because it is a dictionary it is fundamentally accessible, with each lemma moreor less free standing: the reader can spend two minutes with the work, or allday, and still get something from it. Given the journalistic interest in thiswork (a couple of examples of which are given above), there are surely plentysuch curious readers out there: however, given the price tag which comes withthis book (currently advertised at £295/$625), this is not a work which will beappearing on the coffee table of every arm-chair linguist. The preface indicatesintention to make the material available online, and it has now indeed appearedat; although this will undoubtedly be of immense use tohistorical linguists, the casual observer is barred if he does not have asubscription (and indeed my own institution does not yet subscribe).

Dipping in and out of these three volumes has been a genuine treat, and asubversive corollary to the Oxford English Dictionary's Word of the Day(recommended to anyone who does not already subscribe); through this process Ihave definitely increased my vocabulary, although some of my colleagues maysuggest not for the better. However, joking aside and despite the fun which canbe had with this work, 'Green's Dictionary' is not a frivolous book but aheavyweight of scholarship. The final word is given to Green himself, who with acharacteristically naughty wink to the reader summarises what he thinks of thosewho compile and read these works: '[I]f the reader is a voyeur, then so too isthe lexicographer, usually male, middle-aged, middle-class. The lexisundoubtedly leans to pimping and prostitution, crime and imprisonment, violenceand cruelty, drugged and drunken debauches, but the lexicographer is neitherwhore nor thief, thug nor prisoner, addict nor drunkard. Or at least notprofessionally.' (Vol. 1, p. xiii) I would encourage us all to become voyeurs.

REFERENCESColeman, 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. Studiesin Interactional Sociolinguistics 28. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Hughes, Geoffrey. 1991. Swearing. A Social history of foul language, oaths andprofanity in English. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

ABOUT THE REVIEWERAmy Coker teaches Latin, Greek and Classical literature at the Universityof Liverpool, UK. Her research is in the area of Classical Greeklinguistics, and she is interested in language variation and themethodologies of studying and applying linguistic theory to ancientlanguages. Her PhD thesis (Manchester, 2010) was on grammatical gendervariation in ancient Greek, and she is starting a new project on thesociolinguistics and vocabulary of offence, specifically in ancient Greekliterature, graffiti and private letters.

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