Doofus / 'Historical' Slang

Jonathon Green slang at ABECEDARY.NET
Tue Jun 17 20:38:49 UTC 2003

I would imagine that Jesse may wish respond as regards the specifics of
Jonathan Lighter's work, but as another slang lexiocographer who is
currently amassing the materials for a 'historical' dictionary of slang, I
cannot forbear from tossing in my ten-pennorth.

I don't think that any serious slang collector has not at some stage
pondered Frank's points and to some extent or another agreed with pretty
much all of them. Yes, a pecentage of slang is innately ephemeral and may
indeed, by its orality, have escaped the collectors (although I would not
agree that this is the greater percentage); and yes, we slang
lexiciographers have no illusions as to our being at the very best a good
few paces behind the 'cutting edge' of slang coinage (indeed I have
seriously wondered when I shall be forced to retire, since there must come a
time when the gap between my age and that of the primarily youthful slang
coiners becomes simply too enormous - the vast resources of the Net in
tracking and recording 'youth culture' notwithstanding).

But as to the inability of a historical slang dictionary to fulfil its
stated purpose, and the dismissal of such dictionaries as super-oxymorons, I
simply cannot agree. Just as slang, whatever the prescriptivists may
continue to intone, is a part of the greater English language (see Murray's
schematic in the Intro to OED I) so too is 'historical' slang lexicography
as legitimate a part of dictionary making as is the 'historical' OED. The
nature of the lexicon with which one deals does, of course, create certain
specific differences, but in the end one is making a dictionary, and if that
dictionary attempts to offer citations a la OED, then, other than that they
are focused on slang, they are equally valid as regards the recording of
language use and development.

And while the OED remains the grand panjandrum of abecedaries, and even the
largest slang dictionary cannot hope to rival its splendour and achievement
(nor should it: the slang lexicon is minimal compared with the entire
English vocabulary), the two forms do share one thing (their
'dictionary-ness' aside). They are both flawed. And if a 'historical
dictionary' of slang cannot fulfil its stated aim, then nor can any other.

However detailed the reading list, however substantial and wide-ranging the
potential sources - and thanks to the Net such accessibility seems to be
increasing ever day - one cannot read everything, watch everything, listen
to everything, download everything - and even were such a thing possible,
one would still miss stuff whether standard English or slang. Humans are
fallible, so too are their dictionaries.

One need only look to the work of the late Jurgen Schaefer, who unearthed
tens of thousands of predates, or more recently that of Barry Popik or
George Thompson, to see how even the OED can be improved. My own researches
have unearthed a large number of predates of OED citations. I trust the fact
that these are 'slang citations' would not invalidate them as examples of

As for the idea that writing down slang 'kills' it, this seems to hold
precious little water. A word such as 'booze' has existed on paper since the
mid-1500s; it remains very much 'alive', and I would suggest, still slang.
It is hardly unkique. The lists of slang-filled books, movies and
(especially hip-hop) lyrics are ever expanding. Does their use of slang
immediately invalidate it? Surely not.

I could go on; I won't. But I hope others will be sufficiently interested to
throw in their opinions too.

Jonathon Green

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