Doofus / 'Historical' Slang

Frank Abate abatefr at EARTHLINK.NET
Thu Jun 19 23:20:42 UTC 2003

Fred S said:

I agree wholeheartedly with Jonathon Green's response to Frank Abate's
dismissal of the whole enterprise of historical lexicography of slang.
I'll state my feelings very briefly:  Yes, slang lexicography lags behind
the oral origins of most slang, but early printed citations still shed
significant light on those origins and are a lot better than nothing.
And the techniques now available to historical lexicographers, by which I
principally mean online databases but also have in mind the brilliant
nonelectronic researches of collectors such as Jonathan Lighter and Barry
Popik, unearth citations that are closer to the true oral origins of the
terms than Abate seems to realize.

It is an overstatement to say that I dismiss the whole enterprise.  I am
saying that the enterprise is and always will be necessarily wanting, as
evidence of earliest-known uses of slang can never be gotten to, and any
written evidence may be many years from the origin -- assuming that slang
always originates in orality.

Citations do shed light, of course, but it is a dim light.  Yes, they are
better than nothing.

I did not say what I did to discourage or criticize the work of anyone who
does research on slang.  I merely am saying that since the work relies on
written material, then necessarily it will be distant from the origins, and
at some great distance in many cases.  This is not the case with historical
lexicography of general English, where there are many known coinages in
written material, of course.  They may be in the minority, but they are
there.  And with the many inkhorn terms of the 1600s, I expect we have a
large number of citations that are very close to the origin, if not the
absolute first use.

I do believe in the overwhelming primacy of the oral part of the language,
at least for lexicography -- in an ideal world.  All citation-based
lexicography is at a disadvantage, as the vast majority of words in the
language, slang or other, originates in speech.  Taking this view, most
citations of written words are like secondary sources, to employ a
historiographic metaphor.  And for research into slang, written citations
are ALWAYS secondary sources, at best.

Frank Abate

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