[Ads-l] Liberman on Slang
robin.hamilton3 at VIRGINMEDIA.COM
Wed Oct 5 00:20:52 EDT 2016
Despite having mounted what might have come across as a sustained attack on
Anatoly Liberman, I have to say that, in the course of following his blog
closely for possibly a year now, this is the first time I've found myself in
serious disagreement with him.
Mostly I read him with delight and admiration.
Also, *in its own terms*, the "Slang (1756)" entry in _Etymology_ is a
meticulous example of meta-etymology. Insofar as Liberman is tracing the
history of what people have said about the etymology of slang, it's beyond
comprehensive -- detailed, trustworthy, and properly referenced.
It's also, of course, as an answer to the particular question, "Where does
"slang" come from?", I think profoundly wrong.
But whose fault is that? If Professor Liberman had started from Partridge's
_Dictionary of the Underworld_ rather than from the _Oxford English Dictionary_,
he wouldn't have ended up where he did.
I can entirely understand Fred's irritation with him. In venturing into modern
slang, Liberman is probably leaving his proper territory, and getting it wrong
as he goes.
That side of his work doesn't really bother me at all, mostly because I'm much
less interested in slang than in cant, so my toes aren't being trodden on.
"Liberman is at home in the realm of etymology of ancient words where conjecture
cannot be challenged by documented fact."
It's not, I think, that the challenge can't be made, or that Liberman doesn't
quite often, himself, challenge conjecture with fact, but that the nature of the
facts drawn on is different. Corpus linguistics didn't exist when Liberman was
young, and isn't necessarily applicable to what he mostly does.
> On 05 October 2016 at 03:21 "Shapiro, Fred" <fred.shapiro at YALE.EDU> wrote:
> Robin's discussion of Professor Liberman's approach to the etymology of
> "slang" illustrates my reservations about Liberman very well. Liberman is at
> home in the realm of etymology of ancient words where conjecture cannot be
> challenged by documented fact. He is far less at home in the realm of
> etymology of modern words where research and documentation may yield crucial
> evidence. He has written that he has never succeeded in antedating any of the
> first uses in the OED, and recently in his blog he got the most famous modern
> etymology, that of "O.K.," wrong.
> Fred Shapiro
> From: American Dialect Society <ADS-L at LISTSERV.UGA.EDU> on behalf of Robin
> Hamilton <robin.hamilton3 at VIRGINMEDIA.COM>
> Sent: Tuesday, October 4, 2016 9:48 PM
> To: ADS-L at LISTSERV.UGA.EDU
> Subject: Re: Liberman on Slang
> > He's already posted a brief reply to Liberman.
> The following is an expansion of my second comment on Professor Liberman's
> blog entry.
> Jon is correct when he points out that Liberman omits any notice of
> _Dictionary of the Underworld_ there, or indeed, in his longer examination
> the term in his _Etymology_ (2008). The eight pages given on "Slang
> (1756)" in
> 2008 are dependent, for instances of the term, on the OED, and slang
> lexicographers only appear insofar as they explicitly comment on its
> This is, to say the least, unfortunate, since as Jon also notes, _DU_
> a wider range of examples.
> Crucially, Partridge noted the appearance of the term in reports from the
> Bailey, citing Catherine Lineham (from the Ordinary's Account -- at that
> James Guthrie, who, despite his faults as a curator of souls, seems to
> have had
> a singularly un-clerical interest in cant speech) and Jenny Diver
> referred to by Partridge as 'Mary Young', rather than by her more familiar
> alias, with the material in this citation taken from _Select Trials_,
> substantially reprints Guthrie's original report). Jenny Diver and
> Lineham were both professional criminals, and both were hanged in 1741.
> Jonathan Green, drawing among other things on the Old Bailey Online, which
> reprints reports of Sessions trials at the Old Bailey [Proceedings], and
> post-trial interviews by the prison chaplain or Ordinary with prisoners
> convicted of capital offences [Accounts], extends this material, and
> _GDoS_ has the largest single gathering of instances of the early
> occurrences of
> the term “slang”.
> If it were a simple matter of missed antedatings -- and currently I can
> “slang” (in it's analogue, “slanger” = someone who slangs) back to c 1735
> then Professor Liberman's argument might hold. Unfortunately, none of the
> of early examples, from 1735 to about 1753 (to take James Poulter's
> _Discoveries_ as an end-point here) indicate the sense of slang as a
> mode of speech. This only appears, late in the record, in 1756.
> Any account of the etymology of the term “slang” which begins from its
> sense as
> 'a form of speech' is misdirected and misdirecting.
> Depending as he does on the citations given in the OED, and taking as his
> starting point OED slang, n3, "The special vocabulary used by any set of
> of a low or disreputable character; language of a low and vulgar type,“
> Professor Liberman provides us with an exemplary study of the history of
> etymological comment on one specific sense of the term ”slang" but
> doesn't, even
> now, conclusively solve the problem of “the origin of Slang”.
> Neither can I, but I'd suggest that the following might be taken into
> The term “slang”, in the form “slanger”, is first recorded in c. 1735,
> and, by
> the early 1740s, is in widespread use among the London professional
> community. It is found in a variety of senses between 1735 and 1756, but
> it is
> only then that any specific reference to slang as a particular mode of
> appears. It is, however, this variant of term which, gradually extending
> the porous boundaries of the London underworld in the early eighteenth
> eventually ends up as a Standard Written English word, giving us the slang
> we so
> know and love today.
> Robin Hamilton
> Liberman's argument is not implausible (William of Ockham is on his side
> the formal derivation from Scandinavia), but the proposed semantic
> development overlooks some relevant 18th C. senses of “slang” documented
> Partridge's _Dictionary of the Underworld_ but not yet in OED.
> On Tue, Oct 4, 2016 at 7:06 AM, Shapiro, Fred < fred.shapiro at yale.edu
> mailto:fred.shapiro at yale.edu > wrote:
> > I tend to be skeptical of Professor Liberman's forays into etymology of
> > modern words. I don't know enough about the history of the word “slang”
> > to
> > form a judgment about his analysis here. Can Jon Lighter and/or other
> > knowledgeable people say something about whether Liberman's argument
> > appears to be sound?
> > Fred Shapiro
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> The American Dialect Society - http://www.americandialect.org
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