Fred Shapiro fred.shapiro at YALE.EDU
Thu Feb 3 19:14:33 UTC 2000

Jesse Sheidlower's posting is a very articulate statement by one of the
most knowledgeable people in the world on this question.

Traditionally, for slang terms the historical dictionaries (the OED,
Dictionary of American English, Dictionary of Americanisms, etc.) had
first citations that were on the average several decades later than when
the word first appeared in spoken use.

Now, however, a number of things have changed, probably resulting in an
average gap more like 5-10 years between first spoken use and first
recorded written evidence for 20th-century slang terms.  Some of the
new factors include:

1. There are now many printed sources, such as underground newspapers,
pornographic magazines, transcripts of broadcasts, etc., that are closer
to the spoken word than more traditional sources for historical
lexicography.  Even standard journalistic and literary sources are more
likely to contain slang than was true in past eras.

2. Talented and diligent collectors such as Jonathan Lighter, Peter
Tamony, David Shulman, and Barry Popik have devoted tremendous effort to
looking at the funkier sources to collect slang evidence.  To a lesser but
still significant extent, the reading programs of Merriam-Webster and the
Oxford English Dictionary have looked at close-to-the-ground sources and
built up some good data on slang.

3. To the extent that slang terms make it into newspapers, magazines, wire
service stories, and broadcasting transcripts, databases such as Nexis and
Dow Jones are extremely powerful in retrieving early printed usages.  If
Nexis doesn't have "wuss" before 1984, this provides some level of
negative evidence that the term was not in widespread use much before

Fred R. Shapiro                             Coeditor (with Jane Garry)
Associate Librarian for Public Services     TRIAL AND ERROR: AN OXFORD
  and Lecturer in Legal Research            ANTHOLOGY OF LEGAL STORIES
Yale Law School                             Oxford University Press, 1998
e-mail: fred.shapiro at yale.edu               ISBN 0-19-509547-2

More information about the Ads-l mailing list