[Ads-l] Liberman on Slang
fred.shapiro at YALE.EDU
Tue Oct 4 22:21:54 EDT 2016
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.
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 OUP
Jon is correct when he points out that Liberman omits any notice of Partridge's
_Dictionary of the Underworld_ there, or indeed, in his longer examination of
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 etymology.
This is, to say the least, unfortunate, since as Jon also notes, _DU_ identified
a wider range of examples.
Crucially, Partridge noted the appearance of the term in reports from the Old
Bailey, citing Catherine Lineham (from the Ordinary's Account -- at that point,
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 (genteelly
referred to by Partridge as 'Mary Young', rather than by her more familiar
alias, with the material in this citation taken from _Select Trials_, which
substantially reprints Guthrie's original report). Jenny Diver and Catherine
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 the
post-trial interviews by the prison chaplain or Ordinary with prisoners
convicted of capital offences [Accounts], extends this material, and currently
_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 carry
“slang” (in it's analogue, “slanger” = someone who slangs) back to c 1735 --
then Professor Liberman's argument might hold. Unfortunately, none of the wealth
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 particular
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 persons
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 criminal
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 speech
appears. It is, however, this variant of term which, gradually extending beyond
the porous boundaries of the London underworld in the early eighteenth century,
eventually ends up as a Standard Written English word, giving us the slang we so
know and love today.
Liberman's argument is not implausible (William of Ockham is on his side in
the formal derivation from Scandinavia), but the proposed semantic
development overlooks some relevant 18th C. senses of “slang” documented in
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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