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The Dictionary of Slang

I've spent half a century (yikes) writing for radio and print—mostly print. I hope to be still tapping the keys as I take my last breath.

Eric Partridge described his relationship with the English language as, “Cheerfully and incorrigibly serving a life sentence” in his scholarship. The result of that duty was a monumental work, A Dictionary of Slang and Unconventional English (DSUE).

A Life of Letters

Eric Partridge was born in New Zealand and he moved to Brisbane, Australia with his family in 1905.

His post-secondary education centred on languages and time spent teaching at British universities. He founded a small publishing house in 1927 in London, but got wiped out by the Great Depression.

He was a prolific author of novels, under the pseudonym Corrie Denison, and non-fiction works about the English language. The first edition of his slang dictionary was published in 1937. Numerous revised editions have followed.

Partridge laboured over his dictionary to the exclusion of almost everything else in his life. He is quoted by Byron Rogers in Horizon as saying in 1976 “People say to me ‘Mr. Partridge, aren’t you interested in art?’ Of course I am, but I can’t afford the time. I’m social in my tendencies, but I’ve had to cut them out. I attend my club, the Savile, every Wednesday at lunchtime. I used to lunch and dine there, but I’ve given up the dinners. I was no good the next day for my work. I’m not a recluse, but there’s not the time.”

Other compendiums of slang had appeared earlier. A New Dictionary of the Terms Ancient and Modern of the Canting Crew appeared in about 1698. This was followed by the Classical Dictionary of the Vulgar Tongue that was compiled by Francis Grose in 1785. But these were simply historical curiosities by the middle of the 20th century.

So, Eric Partridge set about bringing the subject into the modern era.

Eric Partridge in 1971.

Eric Partridge in 1971.

The First Edition

Until Eric Partridge came along, slang was largely ignored by dictionary publishers; it was considered to be an unsavoury topic for serious study. Slang was an indelicate form of the language best kept out of the parlours of polite society. So, Partridge’s magnum opus was frowned upon in certain quarters.

Not so The New York Times Book Review, which noted “The lost words of the language have finally come to roost . . . The unmentionables are mentioned and carefully placed in proper alphabetical form.”

The subtitle of the volume said it covered “Slang, including the language of the underworld, Colloquialisms and Catchphrases, Solecisms and Catachreses, Nicknames, Vulgarisms, and such Americanisms as have been naturalized.” That meant only American slang that had become common in Britain was included.

The DSUE ventured where the Oxford English Dictionary, Merriam-Webster, and others feared to tread by including rude words that had to do with sex and bodily functions. However, Partridge was forced by the obscenity laws of the day into the judicious use of asterisks.

This all seems rather quaint in the wild and unfettered world of the internet where cuss words once considered taboo are part of common discourse.

What Is Slang?

In 1859, John Camden Hotten published A Dictionary of Modern Slang, Cant and Vulgar Words. He defined slang as “that evanescent, vulgar language, ever-changing with fashion and taste, . . . spoken by persons in every grade of life, rich and poor, honest and dishonest . . . Slang is indulged in from a desire to appear familiar with life, gaiety, town-humour and with the transient nicknames and street jokes of the day . . . It is often full of the most pungent satire, and is always to the point . . .”

More recently, University of Tennessee professors Bethany K. Dumas and Jonathan Lighter tackled the issue. “Although the phenomenon has frequently been discussed,” they wrote in the journal American Speech, “the term SLANG has rarely been defined in a way that is useful to linguists.”

Despite this, Partridge had a go, saying that slang is “The special vocabulary (e.g. cant) of low, illiterate, or disreputable persons; low illiterate language.”

At Salon, lexicographer Jonathon Green goes further: “At its heart it’s down, it’s dirty, it’s grubby, it’s tart, it’s essentially subversive. It questions and deals with themes like sex, drugs, violence, rudeness, abuse, racism and so on and so forth.” Really?

Is it all those things when, for example, someone calls alcoholic drinks “booze,” a slang word that’s been around since at least the mid-1500s?

Slang Is Transitory

Many slang words have their moment in the Sun and then disappear. If someone called a man a flutterbum in the 1950s, he would likely take it as a complimentary remark about his being a chiselled hunk of a guy. Trot the same word out in the 21st century and an unpleasant incident might ensue.

Here are a few slang words and expressions that have come and gone:

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  • Bag of mystery―Sausage of 1860s vintage
  • Spifflicated―Drunk during the Roaring Twenties
  • Pitching woo―Flirtation in the 1930s
  • Snollygoster―Unprincipled person from the 19th century.

This stale-dating of colloquial speech, of course, creates problems for those who publish dictionaries of slang. No sooner has the book been printed that it’s out of date. The internet has accelerated that process by being a distributor of new slang.

Novel words are coined and they flash around the world in the blink of an eye. By the time those of us of a certain age catch on we’re told “Oh that’s so yesterday.” This is why something like the Urban Dictionary exists, although it has plenty of warts.

The Urban Dictionary relies on contributions from the general public without the guiding hand of a trained lexicographer. Writing for Wired, Jason Parham says “the site began to espouse the worst of the internet . . . It transformed into a harbor for hate speech . . . Racism, homophobia, xenophobia, and sexism currently serve as the basis for some of the most popular definitions on the site.”

There are other slang dictionaries on the internet but they all suffer from the same lack of professional oversight. So, we have to settle for printed dictionaries, compiled by scholars who know what they’re doing, with revised editions coming out every decade or so.

Bonus Factoids

  • As with other lexicographers who delved into the world of slang, Eric Partridge made a special study of slang usage among criminals. The result was the 1949 publication of Being the Vocabularies of Crooks, Criminals, Racketeers, Beggars and Tramps, Convicts, the Commercial Underworld, the Drug Traffic, the White Slave Traffic, Spivs.
  • For 40 years, Eric Partridge sat at desk K1 in the Reading Room of the British Museum as he worked on his dictionaries.
  • The latest version of Eric Partridge’s slang dictionary appeared in 2012. It was the work of Tom Dalzell, an American lawyer, and Terry Victor, a British actor and writer. It runs to 864 pages with 60,000 entries, and sells for around $800. The two-volume publication includes a lot America slang, which was left out of Partridge’s versions.

References

  • “The Definitive Slang Dictionary.” Ben Zimmer, New York Times, April 1, 2011.
  • “The Canting Crew Go Large.” John Mullan, The Guardian, December 7, 2002.
  • “Dictionary of Slang and Unconventional English.” Encyclopedia.com, undated.
  • “Is Slang a Word for Linguists?” Bethany K. Dumas and Jonathan Lighter, American Speech, Spring 1978.
  • “Slang: The Universal Language.” Toby Ash, Salon, October 15, 2012.
  • “What Happened to Urban Dictionary?” Jason Parham, Wired, September 11, 2019.
  • “Lone Ranger.” Rrishi Raote, Business Standard, January 21, 2013.

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.

© 2020 Rupert Taylor

Comments

John Hansen from Queensland Australia on December 10, 2020:

Thanks Rupert.

Rupert Taylor (author) from Waterloo, Ontario, Canada on December 10, 2020:

Your coverage of Oz lingo is extensive. I've decided to stick to my own back yard to look into Newfoundland English. It's unique and sometimes unintelligible to the average ear.

John Hansen from Queensland Australia on December 10, 2020:

Oh, I meant "bonza" lol. You are most welcome to check my "How to Talk Aussie" articles out, and also write your own on the subject if you feel compelled to. Thanks.

Rupert Taylor (author) from Waterloo, Ontario, Canada on December 10, 2020:

Good on yer John. You beat me to it. I won't tread on your hubs but I'll have a look at them, because I'm fascinated by language.

John Hansen from Queensland Australia on December 10, 2020:

Yes it is called ”strine.” Fair dinkum and bona are still used...thanks to people like the late Steve Irwin. I have a series of hubs about Aussie slang as well.

Rupert Taylor (author) from Waterloo, Ontario, Canada on December 10, 2020:

Hi John. I did see reference to Commonwealth slang in his first dictionary, although it was Empire in 1937. Oz is a place that seems to generate more than its fair share of slang. Is it still called "strine?" I imagine that fair dinkum and bonza have died merciful deaths. It's been in my mind for some time to do a piece on Australia's colourful language.

John Hansen from Queensland Australia on December 09, 2020:

This was another interesting read, Rupert. It is interesting that he was born in New Zealndand moved to Brisbane, Australia. Those two countries have plenty of slang so I wonder if he included any of that.

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