Green’s Dictionary of Slang


This book has been 17 years in the making. And by then I had already been working on slang for a decade. It is a long time and there have been many individuals who have, to a greater and lesser extent, offered me support, help, advice, suggestions and actual material. I cannot thank them all by name. But I am nonetheless grateful. 

Equally so I thank my friends, who on asking me year in year out ‘What are you working on now?’ only to receive the same response ‘The dictionary of slang’, remained remarkably tolerant. I am loathe to single out anyone, but David Jenkins, Clare Toynbee, Jonathan Meades, Dan Franklin and Professors Colin MacCabe of Birkbeck College and Nick Groom of Exeter University have all been vastly supportive throughout this lengthy trek towards publication. My sons Lucien and Gabriel have, among much else, made me far better aware of developments in language that otherwise would have been quite beyond me.

Reference publishing has changed radically during the dictionary’s gestation. The days of the large, let alone multi-volume reference books, including and perhaps particularly dictionaries, are numbered. The Internet, however ill-edited and un-mediated too many of its efforts remain, is such information’s logical home; this book too will take its place there. Meanwhile multi-nationals have come to dominate much of publishing as they do all commerce, and this book has been through a number of colophons. 

I would like to thank therefore: 

At Cassell, the commissioning publishers, Anthony Cheetham and John Mitchinson, whose belief in the value of this book quite simply made it happen. Without their initial commitment the dictionary would not have set out on its long journey. Nigel Wilcockson did not work directly on this book, but in 1993 was the commissioning editor for the original Cassell Dictionary of Slang, and lexicographically that still lies at the heart of what has followed. I am especially indebted to Richard Milbank, who commissioned not merely the second edition of the Casssell Dictionary of Slang (and indeed took up the direction of the first), but was involved from day one in this much larger and more ambitious project. It was to both our regret that circumstances robbed him of the opportunity of following it through to publication. His personal support both for the book and its author in the years that succeeded his professional involvement has been exemplary, and I am very grateful. 

I am also grateful to those who were first involved with the book at Chambers, Patrick White, Vivian Marr, Mary O’Neill, Patrick Gaherty and Ruth O’Donovan, and who published the single-volume Chambers Slang Dictionary to my great satisfaction. 

I am hugely grateful to the new editorial team of Jasmin Naim, Bianca Knights and Francesca Naish who have steered the dictionary into print. I doubt that everyone would have been so accomplished. My thanks as well to Philip Shaw, Managing Director of Tertiary and Health Sciences at Hodder Education. 

In addition I must thank the copy-editors and proofreaders of this long and often complex text: Sandra Anderson, Pat Bulhosen, Sheila Ferguson, Lorna Gilmour, Alice Grandison, Joyce Littlejohn and Michael Munro. The database assistants Vicky Aldus, Mark Crabbie, Joel Hughes, Gordon Lee and Deborah Smith. Jonathan Williams of Hodder, in charge of the book’s production, and Sharon McTeir, who guided this vast text through typesetting. 

One way in which reference publishing and indeed writing has changed is in the means of production. My first ever dictionary was delivered in a shoebox of five-by-three file cards, the second was copied from my machine to a disk, but this one resides on an anonymous server. I have enjoyed the benefits of two successive databases: Librios and DPS, and my thanks go to their makers, David Wilcockson of Librios and Philippe Climent of IDM, owners of DPS. Also to George Milous, whose technical skills for many years helped to keep my end of things running.

A project that runs to a pre-edited total of 12.6 million words is not and cannot possibly be the product of a single individual. This one is no exception. I have been fortunate enough to enlist the services of a number of individuals with my research. Notably Jeremy Noel-Tod and Nasir Ahmad, both of whom have gone on to successful, albeit non-lexicographic careers. Jared Boorer, whom I never met but who was introduced to me by a correspondent, took on the task of eviscerating the wonders of the first 30 years of Australia’s slang-riddled Bulletin magazine, as well as a number of other Australian journals and novels. The book has benefited hugely from his long-distance application. And above all Richard Short, who took on for me, among much else, the lexicographer’s unavoidable if thankless task – the checking of his immediate predecessor’s work – with unvaried good humour, charm and of course his own enviable intelligence.

Nor can such a project be undertaken without the resources of libraries. I am grateful to the staff of the British Library, its Newspaper Library in Colindale and the New York Public Library. For my own share of the research I am particularly indebted to those who staff the London Library, for me perhaps the best reason to live even partially in the city for which it is named; its librarians have helped me and its shelves informed my books, slang and otherwise, since 1979. 

I want to thank as well Felix Dennis and Karen Durbin, whose generous hospitality made it possible for research trips to New York City’s great Public Library to be so much more enjoyable.

One of the joys of what one might term long-distance lexicography has been the professional colleagues whom I have met and who in some cases have become personal friends. They have all been generous with their knowledge and time. Professor Charlotte Brewer of Hertford College, Oxford, Professor Julie Coleman of Leicester University and Peter Gilliver, Senior Editor of the OED, all of whom have added to professional skills their personal support as the dictionary moved along its often problematic publishing path. Bruce Moore, Director of the Australian National Dictionary Centre and his colleagues Judith Smyth Robertson and Amanda Laugesen. The American Dialect Society members Professor Gerald Cohen, Barry Popik, Fred Shapiro, Sam Clements and Ben Zimmer, all of whom have distinguished careers in their own right. Professor Connie Eble of the University of North Carolina has regularly made lists of her college’s undergraduate slang available, while George A. Thompson, formerly librarian at New York University, has been exceptionally generous in passing on his own researches in early 19th-century New York City newspapers. Michael Quinion, of the website World Wide Words, has been invariably helpful and no researcher into etymology can go long without consulting his authoritative knowledge. 

Anyone who has the slightest professional interest in slang will have encountered, if only by name, two important figures, both of whom have helped me. The English dictionary dealer Karen Thomson and the New York City collector Madeline Kripke, whose exhaustive library of slang-related materials must be the greatest in the world.

I am grateful to everyone mentioned, but there are certain individuals who have contributed so much to this book, without whose help it simply would not have existed.

Tom Dalzell, who is technically a rival, since he is one of the tiny band of Anglophone slang lexicographers currently at work, has been beyond generous in his selflessness as regards this project. As well as his friendship and his unwavering support, I have benefited from his donation of many documents that without his collection I would have been hard put to find. Indeed, I might have been unaware of their very existence.  

Patrick Hanks, whose skills as a computational lexicographer so far outweigh my own as a slang codifier, has been a steadfast supporter and adviser, for as long as the project has been in progress. His pointers and suggestions have been invaluable. His friendship is to be treasured. 

Jesse Sheidlower, of the OED in New York, is again, I suppose, both friend and professional rival, and remains one of the very few people to have worked on a slang dictionary with citations. This book is in so many ways indebted to the skilled and very valuable editorial advice that he has offered.  

My agent Julian Alexander made the original deal and has been faced with keeping it on track through all the many dips and turns of modern publishing’s rollercoaster. He has also had to deal with a client – myself – whose hopes and terrors have tended to reflect all too intensely the current state of play. His tolerance has been saintly. 

Susie Ford, with whom I have lived for even longer time than it takes to make a dictionary, took on, perhaps willy-nilly at first, the task of chief researcher. Of the 6000-odd books in the bibliography, many were read by her; she is responsible for vast numbers of the c.575,000 citations in the database. She has answered all the necessary questions, dealt painstakingly with strange and near-unreadable texts, and for the last decade made herself into one of the British Library’s foremost rats de bibliothèque. She has also put up with the author. 

I have had the immense good fortune to have worked with Sarah Chatwin since the earliest days of the Cassell Dictionary of Slang. We have both come a long way since then. I find it hard after all these years to know what to say that might be adequate to express my respect and my affection, not to mention my vast gratitude, other than that there is no other person so responsible for this dictionary, quite possibly including its nominal author. Given that one of her roles has been as editor-in-chief, the rote demurrer that ‘only the faults are mine’ takes on a new reality. If there are errors, they are not for want of Sarah’s trying to make me eliminate them. I am in her debt now, I have been for a long time, and I shall continue to be so. 

In 1997 I discovered that my late Uncle Jack, properly Ezra Morris, had died and in his will had bequeathed me a substantial sum of money. I did not know Jack very well, I had not seen him, other than one brief visit eight years before, for perhaps 40 years. His work did not involve books, let alone slang, but on that one visit I discovered that he liked mine and I had been sending him such books as I published. The bequest was nonetheless a bombshell. It did indeed change my life. In many ways, of course, but most of all professionally. I have said above that various people have contributed to this book in such a way that without their help it would have been a lesser work. That is true. And of course my publishers have not requested that I work for free. But at the simplest level, without my uncle’s bequest, I simply could not have been able to work full-time on such a project, to hire the helpers, make the research trips, and muster the necessary research materials. Lexicography, at least on this scale, is not a solo pursuit any more. Thanks to my uncle I have been given what I see as the enormous privilege of working not at the behest of some institution, but in the way that I wished and I believe best suited the book. 

I regret deeply that I cannot present him with ‘his’ book. It is therefore, the least that I can do, in honour of his kindness, his generosity, and the fact that in passing me the material residue of his life’s work, he made it possible for me to attain my own, is to dedicate it to his memory.