Slang is the language that says no. Born in the street it resists the niceties of the respectable. It is impertinent, mocking, unconvinced by rules, regulations and ideologies. It is a subset of language that since its earliest appearance has been linked to the lower depths, the criminal, the marginal, the unwanted or even persecuted members of society. It has been censored, ignored, shoved to one side and into the gutter from where it is widely believed to take its inspiration and in which it and its users have a home. It remains something apart, and for many that is where it should stay.
Yet if such negatives are true, then they are imposed from the outside. From the prejudiced, the ignorant, the fearful. The reality of the language is that it is vibrant, creative, witty, and open to seemingly infinite re-invention. It is voyeuristic, amoral, libertarian and libertine. It is vicious. It is cruel. It is self-indulgent. It is funny. It is fun. Its dictionaries offer an oral history of marginality and rebellion, of dispossession and frustration. They list the words that have evolved to challenge those states. It is supremely human.
It subscribes to nothing but itself – no belief systems, no true believers, no faith, no religion, no politics, no party. It is the linguistic version of Freud’s id, defined by him in 1933 as ‘the dark, inaccessible part of our personality […] It is filled with energy reaching it from the instincts, but it has no organisation, produces no collective will, but only a striving to bring about the satisfaction of the instinctual needs subject to the observance of the pleasure principle.’ And in English slang it, translating id from the Latin and the original German, can mean sex or either of the bodily parts it requires for consummation. So be it.
Excluded from the standard world the slang user rejects standard language and substitutes a code within which he/she feels secure and which serves to define him/herself. Of course no-one exists purely in slang-world. It is feasible, perhaps, in a closed society such as a prison, but rarely elsewhere. One must discard slang to enter ‘real life’ just as one discards casual clothes to go to work. Otherwise it plays a vital role. It offers articulacy to the otherwise inarticulate, or at least those who lack the mastery of standard usage. And like beauty, articulacy is wholly relative.
A dictionary of slang is unlike its standard peers: slang may be included there to some extent, but never to so all-encompassing an extent, to the exclusion of any other linguistic register. But its content notwithstanding it remains a dictionary and as such the slang lexicon is the same as its standard peers, since its making requires exactly the same disciplines: finding, codifying, defining and illustrating the material with which one deals. That its subject matter can tend to the sensational, the obscene, the heightened, the ludic and the imagistic does not mean that the dictionary itself is anything but a wholly concrete construction. The content may be non-standard, the form is wholly conventional. So too is its intended use. It is first and foremost a tool, a book-shaped tool, but a tool nonetheless. It is made with tools itself – the fruits of research, of lexicographical experience, of linguistic knowledge – and it becomes a tool for those who require those skills in a proxy form.
This book, in three volumes, offers around 125,000 words and phrases. It is a ‘nested’ dictionary, which means that the actual count of headwords (the root term that one initially looks up) is something between 50–60,000, while derivations, compounds and phrases are listed not separately, but at the headword, usually a noun or verb, to which they belong. It is also a dictionary written ‘on historical principles’. That is, not a dictionary of historical slang, but one in which each word and each sense of that word is illustrated by a list of citations – illustrative quotations drawn from whatever medium yields them up – and going back, as far as can be ascertained, to the first use of that word in slang. The history, therefore, is of the words themselves whether coined in 1500 or half a millennium later. This dictionary is drawn from a database of c. 575,000 illustrative citations (of which c. 415,000 are included here). As far as is possible, these citations offer the best proof of a word’s existence and its subsequent progress and sense development within the slang lexis.
It is, it will immediately be noted, a book. A traditional, hard-covered and in this case multi-volumed work of reference. In 1993, when its single-volume, non-cited predecessor was commissioned the book was, for the publishing and reading world, what one had. This was perhaps less true in 1998, when that book was published, this one commissioned and the search for citations began, but a book it has remained. It is intended to render the material available electronically, but for the moment this is the available format.
The use of citations, leading to far more complex entries than the simpler A headword = B definition, plus perhaps some form of C etymology, means that this dictionary is meant primarily for scholars of literature and of history. It should also be of use to creative writers. It is open to all, of course, to anyone of that reassuringly large community of those who are ‘fascinated by words’ and in this case by slang words. But assessing a dictionary’s readers is ultimately pointless: one cannot say who picks up a tool; professionals certainly, but after that there are no lines of yea or nay. The DIY fan requires the same kit as the cabinet-maker.
The definition of slang is elusive. Even the word’s etymology resists attempts to set down an unimpeachable source. The received version for much of the 20th century saw a link to various Scandinavian roots suggesting language that is ‘slung’, i.e. thrown. Current etymologists have abandoned it but offer no sound alternative. As for linguists, the answer may best be seen in an academic essay of 1978 which asked ‘Is Slang a Word for Linguists?’ and concluded that thanks to its resolute refusal to provide the kind of consistent evidence that linguists require, the answer was most probably ‘No.’
For purposes of labelling the OED currently classifies a slang word as ‘an alternative to a more formal word, typically used by a subset of the speech population, and a colloquial term as an informal term used widely in the speech community.’ Its unrevised definition, first set down in 1915, defines the word as ‘language of a highly colloquial type, considered as below the level of standard educated speech, and consisting either of new words or of current words employed in some special sense’. Chambers (11th edn, 2008) offers ‘words or usages not forming part of standard language, only used very informally, esp in speech.’ The most elaborate is that of Webster’s 3rd New International (1961): ‘a non-standard vocabulary composed of words and senses characterized primarily by connotations of extreme informality and usu. a currency […] composed typically of coinages or arbitrarily changed words, clipped or shortened forms, extravagant, forced or facetious figures of speech, or verbal novelties usu. experiencing quick popularity and relatively rapid decline into disuse.’
While the material that follows fits into each of these definitions none remains wholly satisfactory. It is easier to suggest the mood and style of this subset of the English language than it is to render a hard-and-fast statement of what it is, and equally important, is not. The line, for instance, between slang and colloquialism is often opaque, and one dictionary places a term to one side of that line, while another disagrees. And none of these definitions offers a hint of what I see as one of slang’s foremost characteristics; its subversion of the norm.
Slang, in its various forms, is a worldwide language. One might almost term it an Esperanto but of course each slang is based on a specific language. Nonetheless the underlying themes and images – primary among them sex, the parts of the body and how they are used either for pleasure or pain, money, crime, prisons and policing, insults personal, racial and national, physical excess whether via drink or drugs, insanity, prostitution, homosexuality – are universal, and indeed have been so for as long as slang has been recorded.
That recording, however, has been relatively limited, often superficial and too often inaccurate. Nonetheless the first glossary of slang predates by seventy years the first dictionary purely devoted to English (previous lexica had been Latin-English), and in Australia, the country’s first ever dictionary was one of cant, the criminal jargon. Its initial inspiration was exploratory, but also sensational. The ‘beggar books’ of the early modern period, which could be found in Europe as well, ran to a pattern: a hierarchical list of wandering vagabonds was assembled, and with that the criminal ‘specialities’ that they practised, as often some form of confidence trickery as out-and-out theft (such as taking on the role of a victim of the ‘falling sickness’, i.e. epilepsy, or pretending to have had one’s tongue torn out by the Moors). There would follow a glossary of their language, known in England as cant, from Latin cantare, literally to sing, and originally used of the singsong tones of a priest who, lacking devotion, simply rattled off his prayers. The first of these came from Germany, in 1479, as a treatise on ‘the devices with which vagabonds and blind men extort alms’, published by the jurist Johann Heuman, who believed it to date from the early 15th century. It listed 30 categories of beggar, plus examples of their language and offered made-up sentences that used it. More influential, and available throughout Europe, was the Liber vagatorum, written around 1509 and published between 1512-14, with its most influential edition – prefaced by Martin Luther – being that of 1528; limited attempts followed in England c.1535 and 1561, before the exemplar, Thomas Harman’s Caveat for Common Cursetours, appeared in 1566.
There has been much historical debate about such books, or rather pamphlets: whether they were no more than semi-fantastical sensationalist journalism, whether the supposed hierarchy, the ‘canting crew’, actually existed, even questions as to the validity of the beggars’ language. But lexicographically, these are the first sources of what in time would be slang, and the first documents that can be seen as ‘slang dictionaries’. And if the sociological aspects may indeed be debatable, that of the language is far less so. If England had cant, then similar criminal beggars in Italy used furbesco (from furbo, a quack or knave), while Spain used Germania (from Catalan germà, brother), Germany Rotwelsch (’fraudulent speech’ or ‘beggars’ gibberish’) and France argot (a word that had initially meant the beggars themselves rather than their vocabulary). That it is hard to uncover many contemporary non-glossarial references to such languages is hardly surprising. The language was meant to be secret.
The canting dictionary, ever-expanding continued to appear into the mid-19th century, and in our own time collections of criminal slang continue to be popular and for the same reasons. They let the common reader, the ‘civilian’ as it were, into a closed world that for all its illegality, is also perceived as dangerous and exciting. They allow a degree of spurious intimacy and the safe thrills of voyeurism. From the beginning, it was suggested that they were also a necessity: in his preface to the Liber Vagatorum, Martin Luther claimed that had he owned this book, he would not have fallen recent victim to a bunch of con-men. Thomas Harman and others sold their work partially as essays in such self-help. When Elisha Coles became in his English Dictionary of 1630 the first lexicographer of standard English to include such terminology, he explained that ‘Tis no Disparagement to understand the Canting Terms: It may chance to save your Throat from being cut, or (at least) your Pocket from being pick’d.’
And if the reader is a voyeur, then so too is the lexicographer, usually male, middle aged, middle class. The lexis undoubtedly leans to pimping and prostitution, crime and imprisonment, violence and cruelty, drugged and drunken debauches, but the lexicographer is neither whore nor thief, thug nor prisoner, addict nor drunkard. Or not professionally. He is a linguistic reporter: the job is to collect knowledge, to explicate it, and to disseminate the information that emerges. A voyeur, but ideally an informed one.
Slang is a product of the city and without cities there is no slang. London was a great city – in contemporary terms – by the 16th century, and was seen as such before that. It had upper, middle and working classes. But slang is also a product of the street, a bottom-up creation, and as such condemned as a debased and marginal lexis. In a world where printing was still a relative novelty, and books therefore tended to be devoted to the concerns of the educated and powerful, slang was simply ignored. It is my belief that just as the criminals of the 16th century used their own non-standard language, there existed alongside it a non-criminal slang vocabulary, used primarily, as it is now, by the poor. I have no hard evidence for this, other than the occasional, tantalising example in Chaucer, Piers Ploughman and other Middle English texts, but I find it hard to believe that slang (rather than cant) had yet to appear before the 18th century when in 1785, when what might be termed the first ‘civilian’ slang dictionary, Francis Grose’s Classical Dictionary of the Vulgar Tongue was published.
Lexicographically, however, such was the case: Grose’s dictionary, while still including much cant, offered a new form of title, which dropped all the usual references to the ‘canting crew’. His vocabulary, which swelled in his editions of 1788 and 1796, was full of terms that were not those of the robber or con-man, but of the street that anyone might walk. By the time the sporting journalist Pierce Egan published his revised edition of Grose in 1823, there would also be found the language of the ‘high’, ‘fast’ world of gamblers, sportsmen, prize-fighters and men about town, by no means working class. This was ‘flash’, the language of what was known as The Fancy. The move from cant accelerated further with John Camden Hotten’s mid-century Slang Dictionary, and by the time Albert Barrère and C.G. Leland published their Slang, Cant and Jargon in 1889, and John Farmer and W.E. Henley their Slang and Its Analogues, in seven volumes, between 1890-1904, cant was very much a curiosity, although one could not publish a comprehensive dictionary of slang without including the words that criminals, old and modern, were using. But both Hotten and these later Victorian works used Slang in their title, and so would all their successors.
It is possible to argue that the collection of slang also paralleled that of standard English. The 17th century, with its ‘exotic’ cant collections might be said to offer a similar guide to the uninitiated as did that century’s ‘hard word’ dictionaries, starting with Cawdrey’s Table Alphabetical (1604). Their stated aim to was to introduce the middle classes (not to mention all levels of respectable women) to terms based in the classical languages, a vocabulary seen as being hitherto limited to the university educated, i.e. the rich, and to scholars. The English dictionary’s great turning point, Johnson’s work of 1755, can be seen in slang terms as Francis Grose’s Classical Dictionary of the Vulgar Tongue. One might also draw a parallel, a century later, between the multi-volumed Oxford English Dictionary, and the similarly multi-volumed (though a good deal shorter) slang dictionary edited by Farmer and Henley. The Victorian desire for codification, to add by its authoritative reference books (among them the OED, the English Dialect Dictionary, the DNB and Grove’s Dictionary of Music) a scholarly authority to the Empire’s political one, can be seen in ‘F&H’. And if my own work can claim it, in its espousal of ‘historical principles’, and its attempt to keep abreast of every aspect of modern slang, and the old and new media in which it can be found, it is not unlike, at least in principle, the on-going revision of the OED.
The collection of slang, however, is not the use of slang. And if cant was a jargon, an occupational or ‘professional’ slang, and used by those who were found in both urban streets and rural lanes then mainstream slang was very much the product of the cities. To quote John Camden Hotten, ‘slang represents 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 nick names and street jokes of the day... slang is the language of street humour, of fast, high and low life... Slang is as old as speech and the congregating together of people in cities. It is the result of crowding, and excitement, and artificial life.’
Slang is urban. The countryside has region-based dialect, or did, since in the UK at least it has been eroding since the industrial revolution began moving former peasants off the farm and into the factory. Here, it is apparent, they brought some dialect with them, hence the wide range of terms now slang that are underpinned by such original usage. But on the whole one may suggest a simple rule: no city, no slang. Among the earliest known is that of such classical authors as Martial and Catullus (which slang is generally restricted to obscenities) who drew on the speech of Rome, a great city, for their sources.
Or if not a city as such, then a gathering where there might be trading and Hotten’s ‘congregating together of people’. The earliest instances of French argot came from tradesmen and merchants, and even if the vagabonds from whom Harman and others drew their lists of cant are seen as wanderers, their orientation was urban: their relative sophistication made the peasants in isolated villages easy pickings. Their supplies would have been purchased in London or some equivalent conurbation. The capital city was booming; its population has been estimated at 120,000 at mid-16th-century and by 1600 at a quarter of a million. The expansion was inexorable. By the time Francis Grose published his dictionary in 1785 it was about to top the million mark. Hotten’s 1859 dictionary had a potential audience of three million and Farmer and Henley lived in a city of approximately double that. There was plenty of room for slang.
And what is it, this thing that the city and its language have between them? If one looks at definitions other than those in which linguists have struggled to pin this elusive creature to their dissecting tables, the over-riding suggestion is of speed, fluidity, movement. The words that recur in dictionary and other definitions are ‘casual’, ‘playful’, ‘ephemeral’, ‘racy’, ‘humorous’, ‘irreverent’. These are not the terminology of lengthy, measured consideration. The words themselves are twisted, turned, snapped off short, re-launched at a skewed angle. Some with their multiple, and often contrasting definitions seem infinitely malleable, shape-shifting: who knows what hides round their syllabic corners. It is not, I suggest, a language that works out of town; it requires the hustle and bustle, the rush, the lights, the excitement and even the muted (sometimes far from muted) sense of impending threat. To use slang confidently one needs that urban cockiness. It doesn’t work behind a pair of oxen, even athwart a tractor. Then there are the value judgements: ‘sub-standard’, ‘low’, ‘vulgar’, ‘unauthorized’. The word we are seeking is street. Street as noun, more recently street as adjective. The vulgar tongue. The gutter language.
Slang, it is often suggested, represents the user’s innate inarticulacy. Their inability to use standard language. My own researches would deny such assumptions. As James Murray makes clear in the diagram that is included in the first edition of the OED, slang, like technical language or dialect, is simply one more equal variation on the basic ‘English language’. It is not hierarchically ‘lower’ even though ‘low’ is an adjective regularly ascribed to its terminology and indeed its speakers. Nor does it imply monosyllabic mumblings. The reality is that slang remains in a state of constant reinvention. And that reinvention is not coming from elite sources. It is harder now to argue that slang is a secret language, as was undoubtedly true of cant. The speed of modern information transfer makes that level of secrecy almost impossible. Nonetheless the need for a level of perceived secrecy remains: when a slang word is coined it may well enjoy a period, however brief, of ‘invisibility’. But once it has become ‘revealed’ then the immediate need is for re-coinage. A term may be ephemeral (though much slang is remarkably long-lived), but the imagery behind it, the great recurrent themes of the lexis remain the same. Sexual intercourse will always come down to man hitting woman; the penis will always be some form of knife, gun or club; the vagina remains a source of masculine fear, and is seen as a narrow, twisting, dangerous alley. But there are 1500 synonyms for the first and a thousand apiece for the latter duo.
Some Notes on This Dictionary
The need for etymology, literally the discussion of a root word, is as great in a slang dictionary as elsewhere. However the nature of slang brings this process up slightly short. The majority of terms can also be found in a standard dictionary, the difference being that in slang they have been subjected to some form of linguistic change; what some might see as a form of alchemy in reverse, the gold of standard English recreated in the base metal of slang. Or, to cast slang in a kinder light, what has happened is that the standard terms have been subjected to slang’s ludic reinterpretation. Slang’s etymologies are often no more than the standard English word, punned on, rendered figurative, teased away from its fundamental meaning and otherwise played with. Thus to find the ultimate etymologies of those words, one must turn to a standard dictionary.
Not all slang is based on standard English. Among the roots of cant, or instance, can be found Latin, Greek, French, German, the quasi-Italian Lingua Franca, Romani, and even Hebrew. Yiddish, the Hebrew-German dialect of European Jews, underpins a number of more recent coinages, often simple borrowings. In addition there are some anecdotal etymologies, while an increasing proportion of rhyming slang, which once possessed a greater degree of internal wit, now depends on a name of an individual celebrated in mass culture, typically a movie star or footballer. Beyond these are a number of terms that remain widely debated and concomitantly researched, jazz is perhaps the ultimate example; in such cases I have attempted to offer readers links to more detailed discussions, whether hard-copy or online. Slang has also drawn heavily on what had originally been dialect or regional use. Dialect itself is seen as a failing force in a world in which globalization has affected language as much as anything else but it can be seen that the arrival of country-dwellers in the new towns and cities of the industrial era once affected many slang terms. Local usage emigrated to the town with local users, but, deprived of its nurturing environment, lost its roots. No longer dialect, an essentially rural phenomenon, and certainly not qualified for standard English, it became slang, the language of the city.
When possible I have identified the source of the given dialect, but where this has not been done, it must be assumed that it was used either all across England (and possibly Scotland, Wales and Ireland too) or in too many and too disparate areas to list them all.
The Selected Bibliography, that follows the list of headwords, runs to around 6,000 titles of printed works, plus material that has been found in other forms of media. It notes only those that have offered five or more citations; there are many more. That a citation needs to have been written down in some form has naturally biased my researches towards print, and the newer media, especially the Internet, are comparatively recent creations. Nonetheless the citations that underpin this book have been drawn from as wide a possible a range of material, whether old glossaries, old and new fiction and plays, diaries, scripts of movies and TV, song lyrics, and whatever else has presented itself. Given the geographical range of the dictionary the aim has been to look at the candidates from every relevant country.
In the first century of publishing, following the invention of moveable type in the mid-1400s, there were a mere 35,000 titles; very few, if any, would have offered language that in every sense represented the ‘vulgar’. Today the world adds a million titles to its libraries every year, and if one wants slang, one needs but look. In addition the Internet offers, among much else, the back catalogues of rock ’n’ roll lyrics, of the blues, of hip-hop, of country music and so on. Add to this TV and movie scripts, the scanned classic texts of such web sites as Project Gutenberg and the ever-expanding runs of newspapers, often starting life in the mid-19th century, and one is spoilt for choice. And whatever the controversies concerning the scanning of material, such scans are invaluable for the cite-gatherer. Then, of course, one has the blogs. Where the slang lexicographer once starved for examples, his or her modern successors are bloated with plenitude. The problem is no longer where to look for slang, but at what stage one dare risk abandoning the search.
The nature of the lexis, and its perceived marginality has inevitably meant that with relatively few exceptions, much of one’s research into the earlier years of recorded material must be that of recycling the glossaries of one’s earliest predecessors. A language, be it slang or standard, is not reborn fresh and untouched for each new lexicographer to place in their new dictionary. One must check back and this book is no exception. Gratifyingly the situation improves. While succeeding centuries have comparatively little to offer compared with the plenitude that starts to come on stream in the 19th and expands ever further in the 20th century, slang terms gradually infiltrate both canonical and naturally to a far greater extent popular writing. The somewhat artificial appearance of canting words and phrases in late 16th and early 17th century plays, in which the dialogue sounds like little more than a dramatised glossary itself, often quite alien to the flow of the plot, is gradually replaced by a more instinctive use of the vocabulary. Characters who should speak in slang do so, and do it seamlessly. This is found in plays, but also in the early criminal memoirs, whether ghost-written or otherwise, in which villains, often on or even beyond the gallows, tell their stories. Slang, especially drawn from the elbow-nudging world of double entendres, is also invaluable to the 17th and 18th century ballad-maker, who needs to avoid the explicit, while at the same time making it absolutely unmistakeable. By the 19th century, still a flourishing creator of ballads, the reticence had often gone and entendres were shamelessly single.
The 19th century also sees the incorporation of slang into a wide range of popular novels, typically the sensationalist and much-frowned upon (and best-selling) ‘Newgate Novels’ of the 1830s. It was now permissible, seemingly obligatory, to have a slang-spouting villain. Older terms might be dragged up from the dictionaries, and incorporated in fictional recreations of history. The increase in literacy meant an increase in the market for books and magazines and these new readers were as keen as their middle-class predecessors to read of their own world. Popular culture as a whole, typically the music-hall, was keen to showcase popular language. Pornography, always a source of a particular sub-set of the vocabulary, became widely available. Magazines aimed at the raffish young, typically the Sporting Times, defined themselves by their slangy paragraphs. In addition the era saw advances in sociological research, often looking with new and sympathetic eyes at the poor. Such research inevitably offered its subjects’ language, by its nature often slangy.
While the city is the source of slang, war, especially that fought between 1914-18 in the cramped confines of trenches, is another source of Hotten’s crowding together and linguistic fermentation. Trench diaries and war memoirs joined slang’s records. The period also saw the start of what would become the most important influence on slang to date: the arrival of America. Nineteenth century America remained predominantly rural, but by the turn of the century the tide was gradually turning. American cities were sufficiently large to produce their own, home-grown slang and with the spreading popularity of US popular music – ragtime, then more importantly jazz – across the Atlantic, US popular language started travelling alongside it. The arrival of US troops on the western front in 1917 accelerated the flow and the ‘Jazz Age’ of the 1920s, followed by the talkies of the 1930s, especially the popular slang-heavy gangster movies, ensured that the internationalization of US slang sustained its advance. World War II, which brought US troops not merely to the battlefronts but for a substantial period to the UK itself, secured the invasion. All of which naturally permeated the media, be it that of print, the movies or the radio, even if in prudish Britain, a conservative rearguard held out as best they could against such vulgarity.
The new century also brought in a new pleasure: the detective mystery. Such books might not have been especially slangy, but they would lead by the 1920s to the devotedly streetwise ‘hard-boiled dicks’ of the pulp magazines. Neither they nor the villains with whom they tussled, were reticent in offering up the latest slang synonyms. And if American slang played an ever-increasing role, it offered a whole subset of doubly exotic black slang. It would take longer for such language to cross the Atlantic but black slang, whether from jazz or rap, has come to dominate the lexes of successive youth movements, from beatniks to hippies and punks to hip-hop. Beat poetry echoed the language of the ghetto, even if, as Norman Mailer would categorise them, these new hipsters were at best ‘white negroes’. The lyrics of the blues, of rock music, and especially of rap, and such UK ‘cousins’ as grime, are all imbued with slang’s evolving vocabulary.
Among the purposes of a dictionary ‘on historical principles’ is to establish the earliest use of a word, and where pertinent of its various senses. For this one combs the available sources for datable citations. And duly arranges them in chronological order. It is the nuances of use embodied in such citations that permit the sense separation. But therein lies a paradox. One strives for an unarguable first use, but this holy grail is unattainable. The dragons that guard it being time, the lexicographer’s, and space, that of potential research. This is true of all such researches, in standard English as well as in slang. This is not to deny the validity of the dates I offer, I believe that they are well grounded. Nonetheless I also believe that a health warning is in order: these are the dates of use as currently recorded; they may change. I am well aware that more research or new publications – for instance the appearance of another once-lost memoir crammed with slangy usage – can turn everything upside down. Such discoveries are the lexicographer’s delight; one can only request the user’s tolerance. Until, of course, the entirety of printed, recorded, filmed and other useful examples of the culture are placed online and can there be accessed and searched, the essential serendipity of dating will remain. That may come, but in the meantime the lexicographer – whether of slang or of standard English – must publish and try as best as possible not be damned.
The is an Anglophone dictionary, which means that its headwords include those culled not simply from English English but from that used in America, Australia, New Zealand, Ireland, South Africa and the Anglophone Caribbean. India has been excluded, since for all its eccentricities – at least to Western ears – IVE, Indian Vernacular English, is not a slang; nor have I attempted even to consider the slangs of those countries in which what is known as World English is a flourishing second language. The nature of national development means that the extra-English group come on stream later than those culled from the 16th-18th centuries, but they have all claimed a role. America, unsurprisingly, is the most prominent, but Australia, a country barely younger than the US, has contributed greatly to the overall vocabulary.
I have also included a number of ‘occupational’ labels, sometimes amended by a purely geographical one. Notably ‘black’, ‘campus’, ‘underworld’, ‘gay’ and ‘drugs’. Thus UK gay, US black, etc. These should be self-evident. In many cases these labels have, as it were, ‘worn off’, since slang is no more rigorous in maintaining its ‘occupational’ labelling as it is in other areas, for instance spelling. The reader should be able to see if and when such movement has occurred from the illustrative texts.
Pronunciation and Orthography
No guides to pronunciation are offered. Such information simply isn’t usefully available. We know, through research, that the 19th century Cockney’s substitution of ‘v’ for ‘w’ is not simply ‘Dickensian’; we are aware of certain upper-class mannerisms that may have influenced the speech of the Fancy, sometimes the rhyme scheme indicates that certain words were pronounced in a way other than that which we accept today, but the wider picture, one that might permit a serious and comprehensive guide to the pronunciation of slang, simply does not exist. One may, looking at the sources of the more recent citations, essay an accent in which to deliver them, say ‘Cockney’, ‘Brooklyn’, ‘Australian’, but that is unfortunately as far as one may go.
Orthography, or spelling, is as flexible as anything else in slang. I have opted for the most commonly used form and, where necessary, included the alternatives. Where a term has its origins in standard English this is not a problem, but in many instances the slang spelling is little more than an attempt at a phonetic transcription for the purposes of writing it down. Different texts offer different versions. I have attempted to show this in the selection of citations.
It has been suggested that the best any lexicographer can do is board the metaphorical train of words as it ploughs steadily on, making an inventory of what there is and then jump off, research completed, even if one knows that the train is always scheduled to pick up other and newer wagons. One can jump on later, but the train will always journey further than any rider. Slang lexicography is no exception. If anything it is the rule: its synonymy grows so relentlessly that the only thing one needs acknowledge is that the work of each successive dictionary maker will be larger. Copland, in 1535, found around fifty terms; my own three volumes offer 125,000, and much was left on the platform. Nor is it likely that the underlying themes – slang’s tribute to human nature – will alter.
Yet if the content will remain essentially the same, the form will change, indeed is already changing. The future for slang reference, for all reference, must be on-line. Even the smaller and more focussed or populist works, once piled high next to the till, may now made into apps, downloaded from the Internet and accessible from one’s mobile ‘phone. The major lexica are no exception. The OED sets the pattern: currently undergoing a complete overhaul, it is assessed that the original 10 volumes of 1928 are up to at least 40 and that the great dictionary will never again appear in print. And while I shall continue to revise and augment my own three volumes, I do not envisage seeing a fourth. Or not on paper.
The way might be there, as long as paper lasts, but the will, at least that of the readers and users of such works, no longer is. They simply don’t want to pull fat reference books from the shelf when their equivalents, weightless, instantly accessible and most important easily searchable, are available on-line. And the younger the user, the less willing. Ironically, too much of the current on-line reference is insufficiently mediated; it demands that the user make far more personal effort to assess the quality and validity of its material than would be necessary when consulting a more authoritative, properly edited volume. That seems not to matter. Nor will it last. Better products will appear. The problem for lexicographers will not be finding their material, be it slang or standard, but since they must live, if only to research, how to extract an income from this inchoate but undeniably world-changing medium.
I have not yet offered my own definition. I would call slang a ‘counter-language’, the desire of human beings, when faced by a standard version, of whatever that may be, to come up with something different, perhaps parallel, perhaps oppositional. For me, that is what slang does in terms of language. I believe that such reactions are hard-wired into our species. Humanity, one hopes, will continue. So too will slang.