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November 15, 2016 BOOKLIST
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The American Library Association’s Reference and User Services Association selected Green’s Dictionary of Slang as the winner of the 2012 Dartmouth Medal, citing its “comprehensive and inclusive scholarship for slang in the United Kingdom, United States, Canada, Australia, and other English-speaking countries.” Booklist gave it a starred review in the May 1, 2011, issue, with Mary Ellen Quinn noting that what really makes the work stand out over other slang dictionaries is that it distinguishes itself by being, in Green’s words, “a dictionary based on historical principles.” This means that “each and every sense for every word or phrase is illustrated by a list of citations—example quotations, drawn from whatever medium yields them up—going back, as far as can be ascertained, to the first use for each slang sense.” Quinn gives an example: “More than three pages and 12 separate entries are devoted to crib. Just one of these entries has 22 citations ranging from 1597 to 2004.”
Talking with Jonathon Green
Covering more than 500 years of slang usage with 110,000 words and phrases, this is an authoritative, scholarly approach to slang and represents a lifetime of work for author Jonathon Green. Interestingly enough, that lifetime’s work is not over. In a recent e-mail conversation with Green—highly regarded as one of the world’s leading lexicographers of slang—I had the chance to learn more regarding his ongoing quest to capture the world’s words. As Green states, “There is no such thing as an end date to a dictionary, simply an arbitrary date enforced by a publisher’s commercial considerations. Language always continues. Never more so than with slang, which is so infinitely inventive and self-renewing.”
Yet Green does not envisage a second print edition of his work. It took 17 years to get the print version completed, and it lives on, in database form. In late 2010, Green went back to work on the database, which had been frozen for editing the print version. Green is currently engaged in a search for some form of institutional partner (or even a patron) to work with to make the material available online, with the intention of adding new and revised material every few months. Since the publication of the dictionary, some 7,000 entries have been amended. In many cases, this represents the addition of multiple citations, of which Green estimates at least 20,000 have been added.
The Nature of Language
Keeping abreast of changes in language is no small feat. Green looks at traditional media, notably print, for new slang, but he says, “The reality of future research is obviously going to focus on the Net. That said, while this will help find new material—typically via blogs, tweets, etc.—my dictionary is not just looking at new slang, but equally so at the history of what we already have.” He also notes that the whole principle of lexicography is to “trace usage backwards, the Holy Grail being the ‘first use’ or, if one is honest, the first use that one’s research has found so far. The continuing arrival online of searchable material, typically in digitized databases of old newspapers and magazines, has revolutionized that sort of searching.”
When speaking to someone dubbed “Mr. Slang” by Martin Amis, a natural curiosity would be to ask what his favorite slang words or phrases are. But Green responds with, “I am loathe to be cussed, but such things don’t exist. It all depends, frankly, upon what I am currently working. Among other things, over the last year I’ve been looking very hard at a database called Trove, which offers Australian newspapers from 1820 onwards. And in particular a ‘sporting journal’ called Bell’s Life which began in Sydney in 1845. And to focus even further, I have been looking at the reports of the Sydney Police Court, where witnesses come up with a good deal of slang. So that’s the world in which I am immersed, and it is that vocabulary I am enjoying. But if I move on, say to a US newspaper database, or a British one, then all that will change. There are approximately 125,000 slang words and phrases from 500 years and five continents. There is no way I would say that I could prioritize one or even one group over another.”
Green has two upcoming works in progress, The History of Slang, for Grove Atlantic, and Odd Job Man, for Jonathan Cape (Random House UK). What will make The History of Slang stand out is the fact that, as Green states in his preface to the book, “Linguists have not, in general, paused to look that hard at slang. I am not one and I cannot pretend to remedy that omission. What I offer is very much the story of the language, its development and proliferation, those that have used it in plays, novels, journalism and other forms of story-telling and media, and, where necessary, those who have, especially in its early days, kept it alive by collecting it into glossaries and then dictionaries. Thus, it will be a lexicographer’s history, and in that I am following a tradition”.
Odd Job Man is Green’s attempt at explaining the how and why of what he does, and it promises to cast a little light on the making of his dictionary in general. His closing words? “My belief is that dictionaries, so vital to so many people, are somewhat transparent when they are being used, but the reality is that they come from somewhere and that somewhere is fallible, all-too-human human beings. I’m one of them. I love what I do, and would like to explain it. By most standards lexicography is quite literally an ‘odd job,’ and thus my title.”
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