Behind the Dictionary

Lexicographers Talk About Language

Nasty, Brutish and... Long

Lexicographer Jonathon Green is the editor of Cassell's Dictionary of Slang and the world's foremost authority on this rather rich subject. Here he argues the rationale behind his particular bailiwick:

There are, in round figures, some 100,000 words and phrases in the slang vocabulary. That's half a millennium's coinage, of course, and it's not just British English.

Even if it does seem to have started off on the back streets of London, there is American, Antipodean, South African, Irish and Caribbean English in the slang repertoire as well. Nothing like Standard English's vast agglomeration, but not bad for a language that's spent most of its life ducking, diving and generally opting for a lower profile. But what's perhaps surprising is just how small an area of topics that hundred thousand covers. If ever there was a case of "the more things change, the more they stay the same," it's the slang vocabulary. While this doesn't pretend to be detailed stats -- it's barely a broadbrush view -- a breakdown of some primary areas of slang looks something like this:

  • Crime and Criminals: 6000 entries
  • Drugs: 4100
  • Drinks, Drinkers and Drunks 3700
  • Fools and Stupidity: 2300
  • Sex: 2060
  • Money: 1750
  • Racist and Xenophic: 1500

And of kindness and compassion, sweetness and light? As they say in slang, zip, zilch and zero.

It is not a pretty list. But then slang is not a "pretty" language. Racist, xenophobic, homophobic, not to mention obscene, it gleefully sets out a vocabulary that embraces every negative "-ism." It refuses to even offer lip-service to political correctness in its loudmouthed persecution of the halt, the weak, the lame and the less attractive or sexy. It often embraces that older by-word for willful meanness: sadism. No wonder the more prim of our linguistic pundits have always tugged their figurative skirts even lower upon their knees and regularly railed against the wickedness of this shameless subset of the English language.

One must not, however, join them.

As a lexicographer my job is to set out a stall: The passing throng may not like what I have on offer but I do not force them to buy -- nor do I permit them to tell me what to stock. After all, however rough its tongue, slang is surely the most human of language. It tells it like it is. We all, as the comedian Lenny Bruce was wont to point out, want what should be, but what should be doesn't exist, merely what is. And given "what is" then, to steal from the 17th century British philosopher Thomas Hobbes' description of human life as "nasty, brutish and short," should we really be surprised that our language can also be nasty and brutish? As far short goes, slang, in fact, has a remarkably long pedigree.

If this appears negative, it is not my intention. Slang might not amuse Pollyanna, but it is infinitely creative, an aspect of its coinage which we, who after all make it, should be proud. What I do is explore slang's themes, and show the way a single theme, like a single hit on the Visual Thesaurus, can engender a subtle, varied spread of linked material, at the same time synonymous and quite distinct. That, as I say, is my stall.


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