Behind the Dictionary

Lexicographers Talk About Language

Slang's Staying Power

You know what "booze" means, of course, but what if you asked someone in London for a definition -- say, 500 years ago? Lexicographer Jonathon Green will tell you the word is a lot older than you might think. He's spent the last quarter century studying slang, and its history, in the English language. The respected editor of the authoritative Cassell's Dictionary of Slang, Jonathon's written over a dozen books on the subject and has collected a database of over 100,000 slang words. He's now working on a mammoth multi-volume dictionary, due out in 2008, that will cover a half a millennium's worth of words, phrases and figures of speech -- salty and otherwise -- that have seeped into English as slang. We talked to Jonathon about his passion:

VT: First of all, how do you define slang?

Jonathon: It's a counter-language. If someone sets up an established way, we human beings seem to find it necessary to come up with something contrary and oppositional. With language you have Standard English, and you have a counter-language, which is slang.

VT: So how old is slang?

Jonathon: As far as English slang goes, and I think it's true of any language which has a slang, I believe it's been around for almost as long as people have been speaking. That said, the first collection of English slang was made in approximately 1535. It was put together by a man named Robert Copland, who brought out a long poem called "The High Waye to the Spitel House," "Spitel House" meaning a hospital. He had talked to the porter of London's biggest hospital and collected the language of criminal beggars. It was very typical of a kind of book in Europe at the time, called a "Beggar Book." The idea was these wandering criminals had a secret language, known as "cant" (from Latin "cantare", to sing) and sometimes as "Peddlers' French" -- for law-abiding people it was as "foreign" a language as real French. If you could have a translation of this language you'd know what they were up to. A lot of slang-gathering in the next 100 years had this "translation" aspect.

VT: Let's fast-forward to today. Isn't slang changing rapidly? How do you keep up with it?

Jonathon: That's always a problem. Right now the speed of transfer is phenomenally fast. All the lexicographer can do is run very quickly alongside it. You can never "finish" a dictionary, in any case -- even more so with slang than Standard English. That' because slang may have a narrow waterfront, but it's very deep.

VT: What do you mean?

Jonathon: In 1938 the writer J.Y.P. Grieg said the basic ingredients of slang were "sex, money and intoxicating liquor". If you factor in drugs, another kind of intoxicant, of course, not that much has changed. I did a taxonomy of my 100,000 words and found that -- unsurprisingly -- the top themes were crime, punishment, sex, parts of the body and what we do with them, insults, drunkenness, stupidity, being sick and so on. So what I mean by "a narrow waterfront" is that compared to Standard English, slang has very few themes. And they all tend to be concrete; there's very little that's abstract. On the other hand, in Standard English, for example, you have one word for intoxicated by liquor, "drunk." It came out around 1340, and we all know what it means. But slang has 3,000 words that mean "drunk" and new ones keep getting invented. So that's what I mean by it's being very deep.

VT: But don't slang words come and go quickly?

Jonathon: A lot do, but you'd be surprised how much older many slang words are than you might think, and the way that they last. For instance, "crew," meaning a gang, has been used since 1570. "Clink," for a prison, has been around since 1515. And "hot," meaning sexually exciting, also goes back to the 16th century. This stuff is old. The majority of my 100,000 words are still in use in the 21st century. The falling off is much less than you'd expect. Of course, there are ephemera, slang that simply doesn't last. The strictly criminal slang of the 16th and 17th century has undoubtedly vanished. Words like "autem," which means a church, and "autem babbler" for a priest. Words like that have vanished forever.


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Comments from our users:

Tuesday December 27th 2011, 7:15 PM
Comment by: Lily T. (Mesilla, NM)
I find it interesting that some slang has been around since the 1500's. This article gives me a sense of deja vu in the sense of another article here-- Life on the Mississippi-Improved. In my opinion, the N-word for an African American was sort of slang of the time. If I'm wrong, someone please speak up and tell me.

S.E. Hinton, the lady who wrote the Outsiders, used a lot of slang in her books, a practice also used by Dashiell Hammett in his novels. Slang is a part of our everyday language. The whole article on Um's and Uh's stated that humans communicate in broken, adapted clauses, and slang fits in with that. We want convenience and like Jonathon Green said, we want to create counter-language to English. Humans are constantly changing, improving, finding ways to be different from the ignorant masses.

Another interesting bit is how much slang relates to prison. The pokey, the pen, the clink- all these are slang for jail, whether or not they're used. And a lot of this slang has no similarities to the original word.

Take, for instance, the phrase "What's up?" The mass population takes this to mean "What's happening?" or just as a different way of saying hello. However, the public has shortened it to "Sup" or "Wassup", both of which barely resemble the original word.

Or the words "cool" "awesome" and "epic". These all mean something that is generally liked, inspires praise, or is uncommon. Cool originally meant a temperature, or composure. Awesome means to instill awe. Epic generally meant of large proportions for a while. But all have been totally flipped to have different meanings.

Comments?
Tuesday December 27th 2011, 7:18 PM
Comment by: Lily T. (Mesilla, NM)
I find it interesting that some slang has been around since the 1500's. This article gives me a sense of deja vu in the sense of another article here-- Life on the Mississippi-Improved. In my opinion, the N-word for an African American was sort of slang of the time. If I'm wrong, someone please speak up and tell me.

S.E. Hinton, the lady who wrote the Outsiders, used a lot of slang in her books, a practice also used by Dashiell Hammett in his novels. Slang is a part of our everyday language. The whole article on Um's and Uh's stated that humans communicate in broken, adapted clauses, and slang fits in with that. We want convenience and like Jonathon Green said, we want to create counter-language to English. Humans are constantly changing, improving, finding ways to be different from the ignorant masses.

Another interesting bit is how much slang relates to prison. The pokey, the pen, the clink- all these are slang for jail, whether or not they're used. And a lot of this slang has no similarities to the original word.

Take, for instance, the phrase "What's up?" The mass population takes this to mean "What's happening?" or just as a different way of saying hello. However, the public has shortened it to "Sup" or "Wassup", both of which barely resemble the original word.

Or the words "cool" "awesome" and "epic". These all mean something that is generally liked, inspires praise, or is uncommon. Cool originally meant a temperature, or composure. Awesome means to instill awe. Epic generally meant of large proportions for a while. But all have been totally flipped to have different meanings.

Comments?
Tuesday October 7th, 10:44 AM
Comment by: ax N. (LA)
yo man this is cool dawg.

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