Dog Eared

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Great Books on Slang

Michael Adams, author of Slang: The People's Poetry, has already favored us with a list of five great slang dictionaries to accompany our two-part interview with him. Now he presents five more must-reads in the field of slang studies, from scholars with a diverse set of perspectives.

1. Connie C. Eble, Slang and Sociability (University of North Carolina Press, 1996)

This tight, lucid account of slang as "in-group" language is based on 15 years of surveys of college students.

2. Julie Coleman, A History of Slang and Cant Dictionaries (Vol. 1: 1567-1785, Oxford University Press, 2004; Vol. 2: 1785-1858, Oxford University Press, 2004; Vol. 3: 1859-1936, Oxford University Press, 2009)

These three volumes, with more on the way, not only account for Anglophone accounts of slang from the earliest to the present day, but demonstrate, while tracing the history of slang lexicography, the genesis and development of the very idea of slang. Coleman's work is as perfect as scholarship gets.

3. David W. Maurer, Language of the Underworld (University of Kentucky Press, 1981)

This collection of Maurer's earlier articles exposes the argots of carnies, addicts, prostitutes, forgers, potheads, gamblers, moonshiners, and grifters, mostly in the first half of the twentieth century — it's a near-perfect blend of history and vicarious criminality.

4. Tom Dalzell, The Slang of Sin (Merriam-Webster, 1998)

This book might make Maurer blush, and the sins are often closer to home than those given words in Maurer's book, but Dalzell also brings the old sins up to date. This book is not only deeply informed and well written but well designed, especially for restless eyes unused to academic prose: it's got interesting shaded boxes, word lists interspersed in the prose, and seedy illustrations.

5. Michael Adams, Slayer Slang: A Buffy the Vampire Slayer Lexicon (Oxford University Press, 2003)

All right, probably not a great book, but solid on the mechanics of slang and an experiment in tracing the dissemination of slang from television script into other texts and everyday speech within a remarkably short period of time. The glossary that makes up two thirds of the book is an attempt to illustrate the "micro-histories" of words.


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