Behind the Dictionary

Lexicographers Talk About Language

Mastering the Ins and Outs of American Slang

Our old friend Orin Hargraves, who contributes our monthly Language Lounge feature, has a new book out called Slang Rules!: A Practical Guide for English Learners. We recently caught up with Orin to hear about how his book, a companion to Merriam-Webster's Advanced Learner's English Dictionary, illuminates the richness of American slang for a global audience of language learners.

VT: How did you get involved with writing a guide to slang for Merriam-Webster?

OH: I was actually approached by the editor there, Mark Stevens. I'd done some work for Merriam-Webster before, on their desk encyclopedia and their spelling guide for the Scripps National Spelling Bee. I got to know Mark from working on those books. And through that he learned that I was a lexicographer and had an ESL background. I was a Peace Corps volunteer in Morocco and I taught English there.

At the same time, Merriam-Webster was bringing out their new Learner's Dictionary, which they have put a huge amount of effort into. They really want to break into the ESL dictionary market in a big way and essentially become the first American publisher who has done that successfully. In conjunction with that, they wanted to bring out some other ESL titles to support the main title. Mark had surveyed the field of available titles about slang and found that there really wasn't that much out there that he thought was any good. So he asked me if I wanted to write one. 

VT: It's interesting that Merriam-Webster is focusing now on the ESL market, since British publishers like Oxford, Longman, and Collins have dominated the market for learner's dictionaries.

OH: At the launch of the dictionary, John Morse, the president and publisher of Merriam-Webster, said that in his view this was a major milestone in the company's history, since this is the first time they're really going after an international audience. They feel uniquely placed to be the authority on American English, and I think that it's quite arguable that they are, in fact, because their dictionary certainly goes back to the beginning. So this is the first step into the international English market for Merriam-Webster.

VT: When you were teaching English in Morocco, did you find that there was a lot of interest in American English, and especially the language associated with American pop culture?

OH: Yes. I found that the students were always really keen to learn English through the medium of music, and so if I found a good lyric that illustrated some good structures that they were working on, then I would teach it. And usually I could find recordings of the song in Morocco. In fact, one of my most successful teaching experiences of that kind was teaching a Dolly Parton song, "Coat of Many Colors," which the students loved. They would not let me stop playing it. I didn't have the recording with me, but I did find it in Morocco and was able to take it to the classroom.

VT: In fact, in Slang Rules! you have a section on music lyrics, where you talk about country music and rap music. Do you see that as a good way of getting students interested in the ins and outs of American slang?

OH: I think it's an excellent way. Often that interest develops before they even get to the classroom. There is a huge propagation of American popular culture throughout the world, and I think music is probably the most common form of that. So kids around the world, and adults too, listen to this music and want to understand it. 

In a conventional ESL classroom, it can be a bit frustrating because the curriculum as presented in standard textbooks doesn't cover slang so much. The emphasis is a lot more on covering standard English — the kind in newspapers, for example. So it's frustrating for teachers and students alike when the English that the students want to learn is not really in the textbooks, it's in the songs that they're listening to, and the teachers don't necessarily have any materials to teach that.

VT: If slang is mentioned in ESL textbooks, it's probably in the context of what students should avoid.

OH: Yes, but it seems that there is a greater recognition these days that the informal end of the language really is central to understanding it. And teaching strict textbook English is not going to give a learner a grasp on how to use the language effectively.

VT: Do you think that there's also a wariness about getting into taboo vocabulary, such as vulgar slang?

OH: I think there definitely is. I credit my editor for really giving me carte blanche on this. In fact, he specifically wanted all of that stuff covered. The only proviso was that I had to make very clear what was offensive and indicate what things you should and shouldn't use. But Merriam-Webster did want all that to be in there. A lot of it is not in their dictionary.

VT: So you weren't given any restrictions, then, in terms of the type of slang to put in, as long as offensive or otherwise objectionable terms were noted as such. Do you have any concerns that this kind of slang could then end up getting misused, or that students reading it might not fully appreciate when it's appropriate to use a term and when it's not?

OH: I think that is a possibility, and obviously that's something that came to my mind when I was writing it. That's one reason that I was so careful to indicate the content and to be very clear in some places, saying things like, "You should never say this," or, "If you use this word, people will think you're angry, or rude, or poorly educated."

But I think in the end I came down on the side of inclusiveness because people will hear this stuff, and it's often hard to get it explained. There are words in this book that I don't use myself. I tend to avoid vulgarisms in speech because I don't think they serve an important purpose. It was a bit odd writing about a sort of language that I don't myself use. I hope that it serves more of a positive purpose than a negative one.

VT: If much of the material wasn't part of your active vocabulary, what did you rely on in order to find good sources of slang?

OH: I looked in online chat rooms quite a bit, something that in my normal day-to-day life I never do. I looked at hundreds of blogs and hundreds of websites. Blogs in particular were incredibly useful, especially blogs written by teenagers and college students. I found the language just wonderfully inventive and interesting. In some cases, I came across words and structures that I didn't quite understand, and so I would then Google them in isolation and find other instances of them. Occasionally I'd ask some of my younger friends what these things meant until I felt like I'd nailed the meanings.

VT: Do you think that with the rise of blogs, there's more of an international awareness of American slang, in addition to music and movies and the other forms of pop culture? 

OH: Yes, and I think that applies not only to English slang but to the slang of every language, because now anyone can be an instant publisher. You can write it and upload it and it's there for the world to see. All sorts of unedited text, for better or worse, can now be made instantly available to a much wider audience. The result is that a lot more slang gets put before the public in written form than it ever did before, which I think is another good argument for being able to decode it. It's something that a learner is not necessarily going to be able to do as successfully as a native speaker.

VT: Do you think that this book has a place in the ESL classroom? Is it something that a teacher could use to supplement teaching about standard English, exploring non-standard and informal varieties in addition to the traditional curriculum?

OH: That's an interesting question, and I'll be eager to see what kind of feedback the book gets from ESL professionals. For things that we already talked about, I can see how it would be problematic to use the book in the classroom. With a classroom of mixed students, you can't always use a lot of terms that are considered vulgar. But even beyond that, you might have students whose parents protest about such a book being used in classrooms.

VT: So you think it might be more useful for the individual language learner, as opposed to the classroom environment?

OH: Yes, without a doubt. I hope that it finds its way to that audience because I think that's who can use it the most. So much of what we characterize as informal English, including slang, is really the language that all native speakers speak when they're not in a context that requires them to be formal. So there really is a great need for learners to understand that language, as opposed to textbook English.


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Wednesday October 22nd 2008, 2:42 AM
Comment by: Roger Dee (Haslett, MI)Top 10 Commenter
I enjoyed this article.
I took the trouble to Google VULGAR SLANG for a neighbor that needed a stronger word than "f**k" to express her aggravation over politics.
I was delighted and surprised to find an alphabetical list which reached into the tens of thousands of entries yet none exceeded the strength of "f**k"!
Good luck on this book!
Wednesday October 22nd 2008, 5:11 PM
Comment by: Kenneth K. (Glen Covde, NY)
It seemed somewhat incongruous to me that this teacher of English as a second language would tell his students about words that he himself would not use. Lexicographically, it represents a contest between the prescriptionist and the descriptionist ending in a tie.
Sunday October 26th 2008, 10:22 PM
Comment by: languagenut
I think you're being a bit too hard on Mr. Hargraves, Mr. K. Part of effective and meaningful teaching involves students' awareness of what they should and should not use. As for your analogy, you would be right if you come to imagine a classroom setting where students are fed slang to become part of their active vocabulary. But we know for a fact that a good teacher would never do that. I have taught ESL in the past myself and while in class, something invariably led students to ask about slang, with particular interest I might add, which led me to point out that our class session was not to fully focus on it, but as complementary knowledge, we would discuss some slang every now and then.
Friday December 5th 2008, 10:24 AM
Comment by: El (Los Angeles, CA)
Wow! I have been such a stog in my life. Everyone seems so open minded. Life is a-changing and I had better get with it. Mr. Hargraves--you go boy!! This is too much for me.

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