Behind the Dictionary

Lexicographers Talk About Language

The Infinite Productivity of Slang

We've been talking to University of Indiana professor Michael Adams about his new book, Slang: The People's Poetry. Last week, in part one of our interview, he explained how slang balances the social ("fitting in") with the aesthetic ("standing out"). Now in part two, Adams considers what happens when slang gets enshrined in dictionaries, and how we're only now appreciating the endless variety of slang forms.

VT: Let's talk about the types of slang that get recorded in dictionaries, both slang dictionaries and mainstream dictionaries. Is there a danger of focusing on slang that is considered "dictionary-worthy," rather than on things that are more ephemeral?

MA: I don't worry about it too much, because it's the nature of slang to resist that type of authority. It would be effectively a brave new world if we had the technology to produce a dictionary that captured all ephemera. There's really no way to do it.

I don't fault the slang dictionaries any more than I would fault, say, the Oxford English Dictionary for not capturing what's going on right this instant.  It isn't the OED's mission to do it.  It's also true that many of the words included aren't the words that people have been using most of the time.  They're the ones, in a sense, that we have the best archival record for or that people noticed for some reason.  And that in itself can be revealing.

The problem with it is you don't know what's it's revealing of, because it's plucking items from a very busy background of language use. People who are making the dictionary heard or saw these things and thought they were worth including, but it's difficult to know the value of that judgment unless you know all of what was going on in the background at the same time.  It's good to have the terms noted, but you have to take it, in a sense, as an argument from history, rather than an argument from the current value of language in the mouths of real speakers.

VT: When contemporary slang does make its way into major English dictionaries, it's often the subject of ridicule: how silly it is that there is an OED entry for bootylicious, for instance. For many people, modern urban slang is not considered appropriate for mainstream dictionaries.

MA: I applaud the OED for including bootylicious. I have a preoccupation with suffixes, like the -y suffix for forming adjectives.  I think that, in fact, dictionary structure explains why terms like bootylicious have got to end up in the dictionary, even though they represent inadequately what the lexicographer really wants to include. I think what the lexicographer really wants to include is the suffix -licious, from delicious.

In terms of the -y suffix, for instance, you could have one really, really long entry for that suffix. My continuing research suggests that there's a book to be written about that suffix — particularly in the history of English and the changes it's undergone pragmatically.  It's a big subject, and the dictionary has got to figure out a way of abstracting the information about that suffix and its uses.  And in the case of -licious, there are a few forms like bootylicious that have been used so prominently, at least as far as the lexicographers can gauge, that they might deserve an entry as an example of a very prominent -licious word.

Some people might react to that and say, "Well, that's a stupid word and I can't believe the dictionary included that." The real issue is to represent something about the way language is formed in including those entries.  But people might misconstrue what lexicographers are valuing about those terms when they're included.  I don't see an easy way of getting around that, but I certainly don't think it's a reason not to include such words in the dictionary when lexicographers judge, usually pretty wisely, that they're worth including.

VT: In your book, you have a whole section on slangy affixes (prefixes, suffixes, and infixes). This is lexical material that is not easily made into a dictionary entry, necessarily. For instance, there's the -iz- infix (hizzouse for house) and the -diddly- infix (scrum-diddly-umptious).  Is your goal there to show that the "poetic" productivity of slang can work on a sort of sub-lexical level?

MA: In a way, I think it's both sub-lexical and super-lexical. The very practice of using infixes like that can be slangy, so that's super-lexical. The same is true with suffixes like -y. The slanginess comes out of the suffixing as much as it comes out of a particular suffix that you would define.  But it's also true that because those structures are so flexible and they can be used so readily on the fly or in the moment, it's easy for people to use them to come up with nonce words. They're infinitely productive.

One of the things that I argued in Slayer Slang and argue again in this book is that we think that there are constraints on these suffixes, but there really aren't.  Always, eventually, we figure out a way to get outside of those constraints, so that we can make up new words. You'd think if you were looking historically at the language, you'd say, "Well, you can see what some of the rules applying to -y suffixing are.  You can't add the -y suffix to a seven-syllable word."  But you can, if somebody decides to do it.  And in some situation where that could be a slang opportunity, it's not just that somebody could do it, somebody will do it. We just won't know about it.

VT: Or we'll know about it if we Google for it.

MA: Well, exactly, and as I say in the book, one of my most astonishing adventures over the last several years has been just plugging these in, really just saying, "Now surely, this can't take the -y suffix," and then finding out about fifty percent of the time that it can. Fifty percent of the time it doesn't, but there's no natural reason that the words that I tested that haven't appeared with a -y suffix yet couldn't take that -y suffix.

VT: How much do you think that this actually changes our perception of slang, the ability to determine the productivity of forms that might not have ever been described or analyzed before but can easily be found now through online searches?

MA: It's clearly true that now that we can look back into things, suddenly we discover that what we thought was new just isn't new, that these things have been going on for a long time. And we discover that where there's a morphological possibility, for instance, there's very likely to have been the fulfillment of that possibility.  Somebody will have tried to do it or will have done it, if it's structurally allowable.

So it's really a matter, as you say, of discovering what's already there and having that underscore the natural creative impulse in language use  It's not as though people suddenly became creative, just because they had new media or just because society changed in some way that then empowered people to be creative in language. In fact, they've always been pretty good at it.  I think that's why I get to the point finally that this is somehow a matter of language structure.  It's not just a matter of superficial usage.  This is something that's in the grain of language, that we can do these things.

Click here to read more articles from Behind the Dictionary.

Part one of our interview with Michael Adams on the "popular poetry" of slang.
Mark Peters vividly demonstrates the endless productivity of the "-y" suffix.
Great Books on Slang
Michael Adams picks five of the best works of slang scholarship.