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Great Slang Dictionaries

When we interviewed Michael Adams about his new book, Slang: The People's Poetry (part one here), we asked him to recommend the best dictionaries of English slang available. If you're curious about the meanings and origins of slang terms, these are the go-to references.

1. J. E. Lighter, Historical Dictionary of American Slang (Vol. 1: A-G, Random House, 1994; Vol. 2: H-O, Random House, 1997)

This superb historical (OED-style) treatment of American slang will be completed under the auspices of the Oxford University Press. Like the OED, it's a dictionary you can read for pleasure: the definitions are elegant, the quotations varied and often great fun, and many entries have historical or etymological notes that are really short articles of considerable importance. When finished, it will be the definitive treatment of the words it treats; no one interested in slang (or, for that matter, in lexicography) should be without a set.

2. Tom Dalzell, The Routledge Dictionary of Modern American Slang and Unconventional English (Routledge, 2008)

Lighter works from a narrow definition of slang, but Dalzell has preserved Eric Partridge's breadth in treating "unconventional" English; the advantage to not fussing about the definition is ... more (or at least different) words with excellent quotations from a wide variety of texts to illustrate them, but without full on historical treatment. Still, you thought edumacation was invented by Homer Simpson? According to Dalzell, it's first recorded in 1833 — all of the items are similarly traced back to their entry into the lexical record. Between Lighter and Dalzell, one is taken on an amazing tour of the textual basis of slang; both have looked at sources no one else knew existed, and, more often than not, they don't duplicate each other.

3. Jonathon Green, Cassell's Dictionary of Slang, Second Edition (Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 2005)

With 85,000 entries to Dalzell's 25,000 in a single volume, Green does without the quotations (for the most part), but does an excellent job of accounting for slang throughout the English-speaking world. The only other, similarly comprehensive slang dictionary is Dalzell and Victor's two-volume The Routledge Dictionary of Slang and Unconventional English (Routledge, 2006) — it's a strong showing, but I'm suspicious of its treatment of UK slang (see Slang: The People's Poetry, p. 40, for an example of why). So, I turn to Green as the authority. Green, Dalzell, and Lighter present slang in different styles of dictionary: the bona fide slang aficionado will want all three at hand to examine slang from subtly different perspectives.

4. The Oxford English Dictionary

The greatest of English dictionaries includes a lot of slang, embedded among all of the other words; to anyone otherwise focused on slang in and of itself, viewing slang in the context of general English vocabulary is necessarily corrective.

5. Grant Barrett, The Official Dictionary of Unofficial English (McGraw-Hill, 2006)

The contents aren't all slang, but a lot of "unofficial English" is, and here's the advantage of Barrett's work: it doesn't attempt to be comprehensive; it's an idiosyncratic selection of (mostly) current or recent items, treated historically and rendered to a very high lexicographical standard. You can know a lot about slang and words generally, yet learn something unexpected from this easy-to-hold volume page after page. It leaves you wanting more, which you can find at Barrett's ongoing dictionary,

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Sunday June 21st 2009, 7:25 PM
Comment by: george S. (Sechelt Canada)
gorge S / I enjoy and use VT / it's a pragmatic source of information / enlarges my sphere of learning / thanks

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