By Rawson, Hugh
American Heritage , Vol. 54, No. 5
THE BEST NEWS OF THE YEAR FOR WORD buffs, amateur etymologists, professional linguists, and all who respond to the incredible richness of the American language is that J. E. Lighter has found a home for his Historical Dictionary of American Slang.
When Random House published the first two volumes of this dictionary, covering letters A through O, in 1994 and 1997, critics reached for such terms as definitive, absolutely outstanding, and landmark publication. Nevertheless, the publisher abandoned the project when it was only half-completed, leaving the author and his dictionary in publishing limbo--and his many fans aghast.
Beginning with the letter A (as a somewhat euphemistic abbreviation for ass, illustrated by "In a pig's A, we're glad," along with seven other quotations over a 50-year period from such t diverse sources as West Side Story, M*A*S*H, and Doonesbury), and continuing through to Ozzie, a slang term of military origin for an Australian, the first two volumes of Lighter's dictionary capture the American vernacular in all its vibrant glory. With meticulous scholarship, Lighter defines, illustrates, and, where possible, traces to their origins the common words and expressions of soldiers and sailors, cowboys and fishermen, criminals and cops, miners and musicians, doctors and drug addicts, students and athletes, and a host of other social and vocational groups. Almost every page contains revelations about the colorful terms that give the American language its distinctive personality but that by and large are not well covered in even the largest standard dictionaries.
Not to have completed this work beyond the letter O would have been a tremendous loss to American cultural history as well as to lexicography. But now Oxford University Press has come to the rescue; a contract has just been signed to carry the project right on through Z. Fortunately, J. (for Jonathan) E. Lighter, the research associate in the English Department at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville, had persevered, and currently he is deep into the S's--a big letter, one that accounts for about 10 percent of the pages in most dictionaries. Oxford expects to bring out volume three of the Historical Dictionary of American Slang in 2006. A publication date for the fourth and last volume has not yet been set.
Aside from its comprehensiveness, authoritativeness, and sheer fun--it makes delightful browsing--the Historical Dictionary of American Slang is remarkable for being essentially a one-man project. Whereas most dictionaries are produced by large teams, Lighter has had only two assistants, and then for just part of the time. He also has had the help of a project editor at Random House, Jesse Sheidlower, who has since moved to Oxford, where he will collaborate again with Lighter. Still, the dictionary is mostly Lighter's, just as Samuel Johnson's Dictionary of the English Language of 1755, the first great English dictionary, was mostly his, though the original Dr. J. did have six assistants.
It has taken Lighter well over 30 years to get this far. His interest in words, particularly slang words, dates from 1968, when, as a high school student in New York City, he acquired as a book-club premium a copy of the Shorter Oxford English Dictionary, a condensation of the greatest of all English-language dictionaries. Initially published in 10 volumes between 1884 and 1928, the OED is organized on historical principles, with definitions illustrated by dated examples of usage from books, plays, poems, and other printed sources.
The idea that words could be dated--that they have histories--came as a revelation to the high school student. Then it occurred to Lighter that as he says in the introduction to volume one, "It might be fun to collect and document American slang for about as far back as it went." Thus, he began recording, storing, and alphabetizing, sporadically at first, then, beginning in 1971, much more seriously, as an undergraduate at New York University. …