Slang an Interview with J. E. Lighter by Hugh Rawson: It's the Poetry Every American Writes Every Day-A Centuries-Old Epic of Abuse, Taunt, Criminality, Love, and Bright, Mocking Beauty

By Rawson, Hugh | American Heritage, October 2003 | Go to article overview

Slang an Interview with J. E. Lighter by Hugh Rawson: It's the Poetry Every American Writes Every Day-A Centuries-Old Epic of Abuse, Taunt, Criminality, Love, and Bright, Mocking Beauty


Rawson, Hugh, American Heritage


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. …

The rest of this article is only available to active members of Questia

Sign up now for a free, 1-day trial and receive full access to:

  • Questia's entire collection
  • Automatic bibliography creation
  • More helpful research tools like notes, citations, and highlights
  • Ad-free environment

Already a member? Log in now.

Notes for this article

Add a new note
If you are trying to select text to create highlights or citations, remember that you must now click or tap on the first word, and then click or tap on the last word.
One moment ...
Default project is now your active project.
Project items

Items saved from this article

This article has been saved
Highlights (0)
Some of your highlights are legacy items.

Highlights saved before July 30, 2012 will not be displayed on their respective source pages.

You can easily re-create the highlights by opening the book page or article, selecting the text, and clicking “Highlight.”

Citations (0)
Some of your citations are legacy items.

Any citation created before July 30, 2012 will labeled as a “Cited page.” New citations will be saved as cited passages, pages or articles.

We also added the ability to view new citations from your projects or the book or article where you created them.

Notes (0)
Bookmarks (0)

You have no saved items from this article

Project items include:
  • Saved book/article
  • Highlights
  • Quotes/citations
  • Notes
  • Bookmarks
Notes
Cite this article

Cited article

Style
Citations are available only to our active members.
Sign up now to cite pages or passages in MLA, APA and Chicago citation styles.

(Einhorn, 1992, p. 25)

(Einhorn 25)

1

1. Lois J. Einhorn, Abraham Lincoln, the Orator: Penetrating the Lincoln Legend (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1992), 25, http://www.questia.com/read/27419298.

Cited article

Slang an Interview with J. E. Lighter by Hugh Rawson: It's the Poetry Every American Writes Every Day-A Centuries-Old Epic of Abuse, Taunt, Criminality, Love, and Bright, Mocking Beauty
Settings

Settings

Typeface
Text size Smaller Larger Reset View mode
Search within

Search within this article

Look up

Look up a word

  • Dictionary
  • Thesaurus
Please submit a word or phrase above.
Print this page

Print this page

Why can't I print more than one page at a time?

Full screen

matching results for page

Cited passage

Style
Citations are available only to our active members.
Sign up now to cite pages or passages in MLA, APA and Chicago citation styles.

"Portraying himself as an honest, ordinary person helped Lincoln identify with his audiences." (Einhorn, 1992, p. 25).

"Portraying himself as an honest, ordinary person helped Lincoln identify with his audiences." (Einhorn 25)

"Portraying himself as an honest, ordinary person helped Lincoln identify with his audiences."1

1. Lois J. Einhorn, Abraham Lincoln, the Orator: Penetrating the Lincoln Legend (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1992), 25, http://www.questia.com/read/27419298.

Cited passage

Welcome to the new Questia Reader

The Questia Reader has been updated to provide you with an even better online reading experience.  It is now 100% Responsive, which means you can read our books and articles on any sized device you wish.  All of your favorite tools like notes, highlights, and citations are still here, but the way you select text has been updated to be easier to use, especially on touchscreen devices.  Here's how:

1. Click or tap the first word you want to select.
2. Click or tap the last word you want to select.

OK, got it!

Thanks for trying Questia!

Please continue trying out our research tools, but please note, full functionality is available only to our active members.

Your work will be lost once you leave this Web page.

For full access in an ad-free environment, sign up now for a FREE, 1-day trial.

Already a member? Log in now.