Magazine article Humanities

From AOK: The Historical Dictionary of American Slang

Magazine article Humanities

From AOK: The Historical Dictionary of American Slang

Article excerpt

"It is too late to be studying Hebrew; it is more important to understand even the slang of to-day," Henry David Thoreau wrote in 1862.

The Historical Dictionary of American Slang, the first comprehensive dictionary of its kind, is under way. From Civil War diaries and pulp fiction to the film When Harry Met Sally and the television series Melrose Place, written and spoken sources are being scoured for slang words and phrases to include in the dictionary. Its thirty-five thousand entries will provide definitions of words used by teenagers, athletes, jazz, swing, and rock musicians, blue-collar workers, students, criminals, drug users, law enforcement officers, and armed forces personnel. It is the first historical slang dictionary to include citations from television, film, and the Internet.

Throughout the centuries, writers have taken opposing stands on the slang question. Samuel Johnson thought it would destroy the English language, and Daniel Defoe and Noah Webster condemned it; whereas Chaucer uses two hundred epithets in The Canterbury Tales, and Walt Whitman defends it in his 1888 essay "Slang in America."

Two language scholars, Jonathan Lighter and Jesse Sheidlower, have taken on the task of championing the much-maligned idiom. The editors are tracing the history of American slang from colonial days to the present. With NEH support, they have published the first two volumes of the Historical Dictionary of American Slang, through Oz-the slang name for Australia - and will finish the third volume, which covers P through the middle of S, by 2006, and the fourth and final volume by 2009.

Sheidlower says slang's existence is dependent upon that of a standard language: because slang arises in opposition to formal speech, there must be a norm for it to violate. "People have a choice of what kind of language they use," he says. "It's not so much that people don't know the standard usages. There are situations that require standard discourse, but those represent a small part of everyday discourse."

"The standard is important because it gives us a set of expectations," Lighter says. For slang to stick there has to be a society that thinks about words as words: a mostly literate, modern, industrial society with permeable social boundaries.

Slang is often created as an in-group language. It differentiates the group from outsiders, creates a sense of commonality, and puts distance between the group and mainstream culture. Like the language of teenagers, it is informal, irreverent, and flouts convention; and it provides secrecy and status, Lighter says. It is a "nonstandard popular vocabulary that carries connotations and overtones of irreverence, cynicism, and humor."

"All slang is metaphor, and all metaphor is poetry," G.K. Chesterton wrote in his 1901 "Defence of Slang." Slang offers synonyms-often figurative-for standard English words and expressions. Most are terms for "good," "bad," "sex," and "drunkenness," as Lighter notes. In the Atlantic Monthly, he writes, "One rule of thumb about slang is that the more prevalent the object, activity, or behavior being described, and the more intense its psychological salience, the more numerous and diverse the slang terms available to describe it."

Some terms are vivid and humorous, such as No-Tell Motel-a place for trysts on the cheap-or an Oklahoma credit card, which is a siphon tube used for stealing gasoline. Others are taken from foreign languages, such as gung ho, which means work together in Chinese, and boondock, which means mountain in Tagalog.

Others derive from proper names, such as to hoover, which means to vacuum or to eat rapidly; to John Way ne, to attack vigorously; and Joe, whose entries fill three pages in the dictionary, ranging from Joe Average and Joe College to Joe Tentpeg, an Army term for "an ordinary enlisted solider."

Slang is offbeat, catchy, and non-technical. The verb to google, which replaces to search for something on the Web, is not slang, because of its intrinsic technicality. …

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