Slang is the ultimate in fleeting, faddish, subversive language that resists authority and academic rigor. Which makes it an odd fit for Jonathon Green's epic three volume, 6000-page, 450-dollar, 17 years-in-the-making herculean effort to catalog and cite over 10,000 English language slang words that stretch back over 500 years. Green has created the single most comprehensive and rigorously cited slang dictionary ever assembled. And so we asked him, 'why'?
BOB GARFIELD: Online, pirates expropriate what does not belong to them and often feel righteous in so doing, infuriating The Man. The coiners and speakers of slang do approximately the same thing, to approximately the same effect. Here’s what lexicographer Jonathon Green has to say on that subject: Quote, “Slang is the language that says no. Born in the street, it resists the niceties of the respectable. It is impertinent, mocking, unconvinced by rules, regulations and ideologies. It remains something apart. And for many, that is where it should stay.” That’s from Green’s introduction to The Dictionary of Slang, a three-volume, [LAUGHS] 450-dollar, more than 6,000-page collection of 110,000 English language slang terms, defined and meticulously cited in almost 10.6 million text words that survey more than 500 [LAUGHS] years of slang. In other words, Green has taken the ultimate in fleeting language and pinned it down in the single most authoritative slang collection ever assembled. Jonathon, welcome to the show.
JONATHON GREEN: Thank you.
BOB GARFIELD: So first, let’s define our terms. For your purposes, what is slang?
JONATHON GREEN: It’s, unsurprisingly, about crime. It’s about drink and, obviously, since the 20th century, about drugs. It’s about sex. It’s about picking yourself up. It’s about putting other people down. It’s about men who are wonderful. It’s about women who are sex objects. It’s about mad people, fat people. It’s about racism. It’s about nationalism. Not all slang is international. The book is international. It takes in the States, the U.K., it takes in Australia, it takes in New Zealand, the English-speaking bits of South Africa, the Caribbean, and it takes in Ireland. But what interested me doing it, and what’s changed for people being in England, there’s no possible way that somebody working over the last 17 years could possibly exclude America. It would be mad. I mean, we all talk American slang now.
BOB GARFIELD: So why do we need slang? I mean, we, we know it’s colorful. We know it’s often witty, we know subversive and anti-authoritarian. But language is pretty comprehensive. Why do we need to embellish it with slang?
JONATHON GREEN: I think you have to go back to where slang comes from, criminal language. And what criminals were about - and I'm talking the 1500s here - what criminals are always about is secrecy, is not letting the authorities, not letting the public know what they're up to. And their language was the first slang to be collected. I'm sitting in the tavern and there is a guy over there who’s known as the Harman Beck, which means a magistrate in my language. Now, in the first place, I don't wish him to know that I know who he is, so I call him the Harman Beck, and I don't wish him to know who I am, so I'm using this strange language to talk about him. What you get with slang is that there is this desire to have, as it were, private insider languages. And as soon as a word gets or a phrase gets known, it gets replaced.
BOB GARFIELD: There’s one category of slang that particularly intrigues me, and it’s the hundreds or thousands of ways that young people come to express the notion of “good.” Just in my lifetime there have been many, from “cool” to “groovy” to “keen” to “fine” to “sweet” to “the cat’s pajamas.”
JONATHON GREEN: The interesting thing about those is that they're - they're the positive group. What you've also had is like the negative group, “bad,” “wicked,” “sick.” I mean, they, in a way, are the perfect exemplars of the subversion, because my parents say “good,” I say “bad.” You can go back much further, and there’s the word “rum.” “Rum” is a word in, again, in the 16th century that means “really good” to the beggars, to the criminals, so “rum” becomes - in Standard English, means “bad.” He’s a “rum cove.” He’s an old fellow. But “rum,” as far – Rumville used to be London. It was the best place. It was the great ville, the best city.
BOB GARFIELD: There must be some favorite turns of phrase or slang vocabulary that just delight you. Please share with me some of the hall of fame.
JONATHON GREEN: What excites me is not the individual words. They're all my babies. I love them all. What it’s all about is the chase. Let me give you an example. There’s a word “hooptie.” It means a rusty old car. So in the printed book you will find that “hooptie” dates back to 1968. The trouble is, “hooptie” doesn't date back to 1968, 'cause I - I now know better because I've still been chasing. And I happened by, the other day, a collection of Black Mask Magazine, the old - the great old pulp magazine that was the first place for Dashiell Hammett, for Raymond Chandler, for a bunch of other people, back in the '20s and '30s. And there, in a story from 1939, bingo, there is “hooptie.” That makes my day. The holy grail is, is pushing it back, finding the earlier date. Some of it - you know, some of it - Dr. Johnson is right, you’re a harmless drudge. There’s no doubt about it. It’s very hard perhaps to make this side of lexicography as exciting to others as it is to me, but I – I - it, it is to me.
BOB GARFIELD: [LAUGHS] You've just invoked Dr. Johnson, perhaps history’s most famous lexicographer. My guess is he’s also an entry in another dictionary of slang, The Urban Dictionary, because his name sort of sounds filthy, and that’s what The Urban Dictionary is. It is a vast, vast collection of probably real slang and a lot of, you know, fancy neologisms for things that are dirty or naughty or actually quite repulsive. And I, I wonder what your thoughts are The Urban Dictionary?
JONATHON GREEN: The Urban Dictionary is the antithesis of what I do. I, I don't want to be sn – oh, the hell with it, I will be snotty. I - The Urban Dictionary’s amateur hour. They're students, at four in the morning, out of their heads and having fun and sending this stuff in. So for me, The Urban Dictionary is playtime, but it’s got nothing to do with lexicography. And I think an awful lot of it hasn't got that much to do with slang.
BOB GARFIELD: I want to get to the larger subject of setting about to collect and document 500 years of slang. First of all, it’s a losing proposition because by the time you submit your manuscript there are a thousand or ten thousand more words of slang that you have no access to. It’s a moving target, no?
JONATHON GREEN: It’s totally a moving target, and there is no such thing as a completist dictionary, or not of the sort that I want to write. I have an image, which is not my image, but, but I can't remember, to my shame, who thought it up, but if, if you think of the language as a big train that is moving across a vast continent, and as the lexicographer, all you can do is you jump on the train and you start cataloging everything that’s in those trucks, everything that’s in those carriages. Then you jump off. Now, the train, of course, keeps moving. It is possible that you can jump on again later and you can pick up, and maybe there’s a couple more carriages; you can catalog them again. But you can never catalog all of them because the train will be moving long after you’re alive and it was moving long before you were born. And all one can do is make the catalog that is accessible. But the idea of completism, the idea of getting everything, I – no. It’s quite impossible. Any lexicographer will tell you that.
BOB GARFIELD: Jonathon, it’s been groovy. Thank you very much.
JONATHON GREEN: It’s been real.
BOB GARFIELD: [LAUGHS] Jonathon Green is the author of the three-volume Dictionary of Slang.