interest in the question of English slang, perhaps reawakened in part by
my piece on the word Buckley’s (Issue 21, September 2000), has prompted me
to introduce you to a few of my favourite dictionaries devoted to the
little on what slang might actually be, but let’s forget the linguist’s
slippery quibbles about “slang” versus “colloquialism” — it just ain’t
worth the hassle. We all know what slang is, anyway, don’t we?
case you want a definition or two to be going on with, a nice short one
can be extracted from R.L Trask’s Key Concepts in Language and
Linguistics (1999, ISBN 0 415 15742 0), namely “informal and often
ephemeral . . . colourful words and expressions”. That’ll do us for now,
provided we heed the admonition Trask is careful to append to his article:
critics have for generations tried to dismiss slang as a kind of disease
of the language, but it is nothing of the sort: its presence is evidence
of the vitality of a language.
point, of course, is most important, and over the years has been commented
on in various ways. In 1872, in her Middlemarch, George Eliot ironically
English is the slang of prigs who write history and essays. And the
strongest slang of all is the slang of poets.
later, Australian slang was receiving the respect in England it had so
long been denied (vide on the latter score the belligerent comments
in 1911 on the use of language in the Antipodes by Valerie Desmond in her
The Awful Australian: “unintelligible . . . jarring . . . no humour
. . . drawn from the lowliest sources . . . the imagery of primitive
people”). The following affirmative 1976 quotation is from an article in
the Times Literary Supplement of 30 April:
Australia, slang simply has a quite different status from slang in
England. It is a part of “standard English” there, not outside “Standard
English”. Slang words are used informally, casually and naturally by all
Australians regardless of class or education.
myself, I’m especially partial to U.S. poet Carl Sandburg’s description of
slang as “language which takes off its coat, spits on its hands — and goes
So, having ascertained that we know where we are and that it’s a healthy,
democratic and hard-working neighbourhood, let’s get cracking.
subject today is not slang itself, however, but dictionaries of slang. You
will have gathered long ago that I love dictionaries — be they general
ones like the OED, or specialised volumes of catchphrases, clichés,
foreign phrases, idioms, insults, obscure words, place names, quotations .
. . Well let me tell you now: as far as slang goes, there has been quite a
spate of information published over the last 70 years, and some of these
books, the dictionaries especially, are definitely well worth owning by
of the OED, a not disagreeable duty we must regularly observe in
this column, if only so as to avoid losing the faith, did you know that
even this heroic work hasn’t yet pinned down the source of that word
“slang”? The oldest use it records in English goes back a quarter of a
millennium, so I dare say on age grounds alone the concept has a venerable
pedigree, even if it lacks a definite derivation. “A word of cant origin”,
suggests the OED quietly, “the ultimate source of which is not
apparent”. In other words, “slang” itself is a word of jargonish slang
of slang, then, but where to begin?
the granddaddy of modern slang dictionaries (and probably the greatest) is
Eric Partridge’s Dictionary of Slang and Unconventional English, a
work whose first edition Partridge worked on for 13 years. The author of
numerous works on language, Eric Honeywood Partridge is most famous for
his still helpful Usage and Abusage, a Guide to Good English (1947)
and hardly known at all for his delightfully subtitled The “Shaggy Dog”
Story, Its Origin, Development and Nature, with Many Seemly Examples
1894 in New Zealand, Partridge and his family moved to Australia in 1907.
After seeing service in World War I both at Gallipoli and the Somme, he
acquired a B.A. in Australia, followed by an M.A. at Oxford. Having
settled in England, first as a teacher, then as a book publisher, in which
capacity he founded the ill-fated Scholartis Press in 1927, finally in
1931 he decided to spend his life as a freelance man-of-letters, compiling
dictionaries and other books on language. He died in 1979.
may be said to have been a bit of an obsessive when it came to slang, for
he authored, edited or published no less than eight books relevant to the
subject that I’m aware of (the Dictionary of Slang running in his
lifetime to seven editions, and is still being revised, the latest I know
coming out in 1984) — a type of fixation for which, predictably, the
dictionary-making world has long been grateful:
and Slang of the British Soldier (edited by Partridge and John Brophy
Irwin’s American Tramp and Underworld Slang (British edition
published by Partridge’s Scholartis Press in 1930)
Grose’s 1785 A Classical Dictionary of the Vulgar Tongue (edited by
Partridge in 1931)
Today and Yesterday, a History and a Study (1933)
Dictionary of Slang and Unconventional English (1937)
Bawdy, a Study and a Glossary (1947)
Dictionary of the Underworld, British and American (1949)
of Horrors, a Glossary of Official Jargon (1952, under the pseudonym
principle with regard to the difficult matter of the derivation of a slang
word was simple and direct: when none can be determined, make a guess.
This approach contrasts unmistakably with that of James Murray, who
usually wrote something like “etymology unknown”. On the other hand,
Murray & Co. had paid limited regard to slang anyway, so despite some of
its suspect etymologies Partridge’s book filled a large lexicographical
gap. Responding to the increasing worldwide interest in slang that his
work had generated, Partridge in later editions added hundreds of
thousands of words, all annotated with meticulous care with regard to
their social, historical and geographical applicability.
the question of vulgarisms, Partridge included them all, despite his own
in the matter of unpleasant terms, has been to deal with them as briefly,
as astringently, as aseptically as was consistent with clarity and
adequacy; in a few instances, I had to force myself to overcome an
sensitivity was echoed in many libraries, where for many years the
Dictionary of Slang was relegated to the restricted access category.
of this sort are not surprising, nor, given the social milieu of the
1930s, is the fact that Partridge showed no such prudishness towards
racist language. Thus insulting words like nigger and kike
were given meanings by him without comment.
to dictionary maker and historian of dictionary making Jonathon Green,
Partridge was “the Platonic lexicographer: outside mainstream academe, . .
. prolific, dedicated, above all an enthusiast”.
Bikwil we can’t say fairer than that.
now to move to Australian slang books. The ones with which I am most
familiar were all published by Australians in Australia — a decided
advantage, I hear you say.
for Partridge’s own efforts in this direction, the detailed study of
Australian slang is recent. The one most often cited is Gerald Alfred
Wilkes’ Dictionary of Australian Colloquialisms (my own copy — ISBN
0 00 635719 9 — is a 1985 reprint of 1978), although earlier lists had
certainly appeared, those of the 19th century being mainly devoted to the
language of the underworld. (In fact, the earliest dictionary of any sort
to surface in Australia was one of such slang: convict James Hardy Vaux’
Vocabulary of the Flash Language, 1819). In the 20th century the
most notable precursors of Wilkes’ work were the various books by Sidney
J. Baker (1941, 1943, 1953, 1959, 1966).
Partridge, Wilkes was educated at Sydney and Oxford Unis. But unlike
Partridge, Wilkes was a career academic — at one time Foundation Professor
of Australian Literature at Sydney University, then Challis Professor of
English Literature at the same institution. His approach in his
Dictionary was scholarly and well researched, but nevertheless
cautious. So, like the OED, Wilkes’ book was, in his own words,
“planned, in a modest way, on historical principles”, where “[t]he
citations are the most important part of the dictionary, as the evidence
on which it rests”. At the same time he was careful to write: “All
dictionaries are tentative, and a colloquial dictionary is most tentative
[ This article will be
concluded in the next issue. ]