This is the conclusion to an
article on dictionaries
of slang. ]
might expect, one of the hardest things about selecting words and phrases
for a slang dictionary in fast-moving contemporary society is deciding on
an answer to the question “how long is this expression going to last?”
You’ll appreciate, therefore, the dilemmas facing the compilers of the
Macquarie Book of Slang edited by James Lambert (1996, ISBN 0 949757
87 X) has wisely been subtitled Australian Slang in the 90s, so
establishing itself squarely not only in place, but in time also. Even so,
it does contain examples of long-used slang like “cobber” and “dunny”,
simply because such words have lasted the vernacular distance.
feature I like about this smallish (270 pages) dictionary is the little
introductory section that precedes each letter of the alphabet. This is
divided into two parts, the first of which takes two words/expressions and
discusses their history and/or usage, while the second takes a
word/expression and offers some synonyms for it.
have the following from the history/usage viewpoint:
a big ask, boofhead, bluey, chunder, cornstalk, dunny, dude, esky, egg,
fang, fossick, gobsmacked, gone to Gowings, himbo, hatter, innie, indie,
joint, jumbuck, Ken doll, kangaroo, larrikin, lair, moshing, mollydooker,
the Net, nark, nollie, opposites, prat, ponce, quads, quiche-eater,
raincoat, razoo, spam, scumbag, tin lid, two-bob, u-ie, unco, vegemite,
wuss, wigwam, yobbo, stacking up zeds.
synonym treatment is given to:
back of Bourke, chunder, drop-dead honey, elephants, fair dinkum, come a
gutser, hoe into, insane, josh, kaput, loser, mate, nooky, ocker, pedal to
the metal, quoit, ruddy, slaughter, tin-pot, unreal, vino, whatsit,
to other general dictionaries of Aussie slang published in the 1990s, I
find a more substantial offering in Lenie “Midge” Johansen’s Penguin
Book of Australian Slang, A Dinkum Guide to Oz English (1996, ISBN
0140255737). Almost double the number of pages in the Macquarie Book of
Slang, could this, the second edition of Johansen’s 1988 The
Dinkum Dictionary, be the last word on the subject for a while? Time,
of course, will tell.
end of the book, in her Word Lists, Johansen offers a brief appendix in
the form of a useful thesaurus. Under headings like “Nationalities and
Peoples”, “Heavy Drinkers and Alcoholics”, “Contraception”, “Women as Sex
Objects”, there are enough insults and taboo phrases to keep those in
search of more colourful language very happy a few weeks longer.
mention the Foreword by well-known Australian commentator Phillip Adams.
This is an impassioned plea for the preservation of Australia’s unique
slang — a funny piece but quite serious in purpose.
way, Bikwil back-page readers, Johansen teaches us a new meaning
and spelling of fizz-gig — “police informer”.
not a dictionary, Bill Hornadge’s The Australian Slanguage (1980,
ISBN 0 7269 3733 9) is a mighty good read and warrants consideration here.
A sort of social history in 45 thesaurus-with-chitchat sections,
Hornadge’s exploration of English Down Under concentrates on what Aussies
say (our slang) rather how we say it (our pronunciation). Even so, he does
cover the Australian accent, including the way we run our words together,
collectively known affectionately since 1965 as Strine — thanks first to
the Sydney Morning Herald and later the book Let Stalk Strine
by Afferbeck Lauder (Alistair Morrison, from Sydney University) and its
1966 sequel Nose Tone Unturned.
particular value is the chapter “Bazza McKenzie”, in which Hornadge pays
tribute to satirist Barry Humphries, who in the 1960s single-handedly was
responsible for the Aussie ocker image’s acceptance overseas.
Ocker was there, of course, long before Barry Humphries came on the scene.
But Humphries took him, lovingly shaped him in a marketable form and
presented him to the world in the form of Barry (“Bazza”) McKenzie, the
ultimate send-up of the bronzed Oz.
question remains, however. How many of the scatological phrases and
damning insults put into the mouth of Bazza did Humphries actually invent?
Quite a few, I’d be prepared to wager, but not which:
go an’ point Percy at the porcelain
one-eyed trouser snake
yer head up a dead bear’s bum.
this up, I want to praise two important general books on slang by Jonathon
Green: The Slang Thesaurus (1988 reprint of 1986, ISBN 0 14 051205
5) and The Cassell Dictionary of Slang (1998; mine has no ISBN,
being issued by a book club, but you might try 0-304-34435-4).
no doubt that an up-and-coming ultra-realist playwright could benefit from
perusing The Slang Thesaurus on a regular basis — especially if
she’s led a sheltered life. Yes, there’s a splendid array of vulgarisms on
hand here, just waiting to be savoured. Barry Humphries notwithstanding,
Americans seem to have a knack of coining imaginative and witty
expressions for matters pecuniary, sexual, criminal and substance-abusive.
Dare I quote any? Here are three of the more innocuous ones.
the side of your head (= assault you)
(= early use of heroin)
than the spots on a snake’s ass (= a contemptible person).
it’s all American slang. West Indian, Australian, Yiddish and UK phrases
feature prominently too. I suppose you know that yardie is a West
Indies word for “friend” and in Australia a duck-shover is “someone
who uses unfair business practices”, while shicker is Yiddish for
“drink” and the cockney rhyming slang pimple [and blotch] means
thesaurus, Green’s collection is arranged by subject, not alphabetically,
though there is an extensive index which includes the generic terms as
well as the slang expressions. I should warn you, however, that the idea
categories only loosely follow the model of Roget’s Thesaurus.
Naturally, most of those in Roget would have no applicability. For
this reason, the numbering is quite different.
Cassell Dictionary of Slang is definitely a winner, and with it the
slang lexicography mantle unquestionably passes from Eric Partridge to
Jonathon Green. Over 1300 pages long, this book is an exhaustive coverage
of English slang from the Elizabethan era up to the late 1990s. Not only
are there 65,000 entries; there are also thousands of cross-references to
each entry is given a century or decade indicator, where the date
represents approximately the expression’s earliest use. (Not all
expressions from the past he lists, of course, are still in current use,
though many are picturesque enough to deserve revival.) Geographic
purview, too, is specified where relevant. One characteristic Green had
wanted to include for each entry, but was deterred from for space reasons,
was a series of illustrative citations to show usage.
Introduction (all dictionary introductions are worth reading), under the
heading “Insult and Offence”, Green makes the following comment: “The
nature of slang is often, indeed almost invariably, rebarbative”.
Interestingly, the dial has turned 180 degrees since the era of the first
Dictionary of Slang and Unconventional English. So, instead of,
say, Partridge’s squeamishness in the face of obscenity and indifference
when confronted with racism, Green has gladly chosen to indicate
derogatory expressions (to whomever directed) and not to mark “swear
words” at all. Indeed, to some of the latter he devotes substantial
analysis of their history.
been criticised — gently, I might add — for giving less coverage of the
slang of the armed services, some English Public Schools and universities,
and some professions. “They were good enough for Partridge.” On the other
hand, no one has done more to document the language of the young, urban,
rebellious of the late 20th century.
realise that this essay has not been what you might call concise, yet I
know I’ve not touched upon many other slang books, especially some recent
attempts to explain the mysteries of the Australian language. Such as Sir
Les Patterson’s The Traveller's Tool (1985), Gary Simes’
Dictionary of Australian Underworld Slang (1993) and Hey, Hey It’s
Saturday’s John Blackman’s Best of Aussie Slang (1995). I
haven’t even mentioned The Oxford Dictionary of Slang, edited by
John Ayto (1998).
face it: there is a great deal of overlap in all slang dictionaries. As
Jonathon Green says, “the nature of lexicography, there is little point in
denying, bears within it a necessary strand of plagiarism”.
So, if I
had to recommend just one book, it’d have to be Green’s own Cassell
Dictionary of Slang. Similarly, anyone with a history bent who needs a
full review of slang dictionaries through the ages need look no further
than Green’s Chasing the Sun, a wide-ranging book referred to in
this column before (Issue 9,
September 1998), and no doubt due for future applause here.