Slang Dictionaries
[ Issue 26 ]

Emily Bronto is without doubt an admirer of Slang Dictionaries

Bikwil celebrates Slang Dictionaries

Slang Dictionaries

Harlish Goop here continues and concludes his article on Slang Dictionaries, with a special look at those covering the picturesque language of Australia.

The question remains, however. How many of the scatological phrases and damning insults put into the mouth of Bazza did Humphries actually invent?

[ Print This Issue ]  

[ Help with Printing ]

 Music Player 

A Word in Your Pink Shell-like — Harlish Goop


[ This is the conclusion to an article on dictionaries of slang. ]

As you 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 following dictionaries.

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.

One 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.

Thus we have the following from the history/usage viewpoint:

Acronym, 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.

And the synonym treatment is given to:

Ankle-biter, 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, yes-man.

Turning 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.

At the 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.

I should 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.

By the way, Bikwil back-page readers, Johansen teaches us a new meaning and spelling of fizz-gig — “police informer”.

Though 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.

Of 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.

The 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.

The 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:

I gotta go an’ point Percy at the porcelain
The one-eyed trouser snake
Go stick yer head up a dead bear’s bum.

To wrap 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).

There’s 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.

run up the side of your head (= assault you)
(= early use of heroin)
lower than the spots on a snake’s ass
(= a contemptible person).

Not that 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 “whisky”.

Being a 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.

The 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 related words.

Importantly, 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.

In his 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.

Green has 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.

Now, I 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).

But let’s 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.

Contents  Read Next Item  Read Previous Item
Top of Page

Home | Visitors' Guide | Random Read | Current Issue | Essays & Poems | Catalogues
Site Search
| Likeable Links | Subscriptions | About Us | FAQ | Testimonials | Site Map